The Crop: The Lovely Bones
The Studio: Dreamworks
The Director: Peter Jackson
The Producer: Jackson, Fran Walsh, Carolynne Cunningham and Aimee Peyronnet
The Writers: Jackson, Walsh and Phlippa Boyens
The Actors: No clue!
The Premise: Fourteen-year-old Susie Salmon surveys from heaven the aftermath of her brutal rape-and-murder as it affects her family and her murderer.
The Context: Did Peter Jackson goof by segueing from one epic (The Lord of the Rings) to another (King Kong) before finally dialing back the bloat to make his first truly intimate work since 1994’s Heavenly Creatures? Regardless of how The Lovely Bones turns out, I’m going to say no. Kong was an itch the director had been longing to scratch for most of his career; if he didn’t tend to it immediately following the Rings trilogy, he would’ve surely come back to it at some point – and, unfortunately, the result probably would’ve been the same. Though I find the film obscenely bloated, it does succeed as a lavishly cinematic love letter to the Cooper-Schoedsack original, which, whether he knew it or not, is all I think Jackson set out to accomplish.
As a dedicated fan of Jackson’s since viewing Bad Taste on VHS in 1989, I’m relieved he got Kong out of his system – and The Lord of the Rings, for that matter. Now, he can get back to the business of being one of the most visually inventive filmmakers working today. In a way, I feel like Jackson’s been on hiatus as a director since The Frighteners; up until The Fellowship of the Ring, his best films were paragons of precise narrative construction (which, more than his CG pioneering, is what I want to believe inspired the one-time great screenwriter Robert Zemeckis to bring the Kiwi to Hollywood). Though I love the LotR cycle, the miracle of those movies was Jackson/Walsh/Boyens’s ability to condense, rearrange and make comprehensible Tolkien’s massive tomes. To do this, however, they had to sacrifice brevity and embrace sprawl; the result was satisfying, but very un-Jackson.
The most alarming aspect of King Kong was that it inherited all of The Lord of the Rings‘ flaws and almost none of its virtues. Jackson had become too reliant on the epic form; rather than pare down his simple adventure to a reasonable running time, he blew it out to three hours as if it were Lawrence of Arabia (which contains more incident in its first 120 minutes than King Kong does in its entirety). Though the movie got by on visual splendor here and there, it was without a doubt the worst screenplay with which Jackson had ever been associated (the trip to Skull Island is as interminable as the Harvard graduation sequence in Heaven’s Gate). Jackson’s love for CG perfection had superseded his affection for story, leaving many to wonder if his resounding success with The Lord of the Rings had destroyed what once made him great.
When it was announced last week that Jackson was shopping the spec for The Lovely Bones to all of the major studios in Hollywood save for New Line, I wasn’t so much encouraged as worried that he’d incurred an M. Night Shyamalan degree of ignominy within the industry. But when the news started to circulate that studios were clamoring to acquire an apparently dour story about a dead girl watching her family disintegrate in her murdered absence, it was clear that The Lovely Bones was, at the very least, no Lady in the Water or The Happening. Warner Brothers was the frontrunner early in the bidding, but Dreamworks, at the behest of Steven Spielberg (a man who knows what it means to get lost in excess ala 1941 and Hook), swooped in and pledged a budget of $65 million to, perhaps, $90 million: this for a story that could purportedly be made for half of either of those figures, and which, according to New York Magazine‘s "Vulture" bloggers, had been bungled in Jackson/Walsh/Boyens’s adaptation.
With great trepidation, fearing that I was about to bear witness to the creative death of one of my favorite filmmakers, I cracked open the March 2007 draft.
The Script: Three hours later, my faith in Jackson had been restored.
At a concise 112 pages, The Lovely Bones is a heartbreaking, 1970s-set rumination on grief, vengeance, the human capacity for evil, the resilience of the human spirit and, most indelibly, adolescence interrupted. It is a long way from flawless (stock suspense beats occasionally turn up, while Susie’s delayed recognition of her own death might be prolonged past the point of believability), but the screenplay moves at a brisk clip and pays off with an emotionally devastating denouement that, if executed competently, will utterly destroy the audience (i.e. if the last few, tear-dappled pages of my copy are any indication).
From start to finish, the script maintains a lyrical tone, beginning with a montage of the Salmon family’s progress as seen from the inside of a snow globe. Jackson/Walsh/Boyens adroitly introduce us to the Salmons predilection for tragedy in the early going, as fourteen-year-old Susie narrowly averts the choking death of her brother, Buckley, by rushing him to the hospital. The parents, Jack and Abigail, are fairly grounded Pennsylvania suburbanites, while Abigail’s mother, Lynn, provides a healthy dose of gallows humor.
Before page ten, Jackson is already foreshadowing Susie’s death via complicated-sounding CG crane shots into the bug-ridden soil of the cornfield in which she will be dispatched by the Salmons’ sorrowful neighbor, Mr. Harvey (he lost his wife to cancer). It’s showy stuff, especially a bit which features a mosquito and wasp fighting to the death before getting snapped up by a trapdoor spider (a class of arachnids not commonly found in the Midwestern United States). Further portent arrives on page fifteen when the Salmons visit "The Beast", a seemingly bottomless sinkhole on the Connors’ estate that doubles as a landfill of sorts. Even if you haven’t seen Nick Nunziata’s all-time favorite movie, The Pit, you know goddamn well something’s going to end up consigned to the dark depths of that earthen maw.
Whereas most convention-hewing screenwriters would use Susie’s rape-and-murder in Harvey’s underground cornfield "fort" as the point-of-attack, Jackson/Walsh/Boyens prefer to keep her around, understanding that we need to get a palpable sense of what the fourteen-year-old is missing once she’s passed over the "The In-Between". This allows them the space to introduce Ray Singh, a good looking Indian classmate on whom Susie is crushing something fierce. When he awkwardly reciprocates her affections on the day of her demise (nearly giving Susie her first real kiss), the moment is excruciating in a familiar sense before turning into the otherworldly tragedy that will partially drive the narrative forward.
Once Susie is killed (and the screenplay is tough but restrained in its depiction of the deed), she ascends to a world that is, as the script puts it, "filtered through the idealized lens of a teenage girl". Most of the action in this world is confined to a gazebo, where Susie observes the earthbound goings-on of her family with another recently deceased young girl, Holly (whose experience with boys exacerbates the unfulfilled promise of Susie’s life). From here, Susie watches helplessly as her father becomes obsessed with finding her killer (a thirst for revenge she shares), her mother falls into an affair with the detective investigating the murder, and her younger sister Lindsey blossoms into the woman Susie never got to be. It’s poignant, painful stuff; and when Jackson/Walsh/Boyens aren’t falling back on cliché (like a scene in which an agonized Jack thinks he sees Susie, and bolts out of his car to grab a very distressed girl who only looked like Susie from behind!!!), they handle the material with commendable sensitivity.
They’ve also written in a ton of well-selected song cues from the 70s that, aside from Steely Dan’s "Reelin’ in the Years", have yet to be mined by Martin "Gimme Shelter" Scorsese, Paul Thomas Anderson or Quentin Tarantino. Graham Bonnet’s rendition of "It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue", Jefferson Airplane’s "Coming Back to Me", Brian Eno’s "The Great Pretender" (Eno verily dominates the script)… who knew Jackson and his cohorts were such pop music buffs? This only reinforces the sense that Jackson is fully locked-in on this one; he understands the era as well as he (and Walsh and Boyens) understand Susie’s suspended adolescence.
Why It Should Be Good: Everyone wants to compare The Lovely Bones to Heavenly Creatures because it’s got a teenage female protagonist, but, for me, the meshing of the flesh and spirit worlds most prominently recalls The Frighteners. This is a movie about people who’ve bottomed out in response to the death of a loved one; they won’t be able to move on until they receive some form of comfort or closure. What’s wonderful about The Lovely Bones is that it doesn’t get hung up on the whodunit bullshit; while there is some sleuthing and suspense (a suspicious Lindsey breaks into Mr. Harvey’s house in the third act), we’re chiefly concerned with the emotional well-being of the Salmons – as is Susie. Mr. Harvey’s comeuppance is important, but we’d rather he remain on the lam than destroy the Salmons’ familial bond. That’s why I can’t overstate the brilliance of the last ten pages enough; if Jackson is able to carry the viewer past his occasional narrative missteps (and I hate to burden unproduced movies like this), there is no doubt in my mind: he’s going to make a classic.
Why It Might Suck: Aside from the concessions to convention as a means of keeping the story moving, there is the possibility that Jackson might go too nuts with the CG and overwhelm the human aspect of the story. I think he should concentrate on the seamlessness of the f/x instead of wowing us with eye-popping tracking shots that plunge into the earth.
What I’ll Be Rambling About Next: David Mamet’s Redbelt.