Thursday, February 11, 2010
Weekly Rant: Why Hitch Would Have Hated The Lovely Bones
“I have a problem with writers because I find that I am teaching them cinematics all the time. You have remember that with a lot of writers you have to go by what is written on the page. I have no interest in that. As the director, I have that white rectangle to fill with a succession of images, one following the other. That’s what makes a film.” – Alfred Hitchcock
Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones is a curious thing: a movie that looks just like the book that inspired it and nothing like it at the same time. Alice Sebold’s bestselling novel of same name is the story of a 14-year-old girl who after being raped and killed watches over her family (and her murderer) from the afterlife. Jackson’s film is about that, too, albeit with the rape implied rather than explicitly depicted or even stated. At the end of Jackson’s film (spoilers ahead, obviously) the killer isn’t caught but he gets his just due, and the narrator, Susie Salmon, inhabits the body of an earthling Quantum Leap-style and gets the kiss she always wanted. Sebold’s novel ends the same way, although in her book it’s not just a kiss but full-on sex, a symbol not of a childhood dream come true (Jackson’s version) but of a young woman who has overcome her sexual assault. But this post isn’t about how Jackson’s The Lovely Bones is a ridiculous, sloppy mess because of the ways it strays from the original source. This is a post about how Jackson’s film is doomed by trying to remain faithful to it.
In the argument that cinematic adaptations shouldn’t be beholden to their source material, Jackson’s film could serve as Exhibit A. In co-writing the screenplay with Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, Jackson seems to have forgotten what Alfred Hitchcock knew so well: that literature and film work in significantly different ways. Note that I didn’t say “entirely” different. After all, both reading and movie-watching require us to use our imaginations. Without cognitive engagement, the images of a film could be as meaningless as a book written in foreign hieroglyphs. Of course, at the movies our imaginations can be more passive. Whereas the text of a book must be actively consumed, the images of a film are delivered to us. It’s the difference between standing under a waterfall (movies) and hand-pumping water from a well (books), not just in terms of the effort required by the audience but in the amount of information (water, in the above metaphor) delivered at one time by the source.
Often, that’s a good thing. For example, take a moment and look at the images below and ponder all the textual description it would take to fully conjure one of these stills. Would a thousand words be enough?
Probably not. Than again, more isn't always more. Sometimes the waterfall of visual data is detrimental to the intent. That’s certainly the case in Jackson’s adaptation during the scene in which Susie is lured by Mr. Harvey, her eventual rapist and murderer, into an underground lair.
Here’s how the book describes that scene, in Susie’s words:
"But on December 6, 1973, it was snowing, and I took a shortcut through the cornfield back from the junior high. It was dark out because the days were shorter in winter, and I remember how the broken cornstalks made my walk more difficult. The snow was falling lightly, like a flurry of small hands …
[Mr. Harvey appears and says he wants to show Susie something.] "Mr. Harvey said it would only take a minute, so I followed him a little farther into the cornfield, where fewer stalks were broken off because no one used it as a shortcut to the junior high."
[Mr. Harvey shows Susie the wooden door to an underground bunker.] "It was awkward to get into, that much he admitted once we were both inside the hole. But I was so amazed by how he had made a chimney that would draw smoke out if he ever chose to build a fire that the awkwardness of getting in and out of the hole wasn’t even on my mind. …
"I can still see the hole like it was yesterday, and it was. … It was the size of a small room, the mud room in our house, say, where we kept our boots and slickers and where Mom had managed to fit a washer and dryer, one on top of the other. I could almost stand up in it, but Mr. Harvey had to stoop. He’d created a bench along the sides of it by the way he’d dug it out. … I stared in amazement, at the dug-out shelf above him where he had placed matches, a row of batteries, and a battery-powered fluorescent lamp that cast the only light in the room – an eerie light that would make his features hard to see when he was on top of me.”
OK. So, based on that text, what do we know about the location of the bunker and the setting of Mr. Harvey’s attack? We know it was in a “cornfield back from the junior high,” in an area where “fewer (corn)stalks were broken off because no one used it as a shortcut to the junior high.” We also know that it’s “dark” outside. That’s all we know. The rest is entirely up to our imagination. How tall are those remaining cornstalks? How secluded is this shortcut from the junior high? How dark is it outside? My mental picture and yours are probably remarkably different except for those few explicit details from the text and one more constant: Reading the book, all of us, presumably, will imagine a tableau in which Mr. Harvey could successfully (1) create the underground bunker, (2) lure Susie into it, (3) victimize her within it and (4) escape the bunker without detection. (We also might assume that he could successfully destroy the bunker after using it, but to this point in the book or the film that isn’t mentioned or depicted.) We must imagine those four things or else the very premise of the incident is faulty. Simply put, why would a man go to all the work of creating this bunker unless he had strong reason to believe that it would decrease his likelihood of being caught and increase his likelihood of snaring his prey? With Sebold’s book the onus is on the reader to fill in the surrounding details to make the scene realistic, to make the setting suit Mr. Harvey’s plan.
Jackson’s depiction of the same scenario has familiar details – the “cornfield back from the junior high,” broken cornstalks, darkness, a wooden door and a bunker with benches carved into the earth that’s just big enough to hold them. But it has more information – explicit information that the film is giving to the audience, rather than letting us fill in the areas around the text of Sebold’s depiction. If The Lovely Bones were out on DVD, this is where I’d offer screen captures in addition to the shot atop this post, but here are some of the other details Jackson’s cinematic depiction provides: (1) when the scene begins, it’s not dark but dusky; (2) the cornfield is so close to the junior high that it might as well be part of the school grounds; (3) the cornstalks are flattened everywhere so that the cornfield offers no more seclusion than a soccer field; (4) as close to the cornfield as the high school is at least one neighboring house with an equally unobstructed view of the bunker’s location; (5) when Susie tromps into the cornfield she is seemingly the last one out of the school (though how Mr. Harvey would know this, I have no idea) but not by very much, because when she approaches the field another student can be seen wandering through it. The sum of these extra details forces us to conclude that Mr. Harvey is by no means avoiding detection by stalking children here. He hasn’t set his trap in a secluded, camouflaged corner, as the book might cause you to imagine, but in a popular thoroughfare.
Within Jackson’s film it makes absolutely no sense that Mr. Harvey could stand exposed in the middle of the cornfield and, in one night, dig his bunker by hand and conceal it while being detected. It further makes no sense that Mr. Harvey, who we later find out is an experienced child predator, would ever think that this would be an effective way of seizing his prey – especially when his plans call for removing the body afterward and collapsing the hole. Perhaps in the summer, when the cornstalks would provide cover, Mr. Harvey could have pulled it off. But in the winter? Digging through frozen ground? No. The tableau in Jackson’s film is fraudulent, and that’s before Mr. Harvey, with darkness descending, flips open the bunker’s hatch only to have light shine out from the earth like a beacon – an image that looks like something out of the TV show Lost. (Or at least I think it does; I’ve only seen commercials.) Because that wouldn’t arouse suspicion, would it?
There are many other things to criticize in Peter Jackson’s adaptation: the way the film’s vision of heaven looks so much like a screensaver that I kept expecting to see flying toasters; the way the bunker is filled with needless bric-a-brac that Mr. Harvey would have had to labor to get in and out of the hole; the way Jackson’s film softens the book’s themes; the way it miscasts Mark Wahlberg as Susie’s father, even though he appears to be playing the role of the (dramatic) sinkhole; and so on. But for a director known for his elaborate CGI spectacles, Jackson’s gravest error is forgetting that his job is to fill that “white rectangle,” and that everything he puts into that rectangle has meaning.
The Hitchcock quote that opened this piece is from a 1970 interview that can be found in the always stimulating book Conversations With The Great Moviemakers of Hollywood’s Golden Age at the American Film Institute. So let’s close with a little more Hitch:
"I think one of the biggest problems that we have in our business is the inability of people to visualize. What I’m about to say is hearsay, but I remember (David O.) Selznick, the producer, when he was talking about Irving Thalberg, the great name in our business. Selznick used to say, “Thalberg is great with a finished picture.” When you examine those words, they mean that the man lacked any visual sense. The visual, to me, is a vital element in the cinema and I don’t think it is studied enough.
"Go back to the early days, back to Chaplin. He once made a short film called The Pilgrim. The opening shot was the outside of a prison gate. A guard came out and posted a Wanted notice. Next cut: a very tall, thin man coming out of a river, having had a swim. He finds that his clothes are missing and have been replaced with a convict’s uniform. Next cut: a railroad station, and coming toward the camera dressed as a parson with the pants too long is Chaplin. Now there are three pieces of film, and look at the amount of story they told."
In The Lovely Bones, Jackson’s images tell a story, too. Alas, it’s an absurd one.