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.


Adam Zanzie said...

This is the first Peter Jackson film that I have ever disliked intensely. I literally was walking out of the theater in a furious mood- never before has he directed a film so irritatingly cynical, so manipulative for all the wrongs reasons, and so wrongheaded in its approach to mature themes like "vengeance" and "criminal justice".

If I had made this film (or had written the book instead of Alice Softley), I'd have the entire narrative set in the "In-Between" world that Susie Salmon goes to after she dies. That's the only way Jackson could have made an innovative film. Rarely do films about Heaven offer a pure visual experience- Vincent Ward's What Dreams May Come, with Robin Williams, is a great example. Or, other filmmakers try to deconstruct the genre as a means for witty comedy, as Albert Brooks did with Defending Your Life. And I do appreciate what Spielberg did with Always, only because he kept Richard Dreyfuss' Pete ghost focused entirely on the future of his girlfriend and never went beyond that.

Jackson's film is a much more voyeuristic experiment, and there comes a point when the experience- I'm sorry to say- is just as ugly as Gilliam's Tideland. Like Gilliam, Jackson is trying to tell a hallucinatory narrative from the point of view of a little girl, and like Gilliam, he makes the same damn mistake: he intertwines the girl's story with a stupid, pointless subplot surrounding adults who we could care less about.

All of the scenes involving the Salmon family are horrible. Who cares about these people? If Jackson were to live up the ambitions of his project, he wouldn't keep taking us back to the real world. This family is obnoxious. The scene in which Mark Wahlberg storms into a cornfield with a baseball bat is done so badly that it's neither suspenseful nor interesting. Susie's younger sister proves to be a lackluster heroine, and we have no reason to cheer for her when she calls a detective "pathetic" to his face, when he is clearly just doing his job. Susan Sarandon's grandmother character provides a lot of unnecessary comic relief to a story that should have been taken a little more seriously. And isn't it a little random when the mother suddenly leaves the family and goes off to work in a vineyard? Since when was she that disturbed by her daughter's death? Certainly she seems more sane about it then her husband, who spends the whole night breaking kitchen glass bottles in some over-the-top rampage.

What I hated most of all about this film was its approach to the Stanley Tucci character. I had the same problem that you did, Ndirsch, with Jackson, Walsh and Boyens' refusal to allow us to understand this character better. He is quite obviously a sick, mentally unstable man who needs help. He's raped and killed a handful of little girls and older women, but it's only because he can't help it: Susie even echoes this in a voiceover describing how he suddenly feels the urge again long after one girl has already been molested.

Adam Zanzie said...

...the filmmakers should have fulfilled the promise that they give to the audience, which is that Susie can somehow redeem this man, get rid of her wishes to see him "dead" and (wishful thinking) maybe even encourage him to confess his crime. Instead, Jackson, Walsh and Boyens chicken out, and they reduce this character to a one-dimensional villain. I wasn't in a crowded theater so I cannot be sure, but I'll be there were loud applause on opening night when he falls off the cliff and dies at the end.

I guess what I'm trying to say is, if a movie wants to be about a raped girl going to Heaven, it ought to just stay up in Heaven. If it wants to be about the family's grievances, then it should be more realistic. If it wants to be a story about vengeance and its consequences, the moral of the story shouldn't be: "Don't kill the antagonist because he's gonna die on his own, anyway".

There are good things about The Lovely Bones, yes. Saoirse Rona's performance is exceptional, and she has those rare kinds of green eyes that really transfix you. Brian Eno's musical score is still playing around in my head. The image of giant glass bottles sailing on the ocean is as unforgettable as any of the sequences in Jackson's filmography. But at the end of the day, the film lacks the labor of love in the filmmaking of The Lord of the Rings, the surrealism of King Kong and, especially, the serial killer insight of Heavenly Creatures. It made we wince to see Peter Jackson's name at the end of this film, and I was even more uncomfortable at seeing Spielberg's name moments later. As two of our best living filmmakers, they should have collaborated on a project more suited to their intellectual sensibilities. Perhaps they will- on something that's nothing like this.

Jason Bellamy said...

Now that is a rant. Nice job, Adam. And thanks for weighing in.

I wasn't as moved by the ships-(in-bottles)-at-sea image, but otherwise I agree that the film had some difficulties with tone. It couldn't seem to decide where it wanted to be.

As for Tucci's character: I was disappointed to see that most of his "performance" meant sitting still while Jackson cast shadows across his face. (This disappointment came well before his Oscar nomination, just to be clear.)

As for movies set in the afterlife, I recall hating What Dreams May Come (I can't remember why), but at least it was interesting to look at. Stunningly, The Lovely Bones is not.

Adam Zanzie said...

lol. That was a post I copied from one of my own posts over at IMDB... so that one part where I refer to you as "Ndirsch" is actually me talking to somebody else, haha.

Daniel said...

I see you picked up the conversation where we left it in the comments of my review. Predictably, you have given it an outstanding treatment here.

Not having read the book, what bothered me most of all in thinking about the bunker depiction was the very question of why Harvey would have created one in the first place. It not only defies logic, but goes against all of the characteristics we later learn about his prior crimes. It's just bizarre to present us a character like this and then have them act, well, so out of character. It would be like Spider-Man riding a bike through midtown Manhattan as he chases down a criminal.

Also, is it possible that you and I are the only remaining humans never to have seen "Lost"?

Richard Bellamy said...

This was a fun rant! One could rant on and on about the abysmally bad The Lovely Bones. I like how Sebold leaves a lot up to the imagination. Instead, Jackson is so explicit about details that don't make sense. Like all the knick-knacks down in the hole that had to be carried out after he killed the girl.

Craig said...

Very interesting review and discussion. When I reviewed the book, I had high hopes for the movie, since the subject matter seemed on the page right down Peter Jackson's wheelhouse (the one that made "Heavenly Creatures," that is). The overwhelmingly negative reviews have scared me off until the DVD comes out, though I was intrigued by the marketing strategy, which began by hyping PJ and his special effects only to switch to trailers indicating that this is a Mark Wahlberg suspense thriller.

As I mentioned, I can't comment on the movie. But I did think that the story about the family was actually the most compelling element in the book. (I kind of agree with the critic who didn't like the New Agey aftertaste in Sebold's narrative.) Jackson is such an erratic filmmaker that I'm more astonished than ever at the self-discipline he displayed in the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. He certainly didn't follow Tolkien's narrative to a "t", so I'm not sure, based on what I've seen in the previews, that he was too beholden to Sebold; to me, his "Lovely Bones" looked less interested in the family and more interested in trying out some groovy special effects. I'd hoped that the gigantism from his overwrought "King Kong" remake would be scaled down for this story, but it looks I was mistaken.

Jason Bellamy said...

Daniel: It would be like Spider-Man riding a bike through midtown Manhattan as he chases down a criminal.

That killed me. Well said! (P.S. Not only have I never seen a second of Lost, I've only watched 20 minutes ever of Survivor, and maybe only 2 minutes of American Idol. So much popular TV that I haven't seen. When there are commercials for "America's favorite X," it's almost certain I haven't seen it. Not that I'm complaining.)

Hokahey: Jackson is so explicit about details that don't make sense. True. But in many ways it's the nature of film that makes him so explicit. For example ... that stupid icicle at the end? Well, um, it's in the book. But in your mind, you make it work. On screen, as simple as Jackson makes it, it's just an absurd image. And I'm not sure anyone could have made it otherwise.

Craig: I need to go back and watch Heavenly Creatures again. It's been a long time. As for your book review: I think you had reason to be hopeful. Interestingly, there's a shot described in the book where the father is breaking all these bottles with model ships in them and Susie momentarily projects her face into all the little pieces of broken glass. Now that would be a great moment for using CGI, right? And yet that shot isn't in Jackson's adaptation. Odd.