"Bones" hits big screen as mawkish thriller

Tue Dec 1, 2009 5:09am EST
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By Kirk Honeycutt

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - Peter Jackson certainly is familiar with the challenges of satisfying filmgoers' expectations, having helmed three films derived from J.R.R. Tolkien's immensely popular "Lord of the Rings" novel and a second remake of the iconic film "King Kong."

So Alice Sebold's best-selling novel "The Lovely Bones," published in 2002, should be right in his wheelhouse. In this case, though, he has changed the focus and characters to such a significant degree that his film might resonate more with those who have not read the book.

Sebold's otherworldly meditation on unspeakable tragedy and hard-earned healing has been transformed by Jackson into something akin to a supernatural suspense thriller. A philosophical story about family, memory and obsession has, regrettably, become a mawkish appeal to victimhood.

Readers' eagerness to see the film version, plus Jackson's name above the title, should deliver a significant box-office take during the Paramount film's initial, limited release beginning December 11. Whether "Bones" will sustain those numbers as it expands domestically and then into foreign territories in January is unclear. This is, to Jackson's credit, daring and deeply unsettling material.

"Bones" is the story of Susie Salmon, a 14-year-old girl who is murdered December 6, 1973. She is adjusting to her new home in heaven while watching life on Earth continue without her. Her family goes through hell -- her dad having the most difficult time dealing with her disappearance -- while her killer, a neighbor, covers his tracks.

Sebold's stroke of genius is to place her heroine in heaven immediately. She can thus describe with dispassion her own rape-murder and her family's realization that the eldest daughter will not be coming home.

In literary terms, she is a first-person narrator and an omniscient observer: She can enter the minds of other characters to know what they're thinking and can even see into the past. As the years roll by, she witnesses how healing slowly comes, but at great cost. A few characters even realize that she never completely left; they sense her presence and, on occasion, believe they see her.

The movie, written by Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, is more concentrated, in time and focus. Nor can the screenwriters get past the crime. They see their movie as a murder thriller. The role of the killer, George Harvey, has been expanded and is played by fine actor Stanley Tucci (almost unrecognizably so).   Continued...