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Alice Sebold’s bestseller The Lovely Bones is another book that you don’t quite know what to expect when you pick it up, but when you read it you get it very quickly. It affects you emotionally as a reader and makes it interesting. Mass market book publishing is, like movies, a calculated and repetitive business. Sebold came with something really different. She was lucky to get her book published, and when she did, no one expected it to sell over 2 million copies or be on the New York Times bestseller list for over a year (Bradshaw). This bestselling book became the basis for the film, taking on the same name, and directed by Peter Jackson; who also is known for directing Heavenly Creatures, The Lord of the Rings, The Lord of the Rings the Two Towers, and The Lord of The Rings the Return of the Ring (York). Having read The Lovely Bones and then watching the film it became clear that not only was there an obvious difference between the movie and book cover, but there were many differences and changes that were made on behalf of the film.
The Lovely Bones is set in the suburbs of Philadelphia in the early seventies. It’s about the Salmon Family; husband, wife, three children and the tragedy that occurs within the family. They were in the prime of their lives, the next thing you know the police have arrived and nobody really knows what happened to the main character, Susie Salmon, a young girl who is murdered in a corn field just beyond the back of her house. In the book Susie is going through her process of going up into Heaven and looking down on her family struggling to deal with the death of their daughter and sister. A major aspect of the book is how she directs her family towards her killer in some sort of retribution (Sebold).
As the book was translated to film the differences that are often seen in book to film translations can be more evident as it goes along. As the process of translating The Lovely Bones to film was approached it became “the ultimate puzzle for screen writers” according to the director Peter Jackson. (Filming) Getting films out to the public for directors or the marketing team of any movie has become easier and easier with Amazon, YouTube, eBay, and personal websites, filmmakers have direct access to the public (Garon xix). Jackson seemed to hope for a similar outcome from the movie as the book. If he had stayed truer to the book, he may have gotten what he wanted.
In an attempt to produce from within the pages of the novel, the film, and book, take place during the nineteen seventies and is narrated from the perspective of a fourteen year old girl named Susie Salmon. She is a passionate photographer, has the love and support of her family, and is even getting looks from the boy she has a crush on in school. Life is all good. And then she is brutally murdered by her creepy neighbor George Harvey. (The Lovely Bones) It begins with the same line from the first page of the book:
“My name is Salmon, like the fish, first name Susie” (Sebold 6).
Even though the book and film begin the same, the story in the film and the story in the book are very, very different. In the book the actual process and the crisis of the death in the beginning of the book is covered in the first chapter. This first chapter covers forty five to fifty minutes of the film, which is most of the movie. Susie Salmon the lead in the movie, played by Saoirse Ronan, and the main character of the book is portrayed amazingly. She really does capture the tone and the innocence along with the development away from the innocence of the character of Susie in the original text. Mark Walberg plays the father and is a massive character in the book. The best casting to the book is Susan Sarandon, as the Grandmother, even though physically they have a completely different description of the Grandmother in the book (USA). However, translation to film does not detail you the torment that the family goes through chapter after chapter. For example, the destruction of the family unit, the extended leave of the mother, sleepless nights of the sister and obsessive focus on finding Susie and her killer. There is no depiction in the film of the horrific nature of the abduction, murder, or more specifically the graphic rape and dismemberment of Susie. The movie is quite sugar coated compared to the book. It almost appears that the screenwriters for this movie pulled an old teenage trick of reading the first chapter and then skipping to the last. (York)
Many differences continue to unfold as the movie shows Susie feeling life fading away from her as she grabs onto the top of a flower, forcing herself into the in-between. There, she is confused and alone until she meets Holly, who helps her navigate her new world. It’s just the two of them in utopia, a perfect world of their own making, at first. As it plays out Susie and Holly only exist with a growing number of girls that Harvey has killed. Jackson creates a visual basis for the in-between that is almost like a dream. Creative license took shape when the director places visions of ghostly Susie entering the realm of the real world to inspire changes in events. (The Lovely Bones)
Among one of the larger differences in the film to book translation, which wasn’t a problem until the viewing of the film, was it became unclear in the book what kind of state or status Susie was in when she died; rather she was in a kind of purgatory or they call it the in-between in both the book and film. It was made clearer in the movie that she was going on a specific journey, and they actually created that world very visually, which was very good. The only issue with these visuals was as a reader you have your own images in your head that were previously described in the book. Visually the film is spectacular, but for a reader there are no huge bottles with ships inside and visions of her in the eyes of her family. These events just don’t exist in the text.
Contrary to the production, book Susie puts her dismembered body back together and meets Franny, her intake specialist, who helps her navigate this new world. Susie refuses to go to heaven until she can reach her family and help catch her killer (Sebold 8). Only then does she meet Holly, her roommate (Sebold 17). Susie lives in her vision, with people everywhere throwing javelins and wandering around in their own versions in the distance, similar to the real world. She creates cool swing sets and a duplex that she always wanted and shares it with her new friend Holly. Susie’s interpretation of heaven is populated with real men and women, of all ages, from all background, who died and now resides in overlapping worlds (Sebold 19).
Because this movie is based off a three hundred page book it feels like it moves too fast missing key components in the timeline. Several minutes into the film George Harvey lures her to his hidden den in a field, sparking excitement and interest in Susie. Harvey tries to hide his deed and find other victims as her family tries to deal with the tragedy as well as trying to find out just who is responsible for her murder (Filming). It then becomes confusing for readers when the movie cuts to a point where Susie appears to escape from the underground lair in the corn field and then is running through the streets. It’s not immediately apparent that she is dead or how she died. This ghostly appearance does not occur and the death scene is clearer in the text. The book is detailed and sharp which leads to the confusion of the timeline within the movie.
Timelines within the film get more blurred as we read further into the novel. It graphically describes the rape followed by him murdering her with a shaving razor (Sebold 12). Then, he dismembers her body, putting her remains in a safe that he dumps in a sinkhole (Sebold 53). This timeline is skipped in the film as they focus more on Jack, Susie’s father, and his search for a killer. He is obsessively seen collecting personal files and digging up tax records on a number of shady men, every man he can think of (The Lovely Bones), although, Mr. Harvey is the first, and only, suspect of Jack in the book. He knows it and feels it after helping Mr. Harvey with a project in his backyard, bringing about another difference, a ceremonial tent in the book and a duck blind in the movie. However, this occurs two years later in the movie. It’s within the first month in the book. It takes eleven months before the police even turn up Susie’s hand-knit hat. Within the book Susie’s elbow turns up three days later, the hat within weeks. The film skips or twists more and more detail and leaves you expecting and waiting for them to unfold but, some never come and others don’t come until almost the end, and then it is vague and contained in sudden flashbacks with no explanation. (Sebold 55) (The Lovely Bones)
In terms of the plot line the film attempts to get it, though it does not go into the depth that they do in the book. Jackson takes his time in carefully setting up the plot just enough so that we have a good hold on the world of the story the entire time (USA). The time period is reflected well and the main character is likeable and someone who we can sympathize with easily, but not because she is a teenage girl that dies. Her personality and narrations are what do it instead. The film moves back and forth between what the book and movie call the in-between or afterlife and the real world and comes across in the movie very visually (Visual). The visuals are just stunning and there is a unique feel about them as though you are in a dream while they play in front of you. The structuring of this movie is also kind of weird; thankfully with so many other differences this didn’t make the movie so confusing as to lose the audience completely (Filming).
In film it diverts back and forth to Susie focusing on having her first kiss with Ray, the visually extravagant in-between, and warning her family; whereas the book, although narrated by Susie, explores so many other characters and life experiences. In contrast to the movie, the book is more of a coming of age story about a girl who will never get the chance to grow up. Susie can only grow spiritually by watching her family and friends as they each reach milestones, leave for college, get married and have kids of their own. For book readers she’s already had her first kiss and after watching her sister and Samuel make love she longs to do the same with Ray, the boy who was going to go out with her, her crush (Sebold 237). Susie later possesses Ruth, her former classmate and friend. Ruth, who has a spiritual connection with Susie, is overwhelmed by the feeling of her presence. Susie then enters Ruth’s body and makes love to Ray, which is again graphically described in text (Sebold 300). The movie focus again takes away from the book journey eliminating this sexual growth aspect to the teenage girl.
Like many adaptations found with book to film projects; you do lose a vast number of really important events. Such that, the scenes where we follow Harvey are well thought out in just how they show his life and his way of thinking in the film very vaguely. His apparent odd psychological state of mind, expressed with his need for an alarm to prompt him to open his window shades, does not translate as well in the movie (The Lovely Bones). His odd psychological state and inability to follow social norms are described in detail within the chapters as he devices ways to appear normal to the outside world (Sebold 130). In the book you get more in depth descriptions which develops the characters of not just Harvey and Susie but, her sister, her father and, especially, her mother. You learn a lot about her mother which is important however, in the film you learn very little.
It is played out in the text that Abigail, Susie’s mother, never wanted children, withdraws from her family and has an affair with police detective Len Fenerman, the investigator to Susie’s case (Sebold 196). You also don’t learn in the movie that the mother abandoned the father, sister and brother. You see her in the film leave with one suitcase in a cab as though she is taking a vacation or just a getaway to clear her head. However, in the book narrations she abruptly leaves and takes a job at a winery in California and attends College. Abigail leaves and creates a life for herself with her boyfriend, Samuel Heckler, who she becomes engaged to after finishing college. Only after hearing that Jack has had a heart attack does she return eight years later (Sebold 220). This huge gap in time and events are not portrayed in the movie. The relationship between Abigail and her children is then laid out in detail as their son Buckley expresses bitterness for her abandoning the family for most of his childhood (Sebold 264). The filmmakers cut this out completely never even giving a hint that this fracture happened within the family. She is nearly ignored in the movie by giving us just small glimpses of an upset and lost mom, until Jack is nearly beaten to death and then appears again creating an image that she was there the whole time, perhaps distant in her mourning (The Lovely Bones). This information could have made the film come to life as more realistic, instead it is projected on the screen that the family also lives in their own utopia of sorts.
Both the book and film end with a similar event. Mr. Harvey, her rapist, her murderer, and the evil man that exists in the world is killed in the book when he is attempting to violate a young girl and an ice sickle falls from a tree hitting his shoulder. As it hits him he is put off balance and falls into a deep ravine. He lies there, being buried by the cold snow, not to be found for weeks (Sebold 327). It is similar in the movie; he is also hit by an ice cycle and falls down a large ravine then abruptly ends. You have an idea that he is dead from the graphic fall, but still no closure, it is left open ended. (New Zealand).
When watching the movie you find that it seems to intertwine three story lines. First, is that of Susie in the in-between, the second deals with her mourning family and the third, interestingly, deals with her killer. Although this movie has a serial killer on the loose and its share of cops it is in no way like a crime or revenge story. Instead this is a movie about family bonds and about a loss. It’s about the presence people can have in our lives even when they are gone; it’s about understanding what closure really means, and differs from the novel.
The Lovely Bones is a very compassionate story the way it is told from the girl’s point of view and the innocence that she has in the way she looks at the world she has left behind. Alice Sebold gives us a look at how the Salmon Family is forever changed as a result of Susie’s murder. Susie watches as her parents drift apart and her siblings and friends grow up and have experiences Susie can only witness. Through the experiences of the Salmon Family in The Lovely Bones, readers can examine their own feelings and reactions to loss and mourning. Susie is on this incredible adventure into the world of the afterlife, described as the in-between. The rules of our world no longer apply. She has to come to terms with where she is and has to somehow influence events back down on earth that enable her killer to be caught. It is an incredibly layered story getting its title from a section at the end of the book (Mehegan).
“These were the lovely bones that had grown around my absence: the connections-sometimes tenuous, sometimes made at great cost, but often magnificent-that happened after I was gone. And I began to see things in a way that let me hold the world without me in it. The events my death brought were primarily that the bones of a body that would become whole at some unpredictable time in the future. The price of what I came to see as this miraculous lifeless body had been my life” (Sebold 320).
Throughout this discussion you can see that as the book was translated to film, by director Peter Jackson, the differences that are often seen in book to film translations are more evident and clear as it goes along. Due to time constraints and interpretation, we find that a majority of book to film projects do not hold faithfulness to the authors. It has also been found that many books to film correlations create added characters or eliminate characters for theatrical benefit (Cohen 1). It may even be better to watch the film and then read the book. This might prevent you from making judgments about this film on the basis of the book such as, visual effects, timeline, and content, due to it being three hundred pages turned into two hours, which in text form are actually only about one hundred pages.
Predictably, Peter Jackson’s interpretation of The Lovely Bones is not equal to the interpretation of the author Alice Sebold. Clearly you can see that this story has been interpreted in very different ways, both in film and in text. Differences within the movie create a watered down and non-confrontational approach to the real subject matter of the novel. Therefore, if you are looking to research any book by watching its movie remember you are probably going to be missing about two thirds of the book, if not more. As exampled here, with The Lovely Bones, the differences between book and film translations can be extreme causing confusion and distorted reality of the content and subject matter of the author’s original concepts.
Bradshaw, Peter. Guardian. 2002. 14 Nov. 2012
Cohen, Steven and Hark, Ina Rae. The Road Movie Book. Routledge. New York, NY. 1997.
“Filming the Lovely Bones” (Special Features). DW Studios LLC. Dreamworks Pictures. BLU-RAY. 2009
Garon, Jon. The Independent Filmmaker’s Law and Business Guide: Financing, Shooting, and Distributing Independent and Digital Films. Chicago Review Press. Chicago, IL- 2nd Edition. 2009.
Mehegan, David. Sebold, Alice. The Lovely Bones. Words to Live by (Supplementary interview). Little, Brown and Co. New York, NY. 2002.
“New Zealand Principal Photography” (Special Features). DW Studios LLC. Dreamworks Pictures. BLU-RAY. 2009
Sebold, Alice. The Lovely Bones. Little, Brown and Co. New York, NY. 2002.
Sebold, Alive. The Lovely Bones. The Oddity of Suburbia. (Supplementary essay). Little, Brown and Co. New York, NY. 2002.
The Lovely Bones-Free Online Study Guide. The Best Notes. 2008. 14 Nov. 2012. http://thebestnotes.com/booknotes/lovely_bones_sebold.
The Lovely Bones. Peter Jackson. DW Studios LLC. Dreamworks Pictures. BLU-RAY. 2009.
“USA Principal Photography” (Special Features). DW Studios LLC. Dreamworks Pictures. BLU-RAY. 2009.
“Visual Effects” (Special Features). DW Studios LLC. Dreamworks Pictures. BLU-RAY. 2009.
York, April. Book vs. Film: The Lovely Bones. 2010. 14 Nov. 2012.
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