In 2002, a novel came out of nowhere to become a near-instant classic of our times, resonating deeply with readers and critics around the globe. Alice Sebold’s second novel, The Lovely Bones, appeared on the surface to be a dark tale of modern crime about an ordinary suburban child’s haunting disappearance and murder. Narrated from beyond the grave, the story of The Lovely Bones offers a unique and very personal take on the notion of the afterlife. It is a tale about death that is filled with unexpected light, beauty and hope.
At the heart of the book is the endearingly honest, funny and brave Susie Salmon, who, after having departed this life at far too young an age, watches over the living from a mysterious personal realm where she can have anything she desires or imagines, except to be back with those she loves. From this world once removed from our own, Susie watches her family as they come to grips with overwhelming loss. As the family grapples with grief and growing frustration over the police’s failure to solve the crime, Susie tries to guide her father towards uncovering the identity of her killer. Strengthened by the love and compassion she feels for those she left behind, Susie eventually comes to understand that she must move on to enable her family to come to terms with her death and find some measure of peace.
The novel was hailed as a “triumph” by Time Magazine and a “stunning achievement” by the New Yorker and became one of the most talked-about and widely read books of the last decade.
Among the millions of readers immediately taken with the story of Susie Salmon and her family’s search for justice and grace was one of today’s most imaginative filmmakers: Peter Jackson. “Alice Sebold’s novel is one of those great books where you don’t know what to expect; it is a tough, thrilling, emotional story. As a filmmaker, that’s terrifically interesting,” he says.
Jackson has a reputation for spellbinding storytelling on screen. He is best known for having written, directed and produced The Lord of the Rings trilogy, creating an indelible screen life for the fantasy world forged by J.R.R. Tolkien. Combined, the three films have grossed almost $3 billion at the box office, been nominated for 30 Academy Awards®, and won 17 Oscars®, including Best Picture for the third film, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Jackson took home Oscars® for his direction and for the screenplay of The Return of the King. In 2005, he went on to direct, co-write and produce a contemporary adaptation of one of the best-known stories of all time: King Kong, which grossed over $500 million and won three Oscars®. Earlier in his career, Jackson wrote and directed a darkly emotional, critically acclaimed film that was based on a true story, called Heavenly Creatures.
It was while Jackson was still in post-production on The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers that he first read The Lovely Bones, given to him by his longtime filmmaking associates Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, who were ardent fans of the novel.
“People were starting to rave to me about this book and so as soon as I could, I grabbed it. I wanted to see what the excitement was about,” Jackson recalls. “I found it to be a tremendously powerful and evocative story. On the face of it, the novel is about every parent’s darkest fear – the loss of a child. Yet, ultimately, it grows into a story about the redeeming power of love, which is why I think, so many people are drawn to the book.”
Jackson’s interest was piqued, but in order to proceed the team needed both the rights to the book and Sebold’s blessing. The novel had already been optioned in unfinished manuscript form thanks to the smart good taste of Aimée Peyronnet, a producer from Wild Child Films, and also James Wilson, who was then an executive at Film4. Jackson, Walsh and Boyens’ huge passion for the book eventually led them to Film4’s door, at a time when this exciting collaboration became possible. “There was a real connection when we met Alice,” recalls Boyens. “She’s a funny, generous, open-hearted person who is brutally honest with a dark sense of humor. We felt so lucky when she came back to us and said we were the right people to tackle the book.”
Wingnut and Film4 formed a partnership and Ken Kamins, the team’s longstanding manager, took Peter, Fran and Philippa’s script – which was written on spec – to the market where it landed at DreamWorks. This is when Steven Spielberg, who had been in love with the novel since its publication, came aboard as executive producer, joining Tessa Ross from Film4, along with Kamins and James Wilson. “Steven had a genuine respect for the book and a real desire to see this film made,” says Jackson. “It was a natural fit for us to work together and he was full of ideas in developing the screenplay and beyond. He provided great support any time we needed advice.”
Jackson, Walsh and Boyens all collaborated, as they often do, on the screenplay adaptation. Though the trio has re-envisioned iconic characters and classic literature in their previous work, this project would present an entirely fresh set of challenges. “We all like puzzles and I think we saw The Lovely Bones as the ultimate puzzle for screenwriters,” says Jackson. “How do you take Alice’s very intricate, poetic book, which doesn’t in any way scream ‘I’m a movie’ and structure it as a film? We became obsessed with how to move the pieces around to tell this story on the screen,” he explains.
Boyens credits Walsh with finding a way in. “Fran always had an innate idea of what the story could be, why it was worth telling and how it could be told with a mixture of magic and the chaos of reality. She saw how it could weave multiple film genres together,” she says.
“It’s an especially tricky story to adapt,” Boyens continues. “It’s so incredibly layered and emotional and it’s not linear, so it was an ongoing process, step by step, of finding our way through. It’s a story that is darkly funny, it is brutal, surprising, gorgeous and full of emotion; Peter wanted to deliver all of that.”
A big part of that challenge was determining how to depict the story’s highly unconventional main location: the place which Susie refers to as “The In-Between.”
From the start, Jackson, Walsh and Boyens knew that they wanted Susie’s experience of the afterlife to be completely personal and specific to Susie’s understanding of the world. They wanted it to transcend religious traditions and celestial imagery – and for it to reflect instead Susie’s inner-consciousness and emotional life. Most of all, they wanted it to feel like the quintessential dream world; influenced by earthly events yet limitless in its possibilities to conjure anything and everything that might Susie might choose to experience or imagine.
“What we attempted to do is to present an afterlife that is evocative, elusive and ephemeral. It is a place which reflects the eye of the beholder; it isn’t filled with any particular religious iconography,” Jackson notes. “I wanted to keep it mysterious and intangible. It’s called ‘The In-Between’ because Susie is basically caught in the 'blue horizon' - the space she refers to as being between Heaven and Earth. ‘The In-Between’ is not a literal Heaven so much a place where Susie stops to take spiritual and emotional refuge, before she is ready to move on.”
Susie’s “In-Between” is a mix of breathtaking beauty and frightening darkness; it is comforting and sad, beautiful and strange, and it is profoundly connected to events that unfold on Earth.
Jackson, Walsh and Boyens focused Susie’s emotional investment in solving her own murder, which fuels her rage and desire for revenge. She is all too aware that her killer, the eerily normal Mr. Harvey, appears to have gotten away with an act of sheer evil – but she has no obvious means of leading her family or the police to her murderer's door.
“The story is also a thriller,” points out Jackson, “and Mr. Harvey is a fascinating kind of character because he’s an Everyman. He mows the lawn, he chats with the neighbors, he knows the value of appearances and Susie starts to wonder if this man might actually get away murder.”
Yet, the suspense of the film is woven into a bigger, more stirring story about the human capacity to find joy, no matter. “l like to think of the movie as an 'emotional thriller,' Jackson says. “It’s about an evil man who takes pleasure in murder and it's also about a family trying to figure out how to rebuild their lives in the face of overwhelming loss.”
Boyens notes that part of the film’s ratcheting tension is created by the audience’s ever-increasing hope that Susie and her family will each find their own path out of the dark woods of fear and anger. “One of the brilliant things that Alice Sebold originally did with this story is to invest the reader in Susie escaping from this in-between state,” she says. “You yearn for the entire Salmon family to reach the point where they can let go of what happened, without letting go of love.”
Susie too eventually comes to understand that she must face her own death in order to transcend it. At the end of the story, Susie lets go of the vengeance and anger and hate. She lets go of her life and is finally able to 'see the world without her in it'. In effect, she grows up without ever growing old.
Sums up Jackson: “The story begins with Susie’s murder and there is grief and loss and unimaginable pain, but the strength of the Salmon family prevails through all of it; somehow they survive, somehow they find a way to rebuild and carry on and keep Susie in their hearts as a living memory, which is a tremendously hopeful place to leave the story.”
The Lovely Bones Official Movie Site
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The Lovely Bones Characters
The Lovely Bones Cast - Saoirse Ronan
The Lovely Bones Cast - Mark Wahlberg
The Lovely Bones Cast - Rachel Weisz
The Lovely Bones Cast - Susan Sarandon
The Lovely Bones Cast - Stanley Tucci
The Lovely Bones Cast - Michael Imperioli
Director Peter Jackson
Author Alice Sebold