Life after death is the most interesting thing in The Lovely Bones, director Peter Jackson's big-screen adaptation of Alice Sebold's '70s period novel about life, period. Jackson's movie glories in its depiction of the in-between zone where a murdered 14-year-old named Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan) gets stuck on her way from earth to heaven, and it is an admittedly gorgeous place to be.
Neither heaven nor hell nor purgatory exactly, the in-between area is a constantly shifting landscape of Susie's memories and the memories of others killed by her murderer, and some of the images it offers are breathtaking: a giant rubber ball crashing through the surf; a fleet of ship-in-a-bottle models wrecking on the rocks outside a lighthouse; a beautiful montage of everything a little girl in the 1970s might fantasize about.
What Jackson doesn't supply us with is the lovely bones themselves-in Sebold's words (quoted in the movie): "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." Sebold's page-turner gives the reader a bird's-eye view of the lives Susie touched, and helps us to understand the impact-for ill and, surprisingly, for good-of her death.
Jackson is so busy making the movie look cool that he doesn't take time to develop the relationships between the film's characters (except Susie's dad Jack, nicely played by Mark Wahlberg), and so we have a fabulous looking, well-acted whodunit that doesn't really accomplish much. To keep the narrative moving, Jackson and his screenwriters incorporate all of Susie's ghostly intrusions into the natural world, either to show us how Susie is growing to accept her death or to communicate the notion that the beloved dead are watching over us. This may be comforting to some, but it's on the Precious Moments end of the theological spectrum.
It's also a touch dangerous. For Christians, the pressing priority is life before death. How can we become more like Christ here on earth? How can we most effectively represent Him to our neighbors? How can we help other people in His name? We don't know what eternity with God will look like, which is one reason this movie is so alluring, and its extremely expensive vision of heaven so enticing.
One of the movie's most impressive narrative devices is the way Jackson draws our attention to the characters' houses-key scenes are shot through the windows of a dollhouse; the killer builds temporary houses to lure each of his victims; the tensest scene in the PG-13 movie happens when a girl sneaks into the murderer's house. Everyone in the movie is trying to build or repair their home, including heaven-bound Susie-but that misses the point. The reason we don't really have to worry about what heaven will be like is that we know it will be good, and permanent. Sebold used the dead character to provide perspective on life, as Thorton Wilder did with Our Town. For Jackson, Susie's journey rings false, because it's not one we'll ever have to take.