Dead on Arrival

The Lovely Bones mangles bestselling novel's appeal

Opens Friday area wide **

Having adored Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones, I was understandably anxious about Peter Jackson's much-delayed screen version. After the Lord of the Rings trilogy and King Kong, could Jackson even work on a human scale again? Or would the same CGI elephantiasis that afflicted his unfortunate 2005 Kong remake squash the bejesus out of Sebold's delicately shaded tome? Adding to my skepticism was the (mis)casting. Rachel Weisz and Saoirse Ronan sounded perfectly OK for Abigail and Susie Salmon, but Mark Wahlberg, Stanley Tucci and Sopranos alumnus Michael Imperioli all seemed dead wrong for the roles of father Jack Salmon, murderer George Harvey and police detective Len Fenerman.

As it turns out, Jackson's overuse of special effects to recreate Sebold's vision of the afterlife and some peculiar casting decisions are the least of the film's problems. The major reason The Lovely Bones leaves an acrid taste is that neither Jackson nor co-adapters Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens seems to have understood the appeal of Sebold's bestseller or why it was so emotionally devastating for its legion of fans. Condensing a novel to fit feature-length run time is one thing. But mangling your source material by transforming it into something else entirely is not only perversely wrong-headed but commercially suicidal. People who love the novel will feel betrayed by its excisions and distortions, although Sebold initiates probably won't bother seeing the movie anyway.

The heart-wrenching tale of a 14-year-old girl brutally raped and murdered by an odd-duck neighbor in her central Pennsylvania neighborhood in 1973 — and her post-death observance of how her surviving family members grieve (terribly), and learn to rebound and move on — was primal, bawl-your-eyes-out stuff. Jackson's decision to vulgarize Sebold's story by turning it into a hokey serial-killer thriller basically shits on everything that made it special.

Even the chronology seems askew: Half the time you can't figure out how much time has elapsed between key events. And character nuance and telling details are abandoned, leaving the poor actors stranded. Needless to say, a Lovely Bones movie in which child killer Mr. Harvey becomes the high point (thanks, in part, to Tucci's surprisingly effective, blessedly restrained performance) has gotten it all wrong. My sincerest hope is that someone (HBO, perhaps?) gives Sebold's Bones the miniseries treatment it deserves — if only as a corrective to Jackson's misbegotten folly.

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