As Peter Jackson's adaptation of The Lovely Bones continues to make the rounds among Hollywood's studios (aside from New Line, sworn enemies of the once-burly Kiwi filmmaker), we thought we'd take a look at his screenplay to see how it reads. The screenplay, 112-pages long and co-written with Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, doesn't diverge wildly from Alice Sebold's novel; the famous opening line of chapter one — "My name is Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was 14 years old when I was murdered on December 6th, 1973" — appears nearly verbatim on page 5 of the script.
We admire Jackson's determination to make this film after the immense undertakings of the Lord of the Rings trilogy and King Kong; The Lovely Bones is a throwback in many ways to Jackson's breakthrough film, the still-wondrous Heavenly Creatures. Both are small, narrowly focused stories of teenage girls in trouble: Heavenly Creatures' Pauline and Juliet, real-life New Zealand teen murderers, and Susie Salmon in The Lovely Bones, killed at 14. And both make dramatic use of Jackson's skills as a fantasist by weaving the supernatural into reality: Heavenly Creatures through the girls' retreat into their charged fantasy world of knights and damsels in distress, and The Lovely Bones via Susie's frequent attempts to make contact with the living world.
But The Lovely Bones looks to be not nearly as good as Heavenly Creatures. Jackson doesn't get into Susie's head the way he did Pauline and Juliet's, and the incursion of the supernatural into everyday life feels showy rather than integral. The fantasy scenes in Heavenly Creatures were momentous, despite the shakiness of the special effects; though it's certain that the effects in The Lovely Bones will be brilliant, the scenes in Heaven, and Susie's interaction with Earth, don't have much magic on the page.
Spoilers ahead! Jackson's screenplay leaves in most every plot point from the book, including the crucial scene in which Susie returns to earth, inhabits the body of another girl, and has sex with the boy she loved at 14. It also keeps the anticlimactic ending to the investigation into Susie's murder: Her killer is never found, though Susie in a tiny way contributes to his ignominious death. So much of the novel's action is stuffed into the screenplay, in fact, that little of it registers as important — to the family left behind, or to Susie. And despite frequent voice-over, we lose the sense — so important to the novel — of Susie as both caring participant and omniscient narrator, seeing into the souls of those left behind.
As we noted Tuesday, Jackson is reportedly asking for $65 million to make The Lovely Bones, plus his directing and producing fees. (Variety reported yesterday that the total budget could run to $90 million.) So that's almost $100 mil to make a slightly spooky, gently sad domestic drama narrated by a raped and murdered girl. It's got a gruesome premise, a downbeat ending, gentle healing in place of Hollywood catharsis, and little opportunity to cast stars. Susie's parents are decently sized roles, but the mother is unsympathetic: She cheats on her husband and leaves her family. Susie's father might be an attractive role for an actor with box-office draw, but who knows if Jackson — who seems to prefer real actors to stars — will cast one?
As for Susie? Let's just hope Jackson doesn't punt and cast Dakota Fanning in the role.
Variety attributes the delay in selling The Lovely Bones to Jackson's demands for promotional plans from the studios in question. But isn't it also likely that studios are balking because they can't figure out how to avoid losing their shirts on an art-house movie with a blockbuster budget?