Hello Kitty doesn’t make coffins. And for good reason: it’s wrong to sentimentalize death. So why does Hollywood succumb so often? Why is Ghost the template for talking about the afterlife? (Wherein: the dead are dead… but not really). Why? Because you make more money that way. If you make it palatable, they will come. But to prettify death is to empty the coffin. That’s why Peter Jackson’s version of The Lovely Bones is doomed. Here is a story about death. The point of the story is not the narrator (a dead girl), but the fact that she is everywhere and nowhere for her family. It’s about grieving.
A fourteen-year-old girl is murdered. Or rather, she disappears. The police suspect murder, but no body is ever found. Her family – each unable to accept the loss – keep her alive, in memory. They are watched by her from Heaven (or very near Heaven), as they fumble through their grief. And years go by. The dead girl’s mother keeps her daughter’s room sealed, just the way it was. The dead girl’s father searches obsessively for his daughter’s killer. The dead girl’s sister grows up, and does all that the dead girl once dreamed of doing. And for all that, you scarcely notice that anyone has died. The dead girl’s Heaven is too busy, distracting.
The minute you see a snow globe in a movie, expect a lie. Snow globes are bullshit. Rosebud might have been incongruous in Citizen Kane, but at least Kane could have gone sledding on it. The only reason for the dead girl to own a snow globe in The Lovely Bones is so we’ll see the metaphor in it. Showing us too much is the movie’s whole problem. Death is like the end of a fuse…that starts a firework display. The director (Peter Jackson) only made The Lovely Bones to show us how fantastic Heaven is. But to bring a Lord of the Rings sensibility to this story is like directing The Cherry Orchard in the style of Transformers. Every time Heaven takes centre stage, we’re not looking at people. All the drama – all the feeling – is back on Earth. The dead girl envies life; she envies grief in the living.
Saoirse (pronounced “seer-shuh”) Ronan is the best part of The Lovely Bones. She plays the dead girl as a fourteen-year-old girl, rather than a hook to hang a painting of the afterlife on. As much tragedy as the movie allows is in her face: the longing to grown-up and the ecstasy of being young. She’s more than ready to be in a better movie; one that would see the horror in cutting her life short, in scattering her before she coalesced. In a better movie, we would never see her gaudy Heaven. It would be enough for Saoirse to watch what happened on Earth (and for us to watch Saoirse). Her death-blue eyes are more haunting than any ghost.
Stanley Tucci dines out on his role as “the killer”. But how interesting are killers? They don’t feel. What’s to care about? Killing makes you an instrument of death. But, as with a gun, there’s no interior life. Victims have/had life. Grieving families have life. Killers are just an absence, eager to spread. It’s only Peter Jackson’s refusal to look at the real darkness in his story that pushes Tucci into so many scenes. Rather than show the effect of death on the family, we get a lot of Stanley stalking his house. He’s such an obvious creep; it seems mystifying no-one suspects him. But then, he’s not the only one guilty of a crime in The Lovely Bones.
Steven Spielberg did the same (Always, 1989). As producer, he should have warned Jackson about mawkishness and the afterlife. The minute you have a character who’s a ghost, you’re in danger. They’re no longer dead (to the audience) for a start. So why grieve? Why feel an absence? They are there, as they were in life. In Always, a dead pilot haunts his widow. He is there to help her “move on”. But the truth is: it’s now her story. He is dead. His story has ended. That’s what “dead” means, how cruel death is. Grief is not a helpful feeling. It’s what you feel when someone you need… disappears.