First things first: "From Page to Screen" is a new column I'm trying here at Cinematical. Each week I'll discuss in detail a book that serves as the source material for either an upcoming or a past film adaptation. In the case of forthcoming films, I'll talk about the prospects for the adaptation: the challenges of bringing the particular book to the screen, the casting, the plot, the literary intangibles that so often wind up missing from the resulting movies. In the case of past films, I'll discuss the adaptation's approach to its source: what changed, what stayed the same, what worked and what didn't. Oh, and I'll actually have read the books.
I never tire of repeating my simple philosophy when it comes to adaptations: books are not movies. What works on the page won't always work on the screen. To demand total faithfulness to the book is folly, and will usually lead to a crappy movie. (This is also the case, by the way, for "true stories" and biopics -- people's lives, no matter how interesting, don't always, or even often, make for good films.) But that, I think, makes my task here more interesting rather than less. What does it take for an adaptation to work -- as a film in its own right, or as a translation of the source material?
The idea for this came from a number of discussions I've had here on the site. People are passionate about the books they love, and protective of them. The adaptation process is fun to talk about -- and even more fun when you've read the book and can have an informed conversation. I hope you'll join me, and I plan to be active in the comment threads.
Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones seemed like an appropriately controversial place to start. Released in 2002, the novel became a smash hit despite an unknown author and a difficult subject. The story of fourteen-year old Susie Salmon, who watches the aftermath of her rape and murder from heaven, connected big time; glowing reviews and spectacular word of mouth kept the book on the bestseller list for over a year and helped sales exceed a million copies. I share the general enthusiasm. Sebold's prose is an elegant, efficient, beautiful wonder, and the novel is remarkable -- equal parts painful and hopeful, difficult and compulsively readable.
It's also extraordinarily difficult to turn into a film. I wouldn't even know where to begin. There's a litany of problems, but the main, overwhelming one is this: the heart of the novel isn't in the events of the plot, but in the perspective of the ethereal protagonist. In middle-school English class, we learned that there are two types of narrators commonly found in novels: first person and omniscient third person. The Lovely Bones is the rare instance of the omniscient first person narrator; Susie's voice, peering into the souls and brains of the other characters, is the closest thing to having God tell the story.
This is far more than a quirk of the book; it's the key to it. What happens is less important than Susie's heavenly spin on what happens; Sebold is so clear on this that I wound up visualizing the events from a bird's eye view, a cheesy facsimile of what the author intended. The Lovely Bones has its share of scenes that are independently heartwrenching (I mean, pick one -- for starters, how about when Jack Salmon makes an abortive attempt to explain to his son Buckley what happened to his older sister, using Monopoly pieces?), but the bulk of their force comes from Susie's heart repeatedly breaking as she watches -- and makes connections, and draws conclusions -- from heaven. How do you replicate that on screen?
Fortunately, the task of adapting The Lovely Bones falls to Peter Jackson and his writing partners Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens. Two of them -- Jackson and Walsh -- happen to be responsible for one of the most impressive feats of cinematic perspective I've ever seen. Heavenly Creatures, the 1994 film that catapulted Jackson to respectability, told the story of two fast teenage friends who decide to kill their parents when the latter attempt to separate them. It's not a blazingly original plot, but it's a totally singular film, because Jackson and Walsh perfectly conveyed the dreamlike reverie that was the girls' state of mind. With The Lovely Bones they face a similar task. Simply showing Susie watching the events from the side of the frame won't do.
It sounds like Jackson got a start on this in his interpretation of the novel's heaven (over which he apparently got into a big fight with his production designer). Sebold's idea of heaven is decidedly non-religious, a fact for which she caught quite a bit of flack -- there are no pearly gates, just a custom-tailored ether that responds to Susie's dreams and desires. According to Saoirse Ronan, who plays Susie, Jackson has literalized this: "Whenever Susie feels happy, Heaven is sunny and there's birds and everything. Whenever it's not so great, it's raining or she's in the middle of an ocean." This is quite a bit less subtle than Sebold intended, I think, but it's a good concession to the medium, and could go a ways toward solving the perspective problem.
The casting makes me cringe a little, but I'm inclined to trust Jackson's judgment. Saoirse Ronan, fresh off her Atonement Oscar nomination, seems like an almost too on-the-nose choice for Susie. Days before filming was to start, Ryan Gosling stepped out of the Jack Salmon role over concerns about the character's age (late-30's to late-40's, over the course of the novel) versus the actor's (28); Mark Wahlberg replaced him. Rachel Weisz plays Abigail, Jack's wife. Both seem a bit too attractive for their emphatically average-suburban-Joe roles, but that's Hollywood. (I had thought of David Strathairn for Mr. Salmon, but that may also have been too on-the-nose.) I can't even imagine what Susan Sarandon will do with the role of the hard-drinking, make-up-obsessed Grandma Lynn. On the other hand, Anna George is a great choice for the alluring Ruana Singh, and I have absolutely no quibbles with the casting of Stanley Tucci as Susie's brooding, solitary murderer. It's a change of pace for Tucci, but he should have no trouble.
There are a million ways to make The Lovely Bones an affecting and painful film -- it is, after all, about the murder and rape of a child. The easy way out is simply to turn it into an ordinary story about the aftermath of a tragedy. But the reason the book is remarkable, and the reason it was a sensation, is the way that the story is told. Team Jackson is expert at making the right choices in adapting books and old screenplays. Replicating the experience of The Lovely Bones -- if, in fact, that's what they choose to do -- will be their greatest challenge yet.