Nothing is quite so potent a symbol of violated innocence, a spur to pious sentiment or a goad to revenge as a child in peril. This is hardly news (Charles Dickens made a nice living trafficking in the suffering of minors), but for some reason the past decade has seen an epidemic of cinematic and literary crimes against the young.
The Lovely Bones, Alice Sebold's 2002 best-selling novel, now a film directed by Peter Jackson, stands out as a singularly bold and complex treatment of this grim theme. In spite of the horrific act at the center of the story — the rape, murder and dismemberment of a 14-year-old girl — the novel is not depressing or assaultive but rather, somewhat perversely warm, hopeful and even occasionally funny.
Jackson's film, from a script he wrote with Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, his frequent collaborators, shows less audacity than the book and too much art. Main character Susie Salmon's unearthly home, in the book a minimally sketched, nondenominational purgatory where the dead loiter on their way to heaven and keep tabs on unfinished business on earth, in the movie is a digitally rendered Wonderland of rioting metaphors, crystal seas and floating topiary. It's a mid-'70s art-rock album cover brought to life (and complemented by a score composed by '70s art-rock fixture Brian Eno), and its trippy vistas are sometimes ravishing but distracting.
As a pictorial artifact, The Lovely Bones is gorgeous, but it does not move.
It's not that Jackson and his fellow screenwriters have taken undue liberties with the book, a complaint that some other critics have made. On the contrary, the problem with this Lovely Bones is that it dithers over hard choices, unsure of which aspects of the novel should be emphasized and which might be winnowed or condensed.
The Lovely Bones retails for $29.99 or $48.99 on Blu-ray.