The Lovely Bones

ALICE SEBOLD HIT it huge with her 2002 novel, “The Lovely Bones,” which stayed on New York Times’ bestseller list for more than a year and received tons of critical praise. The book focuses on main character Susie Salmon, a 14-year-old who is raped and murdered by her neighbor, Mr. Harvey, and whose death profoundly impacts her family, whose lives she continues watching up from heaven.

Critic Philip Hensher called novel “overpoweringly saccharine” in his review for The Observer, which might be true, but it’s also both thrilling and emotionally satisfying — and thankfully, not nearly as tragedy-porn-like as Jodi Picoult‘s novels.

Unsurprisingly, “The Lovely Bones” has been turned into a film, with Peter Jackson‘s adaptation going into wide release on Jan. 15 after limited release in New York and Los Angeles last month. Though the film initially had some production hang-ups — such as when actor Ryan Gosling, who was supposed to play Susie’s father, left the project a few days in and was replaced with Mark Wahlberg — and isn’t getting the most positive reviews, it’s also an early Oscar contender thanks mainly to Jackson’s imagination and solid grasp of special effects. If anyone could make Sebold’s vision of heaven a reality, it’s him — the man made Middle Earth interesting to nearly everyone; he can pretty much pull off a cinematic miracle (uh, “King Kong” withstanding).

And what scenes from “The Lovely Bones” will Jackson hopefully successfully translate onto the big screen? From the expansive to the gritty, here are the three we’re waiting to see.

While much of the book focuses on Susie’s time in heaven, the first parts of the book (obviously) describe her relationships with her family and friends on earth. From her close relationship to her father, whom she helps build ships in a bottle; to her interest in photography, which she uses to try and better understand her mother; to her burgeoning romance with classmate Ray Singh and friendship with fellow peer Ruth Connors, Susie is painted as a girl on the brink of growing up. And one of the best scenes that Sebold paints of this developing maturity is when Susie and Ray cut homeroom together and hang out on the auditorium’s scaffold together, discussing “Othello,” almost having their first kiss (“‘He is from England,’ I was thinking”) and overhearing two teachers berate Ruth for her anatomically correct — and therefore sexually suggestive — sketches of nude women for her art class (“‘If I’m not mistaken,’ said Miss Ryan, ‘there are no breasts on our anatomy model'”). While it’s not a moment in the book that needs any kinds of special effects or fancy CGI, the juxtaposition of all three characters — Susie and Ray, beginning to discover their attraction; Ruth, rebelling against mainstream authority; and the three of them, forming an understanding and appreciation for one another — sets the character development for some of the most important parts of the book later to come. It’s kind of like in “Return of the King,” where Jackson handled the emotional turmoil between characters like Denethor and Faramir with such nuanced subtlety — he’ll need that same kind of approach here.

The common Western concept of heaven — fluffy white clouds, lots of sunshine, tons of angels floating around with halos and harps — is thrown on its head by “The Lovely Bones,” which instead describes heaven as a somewhat personalized experience for everyone, with favorite settings and images interspersed throughout one’s surroundings. And when Susie reaches heaven after being murdered, she finds herself in a place she somewhat recognizes, full of stuff she loved on earth: “The air in my heaven often smelled like skunk — just a hint of it,” “I would pass under old-time street lamps that I had seen once in a play of ‘Our Town’ … I had remembered them because when I saw the play with my family, I thought of them as giant, heavy berries full of light” and “There were no teachers in the school … our textbooks were Seventeen and Glamour and Vogue.” Sebold puts the whole thing quite simply — “We had been given, in our heavens, our simplest dreams,” explains Susie — but the sprawling idea of heaven is one that will certainly benefit from Jackson’s special effects experience. In the film’s previews, heaven is a multi-colored, fantastical thing (think of “What Dreams May Come,” perhaps), and hopefully Jackson can make the whole thing — from when Susie first arrives in Heaven, realizes where she is and, despite all of its beauty, swiftly decides she doesn’t like it, to her transition to a larger heaven — believable and relatable without being too over-the-top.

Though “The Lovely Bones” focuses on Susie’s murder and how it impacted the people with whom she had relationships on earth, the moments of suspense don’t come that often — the novel’s narrative isn’t really about revenge, but more about understanding. As a result, Susie almost starts to pity her killer later on in the book once she learns about his awful childhood. Nevertheless, the book first deals with her family’s immediate reaction to her death, and Sebold describes how her father attempted to investigate the murder himself, suspecting Mr. Harvey and withdrawing away from the outside world as a result. But while Susie’s mother rejects her father’s claims that Harvey had something to do with it, her sister, Lindsey, has the most daring moment in the book when she breaks into Harvey’s home and attempts to find any evidence linking him to the crime. From when she sneaks in to her climactic discovery and escape, the scene is the book’s most suspenseful — and should be one of Jackson’s most thrilling moments, if he can play it right. Here’s to hoping.

Written by Express contributor Roxana Hadadi