A couple of days ago a friend and I went to see Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Lovely Bones. I had seen the reviews, or rather, had seen the Rotten Tomatoes rating; but I tend not to trust male film critics on the subject of movies about women. They usually get their wires crossed somewhere, much like poor Mr. Edelstein did over at New York magazine when he wrote his execrable review of Precious and then got angry when a “posse” (his term!) of feminists disagreed with him. Sad little man. At any rate, that is my best excuse, other than that I have always thought the book was interesting.
Jackson adapted the screenplay with Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, one of whom I think is his wife, so I don’t want to get too essentialist. But I couldn’t help but wonder, as I watched the film, if this wasn’t a prime example of the way the framework of high fantasy epics like the Lord of the Rings are… unhelpful, from a feminist perspective.
See, Peter Jackson, if you’ll recall, in collaboration with one of those same women, once made a film called Heavenly Creatures. I greatly admire Heavenly Creatures, and not just because it was Kate Winslet’s film debut (!). I admire it because it is a movie about female friendship that focuses on the intoxication of it, and the terrible consequences that flow from that intoxication, without ever feeling like an indictment of female friendship itself. That’s hard for anyone to pull off. So Peter Jackson has, in my personal universe, a proven ability to make decent movies about women, and women’s experiences.
And The Lovely Bones, is a book about violence against women, whether it likes it or not. And, I’d say, a good one at that, though Alice Sebold has fallen out of vogue since its publication. (Her followup was a long time coming and it was terrible.) The subject matter is of course rather voyeuristic: the rape and murder of a young girl. But she has a knack for affecting scenes described with dispassion. Like this one:
“They found a body part. It might be Susie’s.”
It was a hard sock in the stomach. “What?”
“Nothing is ever certain,” my father tried.
Lindsey sat down at the kitchen table. “I’m going to be sick,” she said.
“Dad, I want you to tell me what it was. Which body part, and then I’m going to need to throw up.”
My father got down a large metal mixing bowl. He brought it to the table and placed it near Lindsey before sitting down.”
“Okay,” she said. “Tell me.”
“It was an elbow. The Gilbert’s dog found it.”
He held her hand and then she threw up, as she had promised, into the shiny silver bowl.
It is, in short, melodrama largely without melodrama. Opinions differ on whether that tone is even throughout and admittedly, the couple of times I have picked the book up over the years to reread it I usually lose interest after the first few chapters.
But my point is you will find no scene this subtle (and this is not even that subtle!) in the movie. Jackson, Walsh and Boyens present a boiled down, almost mythical version of the story. No one finds Susie’s elbow; the parents are simply told she’s dead. Susie’s rape at the time of her murder is glossed over and never explicitly or implicitly spoken of; her sister’s eventual liberation from grief through a relationship is a thing of chaste kisses, not sex, like it is in the book. What the afterlife “looks like” in the book is not nearly so important as the manner in which it serves Susie’s coming to terms with her death, but all we get is spectacle spectacle spectacle instead of soul soul soul.
Sure you can’t fit whole books into movies, and yet, Jackson managed to fit a good deal of the Lord of the Rings in. And here is where I think the difference is: those books were written in a highly abstracted style. Elves don’t speak or think like humans, which allows you to dispense with messy human emotion, and dwell on empty concepts like Honour and Country and Friendship. And in the context of fantasy that often makes a sort of visceral sense because we aren’t expected to connect it to anything personal or concrete.
But here’s the thing, kids: I’m not sure we can do feminist without the personal and the concrete. We certainly can’t do nuance, and I think, in general, the experience of violence against women required nuance in its treatment because otherwise it’s just a fist in someone’s face, or, as here, a death not shown and the full extent of it left unsaid because it would be shocking, and we wouldn’t want anyone to be shocked. Or, at least, we don’t want anyone to be shocked by epics. We want to be lifted up by them, and the problem is that the story of being murdered for no reason other than you are a girl and you happen to be close at hand: it isn’t uplifting.
And when filmmakers like Jackson and walsh – who used to understand nuance – make such a tone deaf movie as this one, I can’t help but blame fantasy for it.