The Lovely Bones at 10: How a perceived box office failure ushered in a new era in crime fiction

In a world not short of film opinions, here’s one that hasn’t been stated loudly enough: Stanley Tucci is astounding in The Lovely Bones. It’s been a decade since he played the lonely child murderer in the film adaptation of Alice Sebold’s shocking bestseller. But despite Tucci’s spot-on performance, which earned him a nomination for Best Supporting Actor at the 2010 Oscars, these days The Lovely Bones is only afforded a measly 32 per cent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. There, critics chastise the Peter Jackson movie for its “abrupt shifts between horrific violence and cloying sentimentality”.

Undeniably, The Lovely Bones has a dual identity. First, there’s the surface-level thriller in which 14-year-old Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan) is abducted and killed by her neighbour, George Harvey (Tucci) – who later moves on to Susie’s sister, Lindsey. Then there’s the eerie, Jacksonian supernatural drama that sees Susie stranded in her personal heaven as she struggles to move on to the afterlife.

Rewatching the film 10 years later, I found it hard to decide which of the two has remained more relevant. The thriller part contains some of the film’s most gripping scenes (see: the one in which a suspicious Lindsey searches George’s house, only to inevitably get caught by the killer). But the supernatural part, while frequently arduous thanks to Jackson’s kitschy depiction of heaven, does the crucial job of placing Susie’s narrative at the heart of the movie.

The centrality of Susie’s character made The Lovely Bones a literary phenomenon from the get-go. Having a murdered teenager narrate her own story from beyond the grave lent an edge to Sebold’s book that propelled it to the top of the New York Times Bestseller list – a feat so rare for a debut novel that it became headline news. (Sebold’s first book, Lucky, was a memoir in which she discussed her rape at the age of 18 and its aftermath.) “Something unusual has been happening on the fiction bestseller list lately,” said the NYT‘s books editor Bill Goldstein, four months after The Lovely Bones’s release. “A first novel is at number one.”

Throughout its 135 minutes, The Lovely Bones shines whenever it keeps us close to Susie (brilliantly played by a 13-year-old Ronan) and sags whenever it strays too far away from her narrative. The sequence in which Tucci’s George traps Susie in an underground cache of his own making – eight excruciating minutes, during which Susie realises she has just walked into the path of a killer – are almost unbearable, precisely because we experience them through Susie’s eyes.

There’s been a lot of talk lately about the need to reframe crime narratives (whether true-crime or fiction) around the victims rather than the perpetrators. The Lovely Bones now stands out as a precursor of that trend. Certainly, you can question the decision to have Susie possess the body of her best friend to experience her first kiss, after which she may finally rest in peace. But the fact remains that the narrative of The Lovely Bones is all about the dead girl and the tragedy of the life stolen from her. Susie is rightfully enraged about her own death – and just as her parents must mourn her loss, Susie, too, must come to terms with her own disappearance.

This is all bolstered by the portrayal of George as an ordinary loner. Retired FBI agent John E Douglas (the inspiration behind Scott Glenn’s character in The Silence of the Lambs) trained Tucci over two days, insisting that the killer be presented as an average man, not a stereotypical monster. “We can’t get past the preconceived notion that these violent offenders should be drooling or have a third eyeball,” Douglas told ABC News at the time. He went on to lament: “They get away with murder in this country – 20 to 50 serial killers are on the loose at any time, killing three or more victims.” (A Radford University study estimated that number to be between 15 and 30 in 2015 in the US.)

Tucci himself came close to turning down the role of the paedophile killer. “I almost didn’t do The Lovely Bones,” he told AMC. “I was this close to saying no. It was a hard decision. But, in the end, I’m glad I said yes.” Tucci, then a father of three, said he couldn’t “read books or see movies in which children are harmed”, but was comforted by Jackson’s vision.

Playing a serial killer, he said, was “gruelling”. “I kept asking Saoirse [Ronan] if she was okay, and she asked me if I was okay. We laughed a lot during the shoot. But it was a long shoot. I couldn’t wait for it to be over,” Tucci said. Shortly after wrapping The Lovely Bones, the actor dove into his very different part as Meryl Streep’s husband in Julie & Julia, which he called a “welcome antidote”.

While Tucci welcomed Jackson’s aesthetics, The Lovely Bones almost told a different story altogether. Lynne Ramsay (who eventually directed We Need To Talk About Kevin) was originally in charge of the project, but – according to a later interview with The New York Times – left after feeling pressured to stick closer to the novel’s narrative.

The path to the final film was tortuous in more ways than one. Ryan Gosling was originally supposed to portray Susie’s father, Jack Salmon, who grows obsessed with the investigation into his daughter’s murder. Gosling, however, said he was fired after deliberately gaining 60 pounds for the role. “We had a different idea of how the character should look,” he told The Hollywood Reporter in 2010. “I really believed he should be 210 pounds.”

Fran Walsh, who co-wrote and co-produced the film as well as being Jackson’s partner, told the publication that Gosling was concerned about looking too young for the role, which ultimately went to Mark Wahlberg (with Rachel Weisz as Susie’s mother Abigail, and Susan Sarandon as Grandma Lynn).

With a reported budget of $65m, and just $44m in earnings at the domestic box office ($93m worldwide), The Lovely Bones is often remembered as a flop, but there’s a more complex story to be told. Sure, it could have performed better at the box office, especially in the light of the book’s phenomenal success. But it would be wrong to say the film completely failed to win over viewers. On top of his Oscar nomination, Tucci also ended up in the running for a Golden Globe, and both he and Ronan received Bafta nominations.

Watch it 10 years after its release, and The Lovely Bones’s sentimentality doesn’t seem cloying as much as inevitable. Isn’t that what grieving is, after all – an uncomfortable cross between the violence of loss and the stories we tell ourselves to keep making sense of the world? If The Lovely Bones lives on in a strange purgatory defined both by horror and whimsy, perhaps that’s how it was meant to be.

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