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Popcorn & Prejudice: A Movie Blog

Seattle Times writer Moira Macdonald muses on moviegoing. Email Moira: mmacdonald@seattletimes.com.

January 15, 2010 at 12:15 PM

When good books die on film: “The Lovely Bones”

It’s not that I think “The Lovely Bones” is a terrible movie — no movie that gives so much screen time to the enchanting Saorise Ronan could be — but that it’s an utterly misguided one. And I’m stumped, as I so often am, as to why somebody thought this book should be a movie. Alice Sebold’s book is about things that we don’t want to see — like a little girl’s rape and murder — and about things we can’t see: what goes on in the heads of those left behind, which is often very different from what they’re saying and doing; and what might happen to the soul of a child, who just might be able to watch over her loved ones from someplace else. The book is a delicate, elaborate balancing act that works marvelously; Sebold writes in a way that draws us in to a sort of magical world she weaves with words. But it’s not meant to be taken literally — and Peter Jackson’s heavy-handed, CGI-laden vision falls with a crash to the floor. Which leaves me wondering: Did somebody think this movie would make a lot of money? Did somebody think this movie could somehow artistically improve on the book? Did somebody think the many readers of this book were dying to have it spelled out visually? I’m not sure, but I wonder.
As a person who loves reading even more than I love watching movies, I ponder this topic a lot, because so many of my favorite books have made their way to the screen, both successfully and unsuccessfully. Granted, it doesn’t ruin a book to be used as the source for a bad movie: I love Nick Hornby’s comment on this: “The books are still there in the bookshops. I was thinking even the language is wrong — ‘turning books into films.’ Books are still books. Someone else has made the film. There is no transformation.” But every book lover knows that it’s frustrating to see a mangled version of a favorite on the big screen; it seems disrespectful somehow. And, then, some days, you head out to see a movie of a lovely book that you just know the filmmakers are going to screw up, and they get it perfectly, like “The Hours” or “A Single Man,” and you’re reminded why people make movies out of books in the first place.
So, my least favorite literary adaptations of the last few years (not that these are necessarily my least favorite movies, but that I felt they didn’t do justice to the book): “Then She Found Me,” “Evening,” “The Jane Austen Book Club” (though in that case I didn’t like the book much either), “Blindness,” “The Informers,” and “Julie & Julia” (the Julie parts).
And, in turn, my favorites: “The Hours,” “Little Children,” “The Namesake,” “Lust, Caution,” “Atonement,” “Revolutionary Road,” “Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day,” “Cheri,” and “A Single Man.”
Yours?
p.s. I’m off for the long weekend, but will be here Sunday briefly blogging the Golden Globes, if anything happens of interest there; join me around 5ish if you’re so inclined. Hope you all read — or see — something good this weekend.

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