The Lovely Bones presented a fascinating challenge for a movie adaptation of a book. But finally, the realities of commercial filmmaking may have been unmanageable in this case---much as they were with John Hillcoat's film version of Cormac McCarthy's The Road. What works on the page and in our imagination, no matter how harsh, can be too much to handle on the screen.
Peter Jackson and his producing, writing and life partner Fran Walsh talk about the narrative difficulties of adapting Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones into a film. I interviewed him by flip cam (on the jump) and her by phone. "No other medium can enter the imagination of a character like film," says Walsh, "but few films do that. The last thing I want to see at the movies is a version of my reality. I don't want to see art imitating life."
Clearly, going in, Jackson, Walsh and Philippa Boyens were trying to make the best movie they could from material they loved. Boyens first read the book, passed it to Walsh, who passed it to her husband, who wanted to make it. They eventually grabbed the film rights in 2006 after the BBC let them go (Lynn Ramsay was developing that film). Jackson wanted to develop the project as an independent without interference. They sold the finished script to DreamWorks.
The three writers worked together in a room for about a year. "We had a vigorous argument among the three of us about what story to tell," says Walsh, "what was important, what we wanted to communicate, are you telling it in the best way possible? These questions don't get answered straight away. In many ways, it's been an ephemeral process of storytelling about an intangible subject. It could have been made in 100 different ways."
They could have chosen to keep the story on earth, for one thing, with Susie's voice as narrator. They tried many things that worked on paper but not on film. The Writer's Strike limited their options when it hit in the middle of filming. Some things were cut. Some things needed more time to play out. "We couldn't make a three-hour movie," says Walsh--after three long movies and King Kong, long was not an option.
Over time, the story became more and more about Susie (Saoirse Ronan) and her point-of-view, from her killer (Stanley Tucci) to the surreal dream landscape of "the in-between," which meant trimming sections with her parents and family. The filmmakers shot the relationship with Susie's mom (Rachel Weisz) and the local policeman (Michael Imperioli), but backed off when the affair seemed to be the reason for her leaving her husband (Mark Wahlberg) and her home. The book could explain things more clearly. "She left because of grief and despair," says Walsh. "It was very frustrating." There was barely time to register sister Lindsay's story, much less Mrs. Singh, the mother of Susie's love interest. "It was Susie's story. We had to spend time with her."
Commercial considerations were in there too, for a $70-million movie: "The higher the budget, the more encumbant you are to earn that money back," says Walsh, who says that in the end, the movie is a PG-13 story aimed at young girls, who also embraced the book. "It's not for 50-year-old men. It's no wonder they've taken the attitude they have. You try to do something that isn't completely derivative and they clobber you. What do you do?"
All along, Walsh and Jackson were also juggling other projects, such as District 9, which they produced. Jackson also collaborated with Steven Spielberg on Tin Tin and with Guillermo del Toro on The Hobbit.
In that case Del Toro joined the usual troica of writers in a room and slugged it out on two scripts. "He brings a tremendous earthy sense of humor," says Walsh. "The biggest issue is always length." She was surprised at how joyful she was to return to Middle Earth after being relieved to leave it at the end of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Casting began on The Hobbit in Wellywood this week.
Walsh looks forward to getting back into writing mode on the second Tin Tin, which Jackson will co-write and direct. Dambusters is on the horizon, too, a World War II "Brits Fight Back" actioner about 7th Squadron dam raids over Germany.
Here's Jackson, part one:
"You have to map it all out in the screenplay," says Jackson about the subconscious dream state, "the in-between."
Jackson talks about why he and partner Fran Walsh wanted to make a PG-13 movie that their teenage daughter could see. They show no rape. No murder. No dismembered body parts.