Monday, May 07, 2007

Full Lovely Bones Script Review

After the preview the other day, I thought I'd now give you something more of a full Lovely Bones script review. I've had a couple of reads, from top to bottom, and some days for the impact to settle. I'm really still rather impressed.

Apparently, each copy of the script has one word different than the others. It stands to reason that this will be a word that can be changed without drawing too much attention, and a word that has many alternatives. I'm guessing the code word is a colour - the colour of make-up mentioned on page 2, in fact.

And which colour do I have? That really would be telling. Somebody could get fired for that.

The only other review I've seen so far was a negative one. Out of interest, let's take a look at their allegations - but be warned, SPOILERS LIE AHEAD!

Jackson doesn't get into Susie's head - well, I beg to differ. I know Susie Salmon almost as well from this script as I did the novel. With an actress, and with costume, lighting, camera, editing and so on adding their input too, the movie Susie is bound to be fully rounded. You may think that Susie's remove from the other characters - she's dead, in heaven, and narrating - will deny her the chance to define herself through interaction. The truth is, Susie gets plenty of chance to interact with the events on Earth - and the events on Earth even get a little moment when they can interact with her (more on which in the next paragraph).

The incursion of the supernatural into everyday life feels showy rather than integral - again, I don't agree with a word of the claim. Susie is in heaven - that's pretty darn integral to the very core concept of the piece. And as for Susie's interactions with life on Earth, see my previous point. Make up your mind, dissenter: do you want Susie to sit back passively or do you want her to react to the events she sees unfolding?

Jackson's screenplay leaves in most every plot point from the book, including the crucial scene in which Susie returns to earth, inhabits the body of another girl, and has sex with the boy she loved at 14 - nobody has sex with anybody. It may be implied that it takes place off screen, but frankly, it didn't read that way to me. The kiss that occurs is possibly quite enough. And Jackson does an incredible job of weaving all of the plot points into a trim narrative, tightly paced with strong cause-and-effect maintained throughout.

So much of the novel's action is stuffed into the screenplay, in fact, that little of it registers as important - I think, perhaps, this reaction might be expected from somebody who hasn't read a lot of scripts but not from somebody who has. All of the events are there, but to a reader without a sense of how the pace is related on the page it may seem simply like one-thing-after-another. To my eye, however, it was very clear where the emphasis was placed. Some scenes are very big, some not so much, and the arrangement is very well judged.

We lose the sense of Susie as both caring participant and omniscient narrator, seeing into the souls of those left behind - Susie is clearly shown to invest and care, and while the voice over takes care of the narration her ability to see all takes care of the omniscience. In fact, Susie's heaven works quite a lot like cinema, in many ways, blowing up huge images of the scenes she surveys, putting them behind the proscenium of a gazebo. Once the film is finished and in the cinema, the way Susie relates to these images will be identifiable to an audience, at some very basic level - and it will even enhance their sense of immersion in the film overall as a result.

Let's just hope Jackson doesn't punt and cast Dakota Fanning in the role - I wouldn't expect anything of the sort. I predict AnnaSophia Robb might be a serious contender - but, so far, only Jackson and co. know what they're really thinking.

So, I don't think any of those criticisms fly. Do I have any of my own? One main one, really.

Sometimes, and thankfully not too often, the script feels a little too square-on-the-nose. It certainly isn't heavy handed, but there's not much required to see what they're getting at, and they still put in quite an effort to make sure you're up to speed. This is the sort of stuff pruned away in post-production, most of the time, as it proves obviously redundant. And if rehearsals go well, I wouldn't be surprised to see half a page or so, in a line-here and a line-there, evaporate before they even shoot.

As I was reading the script, one word kept coming to mind, over and over: Zemeckis. If there's one film that The Lovely Bones most resembles, it's possibly Contact. Clearly, there's a lot of difference between the two plots - but there is some carry-over. They both feature very personal heavens, for one thing. And the flashback scene in Contact in which David Morse dies and leaves a constellation of popcorn? That's very similar to some of Susie's chases through heaven (in fact, cross that scene in Contact with the chase through Malkovich's subconsious that Spike Jonze stole from Michel Gondry's Smirnoff ad and you're probably halfway to imagining the finished item already). The most salient comparisons are less narrative, however, and much more subtle, and mainly formal.

Contact aside, the main reason I kept thinking of Zemeckis is because this script reads like the kind of film he excels at. There's a rich vein of thematic material, some shocking scenes, a very sly, subtle sense of humour and some great characters for the cast to get their teeth into - and there's a truly unfettered, wildly creative visual design to several sequences that requires cutting edge visual effects and digital image technology. Wait until you see the scene with Mr. Harvey in his bathroom, washcloth over his face. It's pure Zemeckis - if perhaps a little more cruelly nightmarish than most of his sequences.

There's quite a lot in The Lovely Bones that is violent and disturbing (as there should be for a film about the rape and murder of a 14-year old girl), and it is sometimes portrayed graphically, sometimes simply implied - animals being killed, their corpses being dismembered; Susie's murder, of course; a very gory-sounding fantasy sequence of her father avenging her death against her killer, Mr. Harvey; several moments of real danger and jeopardy, including Susie's sister at risk of the same fate as Susie. I think a few viewers might find this sits a little uncomfortably with them - films about little girls shouldn't contain images like these, should they? That's what the hordes boringly roared about Tideland, if you remember. Personally, I think a film about child murder simply has to contain scenes that are shocking and affecting, that it would be irresponsible to take the sharp corners and hard edges off of this subject matter.

Jackson is a great director, and if he can keep a tight hold on the reins, this is going to be one of his best, a genuine classic. As this is the man who kept an iron grip on nine units for Rings, I think we're safe.

Finally, I think it's worth noting that while Heavenly Creatures is the number one point of comparison in all discussions of The Lovely Bones, The Frighteners crosses over plenty too (a film, incidentally, produced by Robert Zemeckis). Both deal with how the dead posess the living (figuratively, and for brief moments literally), both deal with small communities gripped by grief, both deal with characters in the afterlife, both deal with terrible murderers, both deal with terrifying chases through nightmare worlds. And, counting this one script review for Bones, both have been rather unfairly maligned.

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