Exhuming ''The Lovely Bones'' -- Peter Jackson and co. adapt Alice Sebold's best-selling novel

In the last decade, Peter Jackson has written, directed, and produced four of the most ambitious epics in film history: the Lord of the Rings trilogy, followed by King Kong. By 2005, he was ready for a change. ”One of the enjoyments you get from making movies is always being outside your comfort zone — it’s the flirting with danger that is most interesting,” he says. ”And I did feel I was settling into a pattern with these blockbuster-y effects films. It was time to try something different.”

That something turned out to be The Lovely Bones. Based on Alice Sebold’s 2002 best-seller, the $65 million movie stars Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan (Atonement) as Susie Salmon, a 14-year-old girl in small-town Pennsylvania who is raped and murdered by a neighbor (Stanley Tucci) on her way home from school one day in 1973. From a heavenlike realm called the ”in between,” Susie watches as her father (Mark Wahlberg), mother (Rachel Weisz), grandmother (Susan Sarandon), and siblings grieve her death and attempt to find her killer. It’s a devastating premise — with the kind of emotional heft Jackson hasn’t explored on screen since 1994’s Heavenly Creatures. (As with that film, Bones has a strong fantasy element, this one rooted in the CGI-created ”in between.”) Yet the director and his longtime writing and producing partners Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh were determined that Bones would deliver more than unspeakable tragedy. ”Like the book, you go through this incredible journey, and it’s heartbreaking,” says Boyens. ”But you’re left, in the end, with love. It is a love story for Susie’s family.”

Sebold’s tender handling of death is what first piqued Boyens’ and Walsh’s interest in The Lovely Bones back in 2002, when they were still in the postproduction throes of The Two Towers. ”It’s rare to encounter a story that speaks to so many people,” says Walsh, who soon got Jackson (also her life partner) on board. The trio had already decided on King Kong as their first post-Rings project. But in January 2006, with Kong pounding its chest toward a $550 million worldwide gross, they dove into adapting Bones. Maintaining Susie’s blasts of humor was crucial to leavening the story’s tone. ”She’s a teenager, which is fantastic,” says Boyens. ”She’s like, ‘Everyone’s forgetting me! What’s going on?! It’s, like, so unfair!”’ Though the rape-and-murder scene in the book is quite disturbing, the filmmakers decided to shoot a PG-13 film in which the violence would merely be implied. That came as a relief to Tucci. ”I was very nervous,” says the actor. ”I can’t watch movies where anything happens to a kid.” Even more grateful was Ronan (who was just 13 when her audition tape wowed Jackson’s crew). ”We knew what the movie was about, and of course that rang alarm bells [with my parents],” says the actress, now 15. ”But we knew we were in safe hands.”

By fall 2007, cameras were ready to roll in Pennsylvania…until the production hit a major glitch: After rehearsing for weeks as Susie’s dad, Ryan Gosling dropped out. ”We take responsibility for that because we kept saying to Ryan, ‘No, no, it’ll be fine,’ when he said he was too young,” Jackson says. Eventually, everyone agreed no amount of makeup, weight gain, or facial hair could turn the then-26-year-old actor into a convincing father of three — especially one who’s supposed to be married to Weisz, who is 10 years his senior. So Jackson hired 38-year-old Wahlberg, confident that the real-life dad could convey the gravitas — and eccentricity — appropriate for the part of a grief-stricken man obsessed with bringing his daughter’s killer to justice. ”We liked that slightly nutty quality in Mark’s I Heart Huckabees performance,” Jackson explains. ”We obviously toned it down for The Lovely Bones, but we thought it was very endearing.”

When Bones lands in theaters this December, it will be nine months after its original planned release date. Convinced of the film’s Oscar potential after seeing an early cut, Paramount execs bumped the date to awards season. To Jackson, the extra time was a godsend: For the first time in years, he and his team have the luxury of tinkering in the edit room. ”We’ve been up against crazy deadlines through all Lord of the Rings and Kong,” says Jackson. ”So we’re delighted. We like handcrafting our movies. We don’t ever think they’re finished.” But they’ll turn this one over soon, right? Right? ”We’re still trying to cram in all the things we want to include,” admits Walsh. Adds Boyens, with a laugh, ”We’ll have to take it from Fran’s cold, dead fingers!”

The Lovely Bones
  • Movie
  • 136 minutes