Does ''The Lovely Bones'' lose something in the adaptation? -- Peter Jackson gets flak for not showing a girl's death on screen

By Jeff Giles
December 11, 2009 at 05:00 AM EST

In the end, they couldn’t bear to watch the girl die. Director Peter Jackson and his co-writers had planned to dramatize the horrific scene that hits so early and so hard in Alice Sebold’s novel The Lovely Bones — the one where 14-year-old Susie Salmon is walking home across a dark cornfield when she’s stopped by a chatty neighbor, lured into a cavern under the earth, raped, and murdered. But even when the filmmakers tried sketching the scene on a computer, it struck a disastrous chord. ”We literally had crew walking out, it was so horrible,” says writer and co-producer Fran Walsh. ”When you read something in a book, you can choose to visualize it as much or as little as you want. It’s very different when it’s 50 feet wide in a cinema. And beyond that, we had no desire to do that to our young lead actress.”

Some critics have slammed Jackson’s adaptation of The Lovely Bones for not stating that Susie (Saoirse Ronan) gets raped and for letting her die off screen, making it the rare Hollywood movie that apparently isn’t violent enough. ”Gone is the dismembered body part that alerts the family to Susie’s fate,” lamented the British paper the Guardian. (EW’s review is here.) But the filmmakers see only upside. Not putting the murder on screen ensured that The Lovely Bones got a PG-13 rating, which means that girls like Susie — or Jackson and Walsh’s own teenage daughter — could see it. It also allowed their movie to emphasize life, family, and the process of mourning, not victimhood and death.

”We’re not denying that all that occurred,” says Jackson, who co-wrote the script with Walsh and Philippa Boyens. ”It’s just that showing it didn’t feel right for our take on the story.” Depicting a sexual assault on a child, Jackson knew, could have overshadowed the entire movie, as was the case with 2008’s Hounddog, which was glibly dubbed ”The Dakota Fanning Rape Movie.” Horrible as it is to admit, it also might have entertained some members of the audience: ”There’s a tiny proportion of people out there who enjoy watching that sort of thing,” says Jackson. ”We felt pretty morally conflicted about the whole thing.”

Ultimately, they’re proud of where the focus of their film lies. As Boyens says, ”You go through this incredible journey and it’s heartbreaking, but you’re left in the end with love. It’s a love story for Susie’s family.”
With additional reporting by Missy Schwartz