‘Wait a minute…was that in the book or the movie?’ Peter Jackson asks himself, then bursts out laughing. The 48-year-old director is musing aloud over the phone, and he’s momentarily forgotten where the derivation line ends regarding his latest project – a mostly faithful adaptation of Alice Sebold’s best-selling 2002 novel, The Lovely Bones – and its source material. ‘My God, it’s been so long that, to be honest, I get the specific details of each muddled.’
Strict word-for-word fidelity was never the goal when Jackson dug into Sebold’s dark thriller about a deceased teenage girl, who’s looking back on her cut-short life from beyond the grave. (‘I was 14 when I was murdered on December 6th, 1973,’ goes the second line of the book; it only gets bleaker from there). Some of the film’s tweaks are major, some slight, and some – such as the character’s spectral flight from the scene of the crime – open the tale in unexpectedly moving ways. ‘People may take issue with any changes, even the small ones,’ Jackson says. ‘But the more honest way to approach something like this is: I am a reader, and here’s what I got out of the book. Let’s capture the ways it affected me, rather than replicate every comma. That’s what we did with the Lord of the Rings films; that’s what we tried to do here.’
Probably the biggest challenge for Jackson was figuring out how to turn a beloved literary work with a purgatory-stranded protagonist into a watchable movie. ‘That was the challenge, wasn’t it?’ he says. ‘You don’t finish this powerful piece of fiction and say: well, here’s this beautifully structured narrative that will translate immediately into film. But to me, every movie is a puzzle to be solved. It wouldn’t be easy, but that’s half the fun.’ Given that The Lovely Bones offers the wide-eyed Susie (Atonement’s Saoirse Ronan) a grisly demise courtesy of the neighbourhood paedophile (Stanley Tucci, in über-creepy mode), and then toggles between her being lost in limbo and her grieving family, fun isn’t the first word that comes to mind. The film is completely original, however, especially in the hallucinogenic ‘in-between’ sequences of spooky, symbolic landscapes that make up a third of the film.
‘Peter would be yelling descriptions as we were doing the blue-screen shots,’ Ronan says, calling from Paramount’s New York offices. ‘“Okay, you’re walking along and you see a giant ship in a bottle.” I’d think: How’s he going to do that? Those images are amazing, but he never does them at the expense of the performances. He’d keep the camera going during tough emotional scenes simply so you wouldn’t have to constantly start from scratch. I miss working with him.’
Jackson sounds giddy as he describes the ‘map’ that he and his co-writers used in designing those computer-generated scenes, which involved a symbol legend based on extensive dream-analysis research.But he also emphasises that state-of-the-art visual effects are useless if they don’t serve the story. ‘Critics in particular treat CGI as a virus that’s infecting film,’ the director admits. ‘But as something that can help bring a script to life, it can be remarkably effective. You could conceivably portray an alternate universe dictated by a 14-year-old girl stuck between heaven and earth without special effects, I guess, but why not use every imaginative tool available to you?’
It’s doubtful that such tools will be left in the bag for Jackson’s next big adaptation: co-writing and producing the two-movie take of The Hobbit, to be directed by Guillermo del Toro. ‘The first film’s script is with Warner Bros,’ Jackson confirms. ‘And after we get back from promoting Bones, we expect to have the second film’s script done and start shooting next summer. I was worried about going back to Middle Earth after so long, to be honest, but it’s been great. I feel like things have somehow managed to work out exactly like they’re supposed to.’ He pauses. ‘Someone definitely seems to be watching over me.’
The Lovely Bones is scheduled for release in the UAE on February 25.