I’ve been really looking forward to seeing The Lovely Bones, which is a movie adaptation of Alice Sebold’s book of the same title, and deals with the rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl and the aftermath of her family’s trauma. In the story, Susie Salmon ends up in “the in-between”, not-quite-in-heaven, not-quite-on-earth, torn between wanting her family to seek vengeance on her behalf and wanting to help them heal. I know, given the topic, many would shy away from something so heavy. But it’s an important story because it comes from something very real and something very true.
Those who haven’t read the Sebold’s book should know it is a powerful testimonial to not only horror and trauma, but also to hope, love and healing. I came to it after reading Sebold’s memoir, Lucky, in which she recounts her own rape and its aftermath. They are heavy subjects, and any critiques I’ve seen of any of Sebold’s work reflects more the critics discomfort in facing the topic than anything else because Sebold is so bluntly honest about it.
Now, I should say, I go into movies never expecting them to be like the books because film is just inherently a different media. I enjoy the Harry Potter movies, for example, in simply a different way than the books. But I would never say they’re a substitute for the books. So I was fully prepared for the movie to not be like how I envisioned the book.
However, for a movie about such an intense subject, Peter Jackson’s adaptation left me thoroughly bored a lot of the time. The reason was because he spent about half the movie “in the in-between”. I think he got so flipping excited (“Oh-looky-here-we-can-make-HEAVEN! Isn’t it pretty?!”) about the cinematography he spent way too much time playing around with the visual effects of the ethereal world and totally forgot about what was supposed to be happening back down on Earth. And while that world is pretty, almost none of what was important about the book happens in that world. I felt like I was staring at a Lisa Frank folder for about an hour. Don’t get me wrong. I loved Lisa Frank when I was a kid…but I’m no longer eight.
What is really important is what happens to Susie Salmon’s family and friends: the people left behind when she dies. It’s important because it reveals a lot of what Sebold experienced when she was raped and (metaphorically) dies for awhile. There’s the need for revenge, the feeling that her mother betrayed her by not being who she needed her to be, the siblings who lose parts of their own identity, and the frustration that people whose lives have not been touched by that particular kind of trauma don’t know how to behave and respond around the victim. Almost all (not all, but almost) of that has been lost to “pretty land”. And so, I’m disappointed. Jackson’s movie is somehow just part horror and part eye candy, with very little of what happens in between; ironic given how much time he spends in the in-between. (And incidentally, the movie doesn’t even allude at all to what happened to her before her murder. Not that he needed to show it, of course, but an oblique reference would have sufficed. But as it stands, unless you’re familiar with the book, you can pretend half of the horror never happened.)
It is sad because it is the in between parts that are important. In an interview with NPR’s Terry Gross, Alice Sebold once said, “I’d written an article for the New York Times Magazine about rape and had been quoted in a book called Trauma and Recovery, which is an excellent book, and I bought it because I’d been such a miserable failure as a writer in my twenties that it was one of the few places I had appeared in print. And on the subway home with the book I realized that I was quoted in the first half, which was called “Trauma”, instead of the second half, which is called “Recovery”, and that strangely inspired me to read the whole book. By the time I got to the end of the book, I realized that I had post-traumatic stress disorder and went from there.” She goes on to say it was a full ten years after the rape before she was able to face it and deal with the clear memories of it. And so her memoir and this book are her contributions and testimonials to the half that is “Recovery”. Jackson’s portrayal makes recovery seem like candy land, without any of the process that gets you through it. But it’s the process that makes the difference between a “victim” and a “survivor”.
I’m making a big stink about this not because I want Jackson to delve more deeply through some morbid fascination, but because I want the silencer ripped off the barrel of the gun. Though the subject is often taboo, we need to talk openly about trauma, so we can understand it and support those who suffer from it.
“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends”…”Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.