When the first reviews of Peter Jackson's The Lovely Bones filtered through recently, they confirmed what many had suspected. "A significant artistic disappointment," said Variety's Todd McCarthy, who claimed the obsession with visual effects that did so well for Jackson on his Lord of the Rings trilogy "mortally wounds" this adaptation of Alice Sebold's bestseller. Rival trade paper The Hollywood Reporter, while conceding the film works as a "melodrama-cum-revenge thriller", said it "misses the joy and heartbreak of the original".
Negative comments, though, have surrounded the film ever since Jackson released a key still last summer. The shot concerned the film's protagonist, 14-year-old Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan), who begins the film having been raped and murdered by a nearby neighbour and now watches over her distraught family from what might be perceived as "Heaven". With the girl dressed in yellow trousers and a navy anorak and surrounded by fluffy clouds, it hardly inspired confidence in what was already a long-delayed project.
As one fan, going by the name of Boredbluekoala, wrote on the film magazine Empire's website forum, "As for Heaven, yawn. Doesn't look any different in that shot from any other depiction of religious fantasy. Jackson is now Kubrick, taking far far far too long to produce a pic that shoulda been released ages ago. It will flop." It's certainly a concern for Paramount and DreamWorks, the studios behind the $65m production, who pushed back the release date from last March to this winter. The film now arrives more than two years on from when it rolled before the cameras, the official line being that it was held back for the awards season – a fair gamble, given that Jackson was a multiple Oscar-winner for The Lord of the Rings.
Still, if the film does flop as the early reviews hint, it'll be no surprise, given this has been one of the more tortured productions of Jackson's career. Indeed, the story doesn't even start with him but with the Scottish director Lynne Ramsay, who was set to follow up her last film, 2002's critically hailed Morvern Callar, by adapting Sebold's novel. Though Sebold's book was published the same year that Morvern Callar was released, the rights to it had already been purchased by Film4 Productions as a half-complete manuscript two years earlier. Certainly, the combination of Ramsay's melancholia with Sebold's sensibilities seemed like a match made in, well, heaven.
With Ramsay set to adapt the novel with Liana Dognini, her co-writer on Morvern Callar, all seemed good – until the director got cold feet. As she said back in 2005, "The bottom line was that the book came out and became a massive bestseller. And it was also such a well-loved book that I didn't want everyone talking about the difference between the book and the film." Certainly, it seemed like the project had outgrown Ramsay, who confessed to being nervous about making the leap to shooting in the US (the book, set in 1973, takes place in Pennsylvania).
In the end, Ramsay left in 2004 and went on to tackle Lionel Shriver's equally controversial novel We Need to Talk about Kevin, which now finally looks set to roll before the cameras. By this point, however, Jackson had expressed an interest in The Lovely Bones. Dipping into his own pocket, he acquired the rights from Film4 Productions (which by now had been folded into its parent company Channel 4) as a follow-up his 2005 remake of King Kong. Commentators immediately saw this as a means for Jackson to return to a smaller, pre-Rings canvas, the one that previously worked so well for Heavenly Creatures, his 1994 film starring Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey as girls who conspire to commit matricide.
With no studio peering over his shoulders, Jackson found his own slice of heaven as he and his two co-writers on Rings and King Kong – his wife, Fran Walsh, and the playwright Philippa Boyens – set about adapting Sebold's book in 2006. As Jackson told USA Today recently, it was the unique nature of Sebold's work that first appealed. "I felt that it was subject matter not often dealt with in film, and with a tone that is also rare. Losing loved ones is something we all have to deal with, and when that story is partly told from the loved one's point of view, it becomes quite interesting – especially with Susie's sense of humour."
Evidently, casting Susie correctly was the key to unlocking the project – and Jackson lucked out with the arrival of the Irish-raised Ronan, who came to prominence in 2007 for her Oscar-nominated performance in Atonement. Jackson recently claimed the actress reminds him of a young Cate Blanchett – and there's no doubt Ronan is an ideal choice to play Susie. More problematic, however, proved to be the original choice for her father, insurance salesman Jack, who becomes obsessed with incriminating Susie's killer. Fresh from his Oscar-nominated performance in Half Nelson, Ryan Gosling was cast – until he left the project due to that age-old Hollywood euphemism "creative differences".
Reports immediately surfaced that Gosling was "too demanding" and was fired by Jackson. Others claimed the actor was shelved because he arrived on set having taken the executive decision to pile on the pounds to play the role. Gosling moved swiftly to quell any rumours that he and Jackson had fallen out, claiming he felt he was too young – he was then 26 – to play the part. "The age of the character versus my real age was always a concern of mine," he told Parade magazine. "Peter and I tried to make it work and ultimately it just didn't... Peter Jackson is an incredible film-maker and I'm here to tell you that he has things up his sleeve that are going to blow peoples' minds. I'm going to be the first person in line to buy tickets."
Certainly, it would not be the first time Jackson misjudged his casting. Originally, the valiant Aragorn in Rings was to be played by the Irish actor Stuart Townsend, but after it was quickly realised that he was too young to play the part, he was replaced by the Danish-born Viggo Mortensen. If that turned out to be a brilliant stroke of good fortune, Gosling's replacement in Bones, Mark Wahlberg, almost seemed like an emergency choice. While he is 10 years older than Gosling, so obviously the right age for the project, his recent performances in films such as The Happening and Max Payne suggest he was hardly the man to handle the film's strong emotional content.
Others in the cast – which includes Rachel Weisz as Susie's mother, Abigail – also expressed doubts about the direction Jackson was going in. Cast as Susie's grandmother Lynn, Susan Sarandon told me last summer: "Probably in the spectrum of exaggerated characters, she's definitely at the end. I'm drunk and smoking and have too much hair. She's completely over-the-top and then she falls apart as the family falls apart." She admitted that Jackson kept pushing her to be more and more extreme, "and sometimes that's when you make your big mistakes".
While it's been stringently denied by all concerned, rumours also circulated that the production had been temporarily shut down due to a rift between Jackson and his art department, headed by Jules Cook and Chris Shriver, regarding the way the "Heaven" sequences should look.
Jackson has always claimed the chief challenge of adapting the book was finding a way to depict these scenes, so they seemed "ethereal and emotional but not hokey". With the film in post- production for more than a year, and with his FX house Weta working overtime to reproduce this vision, it's little wonder that Jackson has described The Lovely Bones as "the hardest film I've ever made".
Jackson has been at great pains to claim that the film does not set out to depict a traditional image of the afterlife. "We certainly have no intention of using this movie to paint a definitive picture of what Heaven is like, and who resides there." Indeed, as the book unfolds, it becomes apparent that Susie is not even in Heaven – but what Sebold dubs the "In-Between", a sort of personal purgatory that seems to be ruled by her unconscious desires, reflecting her moods and state of mind. Still, issuing a picture for advanced publicity purposes that rather fits most people's stereotypical view of Heaven was probably not the wisest idea.
Now prepping the second in a trilogy of proposed 3-D motion-capture films based around Hergé's much-loved comic-book character Tintin (Steven Spielberg is currently shooting the first), it seems that Jackson's return to smaller-scale films is but a brief diversion. Certainly, the blogger who compared him to Kubrick got it wrong. What with this, and executive producing/co-writing The Hobbit, his Rings prequel to be directed by Guillermo Del Toro, Jackson is busier than ever – unlike Kubrick, who became notorious for the infrequency of his output.
The question remains, will The Lovely Bones emerge as an oddity in Jackson's post-Rings career? A director increasingly addicted to grand spectacle, whether in his own work or the films he produces for others – the most recent example of which was Neill Blomkamp's innovative thriller District 9 – he may never make a genuinely small-scale film again. Like his Tintin partner, Spielberg, whose films became more grandiose after Jaws sent his career into orbit, Jackson is in danger of becoming a showman rather than a storyteller.
The Lovely Bones opens on 5 February