I don’t know if The Lovely Bones is a lovely film or not. I haven’t seen it and this is not a review of it. It has however, an intriguing subject: a young girl is murdered; in the film she spends most of her time in “the In-Between” telling us what happened and watching the world go on without her. “The In-Between” is of course an imaginative reading of what many of us call Purgatory and in many ways a large part of the theme might be seen as being what Purgatory is all about. The film is based on a very popular novel by Alice Sebold.
But what is more intriguing than the film itself is the bewilderment of some of its critics. It has to be said that it has had a very mediocre critical reception at the higher end of its range and a very negative response from a few eminent critics. Most bewildered of all and very hostile was Roger Ebert of The Chicago Sun Times. The film is probably fairly muddled and I think that it does not match a vision of Purgatory which most of us would find theologically credible. However, it does take for granted that such a state of being exists. What is intriguing about Ebert’s review is the vehemence with which he attacks the film, not so much on artistic grounds, but fundamentally on ideological grounds. The view that Purgatory – or Heaven and an afterlife for that matter – should even exist seems to be what offends him most. Reaction to the film seemed yet again to reveal that great divide – seen in other instances in the reaction to any number of other films in the recent past which seriously, either explicitly or implicitly, allegorically or otherwise, reveal a belief in the supernatural. We might think of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, the Narnia films, and even The Lord of the Rings – made by the same director who has made this film, Peter Jackson.
Undoubtedly the subject-matter of the film is tricky – a young girl brutally murdered by a pervert, narrating her story from beyond the grave, watching the anguish and near-disintegration of her family in the aftermath of her disappearance. The film accepts death as a reality and the afterlife as a reality as well. This is clearly what Ebert and others do not accept. “The Lovely Bones”, he says, “is a deplorable film with this message: If you’re a 14-year-old girl who has been brutally raped (in fact, while this is part of the novel is not part of the narrative in the film – my parenthesis) and murdered by a serial killer, you have a lot to look forward to. You can get together in heaven with the other teenage victims of the same killer, and gaze down in benevolence upon your family members as they mourn you and realize what a wonderful person you were. Sure, you miss your friends, but your fellow fatalities come dancing to greet you in a meadow of wildflowers, and how cool is that?” Alright, he might have a point if this was the extent of his problem. But it is not. It is not that the film has done a fairly mediocre job with its chosen theme. It seems to be the whole premise of the film itself.
The makers of this film, he complains, seem to have given “slight thought to the psychology of teenage girls”. Perhaps, but he does not elaborate on his own take on teenage girls, so we are not sure what his problem is here. He goes on to come closer to his main gripe: that the makers of the film do not address “the possibility that there is no heaven”.
“The murder of a young person is a tragedy,” he continues. Of course it is, but tragedy is an overused word and death is not the end of anyone’s world. “The murderer is a monster”, he states. Not true, in any real sense. Murderers are human beings, bad but still human like any of us, even Roger Ebert. He goes on to object that this movie sells the philosophy that “even evil things are God’s will, and their victims are happier now. Isn’t it nice to think so. I think it’s best if they don’t happen at all. But if they do, why pretend they don’t hurt? Those girls are dead.” Susie, the heroine was not the murderer’s only victim. Here he is seriously misreading the story and failing to understand the power of God to draw good from the violence human beings inflict on their fellow human beings. One senses that Ebert probably cannot make much sense of the sacrifices of the early Christian martyrs.
In judging whether or not Peter Jackson hits the nail on the head – or otherwise – in tackling the themes of this book in his film we will have to wait until we see The Lovely Bones when it comes out on DVD later this month (April). But regardless of its artistic merits as a movie, it seems to have touched that raw nerve in Roger Ebert which he shares with all those others in our culture who can no longer tolerate a vision of life after death and all the happiness which it will entail, we hope, regardless of the manner in which we leave this one.