Film Adaptations of Young Adult Literature: The Lovely Bones

by Alice Sebold

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Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1888

The Book

Author: Alice Sebold (b. 1963)

First published: 2002

The Film

Director: Peter Jackson (b. 1961)

Screenplay by: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson

Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Rachel Weisz, Saoirse Ronan, Susan Sarandon, Stanley Tucci


After the revival of young adult literature in the 1990s, the genre has grown more popular and lucrative in the twenty-first century. Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones was published in 2002, at the beginning of the booming decade in young adult literature when the Harry Potter books and film series were at their height, fantasy was becoming the best-selling genre for young adults, and realist authors like John Green were also rising in popularity. The novel and film versions of The Lovely Bones are difficult to place within a single subgenre, as there are elements of many different subgenres present in the story line, from realism to romance, mystery, thriller, and fantasy.

For Sebold, The Lovely Bones was her second novel, following Lucky (1999), a critically and commercially successful memoir recounting the author's experiences after being raped in her first year of college. Perhaps because of the personal proximity of these themes, rape and violence hold a high importance in Sebold's writing. The Lovely Bones is narrated by Susie Salmon, a fourteen-year-old girl who is raped and murdered. However, the story is not so much about the events themselves as it is about overcoming and moving past them.

The themes of trauma and dealing with emotional distress became popular in the 1990s through works such as Junk (1996) by Melvin Burgess, Dear Miffy (1997) by John Marsden, and Care Factor Zero (1997) by Margaret Clark, which deal with confronting and overcoming issues such as anorexia, depression, and addiction. The popularity of the theme has continued with works such as Jay Asher's Thirteen Reasons Why (2007), a novel about one student coming to understand why another classmate committed suicide, and Green's The Fault in Our Stars (2012), about teens dealing with the diagnosis of terminal cancer.

The Lovely Bones stands out because it is narrated by a girl who has died and observes life continuing on after her death from her own personal heaven. This fantasy element of the plot is an angle that fits well into director Peter Jackson's body of work. Jackson began his career with films such as The Frighteners (1996) and Dead Alive (1992), imaginative and creative works meant to be funny and scary; they were considered highly creative. His reputation for cinematic vision was secured by the time he started working on The Lovely Bones due to his work on such international fantasy blockbusters as the Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001–3) and King Kong (2005).

Film Analysis

The film and the novel begin with the same scene. Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan) describes a snow globe she remembers from her youth. In the snow globe is a small penguin, which she was worried was trapped inside, but her father (Mark Wahlberg) told her the penguin was safe because it was “trapped in a perfect world,” foreshadowing Susie's stay in her personal heaven while dealing with her own death. Susie then introduces herself, explaining what she was like when she was alive and when she died. From this point, the narrative arcs of the novel and film begin to separate. While they address much of the same basic subject matter, the film tells the story in chronological order, while the novel jumps back and forth between Susie's heaven, her memories of the past, and events unfolding after her death.

The film recounts major events from Susie's childhood, piecing together the story of who she is until she reaches the age of fourteen. While the effect of nostalgia is present in both the novel and film from the start, the emotion is presented on two different levels. In the novel, Susie's tone is nostalgic because she misses being alive. On the other hand, since the narrative of the film is chronological, the nostalgia is presented more as a general mood of the 1970s and childhood in general than from the perspective of the narrator.

The technique of telling the story as an almost singularly chronological narration creates a very different effect for the film audience than the book does for the reader. While there is mystery and suspense, drawing both the readers and the audience in immediately to find out why Susie was murdered, the film also utilizes cinematic techniques related to mystery and suspense genres. Susie does not refer to her murderer by name, nor does the camera show the face of George Harvey (Stanley Tucci) until the scene in which she is murdered. In this way, the film follows more traditional suspense film techniques in order to create tension for the audience. Even after the murder, the film continues chronologically and keeps information from the audience in order to increase the sense of anticipation. The location of Susie's body, for example, is not revealed until the end, although clues are given throughout the film. By presenting the story line in this fashion, the film does ultimately focus less on the theme of overcoming trauma until the final scenes.

The reasoning behind emphasizing more popular cinematic genre conventions may be the same reason that the film never mentions Susie's rape, while the book refers to the event directly many times. With a budget of $65 million, the film needed to be marketed toward a very large audience. By pushing some of the less conventional aspects of the book into the background, Peter Jackson was hoping for reception by a larger audience. This may also be the reason for the tighter chronological narrative. While the book continues on, stretching out nearly ten years after the murder, the perspective of the film goes little beyond two years into the future, with the exception of the very end, as it shows how everyone's life has continued after Susie's death. In the portrayal of all of the main characters' lives years later, the film realigns with the book. After observing the lives of everyone important in her life, Susie is able to deal with her own death, perhaps fully coming to a climax when her murderer is killed in an accidental fall.

Similar in spirit and theme, under the direction of Peter Jackson, the film departs radically from the novel in the depiction of Susie's personal heaven. Sebold refers to the perfection of the world that Susie lives in throughout the novel but does not go into detailed descriptions of the heaven, with the exception of key objects like Susie's gazebo or the olive tree shown to Susie by her companion, Franny. On the other hand, Jackson creates a world of computer-generated imagery that is both wonderful and terrifying. In the film, Susie's heaven is not simply an idealized version of Earth. It comes alive with visually stunning scenes that sometimes heighten the natural beauty found on Earth and at other times take the imagery to surreal heights of imagination. For example, in a scene in which Susie's father destroys all the ships in a bottle that he built with Susie, smashing them against the walls, desk, and floor of his study, Susie's world transforms into a beach where enormous ships in bottles drift in from the sea and dash themselves against the rocks of the shore around her. In another scene, the leaves of the olive tree fly off the branches like a swarm of insects, flying briefly in the air before returning and settling back upon the branches.

Jackson does not allow Susie's heaven to just be perfect either. To convey the psychological impact of the horrible death that she had to endure, the film includes moments of terror. For example, after Susie dies, she finds herself at Harvey's house. She walks through a door and must endure the scene of her killer resting in a bathtub after the event, while mud, dried corn husks, and blood are smeared on the tiles. Similarly, near the end of the film, Harvey's safe begins to appear in different places in her heaven. Like many things in Susie's world, it is a symbol of something more. It is significant to both Susie and the audience because it is where (the audience discovers) Harvey put Susie's remains. When he finally dumps the safe into a sinkhole, the two worlds join for one last time, and Susie is able to see and do what she needs to on Earth in order to finally move beyond her heaven.


Commercially, the novel was a complete success, remaining on the New York Times best seller list for over a year and selling over one million copies in that time. The novel was also praised by critics in general, although it did garner some mixed reception due to its realistic and sensitive subject matter. Critics generally gave the film mixed reviews, usually noting the disjunction between the subject matter and the fantastic world of Susie's heaven. The film ultimately did not achieve the same commercial success as the novel. For some, the translation of Susie's nostalgic tone toward her own life into the nostalgic mood of the film was seen as a major flaw. Critics praised Jackson's beautiful vision of Susie's heaven, confirming his reputation as a director adept in visually stunning cinematography but condemned his failure to treat the subject matter with the appropriate tone.

The novel and the film marked the introduction of an untraditional mix of child and adult themes in the young adult genre. The inclusion of serious subjects, such as death, addiction, sex and sexuality, and even murder, were nothing new to the genre when the book was published in 2002. However, the genre traditionally focused on dealing with these issues. The focus was on young adults struggling with adult issues, but Sebold took her story one step further, and this step has not always been looked upon favorably by readers. By twisting traditional storytelling and making her protagonist both the victim of violence and the “survivor” having to work it through it, Sebold created a story for young adults that includes fantastic elements while overwhelmingly highlighting a very real trauma.

Further Reading

  • Bliss, Ann V. “‘Share Moments, Share Life’: The Domestic Photograph as a Symbol of Disruption and Trauma in The Lovely Bones.” Women's Studies 37.7 (2008): 861–84. Literary Reference Center. Web. 12 May 2015. <>.
  • Gurdon, Meghan Cox. “Darkness Too Visible.” Wall Street Journal. Dow Jones, 4 June 2011. Web. 12 May 2015. <>.


  • Alleva, Richard. “Restless Spirits.” Rev. of The Lovely Bones, dir. Peter Jackson, and A Single Man, dir. Tom Ford. Commonweal 12 Feb. 2010: 18–19. Literary Reference Center. Web. 12 May 2015. <>.
  • Belluci, Elizabeth. “Alice Sebold's ‘The Lovely Bones.’” Literary Contexts in Novels (2012): 1. Literary Reference Center. Web. 13 May 2015. <>.
  • Hodge, Diana. “Young Adult Fiction's Dark Themes Give the Hope to Cope.” Conversation. Conversation, 12 June 2014. Web. 12 May 2015. < adult-fictions-dark-themes-give-the-hope-to-cope-27335>.
  • Jackson, Peter. “Peter Jackson: ‘Lovely Bones’ Was Lovely to Make.” Interview by Scott Bowles. USA Today. USA Today, 19 Apr. 2009. Web. 12 May 2015. <>.

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