Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Lovely Bones: Is it Really a Big Deal?

Since the movie has just been released, I figured it was a good time to review the book because of all the hype. Let’s face it, these days they turn many novels into movies because there are so many dull screenplays out there. Are you buying into that idea? Because here’s something closer to the real truth behind it all; there are plenty of good screenplays roaming around Hollywood. Well, maybe not plenty, but a good handful at least.

The reason most producers and directors usually don’t attach themselves to a particular film project is that a screenplay alone has little merit. (Ouch! Sorry new screenwriters.) That is to say, that a screenplay has not proven itself to be a money-maker, a bestseller like a novel might have already done in the marketplace. The formula is simple: bestselling novels equal blockbuster movies. End of equation. If a novel is successful then its counterpart, a movie by the same title will also be a smash hit, and it usually is.

Which makes me wonder why more screenwriters don’t first learn to write novels instead. (laughter here) Like Michael Blake did with Dances with Wolves, for example. The fact is that very few writers can master both art forms as convincingly as Blake has. Although, the success of his wonderful novel, in this case depended largely with the success of the movie first. Go figure. You get the idea. Sometimes it takes both the movie and its novel, or vice versa to make either one a raving success. Oh, the madness of it all! But here’s a consolation to aspiring screenwriters: you only need 120 pages as opposed to about 350 for a novel. Hmm…there must be a catch. (You better believe it.)

The fact remains, producers don’t take any chances with their 50 million dollar film projects, and why should they, when there are plenty of successful novels already on the bestseller list that prove a film version (a good screenplay) can and usually will succeed.

Okay, enough of that. Let’s get to this incredible book. And let me say that as soon as the book came out, it was already known, by all those who needed to know, that it would be a bestseller and the movie rights were sold to DreamWorks two years before the book was even released. Now that’s good buzz folks, and this story deserves it because the author earned it. Yes, Alice Sebold earned her place as a bestselling writer in the world of American Literature, and she also earned a nice paycheck to go with it--her first novel. Her first book, was a memoir titled Lucky, which dealt with her real life rape experience, and which paved the way for The Lovely Bones ten years later. So it’s safe to say that some of the details in the novel may be true to life. Details that the movie left out, in fact.

Okay, as a graphic designer, I always take note of book jackets and this one intrigued me right away. First of all, since the story’s protagonist is only 14, the jacket appeals to young women, who make up about 85% of the reading and book-buying market anyway. The graphic, integral to this storyline, is a charm bracelet in the form a halo, floating over a baby-blue sky above the provocative title. Oh, how simple. How curious. Yes, of course it works. Why shouldn’t it? It hits all the right hot buttons.

In my case, since I am such a male, bestowed with tons of testosterone, I balked at the whole idea, except for the title, which stopped me cold. The Lovely Bones covers all the bases as far as its appeal to both men and women. Can you think of a better contradiction than the word “lovely” (for women) and “bones” (for men)? Which market do you think the show BONES is written for? Thank you.

This title is poetic and garish, all in one breath. Brilliant. But more importantly, the idea behind the title, its sentiments are echoed at the end of the story, which ties everything together beautifully.

Another selling point for this book was the shocking opening scenes. It has plenty of shock value. A dead girl telling the story of her own gruesome murder? Why not? But this was no ordinary murder. First, it was a brutal rape, then a cold-blooded murder, and finally, a hideous dismembering in bits and pieces. This is hard-hitting stuff folks. Gets you deep in your gut. It’s an opening that shakes you and rivets you to the entire story. Suddenly, you must read every word. The idea, the great (high) concept compels you to. Ironically, it is those same grizzly details that make producers and directors think twice about investing in such a morbid story like this. After all, viewers and readers alike are already bombarded with plenty of it on the evening news and in the newspapers and gossip tabloids. Who needs more?

The twist with this story, however, is that the book, for the most part focuses on finding this killer and bringing him to sweet justice, while at the same time we experience the family’s grief through the eyes of their murdered daughter. And let me say that this concept is not entirely unique, (Remember GHOST, with Patrick Swayze?) but I think the author’s style brought something very unique and fresh to this story and that was its saving grace, as it were. Like they say in Hollywood. “We like the same old stories, but in different flavors, please.”

Furthermore, Sebold indulges in another literary device that she handles superbly, tragedy and comedy. (You know, like those two theatrical faces I can’t stand.) This is classic theatre on the written page, and it just doesn’t get any better than this. Sebold is a master at juxtaposing both the tragic and the comic by referring to Susie’s na├»ve use of words such as “neato” and by embarrassing Susie by exposing her silly family stories. Yet it is these very same stories that tickle the reader’s sensibilities in a bizarre way. Right in the middle of a murder scene, no less.

What more can we ask for? It’s the kind of story readers look for. But not so fast, because the book and the movie both opened to mixed reviews in their own time. What was the problem? Well, for starters, the movie was rated PG, which meant a wider audience (more profits) of young adults, many, which were without a doubt to be protected by their doting parents about repulsive matters such as rape, murder and dismemberment. Talk about misplaced concerns folks. Don’t worry, your children already know about it. They probably learned it during their first grade years, so why sweat it now? It’s too late.

Okay, so why all the controversy? Oh right, heaven was a middle-ground, an in-between place that enraged theologians to no end. “You mean that’s what heaven is really like?” they asked. Sounds to me like they were searching for alternative answers about heaven and they didn’t agree with Sebold’s take. How lame is that?

And so, the list goes on. Some critics thought the ending was too tidy and sappy. Maybe too simplistic, while others saw it as fine literature in the capable hands of an emerging writer.

As with all opinions, they are subjective and every reader will have their own interpretation and views on the book and the movie, and they would all be right.

Whatever you think, whether you are in favor, or against this story, one thing is certain: this story has all the hallmarks of a classic tale, whether you like it or not, and I’m sure that Alice Sebold is very happy with its outcome in more ways than one.

So yes, it is a big deal. Worth millions to Sebold, and worth an initial $70 million to DreamWorks, and counting.

For Screenwriters: Here's your chance to see the difference between a First Draft, a shooting script and a Final Cut version of a script. Also, Filmmaker's Commentaries.

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