Director Peter Jackson © DreamWorks Studios
Director Peter Jackson © DreamWorks Studios

Following his epic The Lord of the Rings trilogy and King Kong, Peter Jackson now brings Alice Sebold’s best-selling novel to the screen.

The movie tells the chilling story of 14-year-old Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan) who is murdered in December 1973 by a neighbor, George Harvey (Stanley Tucci). Trapped in a mysterious afterlife, Susie must break the hold that Harvey has on her so that she can move on.

Jackson spoke to us about adapting and directing this popular novel.

What were the challenges of adapting this? What did you have to leave out?

Actress Saoirse Ronan and director Peter © DreamWorks Studios
Actress Saoirse Ronan and director Peter © DreamWorks Studios

In my mind, there’s no such thing as a perfect adaptation of a book. The master work is the book. Alice Sebold’s novel is The Lovely Bones. That is the work that has got everything in it, every character, every subplot and that’s the way that you should experience the story in its most pure form.

A film adaptation of any book is only ever going to be a souvenir. It’s going to be an impression of aspects of the book. To me, to adapt a book is not a question of producing a carbon copy of the book. It’s impossible.

To include everything, the film would be five or six hours long. Phillipa (Boyens), Fran (Walsh) and I responded to aspects of the book, especially emotional themes, the comforting value of the book and things it had to say about the afterlife and that aspect of it, which is very personal to anybody. .

Why was the choice made to give Mr Harvey those peculiar contact lenses? Was it to make him seem inhuman?

I’ve done a lot of movies with contact lenses in actors’ eyes. To me, they change the color of your eye. If there’s something that’s going on with the character’s eyes, it’s because of the performance.

As a film maker, I like shooting extreme close-ups of some characters occasionally because that is a technique that you use to really get inside of somebody’s head. Stanley (Tucci) was playing a very dangerous and frightening character, so getting close to his eyes were a way of increasing the menace because Stanley’s performance was giving that to us.

What were your reasons for choosing to eliminate the rape part of Susie’s murder that was in the book?

Poster artwork © DreamWorks Studios
Poster artwork © DreamWorks Studios

The film is about a teenager and her experiences of what happens. She’s murdered, she goes into an afterlife experience, her in-between, and we wanted to make a film that teenagers could watch. Fran and I have a daughter who’s very similar to Susie’s age. We wanted Katie to be able to see this film.

So it was important for us to not go into an R-rated territory at all. Also, I never regarded the movie as being a film about a murder. Yet if we shot any aspect of that particular sequence in any way, then it would stigmatize the film. Movies are such a powerful medium with the music, the effects, the performances, the editing, the lighting and camerawork, that to show a 14-year-old girl being murdered in any way, no matter how briefly, it would completely swing the balance of the movie and it would frankly make it a film that I wouldn’t want to watch.

Every movie that I make is a film that I want to see. The movie that we did make was almost like a crime mystery of what happens when you’re in this world of the subconscious, the world of the afterlife and Susie has to deal with the mystery of what happened to her. There’s a positive aspect to it in the sense that she’s immortal and saying there is no such thing as death. All of those aspects and themes were what interested us.

What did you discover about people’s need to believe in an afterlife?

Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan) © DreamWorks Studios
Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan) © DreamWorks Studios

It’s an interesting question and it’s one that I think everyone has obviously there own points-of-view about it. What we felt very strongly with the movie is that we didn’t want to make a film that cast judgment on people’s religious beliefs, because that wasn’t at all the motivation for making the movie. We didn’t create the in-between being Susie’s subconscious for that reason.

To us it wasn’t about her existing in a world that had some form of religious control around it. It was literally she is disconnected from her body for that period and she is in this weird hallucinogenic state.

What is your personal belief?

I personally think that there is some energy that we have inside us. I have experienced a couple of people that have been very close to me dying and I’ve been there, and I’ve held their hand. There is a feeling that when somebody passes on, that they leave.

There’s a sense of departure that’s very, very strong and it’s so strong that it has made me believe in the fact that there is a form of energy inside us that continues to survive after death. Science, physics tells us that energy cannot be destroyed so it has to go somewhere. It doesn’t evaporate.

How much fun are you having with the second Hobbit script, making it up?

The second Hobbit script is still based on The Hobbit novel. The Hobbit novel is in two parts.

Have you found a middle point?

Yeah, yeah, we have but you’ll have to wait and see the film to find out.

Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter.