Oh My Little Bird in a Cage: Observation and The Lovely Bones

Apropos of nothing, it occured to me while I was writing yesterday that the new novel starts off in much the same fashion as the last novel – a strong female character is kidnapped. I have to laugh – well, obviously Jonathan has something for women in peril, right? – but I also wondered if there was some other theme going on here. You know, some sort of hidden insight about my own psychology. Maybe something ugly. So I gave it some thought, and came to a few conclusions.

The good news is that I know for a fact that the third novel – the second “of the dead” book – doesn’t start like this, but there is a definite echo between the two. I tried to follow the idea to what seemed like a logical conclusion, that there’s some sexist issue that I haven’t worked out, but it rings false. In Corridors, the kidnapping is a wake-up call for Matty, a notice that she does have her own power of personal agency and sets her out against a world that’s determined to fit her into a certain mold. I realized that there are actually some echoes of the feminist struggle in there (and that’s 100% unintentional, believe it or not).

In Entanglements…well, some of the implications I’m not ready to go into yet, but Adshade’s tale is certainly a lot more complicated than a damsel in distress, but she’s constrained in many more ways than Matty. She does, after all, spend a good portion of the book either locked away in a cellar or suffering from severe Stockholm Syndrome (at least, apparently). In some ways, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that she was the shadow to Matty, the woman who actually finds herself trapped without as many options available to her, stuck in an overtly repressive situation as opposed to Matty’s mostly implied repression.

Reasoning it out and realizing that I’m working through some issues that are pretty close to my own heart made me both feel better about it using the trope twice and about my own emotional connection to the subject matter.

Moving on, the last week has been an interesting one. With the afore-mentioned house guest, we’ve ended up watching a lot of movies, at least by my standards. I seriously think that this may have been the most movie-heavy year for me in quite some time, but I’m actually enjoying it because it gives me a chance to perform analysis on a shorter time scale. Last night we picked The Lovely Bones from HBO GO on a total whim, as the fiancée had read the book and was curious to see how it was adapted.

The answer? Apparently not so well. Coming at it from the perspective of someone who hasn’t yet read the book, I had to question how something so uneven received such high praise. Turns out that the book wasn’t so uneven. But before I get into specifically analyzing the problems that I had, the plot, for those who aren’t familiar with it (courtesy of IMDB):

A 14-year-old girl in suburban 1970’s Pennsylvania is murdered by her neighbor. She tells the story from the place between Heaven and Earth, showing the lives of the people around her and how they have changed all while attempting to get someone to find her lost body.

The premise is a fascinating one, and reading that made me want to watch the film. The problem is that I think someone or some people on the production team didn’t quite grasp the tricky tonal issues that the concept introduces. Right up front I read that and I think someone is going to have to walk a fine line between being too depressing and too cheesy – too far in one direction and you’re just beating the reader/viewer over the head with a subject that’s already inherently very depressing. Too far in the other direction and you risk not giving the subject the gravity that it deserves. Tricky, but it can be done right by the right artist.

But, uh…well, like I said, I don’t think they grasped that. Or they did, and thought they could have their cake and eat it too, I don’t know. The tonal shifts are just downright bizarre. Take, for instance, one of the key moments in the story. Spoiler alert! Don’t go any farther if you don’t want to read a spoiler. All right, if you’re still with me. The murdered daughter’s sister has suspected the neighbor for awhile, and breaks into his house while he’s out. This leads to the typical scene wherein she discovers the evidence of what he’s done while he comes home and she’s unaware. I was already rolling my eyes at this because it’s so overdone, and of course the guy hears her upstairs and goes running after her. She escapes, etc. Big tense moment, even if it is a cliché.

Daughter runs home, desperate to show this evidence to her father…and discovers that her mother has returned home from her weird sabbatical (which I’m told makes a lot more sense in the book). So the building action is brought to a crashing halt while we have this tender, touching moment of the father and mother reuniting. I literally threw my hands up in the air. Oh, and this reunion is intercut with scenes of the killer packing to run away, to make the tonal differences even more stark and bizarre. Seriously, what were they thinking?

It’s hardly an isolated incident, either. The father starts catching on to what’s going on with the killer earlier in the film, and it’s cut together with shots of the idyllic other world – something like Seven meets What Dreams May Come. Come to think of it, that’s exactly what this film felt like!

I haven’t even touched on some of the pacing issues early on, and how the movie isn’t quite sure of the audience that it wants to target.  We have long (and I do mean long), lingering shots of her watching her teenage love from afar early on that really slow down the pacing, and once things do ramp up, we still get these interminable scenes in the other world, so far removed from what’s going on in our world.

And let’s examine the different scenes that I’ve mentioned so far here to get a sense of how the audience is unclear: mooning after a teenage love. An angry father threatening to attack his daughter’s murderer. The other daughter running for her life. A tearful reunion scene. That’s not mentioning the murder scene, the endless scenes of the protagonist musing on the meaning of life and death, the murderer experiencing euphoric recall, the protagonist playing with hair styles and music in this other world, and the hilarious death scene of the murderer. Seriously, who is the intended audience here? There’s something to piss just about every viewer off, or at least bore them to death.

That’s a lot of words about a movie that ultimately made me wish I hadn’t wasted the time to watch it, but it teaches us a lot about writing. To wit:

  • Be sure of your tone, and stay true to it. If you’re going to switch tone for a bit, be sure to telegraph it well in advance and don’t try to mix it with the previous tone.
  • Always stay aware of pacing. Don’t let scenes drag on, and try to maintain a fairly steady rising and falling action, always trending upwards.
  • Be aware of your intended audience. Sure, we write all our works for ourselves ultimately, but even that suggests an intended audience. No one can be all things to all people.

So it wasn’t wasted time at all, just one of those negative examples from which to learn. The most frustrating part is that I saw an incredible story buried underneath the junk, unlike some of the other stinkers that I’ve watched recently. It could have so easily gone another way and been great. I’m not sure if that makes it better or worse than Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey.

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