The Lovely Bones breaks down on highway to heaven

Peter Jackson's adaptation only a ghost of the novel

Long before director Peter Jackson went to Middle Earth and Skull Island, he ventured into the most unpredictable territory of all: the psyche of adolescent girls. Jackson's live-wire 1994 drama Heavenly Creatures explored the fantasy world of two friends (then-unknowns Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey), whose mutual delusions drive them to murder. Heavenly Creatures won the New Zealand filmmaker international attention as more than a purveyor of lively schlock, and would seem to validate Jackson as a worthy adaptor of The Lovely Bones.

Alice Sebold's novel proves more heavenly that Jackson's Creatures, in a literal sense. On Dec. 6, 1973, ordinary 14 year old Susie Salmon (played by Atonement's Saoirse Ronan) is raped and murdered – both mercifully off-camera – by a twitchy neighbor (Stanley Tucci). Susie's spirit remains in a protean, limbo-like dimension where she can observe her grieving family and the unsuspected murderer, rather than move on to her eternal reward. Susie's parents (Mark Wahlberg and Rachel Weisz) struggle with grief over their daughter's "disappearance" and the family begins to fall apart over the months that follow.

The heart of Sebold's book lies in the dynamics among the survivors, comparable to The Ice Storm on page and screen. Jackson dutifully incorporates early 1970s details, but otherwise shows no sense of connection to the relationships of the living characters. The actors seem abandoned, with their histrionics and bad haircuts. At one point, Susan Sarandon, as a brassy grandmother, takes the Salmon house by storm, complete with a montage to the Hollies' "Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress," but then does virtually nothing to advance the plot. Worse, Susie's goth acquaintance with vague psychic sensitivities, a full-fledged character in the book, becomes little more than a plot device here.

Instead, Jackson seems most interested in the painterly special effects of Susie's afterlife: Life-sized ships-in-bottles, in echoes of her father's hobby, crash against a celestial seashore. Jackson uses extreme camera angles, including extreme close-ups of fingertips, to convey the abnormal psychology of Tucci's molester character. While visually interesting, such flourishes add almost nothing the audience doesn't already know. Given Tucci's fidgety performance, his character wouldn't look any less suspicious if he were drooling onto a raincoat while handing out lollipops on a playground.

The Lovely Bones includes a gripping, Hitchcockian scene when Susie's sister searches for clues, but it only makes you wish Jackson had made a straight-up thriller, along the lines of Sam Raimi's Drag Me to Hell. Ronan's pale eyes and measured delivery give her an undeniably affecting presence as Susie, but in general, Jackson's The Lovely Bones looks like only a ghost of the novel.