Film critic Roger Ebert clearly did not like the film adaptation of Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones. While I haven’t read the book or seen the movie, I certainly found Ebert’s review revealing. Ebert is one of the most interesting film critics to read, especially in reviews like this where he dons his moralistic hat. (As you read the excerpts of the review, keep in mind that this is a critic who enjoyed American Psycho.)
“‘The Lovely Bones’ is a deplorable film with this message: If you’re a 14-year-old girl who has been brutally raped and murdered by a serial killer, you have a lot to look forward to. You can get together in heaven with the other teenage victims of the same killer, and gaze down in benevolence upon your family members as they mourn you and realize what a wonderful person you were. Sure, you miss your friends, but your fellow fatalities come dancing to greet you in a meadow of wildflowers, and how cool is that?”
Part of Ebert’s moral indignation arises from the tactlessness of the film as it attempts to juxtapose images of gross horror and violence with sweet sentimentality. Another part seems to be the triteness of director Peter Jackson’s vision of the afterlife. Says Ebert, if there is a heaven, “it will not resemble a happy gathering of new Facebook friends.”
But I suspect these objections are really distractions for Ebert’s deepest source of moral revulsion toward the film:
“This movie sells the philosophy that even evil things are God’s will, and their victims are happier now. Isn’t it nice to think so. I think it’s best if they don’t happen at all. But if they do, why pretend they don’t hurt? Those girls are dead.”
If this is indeed the primary source of Ebert’s objection, then his moralism isn’t really about Alice Sebold’s book or Peter Jackson’s film. It is about the concept of meticulous providence: that is, the notion that God foreknows and in some sense foreordains even the most horrific events imaginable, including the rape and murder of a young girl.
Back in November I spoke with William Paul Young while at a conference in Montreal, and he informed me that talks continue between “his people” and a very well known Hollywood director concerning a film version of his mega-best-seller The Shack (more than ten million sold and counting). As many of you know, The Shack wrestles with just this question: how could a loving God allow the rape and murder of a young girl? The book offers no easy answers (not least because there aren’t any easy answers), but it does provide the outline of a defense of the goodness and providence of God.
Alas, when I read Ebert’s review for The Lovely Bones, I realized that any film adaptation of The Shack is likewise doomed to face a similar moralistic condemnation from this most esteemed critic. In Ebert’s view, a God who oversees such horrors is much worse than no God at all. Mr. Young, you have been warned.
*Note: since writing this commentary I have watched the film and found it to be a highly effective and well made film with outstanding performances by Saorise Ronan (Susie Salmon, the victim) and Stanley Tucci (George Harvey, the victimizer). But I admit, the juxtaposition of horror and sentimentality is, to say the least, jolting.