For eight years, director Peter Jackson battled his way through Middle Earth, bringing to life the fantastical pages of J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. Afterward, he continued his epic journey when he chose to explore Skull Island, the legendary home of King Kong and several other prehistoric creatures. This time around, Jackson will visit “the in-between,” the heaven-like setting featured in his upcoming film adaptation of Alice Sebold’s best-selling novel, “The Lovely Bones.”
Set in the 1970s, “The Lovely Bones” is the story of 14-year-old Susie Salmon who, after being brutally murdered by a serial killer, watches her family, friends and killer from the in-between as she comes to terms with her own death. While Jackson’s latest film will still feature some imaginative CGI work, particularly in the director’s interpretation of the in-between, the movie is a radical break from his previous SFX-laden fantasy work, a genre he greatly enjoys filming.
“I always make the movies that I’d want to watch,” Jackson said in a recent conference call. “And what I like is escapism. I like being swept away into an adventure that I know I’m never going to have in my real life, seeing and meeting creatures that I’m never going to meet, because they’re so outrageous.”
Yet, after filming “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy and “King Kong” so closely together, Jackson admitted while he wasn’t tired of big budget films, he certainly felt it was time to take a break. In fact, he partly chose to take on “The Lovely Bones” project because it was so different from what he had worked with in the past.
“When we read the book, we found it to be a very emotional experience, because it touches on all sorts of themes and things that we recognize in our own lives, and once you’re emotionally affected like that, you try to hang on to that feeling, or that emotion, and get that into a finished film,” Jackson said.
However, “The Lovely Bones” did pose a challenge that Jackson is quite familiar with: adapting a popular novel into a box-office hit. For Jackson, though, the inspiration needed to turn a book into a film often comes naturally.
“As you read a well-written book, you start imagining what these people look like, and you imagine the locations and the action,” Jackson said. “Before too long, you’ve got this little movie playing in your head and then it doesn’t take much for me to get excited about the little movie that’s being inspired by the words in the book.”
But finding the inspiration to adapt a novel is only the beginning. According to Jackson, the real challenge is realizing that you’re only going to get half the book into the movie and making decisions about what the most important aspects of the book are.
“Whereas an author of a book can write subplots and have secondary character, you tend to have to focus on just two or three main characters and really stick to the central plot of a film,” Jackson said. “This means having to say goodbye to characters and to scenes that you were looking forward to doing.”
Although the film features a number of gifted veterans — Mark Wahlberg (“Max Payne”) as Susie’s father, Rachel Weisz (“The Brothers Bloom”) as Susie’s mother, Susan Sarandon (“Solitary Man”) as Susie’s grandmother and Stanley Tucci (“Julie & Julia”) as Susie’s killer —Jackson said he was tremendously impressed with the performance from Saoirse Ronan (“Atonement”), the talented young Irish actress who plays Susie in the film.
“She has a couple of qualities that I think a great actor needs,” Jackson said. “You’ve got to be ferociously smart and bright, and you also have to be incredibly brave and courageous. She reminds me of a young Cate Blanchett, actually. I can just see Saoirse going on to have a long illustrious career.”
Even though the film stems from the gruesome rape and murder of a teenage girl — a scene described in detail in Sebold’s novel but not shown on screen in this PG-13 film — Jackson said the film, on some level, will still appeal to a wide audience.
“It’s an opportunity for me to make a movie that says things about what happens to our soul after we die, and that’s obviously a question that we all wonder about,” Jackson said. “And, especially if you lose people who are close to you, you wonder what’s happened to them, and are they still around, and can they see you and hear you?”
With its universal appeal and pre-established fanbase, “The Lovely Bones” is sure to bring audiences to the theaters. One person who won’t be seeing the film once it’s done, though, is Jackson himself. The director traditionally never watches his movies once they are finished. Yet, Jackson said picking a favorite film is like asking a mother to pick her favorite child.
“Honestly, you enjoy making the one that you’re working on at the time the most,” Jackson said. “You are thinking about it 24/7 and you get swallowed up in it, but you always feel very proud of all of them in the end.”