The Lovely Bones: Susie and Ruth

The events that my death wrought were merely the bones of a body
that would become whole at some unpredictable time in the future.
The price of what I came to see as this miraculous body had been my life.

– Alice Sebold, The Lovely Bones

Peter Jackson (along with his fellow screenwriters Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens) introduces a number of subtle changes to Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones. Of course, this is the prerogative of any filmmaker. The question, however, is where they come from and what kind of story they seek to tell. For the modifications that are introduced are not insignificant. Neither can they be relegated to mere idiosyncrasy. In fact, they speak to a certain way of giving shape to Susie’s journey.

So, in addition to the Lonely Penguin that (also) introduces the novel, the filmmakers open the film with the changing reading habits of Susie’s mother. On the one hand, these appear to reflect the shifts that so often come on the heels of having chosen to marry a man. And yet, it is precisely this transformation that later leads to her disillusionment and despair, as if she had betrayed the very person that she took herself to be.

Would it be too much of a stretch – particularly since we are shown two copies of Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, one by the lamp and one on the floor – that she had become a lapsed Buddhist? Extinguishing the light for learning about a person’s spiritual journey, but also the illumination that would assist in seeing the face of her child?

Susie’s father, on the other hand, comes to be equated with his hobby and private obsession, drawn to the feeling of achievement and the beauty made at his own hand. While this is included in Sebold’s novel as well, in Jackson’s film it is elevated to a reigning metaphor. It is the excuse that allows them to spend time together, and provides the space where Susie can talk to him about things they might otherwise not have the chance to share. Like the fact that her friend Clarissa has a crush on him (not knowing that he’s an accountant), or how weird it is that these tiny models hold such a fascination for him.

But more than this, the hobby comes to represent the very idea of perfection. For their special relationship but also – after Susie’s death – the shattering of that ideal out of frustrated anger, the awful realization of impotence in the face of his daughter’s passing.

And then there’s the fact that, in the film, Susie and Ruth are shown to be (at least) four years apart, a difference of age considered quite significant when one has just become a teen. They are not classmates, as was the case in the novel. Instead, they belong to different worlds, a fact that could not have passed their notice when they first laid eyes on the other out by the sinkhole on the edge of town. When Susie was still a skinny child in pigtails, and Ruth was already on the verge of becoming a woman.

This is no minor alteration. In fact, it changes the tone of the entire story. Particularly when we allow ourselves to recall that Ray Singh – the object of her love and affection – is closer in age to Ruth rather than Susie. So while Susie continues to nurture a girlish crush on David Cassidey, we hear that Ray spends his library time reading tragic love stories, like the one involving Abelard and Heloise.

The impossibility of their love, in other words, may not merely be the result of her death. In Susie’s eyes, he’s probably not much different than the older man her grandmother had talked about. She’s worried about that first kiss. She might not be any good at it. It could change her life.

A frightening prospect, indeed.

We might also ask ourselves what an older guy like Ray would see – or want – in a young girl like Susie. (Or she in him.) Maybe this gives her the skeevies, too? Maybe this is why, despite her desire, that first kiss was interrupted by shouts pointing to inappropriate drawings of the female form, depictions that give way to boys’ perverted pleasures? The fact that their fantasies revolve around crude depictions of naked women while hers remain as chaste as snow.

His gaze bearing down on her, while she stands there frozen, like a deer caught in headlights in the middle of the road.

Discombobulated, her (self) possessions will fall. Perhaps a sign of her conflicting emotions. Her desire as well as her fear. Perhaps even a sense of aversion. Ray’s body leaning in would break the spell of her imagination, for in that moment, the realm of possibility would become dangerously real. Besides the eyelashes that she had so adored, she is also met by a boy-in-the-flesh, and a desire other than her own. Out of sync with her secret longings and, not inconsequentially, out of her control.

Overlaid with this will be her confusion. His allusion to the other thing that they share. But in her eyes, he’s a complete stranger. His parents are Indian and he comes from a faraway island, across the expanse of an ocean. A world away.

After her death, it is Ruth who will take Susie’s place, a surrogate for the missing girl. Also changed is the nature of their relationship, where desire is replaced by its absence, making room for a different kind of friendship to grow. With time, his yearning for the dead one will wane and he will develop an unexpected affection for the other girl that came to the gazebo in her stead.

Which shouldn’t have been a surprise since there is much that they share, both misfits and marginals – frequently misunderstood – donning colors and styles that speak to a certain form of estrangement. (Was this what they shared?) And so, they will spend many a day together, often in silence, developing an understanding of what it means to be quiet, in the company of the other.

For Ruth, this absence of attraction will allow a certain kind of dependence and a certain kind of freedom. She will remain close to him, often by his side. And this will allow her to travel – in mind and spirit – to places she might not have felt free to go before. Sebold’s novel is more explicit in this regard. For it is only in the aftermath of her brush with Susie’s ghost that she develops an obsession with the fate of the dead. Seeking them out everywhere:

In moments like this she thought of all the little girls who grew into adulthood and old age as a sort of cipher alphabet for all those who didn’t. Their lives would somehow be inextricably attached to all the girls who had been killed. … Ruth counted the living just as much as she counter the dead, and in the close confines of the penguin house the joyous screams of the children echoed off the walls with such vibrancy that, for a little while, she could drown out the other kinds of screams.

Which is not that different than the task upon which Susie embarks – on the other side – in the world of the In Between. Like Ruth, she will seek out joy and laughter to drown out the pain of her own dying. And while some of this might be chalked up to the fervent desire for escape, neither can it escape our attention that the flower Susie later finds in her vault is quietly blooming. A thousand petaled rose, it would seem, just beneath the icy surface.

Preparing itself for a future yet to be seen, after the thaw of what had come to be frozen.

And just like Ruth, Susie will also hunt down the bodies of the dead. Identifying her Murderer’s victims, her sisters in death. Neither idle curiosity nor a morbid fascination, this recounting seeks to honor the lives that were taken, identifying the contours of an invisible sisterhood. Hidden from public memory and shamelessly forgotten. Peppering the landscape in the dark crevices of a nation’s disgrace, buried in the elements without the benefit of even a pauper’s grave.

Ruth and Susie are the two faces of trauma’s wake: one (the elder) valiantly seeking to honor the past which the other (the younger) had so desperately sought to flee. For it is the younger one who felt the Murderer’s weight upon her body. The one who knows what it means to be killed. With the distance of time, it is Ruth who can better afford the costs of remembrance, no longer caught by the imperative of escape. And it is through the strength of the elder that Susie finds the courage to revisit the past that had haunted her so.

The only way to grasp what soon follows – otherwise, it can only come across as creepy – is if we understand the two as one, different versions of the girl who once aspired to be a photographer. Finally coming to recognize the other as one’s own.

That was the moment I fell to Earth.

The younger and the older find a way to inhabit their own body, the physicality of her own flesh, one that no longer belongs to a little girl. Healing the split brought on by the pitiful brutality of a dirty old man. No longer the skinny child in pigtails, but older and wiser and more at home with the dead.

I was feeling the weight of Ruth’s body, both the luscious bounce of breasts and thighs but also an awesome responsibility. I was a soul back on Earth. … As I took Ruth’s clothes off, I hoped that Ruth could see me, could see her body as I saw it, its perfect living beauty.

My head throbbed then, with the thought of it, with me hiding inside Ruth in every way but this: that when Ray kissed me or as our hands met it was my desire, not Ruth’s, it was me pushing out at the edges of her skin.

In the shower I could cry and Ray could kiss my tears, never knowing exactly why I shed them. I touched every part of him and held it in my hands. I cupped his elbow in my palm. I dragged his pubic hair out straight between my fingers. I held that part of him that Mr. Harvey had forced inside me. Inside my head I said the word gentle, and then I said the word man.

In the stillness of that remarkable morning, when the air was but a whisper, a glorious reunion was in the making. For the girl and the woman had managed to find each other, crossing the barrier of protection erected so long ago. Mending the rift. It is because of this coming together that her love’s impossibility also comes to an end. Finally feeling her body, finally able to relish the simple pleasure of skin and touch. Finally reclaiming what had been stolen. Finally able to make it her own.

Ruth had been a girl haunted,
and now she would be a woman haunted.
First by accident and now by choice.
All of it, the story of my life and death,
was hers if she chose to tell it,
even to one person at a time.

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~ by mistified on May 30, 2010.

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