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How “The Lovely Bones” Highlights the Importance & Normalcy of Grief

TW: Sexual Assault, Death, Harm to Children

Coping with the grief of losing a loved one can be unimaginable and is easily one of our greatest fears. 

After watching The Lovely Bones for the first time several years ago, after it had finally been added to Netflix, I finished the movie feeling disturbed and unnerved. It was not at all what I had thought it would be, a scary movie about finding someone's remains. Instead, it was a story that highlights the innocent nature of the protagonist, Susie Salmon, and the healing journey of her family following her disappearance and presumed death. 

Feeling uncomfortable and perplexed, I started researching the film and the original novel, trying to find more answers about the film's meaning. 

I found a video essay on YouTube by Quality Culture that analyzes the deeper meaning of the film, the author's intent when writing the novel, and why the film leaves people with such discomfort after an ending with seemingly no closure. Yet it seems that is the very point of the film. As the essay narrator says, "Perhaps it falls in line with the idea that art is meant to disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed." This video put into words exactly what I was thinking but explained many of the content creator's thoughts in a far better way.

In The Lovely Bones, for anyone who hasn't watched it (spoiler alert!), Susie, a fourteen-year-old girl, is lured, assaulted, and killed by her seemingly friendly neighbor and the film's antagonist, Mr. Harvey. Following her death, Susie dwells in an in-between dimension, watching her family grieve and grow older without her.

One aspect of the film that left everyone feeling particularly uneasy is the ultimate sense of realness it conveys. The movie can honestly make many viewers scared to live. It causes girls and women to imagine a fate similar to Susie Salmon's, and parents feel that this could have easily been their daughter or granddaughter. The film focuses on very real fears and frightens the viewer in ways that a traditional horror movie cannot. It is impossible to know who these horrible tragedies will happen to.

Alice Sebold, the author of The Lovely Bones, explains that her main drive for writing this novel, along with several of her other books, comes from her traumatic experience with sexual assault in the past. She shares that she had been attacked, assaulted, and raped on her way home during college while passing through a tunnel. Her memoir, "Lucky" was written with reference to this experience: 

"In the tunnel where I was raped, a tunnel that was once an underground entry to an amphitheater, a place where actors burst forth from underneath the seats of a crowd, a girl had been murdered and dismembered. I was told this story by the police. In comparison, they said, I was lucky" -Alice Sebold

It's extremely disappointing and unfair that police, or anyone else for that matter, have tried to minimize her rape by saying "other people have it worse." 

In regards to The Lovely Bones, Alice Seabold also goes on to say: "You always think about those people who didn't survive similar experiences...so for years I've been obsessed with the idea that there are so many dead girls whose photos are in the paper but you never know anything about them...and they've lost their voice because they're dead." It's saddening to think of all the victims who have lost their lives; their stories reduced to being simply someone's victim and robbing them of their identity. This loss of control over one's story is reflected in the film when Susie angrily shouts "who am I?? The dead girl? The lost girl? The missing girl?" By including this scene, the author wants to highlight the lives that will remain unlived to their fullest extent and be the voice of girls who will never be able to speak for themselves again.

Another subtle yet central theme of the film is that every day, ordinary life is magical and that seemingly mundane moments should be loved and enjoyed..."it's a gift to exist." This remains consistent throughout the movie, and becomes intensified after Susie's death, as viewers see the time and care that her and her dad put into their projects, such as a ship-in-a-bottle and the every day grief her family experiences: deep, heartwrenching sadness.

Near the end, when Mr. Harvey dies (in a very anti-climatic way) before he can ever be pinned with the crime or caught, viewers are left with immeasurable frustration and disappointment. In order for both Susie's family and the viewers to find closure, it feels as if Mr. Harvey must be caught and punished. While it is extremely maddening that Mr. Harvey is not forced to suffer in the slightest like the girl whose life he ended too soon, there is value in recognizing that the story shouldn't be about him and should remain focused on Susie. Serial killers and their stories are often grossly romanticized and seem to be the primary focus of the public's gaze as opposed to the victims who had lives of their own that will now never be lived. 

The way in which the film approaches and depicts grief has been much needed in the film industry (in my opinion). Oftentimes, characters die near the end of a movie, sometimes in an unlikely fashion, or die near the middle of the plot, but do not focus on that character's thoughts before their death nor the grief of their families. In these movies, the idea of grief and the family members' suffering is not typically covered or is barely explored at all. It is thus minimalized and feels fleeting in these films. However, in The Lovely Bones, the viewer must endure the prolonged grief of Susie's family and feel almost as heartbroken as the characters. It's as if grief is its own character and is able to influence the actions and thoughts of Susie's family members. 

Mercy Johnson

Washington '23

Mercy is a third-year physiology major at the University of Washington who hopes to become a physician someday. She enjoys journalism, ethics, and anthropology courses. In her spare time, she loves to hike, play piano, and read. She is also a devoted coffee connoisseur!
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