The Lovely Bones: Peter Jackson’s Vision of the Afterlife

26 January 2010

Christopher J Wiles

writer | speaker | servant

“I know that heaven is real. And I know she’s watching over me.”

These were the sentiments of a young woman I used to work with. Amy was referring to her grandmother, who had passed away many years before, but whose presence, she insisted, could be felt and experienced. Amy’s nominal Roman Catholicism had given birth to her insistence on her grandmother’s continued influence in her life. From heaven above, her grandmother served as both guide and protector, and nothing could shake her from this belief.

The truth is that many hold such ideas about the afterlife in general. “Heaven” seems such a surreal, lofty place that it is easier to latch on to things that are nearer to our earthly understanding, such as guardian angels, or – in the present case – the loved ones that have gone before us.

Our collective conception of heaven has been so shaped (and warped) by images of fluffy clouds, harps and the color white, which converge to form an endless tapestry of bland. At the end of our life, if this is indeed what there is to look forward to, it seems as anti-climatic as the Price is Right showcase showdown, where the college student always wins the Nordic Track, the baby grand piano and a Kia Rio.

Nevertheless, we flirt with the idea of the afterlife in our cultural expressions, most recently in the film The Lovely Bones, Peter Jackson’s adaptation of Alice Sebold’s novel of the same name. In the film a young girl named Susie Salmon is viciously murdered, and from beyond the grave she assists her family’s quest for justice.

In an interview with the L.A. Times, Jackson says that he “didn’t want to show heaven or the afterlife, or whatever people call it, as a physical location. I like the idea that it was personal to Susie.” Commenting on the afterlife, Jackson says that “There is also profound comfort in that death is not the end. There is an immortality that happened.”

And to that end, Jackson’s film never explicitly makes mention of “Heaven,” just some vague, ethereal vision of the beyond.

After her death, Susie Salmon says:

“I wasn’t lost, or frozen, or gone… I was alive; I was alive in my own perfect world….I was in the blue horizon between heaven and earth. The days were unchanging and every night I dream the same dream. The smell of damp earth. The scream no one heard. The sound of my heart beating like a hammer against cloth and I would hear them calling, the voices of the dead. I wanted to follow them to find a way out but I would always come back to the same door. And I was afraid. I knew if I went in there I would never come out.”

Going further, Susie makes clear that even in death, her memories were retained:

“I was slipping away, that’s what it felt like, life was leaving me, but I wasn’t afraid; then I remembered: ‘There was something I was meant to do; somewhere I was meant to be.’”

In this manner, Susie’s memories gave her purpose. It’s just like Amy and her grandmother, though in the film we see this otherworldly relationship from the other point of view:

“Always, I would watch Ray; I was in the air around him, I was in the cold winter mornings he spent with Ruth Connors; and sometimes Ray would think of me, but he began to wonder maybe it was time to put that memory away, maybe it was time to let me go.”

Just a movie? Perhaps. But like all forms of art, film reveals something of those who made it, and we may rightly remind ourselves of the sheer number of hours and dollars that went into every scene, and the number of writers and focus groups that helped shape the lines of dialogue you read above.

It’s hard to exactly navigate the layers of theology and speculation that go into films such as this. I would first affirm the director’s creative vision in making the afterlife something so beautiful.

And the film raises questions that I find few addressing. Can the dead communicate with the living? Are the dead even aware of what’s happening with those they’ve left on earth? Such speculative thinking is the stuff of shows like Medium and The Ghost Whisperer, and even the (ahem) “reality” show Crossing Over with Jonathan Edwards.

The writers of the Bible seemed to indicate that something like this is possible. In 1 Samuel 28 we see Saul go against his better judgment and consult a medium in Endor to contact the dead prophet Samuel. When Samuel appears, he seems to know exactly what’s going on. The text leaves it unclear as to if this is a spirit conjured through pagan ritual or if Samuel appears as a prophet sent from God. In either case, it opens the door to the idea that those in heaven will understand what’s happening on earth.

Some theological traditions (namely Roman Catholic and some Orthodox faiths) emphasize that the dead are still a part of the church – this is why they are willing to ask the saints for prayer and guidance.

All that to say that I don’t know.

What I will say is that in contrast to the Cartesian arrogance of the enlightenment, the world we currently inhabit is not all there is, nor is the brief time we are given any real measure of the fullness of eternity.

What films like The Lovely Bones represent is man’s desire to pull back the curtain in hopes of glimpsing what life is like beyond that veil of uncertainty. Stephen King reminds us that

“…the human imagination is not content with locked doors….Perhaps we go to the forbidden door or window willingly because we understand that a time comes when we must go whether we want to or not…and not just to look, but to be pushed through. Forever.” (Stephen King, The Danse Macabre)

Peter Jackon’s vision is, of course, less than Christian. Yet in that vision we do see that longing for meaning and immortality. I believe those desires are real. And I believe that God is real, and I believe His promises are true. Scripture tells us that “no eye has seen, no ear has heard and no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him.” (1 Corinthians 2:9)

“What we do in life echoes in eternity.” says Maximus in the movie Gladiator, paraphrasing words spoken by Cicero. Perhaps the reverse is also true: our eternal destiny shapes our present life in a way that celluloid has yet to fully capture.

Eternity’s echoes are rippling throughout time.

Are you listening?

26 January 2010

Christopher J Wiles

writer | speaker | servant

Chris is a writer and speaker from the Charlottesville area. He regularly serves as a research writer for Docent Research Group in addition to doing some guest speaking.

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