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In today's movies, girls in peril face many horrors

The young heroines of 'Precious,' 'New Moon' and 'The Lovely Bones' try to lead ordinary lives but instead face harrowing experiences. But the movies are more restrained than the books on which they a

January 02, 2010|By Lizzie Skurnick

At first blush, the heroines of the films "Precious," "New Moon" and "The Lovely Bones" seem to have little in common -- except that they all started out as characters in novels.

Precious is an abused, teenage mother who can barely read. "New Moon's" Bella is a vampire-in-waiting who lives to be courted by a glittering heartthrob of the undead. Susie, the narrator of "The Lovely Bones," is the product of the kind of suburban idyll for which Kodachrome was invented.

Yet despite these diverging narratives, these girls are deeply, sweetly ordinary. All three want to feel comfortable with what they see in the mirror. All three want the boy they like to kiss them. All three would prefer not to be social outcasts, all three want happy family lives and all three will never, ever get any of these things.

It is, to put it mildly, not a great season to be a girl on screen. If we take the three books-to-films as a rule, sheer carnage is the order of the day.

In "The Lovely Bones," Susie is raped and killed by a neighbor. (She narrates the story from heaven.) Bella is always a kiss or paw swipe away from being slaughtered by a boyfriend -- if she's not hurling herself over a cliff in pursuit of one. Precious is the victim of beatings and incest by mother and father.

All have been abandoned in one way or another and are more closely acquainted with unpalatable body fluids than you'd like your average teen to be.

But for those of us raised on a diet of Judy Blume, Jan Brady and John Hughes, it's not only the gore that dismays. Teens in peril, after all, have long been a staple of popular entertainment, going back to "Halloween" (Jamie Lee Curtis, anybody?) or even further, to "Imitation of Life."

Hollywood usually -- and deservedly -- takes the rap, since movies generally treat young girls about as compassionately as a 4-year-old with scissors treats a new Barbie. But in "Precious," "New Moon" and "The Lovely Bones," the violence and clumsy emotional manipulation were already in place long before the filmmakers came around. Here, Hollywood does better by its heroines than the authors who created them.

This is perhaps most clear in "The Lovely Bones." The film's director, Peter Jackson, caught flack for removing the rape scene, a decision that allegedly stripped the narrative of its power. But if you look at how author Alice Sebold treats the rape scene in the novel, the depiction is simultaneously cursory and overwrought.

"I was the mortar," Sebold writes, in Susie's voice. "He was the pestle." It's over in a matter of a few paragraphs, and once Susie's in heaven, we never hear about it again.

Jackson defended his choice by admitting it would have been too traumatic for him to film the scene.

But in its way, that's an implicit criticism of Sebold, who didn't present the rape with sufficient complexity.

The same is true when it comes to the murderer, whom Jackson evokes with a nuance Sebold only stretches for. His shot of the killer's enormous face through a tiny dollhouse window devastatingly establishes how terribly large he will loom in Susie's life.

Jackson pulls images from Sebold's book and expands them to glorious effect -- like his heaven, only hazily sketched in the novel. In one scene, Susie's father smashes his collection of ships in bottles, which he worked on with Susie. In heaven, massive boats splinter on her heavenly shores.

Most important, Jackson's Susie is age-appropriate, so we feel her loss deeply. (Sebold's Susie can sound like a mothballed poetess, speaking in phrases such as, "When the sky had a dappled rose.") When we watch her escape her murderer and tear across the field toward home, we are as devastated as she is to realize that she is just a ghost. Could watching her break down into a bag of bones be any more horrifying than that surprise?

A similar dynamic marks "Precious," which, for all the horror of its subject matter, ends up admirably restrained. Like Jackson, director Lee Daniels does not dwell on the rapes -- two short moments, both in retrospect, suffice -- allowing the changing weather of actress Gabourey Sidibe's face to evoke her desolation.

Precious' mother is terrifying for what she might do, not what she has done, and though the feel-good character of Precious' teacher is a bit unrealistic, that's mainly because she's played by the improbably good-looking Paula Patton.

The most subtle directorial tweak, however, comes in "New Moon" -- the second installment in the "Twilight" series, to which parents constantly raise unspecified objections. (How not to be suspicious of anything inciting such feverish obsession in the young?)

If parents can't quite put their fingers on the problem, Hollywood is well aware of it. If Bella stays with Edward, there are only two outcomes for her: dead or undead.

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