Fresh out of an Oscar nomination for her role in “Atonement,” 15-year-old Saoirse (pronounced “sir-sha”) Ronan has just leapt into another dramatic venture. “The Lovely Bones,” an adaptation of Alice Sebold’s best-selling novel, is a film directed by Peter Jackson (“Lord of the Rings”) about a family’s reconciliation with catastrophe following the rape and murder of their teenage daughter Susie Salmon.
With her clear, Irish-tinged voice, Ronan, who plays Susie, omnisciently narrates the film as an intermediary between life and death in a sort of post-mortem coming-of-age story.
While the film suggests motifs of mystery, the supernatural, vengeance, family discord and family bonding, Ronan believes that the underlying theme of “The Lovely Bones” is hope. She asserts that ultimately the film is about letting go of the past and moving onward from tragedy, both for Susie’s family and for herself.
“When Susie arrives in the in-between, she doesn’t want to go forward, which would mean accepting her death,” Ronan said, in a phone interview.
“She wants to be back on Earth with her family and she knows she can’t do that. And to get (to heaven), she has to focus on her love for her family and not the hate and vengeance that she has for her murder.”
Ronan had not actually read the novel during the film’s production, in part due to the heavy themes touched upon in the book (she was only 13 at the time) and in part due to her desire to interpret the screenplay the way Jackson wanted her to. At 15, she has finally gotten a chance to read Sebold’s actual words.
“I absolutely loved it,” Ronan said.
“I felt every emotion possible. And I think because I had been through the whole experience of making the movie and living through the story, that (helped) me to really connect with the book, and to understand the book fully.”
Although Jackson makes an effort to stay faithful to the source material, there are still inherent discrepancies between the film and the book. The novel contains a very detailed rape scene in which the murderer (played by Stanley Tucci of “The Devil Wears Prada” fame) brutally molests the young heroine and subsequently dismembers her in a frozen cornfield.
For the film, Jackson chose to take the tasteful route of implying rather than overtly portraying the scene. Still, Ronan believes that the absence of the rape scene does not detract from the larger picture.
“I think, if anything, it makes it stronger because I think it’s kind of the easy route to put that kind of scene in,” she said.
“(Rape) can make people too disturbed. If (you) just leave it up to the audience’s imagination, to let them think of it for themselves … sometimes that can even be stronger.”
Ronan enjoyed working with Jackson as a director, lauding his vision for the film and the level of involvement he had with his actors.
“He’s always up and ready to go, and he was great because he would … act through what we were going to do,” Ronan said. “He was very hands on.”
Jackson’s vision for “The Lovely Bones” extends further than overseeing the film’s acting. The film promises the director’s trademark large-scale visuals, comparable to the likes of “Lord of the Rings” and “Heavenly Creatures.” The trailer portends amazingly lush heaven scenes, complete with angel choruses and golden fields. Ronan remembers the process of shooting these scenes as strange but subsequently beautiful.
“It was a little bit surreal at first because it was all blue screen and I hadn’t worked with that much blue screen before,” Ronan said.
“So, it was sometimes difficult to try and imagine what it was going to be like. I saw the movie a few days ago and it was a lovely surprise to finally see heaven.”
“The Lovely Bones” opens today in limited release, and critics are already buzzing about its Oscar potential. Ronan was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 2007 for Joe Wright’s redemptive period piece “Atonement,” so she is no stranger to this level of high-pressure critical expectation. Still, she tries to keep everything in perspective.
“To be honest, I try not to think about awards season at all, especially when it concerns a movie that I’ve made,” she said.
“None of the press have actually seen the movie yet, so it’s not fair to say, but it’s great that they’re putting it at such a high level already.”
At the same time, Ronan hopes that audiences will be receptive to the film.
“Hopefully it does well. I just really hope that everyone enjoys it.”