Alice Sebold has seen her own vision of heaven, and it is The New York Times hardcover best-seller list.
After 60 weeks in publication—approximately 30 times longer than Gigli was in theaters—Sebold’s novel The Lovely Bones still ranks among the Times top 10 in nationwide sales. Readers have flocked to the tale of teenager Susie Salmon, who is raped and murdered by a neighbor, leading to the disintegration of her family. Sebold’s twist on this narrative of grief and recovery is that she has Susie herself narrate the novel from the afterlife. While her parents and siblings struggle to cope with her absence, Susie watches events unfold from her transcendental perch in a personal heaven set up to make her feel most at home. She even drops in on her middle-school flame years later by taking over another woman’s body, just to experience the fulfilling sexual coupling that was denied her in life.
It’s a sweet, comforting vision of The World to Follow—and one wonders whether Susie might be nodding to Patrick Swayze and Bruce Willis up there on her cloud. Because if numbers don’t lie, the hereafter Americans are most interested in hearing about is warm, fuzzy, universalist and decidedly earthbound.
Can it be so? This is, after all, a great God-fearing nation, or so we’re often reminded by the conservative punditarati. Christianity rules—2001 statistics show approximately 76 percent of Americans defining themselves as Christian—and with it a very clearly defined path to salvation. You won’t be able to sweet-talk or pay off the guard at the velvet rope—it’s a “no faith, no service” proposition.
Take a look at pop-culture blockbusters, however, and you’ll see a decidedly rosier picture. In 1990’s Ghost, Swayze lingers on earth to resolve his unjust death, passing only into the Big Light after possessing Whoopi Goldberg and giving Demi Moore one last big smooch—this when there are so many other, more justifiable things one should do if one ever took control of Whoopi Goldberg. The 1999 blockbuster The Sixth Sense similarly presented a world of spirits whose entry into a peaceful paradise depended largely on tidying up unfinished earthly business. Between them, they earned more than $500 million in U.S. box offices. On the small screen, meanwhile, people weep along with John Edward’s reassuring Crossing Over messages from those who have passed. And that’s not even throwing in all the Angels in the Outfields and Heaven Can Waits—and, yes, Lovely Bones—you can shake a celestial stick at.
On one level, the mainstream media’s choice to stick to non-denominational afterlife scenarios seems like an easy call. Since studios are generally in the business of making product that will appeal to the broadest-possible audience—particularly young viewers, who tend to be about as fervently religious as they are cholesterol-conscious—they provide their dose of nirvana dogma-free. Sure, not all of these efforts succeed; nobody wanted to watch Robin Williams traipse through an Impressionist heaven in What Dreams May Come. At the same time, it’s hard to imagine The Sixth Sense doing the same boffo business if, after seeing all those dead people, Bruce Willis were then required to accept Jesus Christ as his personal Lord and Savior.
It’s also true that movies occasionally have laid down the hard line when it comes to heavenly admissions policies. Not surprisingly, however, those visions have been left to independent films. Add up the number of people who saw Mimi Rogers face damnation for rejecting God’s will in The Rapture, and you wouldn’t come up with the number of folks at The Sixth Sense’s wrap party.
What unites the most successful contemporary pop culture portrayals of the afterlife, up to and including The Lovely Bones, is the idea that the opportunity for personal growth isn’t restricted to your mortal existence. It may not be the afterlife many Americans claim they believe in, but it’s clearly the afterlife they want—one where you can apologize to your loved ones, clean up your messes and/or fill in those nagging blank spaces on your corporeal rÃ©sumÃ©. It’s the perfect postmortem scenario for a nation that can’t stop gobbling up self-help books and tosses out second chances to disgraced public figures like they were Mardi Gras beads. Worthiness or devotion to any set of principles become completely secondary to closure and making amends. A perfect heaven, for us, is just The Big 12-Step Meeting in the Sky.
Director Lynne Ramsay has been hired to adapt a film version of The Lovely Bones, and Internet discussion is already swirling over how she will handle Susie’s ethereal presence. But really, there’s no need to fret over the subject. As long as Ramsay makes Susie’s heaven as nonthreatening as Sebold’s, she’ll have the audience on her side. In pop culture, we want life stories to have happy endings—and that’s the way we want our afterlife stories, too.