Peter Jackson tried to secure the rights to the book while working on The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002), but at that time, the rights were snapped up by a British studio (ITV) with an option to make a film. However, since it was never made, the rights lapsed. During production of King Kong (2005), co-producer Tessa Ross found out that the rights had become available and she and Jackson secured them.
For his role as George Harvey, Stanley Tucci had his skin lightened, his chest and arm hair dyed to match his blondish-brown comb-over wig, and wore false teeth to alter his jaw line. He also wore blue contact lenses and a lentil-filled fat suit to widen his girth, all topped off with square-frame eyeglasses, a fake mustache and sideburns. Since Tucci was uncomfortable playing a child molester, he wanted to alter his appearance for the role as much as possible.
In Alice Sebold's original novel, a disturbing rape scene is recounted in great detail, an experience that Sebold herself had had as a young woman. Director Peter Jackson chose to omit this section of the story, feeling that the re-enactment of the ordeal would have not just overwhelmed the film, but been too traumatic a sequence for the young Saoirse Ronan to endure. Alice Sebold reportedly disagreed with this omission. Stanley Tucci, for his part, claimed that it was difficult enough for him to play scenes in which George was thinking about molesting Susie, and that he never would have agreed to perform an actual rape scene.
The main reason Ryan Gosling quit his role as Jack before filming started was that during read-through sessions with Peter Jackson and the rest of the cast, he felt that, at 26, he was too young for the role. Jack was supposed to be in his late 30s. Despite repeated assurances from Jackson that he could portray Jack with proper makeup, Gosling insisted that, as a method actor, he would not be able to portray the character well enough and was finally let go. Mark Wahlberg was brought in only one day before shooting started.
Saoirse Ronan landed the role of Susie Salmon based on an audition tape she sent in. They were so impressed by the tape that no meetings or further auditions were necessary before offering her the lead role in the film.
The film differs greatly from the novel. Much of the adult content in the novel, including a rape sequence and Abigail's affair with the detective, was removed in order to keep the film at a PG-13 rating. This effectively changed the target audience of the film to preteens and teenagers (which was apparent in box office records), as opposed to the adult target audience of the book.
Alice Sebold, author of the novel, stated that she preferred an unknown actress for the role of Susie Salmon. After she was cast for this film, the relatively unknown Saoirse Ronan was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for Atonement (2007).
Along with Up in the Air (2009), this was one of the two films in which Paramount used its remaining marketing budget of 2009 to promote for consideration for an Academy Award. This forced Paramount to postpone the release of its other major studio film, Shutter Island (2010), until February 2010.
Mark Wahlberg replaced Ryan Gosling just days before shooting began. In preparation for the role, Gosling had gained 20 pounds and grown out a beard. However, he vacated the role due to creative differences. Wahlberg, who had just completed shooting The Happening (2008), another production in Pennsylvania, became available just in time to accept Gosling's role.
Peter Jackson has said that he originally wanted to cast an American actress for the leading role, but was highly discouraged when the audition process began and he couldn't find a single actress who behaved like a genuine child, rather than a child actor.
Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz were the first actors who were offered to appear in the film, which would have been their second collaboration together, after The Fountain (2006). However, while Weisz accepted her part, Jackman had to turn his down. Ryan Gosling was cast instead, although he would drop out as well, three days before the shooting started. Eventually, Mark Wahlberg took the part.
During the sequence when Jack repeatedly calls Fenerman with the names of possible suspects, one of the names is Frank Peretti (Jack actually spells the last name for Fenerman); Frank Peretti is a best-selling author of Christian supernatural thrillers.
Saoirse Ronan (Susie) would later star in the movie The Host (2013), which also stars Jake Abel. Jake Abel also has a small role in this film, as Clarissa's boyfriend. In The Host (2013), Abel plays Ronan's love interest.
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
George Harvey's death was originally left to the imagination after he fell off the cliff. Numerous test audiences wanted to see a more brutal ending for the character, so a last minute re-shoot was added, which shows him violently tumbling down the cliff side.
Many of the details and sequence of events in the movie differ from Alice Sebold's novel. In the novel, George Harvey dismembers Susie's body and disposes of it by dropping the safe in the sinkhole, immediately after the murder (instead of much later, as in the movie). But George accidentally drops her elbow, which is found by the police, and forces the Salmon family to acknowledge her death earlier than in the movie.
In the first scene where Susie is seen shopping with her grandmother at the mall, George Harvey can be spotted turning right, just before the camera focuses on Ray. This can be read as George spying on Susie, as she mentions a couple of minutes after this take.
Throughout the movie in the "inbetween" there are several items that appear that correlate to other victims of Harvey's. A Sunhat, a rainbow ball, Holly, and a flower to name three. You see them first in the scenes where Holly and Susie are spending time together and again later in the movie when the many victims are shown.