Book v. Big Screen: “Serena”

14 Mar

I try to temper my judgement of film adaptations of novels. I don’t think Peter Jackson ruined The Fellowship of the Ring because he omitted Tom Bombadil. I didn’t stop watching HBO’s Game of Thrones because they changed Jeyne Westerling’s name to Talisa Maegyr (I mean, who wouldn’t want a more exotic name if they had the chance?). But there are some media adaptations that go too far, take too many liberties, and ruin a decent story with seemingly whimsical artistic decisions. Guess which kind of adaptation Susanna Bier’s Serena is?

The film Serena tells the story of a newly wed couple, Serena (Jennifer Lawrence) and George Pemberton (Bradley Cooper), who carve out a living as lumber barons in the Smoky Mountains during the Great Depression. Logging in 1929 isn’t the easiest or safest profession, and the Pembertons are constantly surrounded by the violence of their jobs and their surroundings. Serena and George’s love is as volatile as the setting. Serena’s jealousy is awakened when she watches her husband’s affection for his bastard son grow, and George’s murderous nature is awakened when he is betrayed by his business partner. Things can only end badly.

Don't be fooled by the peaceful vistas. The Smoky Mountains in this story are filled with danger and death. (Photo from "coloneljohnbritt")

Don’t be fooled by the peaceful vistas. The Smoky Mountains in this story are filled with danger and death. (Photo from “coloneljohnbritt“)

Things are just as grim in Ron Rash’s novel of the same name, and when I read it earlier this year, I didn’t care for it much. I found the symbolism heavy-handed and yet oftentimes contrary. But watching this film adaptation fail beyond measure definitely engendered more respect for the novel, which is a pure work of art comparatively. The book’s George Pemberton is a two-dimensional tool ripe for manipulation, and his devotion to his wife is obsessive, blind, and forged in fire. Rachel, the mother of George’s illegitimate son, is a primary character. Though young, she is resourceful and wisely harbors no resentment toward the Pembertons. Her goal is the survival of her son. Serena herself is driven by the need to fulfill her ultimate goal to raze Brazil’s rain forests to the ground, and lets nothing, not even her slathering husband, stand in her way from it.

The film’s George Pemberton is nearly respectable. He is remorseful at his own violent nature, and seems to steel himself against Serena’s manipulative nature almost immediately. Rachel doesn’t even receive a name until the final third of the film, referred to instead as “the girl,” and spends her only screen time casting challenging glances at her rival Serena. Our leading lady is hindered by Bier’s attempt to make her softer, more human. Failing this miserably, Bier only succeeds at creating a jealous, pining weakling. In essence, Bier’s adaptation took several complete characters and flattened them into cliches. But the greatest travesty of the film’s long list of travesties is stealing Serena’s agency. Gone is the woman who orchestrates the establishment of an empire, leaving behind her a wake of bodies. Gone is the woman who reaches for her prize with dry eyes and an iron fist. All of Serena’s ruthlessness, bloodthirstiness, and ambition are sacrificed for Bier’s love story, and believe me, Ron Rash’s Serena is not a love story.

In addition to the detrimental and arbitrary deviations from Rash’s book, the film is poorly made. Serena might have been on par with Gone Girl with its unflinching gratuity and wild-eyed blonde protagonist, and I wish with a decent portion of my heart that Bier had pulled it off. Choppy transitions lead us from wide shots to close-ups of half of Lawrence’s face or to sudden sex scenes that, without any context or build-up, feel pornographic in the worst way. (“Hey, I’m here to deliver a pizza.” BAM! Sex scene.) It’s Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride through a movie that was either overedited to oblivion or edited by some film school intern. Whether or not you harbor resentments for the poor adaptation of a decent novel, you won’t be able to suffer through a viewing of Serena because it is a simply, utterly, painfully bad movie.

Book or Big Screen: Book, book, book, book. There is no question here–only an answer. The book is the answer. Just read the book and, if you really feel strongly about it, picture Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper in bed together, but try and avoid the film altogether.

Readers, Beware: The film is going to disappoint you, especially if you read Rash’s Serena recently, as I did. Fundamental changes were made to both the story line and the characters. The changes were neither to enhance the transition of the story from page to screen nor to improve on the failings of the book. I can only theorize that the changes were made in an attempt to test the viewing public on whether or not they actually read the book, or if any movie-goers still retained the ability to see the bad film-making behind the veil of Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence’s awkward on-screen chemistry.

Viewers, Beware: The book might scar you, if you were expecting the little torrid romance you saw in the film. Ron Rash’s Serena is the story of two alpha personalities with the ambitions of conquerors who are prepared to go to any lengths to establish their empire. It is a drama set in a context of constant death as these loggers try to decimate nature and nature tries to decimate the men right back.

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