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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.

Book v. Big Screen: “Inherent Vice”

24 Jan
Paul Thomas Anderson's January 9, 2015 adaptation stars a billion jillion famous people.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s January 9, 2015 adaptation stars a billion jillion famous people.

When the creator of brilliant films takes on the adaptation of a renowned author of modern classics, you go big or go home. You could end up with a critical bomb like The Hobbit installations (go ahead and fight me, but I said it!) or a masterpiece like There Will Be Blood. I think I need to rewatch Paul Thomas Anderson’s most recent cinematographic adventure three or four more times to really decide on which end of the scale Inherent Vice lands. The film, which was released widely to theaters on January 12, is visually stunning and accompanied by one of the better film scores I have heard in some years, but when I read Thomas Pynchon’s novel by the same name, I knew this would be a nearly impossible book to successfully adapt to the big screen. My initial reaction is that Anderson’s attempt, while valiant, fell short of the mark.

Larry “Doc” Sportello is more than a pothead. He’s an enthusiast, a connoisseur, a meta-hippie. That’s just his day job. Doc is sometimes a private detective, and when his ex-old lady Shasta shows up on his doorstep one hazy night going on about a conspiracy to kidnap her new millionaire boyfriend, Doc is helpless to avoid being pulled into a mess. And the mess that real estate moguls, cults, Asian mobs, and drugged-up dentists cause in 1970’s Los Angeles is too much for most to handle. Doc follows Shasta’s trail through the upper echelons of L.A. to the seedy depths where neo-Nazi biker gangs and crew-cut FBI agents like to roam.

Joaquin Phoenix's depiction of hapless Larry "Doc" Sportello is spot on.

Joaquin Phoenix’s depiction of hapless Larry “Doc” Sportello is spot on.

The ensuing drama is a series of long, panning, slow-motion shots of said real estate moguls, neo-Nazi bikers, et. al. in a beautiful side-scrolling painting of a an era. The film wouldn’t be complete or nearly as beautiful, though, without it’s corresponding soundtrack, created by none other than Paul Thomas Anderson’s favorite musical boy genius Jonny Greenwood. The guitarist for famed rock band Radiohead also composed scores for Anderson’s There Will Be Blood and The Master. The two now exist on a spectral plane of their own, like a secret club where only the critically acclaimed and artistically progressive get to go. I expect we’ll see more of their collaborations in the future.

Immerse yourself in the master mood-setter’s musical prowess here: Jonny Greenwood’s immaculate score

Jonny Greenwood and his absolute musical score genius are two of the top reasons to watch Paul Thomas Anderson films.

Jonny Greenwood and his absolute musical score genius are two of the top reasons to watch Paul Thomas Anderson films.

I won’t lie, though; despite its beautiful visuals and score, Inherent Vice was a difficult movie to fully enjoy. The several outright humorous moments, often featuring Josh Brolin’s tightly wound Detective Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen, added a wonderful lightness to what would otherwise be a depressing story of corruption and futility. But even I, having read the book quite recently, felt the strain of keeping up with a convoluted plot and unfamiliar verbiage. Those who didn’t read the book first, and I imagine there are many who haven’t, will probably need to lean on the occasional, disembodied narration like a hand rail. It guides viewers through important back story and the jumbled cerebral exercises of Doc’s hazy mind. With the narration, Anderson treads the fine line of telling too little and telling too much. For once, I think a movie could use more narration rather than less, and I’m not just saying this because I enjoy the sound of Joanna Newsom’s voice (talking, not singing so much), but a lot of valuable information is omitted or gets lost. By the second or third re-watch, though, I may change my mind. You will have to decide for yourself and come tell me what you think.

Book or Big Screen: I try to be political about these discussions, but some things are just better left to 369 pages of terse prose. Between the confusing plot and the endless period references, the book–and the slower pace of entertainment consumption of the written word–suits the theme and plot better than the film. While the film is easy on the eyes and ears, Inherent Vice the book takes the cake on this one.

Readers, Beware: You may need to dig into the novel for about one hundred pages before you start swinging with the groovy cats of Los Angeles’ hippie-covered beaches, but once you get there, it’s a beautiful place. Pynchon is magical, hilarious, and driven all at the same time. That being said, Pynchon’s method of setting the mood is by bombarding you with slang and pop-culture references, all of which sometimes takes precedence over plot and character development. The movie has it easy: a few well-placed vintage product placement and an accurate costume designer do all the work.

Viewers, Beware: The film version of Inherent Vice is a wild ride, and if the deep layers and plot twists don’t muddle your mind, then the unfamiliar slang, barely audible conspiratorial whispers, and drug-addled slurs will. Had I not read the book first, I imagined I would have been utterly lost ten minutes in. The only saving grace was Joanna Newsom’s soothing narration, which for the most part, smoothed out the wrinkles.


Book v. Big Screen: Gone Girl

10 Oct
David Fincher's adaptation of Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl stars Ben Afleck and Rosamund Pike, and was released to theaters October 3, 2014.

David Fincher’s adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl stars Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike, and was released to theaters October 3, 2014. Flynn wrote the screenplay.

Undoubtedly, this is what we all want to hear: “How does it compare to the book?” Book readers revel in the masochistic practice of scrutinizing the film adaptations of our favorite novels, probably because the pain makes us feel more alive, and despite the fact that I am of the school of thought that forgives films for the heresies they must commit in order to keep the visual media gods happy, no one can escape a straight-up, side-by-side comparison. (Read my book review of Gone Girl here.)

Gone Girl, the movie and the book, unfolds the mystery of the missing woman Amy Elliott Dunne and her husband Nick Dunne. Nick’s story begins on the morning of Amy’s disappearance from the couple’s home in North Carthage, Missouri, while Amy’s story begins years earlier, when the two first meet at a party in New York City. From there, the film alternates between the two voices as viewers learn that the truth is never one-sided.

Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike) tells the story of a budding romance through the pages of her diary. Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) begins his story on the morning of Amy's disappearance. Whose story do we believe?

Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike) tells the story of a budding romance through the pages of her diary. Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) begins his story on the morning of Amy’s disappearance. Whose story do we believe?

The film, a killer 149 minutes long, maintains an obsessive loyalty to the novel in a way only a loving, infatuated mother could swing, so it’s no wonder that the novel’s author, Gillian Flynn, also wrote the screenplay for its Hollywood adaptation. Flynn lifts quotes straight from the page and sets them to Pike’s silky narration and includes them in screenshots of diary entries. Even the pacing–which switches from Nick’s perspective to Amy’s and back again–mirrors that of the book, and this format is the only thing that doesn’t seem to translate well to the screen. Instead, the pacing leaves  the movie stumbling over itself before it gets the chance to run as the plot escalates toward the last third of the story.

Affleck’s maddening cool guy routine with his punchable face is spot on, and Pike portrayed Amy with breathtaking perfection, but credit is due to the unsung heroes of the movie: the supporting cast playing Margo Dunne (Carrie Coon), Nick Dunne’s twin sister, and the lead detective on Amy’s missing person case Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens). Both women stole scenes with the weight they added to an otherwise insane plot. Nick and Amy are so intense, so lost in each other, and so dysfunctional, that it takes the stellar and understated performances of Dickens and Coon to bring the film back toward a solid reality and away from the precipice of the unbelievable.

Kim Dickens' Detective Rhonda Boney gives the film--and its increasingly chaotic spiral--a realistic foil.

Kim Dickens’ Detective Rhonda Boney gives the film–and its increasingly chaotic spiral–a realistic foil.

In the meantime, the true star of Fincher’s vision is the true star of the movie and provides us something that Flynn couldn’t in her novel: the barren landscape of the Dunne’s massive suburban home; the starkly contrasting image of a search party sweeping their flashlights across the forests of Missouri; flashes of red blood over the beige and grey of the Dunne’s idyllic lives. Coupled with a chilling score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, Fincher’s direction takes a thrilling book and translates it into an equally thrilling film.

Book or Big Screen: Is it possible to say that they are equally good? That a book isn’t dishonored by its film adaptation? That the film adaptation doesn’t botch the whole thing? It’s definitely possible to say that Gone Girl won’t need a reboot in ten years because the first didn’t do the job well enough. Thanks to Flynn’s screenplay and Fincher’s vision, the film stay incredibly loyal to the book that should appease everyone but the most zealous readers. Read the book or watch the movie; watch the movie first then the book; it actually shouldn’t make a difference this time around, just make sure you do both.

Readers, beware: While you will hear a lot of familiar lines, and you will see scenes that Flynn painted so vividly in her novel you feel like you’ve seen them before, every adaptation will have its casualties. Lord knows this movie shouldn’t be any longer than it already is, and because of those constraints, a few minor elements get washed out: Boney’s lingering obsession with the case, Shawna Kelly’s development. We can nitpick, but there isn’t much to be wary of.

Viewers, beware: You are in for a long haul. While Gone Girl never feels tedious, it is extremely detailed, and when you read the book you will know why. Get ready for a wild ride of emotion, and make sure you’re prepared to step out of the theaters and straight into the bookstore, because it’s just that good. I will say that the book medium seems to fit the plot’s format a little more snugly, but Fincher manages to capture the true spirit of the novel and the true nature of its horrible characters quite well. You’re not missing out on much for having not read the book.