Will Byrnes's Reviews > Serena

Serena by Ron Rash
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Mar 28, 15

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Read in October, 2009

In the primeval woods of North Carolina, young timber baron, George Pemberton, brings his bride, Serena, to live with him in his kingdom. He had been busy enough already, fathering a child with a local girl and clear-cutting wide swaths of land. Serena quickly establishes herself as a power in her own right, knowledgeable about the timber business from her family background in Colorado, frightened of nothing and totally, totally ruthless. She is both an almost deitific figure and a satanic one. She will tolerate no criticism and her ambition is beyond measure. Beware, any who would cross her path. Both murderer of people and proud rapist of the landscape, she acquires a henchman to take care of her dirtiest deeds, among which is the removal of George’s bastard child, and the child’s mother, and enlists a non-human assistant as well.

Literature with a capital L. Serena is one of the great dark females in literary history, up there with Livia, Lady MacBeth and others of their ilk. Beautiful, beautiful writing.

This is the most satisfying read I have had all year (2009). Ron Rash is a major find. It is a wonder that he is not as well known as Ondaatje or others on that high plain. A feast, a powerful tale accompanied by a symphony of classical and literary tones. Hubris, greed, man and god, doing the right thing, magic, vengeance, good and evil, the essence of America, capitalism, and with a Greek chorus to boot. If this is not made into a world-class, best-picture level film it will be a huge, huge loss. This is a very cinematic book, rich in color, scenery, imagery, dramatic settings, shocking events, bigger than life characters, and all with purpose. Major, major work. It makes one yearn for more.

================================THE FILM

2/10/15 - I wrote the above, somewhat thin, review several years back. If anything, it understates the power of the book. It was only a matter of time before the novel was translated to the big screen. It will be opening in the US later this month. I was honored to attend, yesterday, a screening of the new film, starring Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper. Although hopes had been high initially, once the project got under way it became apparent that all would not end up as hoped. It was not, for example, taken on by one of Hollywood's A-list directors, despite the acting star-power. The result is, while not a bad film, not an exceptional one either, and that is a huge shame. The problems are diverse. The performances are quite good, as one would expect.


Liberties were taken with the character of Serena that I thought did not help. In the book, for example, it is clear early on that Serena is a dark and powerful force, with a hearty dollop of madness mixed in. The film plays her softer in the beginning, and offers an event that purports to spark her madness. I was reminded of another film that got this sort of thing wrong. Sweeney Todd. In the original theatrical production, Sweeney returns to London, quite sane, but determined to seek vengeance on the evil-doer who had done him dirt. It is when he fails in his initial attempt at the evil Judge Turpin that Sweeney goes all meat-pie in the head. The disappointing film portrays him as bonkers from the start, making him so much less human, which dilutes the impact of the savagery in which he engages. In Serena, she is a primal force from the git-go, and there is no need for the film to justify her dark-doings with an intermediate event. It is like attempting to justify a tornado. Don't. It just is. Bradley Cooper's character, Pemberton, seemed a bit harsher in the film than in the book, where he was much more driven by events than he is in this treatment.

The book was written, at least in part, as a look at the rape of the land in North Carolina,
I thought it was a better way to look at the present, through the past. I wrote Serena because of what was happening a couple of years ago, with environmental issues -particularly it looked like there was going to be some really extensive logging in National Forests. It didn't quite happen as badly as I thought it was going to happen, but certainly the threat was there. - from 18:05 of Stacey Cochran’s interview with Rash on more2read.com
standing in for the rape of the land today, but that cinematographical smorgasbord was left on the table, mostly untouched. There are some scenes that let us in on the damage being done, particularly a brilliant scene in which Pemberton, in a public forum, challenges those who propose a national park that will include his land. But a lot more could have been offered visually to reinforce this theme.

Instead of a slow and steady build up of tension and pressure, the film seemed to mosey along, stopping far too often to linger in far too many closeups, making this one hour forty nine minute film feel much longer. The ending of the story, for Serena, is changed from that of the book. I suppose it is understandable, but I was hoping for greater allegiance to the original material.

Rash was asked, in a 3/24/15 interview by Judith Rosen in Publishers Weekly about his involvement with the film adaptations of Serena and an earlier novel
I made a decision early on not to read either screenplay. I answered a few questions from the screenwriters but was otherwise uninvolved in the filming. For me, that was better. I was deep into a new novel during that period and preferred to concentrate on something that, unlike film, I knew I could do well. Of course I hoped the movies would be as true as possible to my novels, but it is a different medium so differences are inevitable. Someone once asked Harry Crews what a film “might do” to his book, and he answered that a film didn’t change a single word in the book itself. That seems a good attitude for a writer to take.
A couple of minor notes, there is an unintentional joke when Cooper's character is referred to by another as a lousy shot. The trailer for the film contains a fabulous shot of Serena launching an eagle from her arm. Somehow that did not make it into the final cut.

The film is definitely interesting, but it struck me, overall, as a melody that was slightly out of tune, a drum that was off the beat, and a huge opportunity that was lost to bring one of the best novels of our time to the big screen. I can only hope that the presence of J-Law and Cooper can bring enough attention to Ron Rash's great novel to propel an increase in his readership. As one of our greatest living writers, he deserves that. He certainly deserved better than this only-ok film.
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Comments (showing 1-27 of 27) (27 new)

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Shellie (Layers of Thought) Exactly my thoughts! Nice review.

Will Byrnes Thank you for the kind words. Another great book from last year was Edgar Sawtelle. If you have not gotten to it yet, I urge you to give it a go.

Shellie (Layers of Thought) Thanks - its already on my list... :)

message 4: by Nancy (new) - added it

Nancy Great review, Will. I've already added it to my shelf.

message 5: by Mark (new) - added it

Mark Wow. Sounds fab. And a particularly evil anti-heroine always sounds fun

Will Byrnes The film is due out, I believe, in 2014 - Jennifer Lawrence as S

message 7: by Magdalena (new) - added it

Magdalena Ganowska Sounds promising! Added to my to read list.

Mary I'm looking forward to reading this one. I recently read one of his short stories, and I was impressed enough to add a bunch of his books to my "to reads."

message 9: by Henry (new)

Henry Avila Like your review,Will.

Linda D I am finally reading this now...so far I agree with your review 100%.

Cacophony Where can I download it from??? I tried several site but it didn't work.

message 12: by Will (new) - rated it 5 stars

Will Byrnes Cacophony wrote: "Where can I download it from??? I tried several site but it didn't work."
Sorry Cacophony. Don't know. The edition I read was on paper. Certainly from Amazon, B&N or any seller of e-books. And there is always the local library.

message 13: by Hanneke (last edited Feb 10, 2015 04:31AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Hanneke Damn, Will, I hate to hear that the movie is not done well. I don't think I will go see it, as I loved 'Serena' too much to have it destroyed by wrong images painted before my eyes.

Mizuki I am starting this book today.

message 15: by HBalikov (new)

HBalikov Did you read Rash's short story, Pemberton's Bride? I believe he built Serena out of it.

message 16: by Carol (new)

Carol Very insightful movie review, Will. I've only read one book by Ron Rash...not this one. Maybe I will have a different take on the movie...as a result.

message 17: by Will (new) - rated it 5 stars

Will Byrnes HBalikov wrote: "Did you read Rash's short story, Pemberton's Bride? I believe he built Serena out of it."
Not. I have read a couple of his short story collections, but those were published after Serena. I have not yet dug down into his earlier work

message 18: by s.penkevich (new)

s.penkevich Great review! I'm reading his short story collection 'Nothing Gold Can Stay' right now and have been blow away. After reading this wonderful review I think I'll hit this next so I can see the film. Rash is wonderful.

message 19: by Elyse (new) - added it

Elyse Great review... I just read an article on the film -which opens today in our city. Our paper said..."read the book"...pass on the film...That our leading actors chemistry doesn't work like it did in "Silver Linings Playbook"..but goes on to say its not entirely their fault. (they are pleasurable enough to watch enough our critic says) --but that they almost look too modern for this period piece --(even uncomfortable in their roles). Did you think so too?

message 20: by Elyse (new) - added it

Elyse I mean -were these your thoughts about these actors playing in this film?

message 21: by Will (new) - rated it 5 stars

Will Byrnes No, not really. I thought they were fine. But the direction, screenplay, cinematography, pacing and soundtrack were all lacking.

message 22: by Elyse (new) - added it

Elyse Awwwwww, OK!

message 23: by Mary Mack (new)

Mary Mack Nice review. I'll have to move it up on my list.

Linda D Will, have you watched the movie? If not don't bother. The story is barely recognizable. What a shame. They turned Serena into a sympathetic character. We were so disappointed. I understand now why there was never a theatrical release the U.S.

message 25: by Elyse (new) - added it

Elyse I once had this book - in my hand- I could have bought for a dollar.. Great condition - hard copy.

( you don't need to tell me what a knuckle-head I was when I didn't get it).

message 26: by Will (new) - rated it 5 stars

Will Byrnes Linda wrote: "Will, have you watched the movie? If not don't bother. The story is barely recognizable. What a shame. They turned Serena into a sympathetic character. We were so disappointed. I understand n..."
You might check the part of the review labeled THF FILM.

message 27: by Will (new) - rated it 5 stars

Will Byrnes Elyse wrote: "I once had this book - in my hand- I could have bought for a dollar.. Great condition - hard copy.

( you don't need to tell me what a knuckle-head I was when I didn't get it)."

It is still out there, although maybe not for a buck.

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