Book v Film: Serena

“What made losing someone you loved bearable was not remembering but forgetting. Forgetting small things first… it’s amazing how much you could forget, and everything you forgot made that person less alive inside you until you could finally endure it. After more time passed you could let yourself remember, even want to remember. But even then what you felt those first days could return and remind you the grief was still there, like old barbed wire embedded in a tree’s heartwood.”

Directed by Susanne Bier and based on Ron Rash‘s 2008 novel, Serena is set in 1930s North Carolina and tells the story of the newly-wed couple, Serena (Jennifer Lawrence) and George Pemberton (Bradley Cooper) as they return home to begin to build a timber empire. Although George has already lived in the camp long enough to father an illegitimate child, Serena soon shows herself to be the equal of any man, overseeing crews, hunting rattlesnakes, even saving her husband’s life in the wilderness. Together, they take charge of the woodlands and ruthlessly kill or vanquish all those who fall out of their favour. Yet when Serena learns that she will never bear a child, she sets out to murder the son that George has fathered without her.

Book:
Film:
Adaptation:

The following post is a review of the film adaptation in comparison to the book. You can read my review of the book on its own here.

I bought this book knowing that it was soon going to be adapted with Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper in the lead roles, which is enough to get me interested in anything. But whilst the book is well-written with poetic imagery of its beautiful setting and tells a unique story of revenge with powerful main characters, it wasn’t tense enough for a story about deceit and murder and it didn’t challenge the many themes that it explores.

Reading the book again after seeing this film adaptation, however, the book comes across as a hard-hitting western revenge thriller, as its qualities are highlighted by the incompetencies of this adaptation.

As a film, Serena completely misses out on the key concepts of Ron Rash’s contemporary novel. It lacks any attention to detail and its characters’ personalities and traits are so reshaped that the story is transformed from one about a beautifully mesmerising yet powerfully threatening female protagonist to one about a vulnerable wife who lets her husband’s actions take over her.

Serena is named after its central character because she is the force behind the story. Instead, she has no impact whatsoever in this film, completely missing the point of author Ron Rash’s basic set up. Rather than dressing manly and taking control of her husband’s business and life, supervising his every move and making plans for his future, Serena instead looks glammed up and is happy to take on more of her wife duties, as she’s often seen in the background looking after the workmen’s children.

Pemberton is also supposed to be more of a push-over. Although he is a man that gets things done in the book, it’s mostly done at Serena’s request because he’s completely under her charm. However, because Serena is such a weak character in the film, the dynamic is completely altered. Not only do we see less of the scheming and murders that take place mostly at Serena’s command, but Pemberton’s new independence leads him on a totally different path.

Since I’m keeping this main review spoiler-free, although I will go into the main difference in detail below, what the changes in this adaptation means is that Serena is made to look depressed and mentally ill as if she cannot cope, whilst she is strong and in control until the very last line of the book.

Also starring Rhys Ifans, Toby Jones, and Sean Harris, there is a great cast behind this poorly adapted script and, obviously, Lawrence and Cooper are both are eye-catching to look at in their roles. We know that they are both very talented actors who usually have a great chemistry when working together, and that’s why I was so interested in this film adaptation in the first place, but their characters are painfully flat and lack any depth in this film adaptation and

It just doesn’t work. Ron Rash’s book is about a powerful woman who takes charge in a male-led industry; she makes threats to get her own way and will stop at nothing to ensure that people think most highly of her. This film adaptation, however, takes a completely different stance, as the story changes from being one of revenge and betrayal with death and murder on nearly every page, to a more generic story of a woman losing her mind because of a man’s selfish actions.

You can buy the Serena book here

Differences From The Book:

From my review above, there are obviously a lot of differences from the film compared to the book so this is going to be a long list. Aside from the character differences I have already explained, the main difference is that Serena’s character is altered so much that her emotions and therefore her motive changes, completely altering how the story ends.

The book shows her as a strong and powerful character who kills her husband in an act of revenge, whilst the book shows her as being mentally unstable and ends with her committing suicide. I will go into all of this in more detail below, but let’s start at the beginning and go through all of these differences in chronological order:

  • The film begins with Pemberton living a single life as he lives in a cabin alone, is working with his crew on a railroad, shooting wild bobcats with his partners, and inviting Rachel into his home. In the book, this past is only referenced to and we don’t see any of Pemberton’s relationship with Rachel. Instead, the first scene in the book is Pemberton getting off the train with his new wife, Serena.
  • In the film, we see a man die on the railroad and Pemberton attempt to save him. This event doesn’t happen in the book, although he does try to save one worker because he has the same name as his son, and it’s not until much later on that we see any deaths at work.
  • In the film, Pemberton has a meeting about turning his land into a national park as well as his future plans for Brazil. In the book, this happens later on and Serena is always in attendance at these meetings. Brazil is also her plan, not Pemberton’s.
  • In the film, we see Pemberton meet Serena at a sporting event that he attends with his sister. We don’t meet his sister in the book and we don’t see his meeting with Serena. Instead, all we know is that he is away from work because his father has died.
  • In the film, Serena is riding a white horse when she meets Pemberton. In the book, the horse is a Christmas present from Pemberton.
  • In the film, Pemberton’s sister says that a fire killed Serena’s parents, and Serena later tells the same to Pemberton. In the book, Serena’s family died of the flu and she admits to burning the house down herself.
  • In the film, Pemberton says “I think we should get married” and there are a few sex scene montages before they arrive at their cabin. In the book, Pemberton isn’t so forward and whilst many of their sex scenes are detailed, this isn’t until later on.
  • In the film, Serena often wears dresses and looks glammed up. The book, however, makes a point that she dresses like a man and always wears trousers.
  • When Pemberton and Serena arrive home in the film, Rachel and her father are waiting for them at the station but they do not approach them. In the book, Rachel’s father approaches Pemberton and challenges him to a knife fight. Pemberton kills him and has to be questioned by the police, but is let off because it’s deemed as self-defence. Serena then tells Rachel that she has chosen a good man to have a child with and encourages her to sell her father’s knife to get some money for them. They do not interact in the film and Pemberton doesn’t kill Rachel’s father. In the book, Serena also stitches Pemberton’s wounds up and is impressed by his actions.
  • In the film, Pemberton has already planned Brazil. Again, in the book, it is all Serena’s idea. She is always making plans for their future, but she doesn’t seem to have any control in the film.
  • In the book, the couple talk about trees more and Serena asks lots of questions about the worksite, the staff and their houses. In the film, she’s not as interested in the business and has a much smaller role in it.
  • In the film, one of the workmen is bitten by a rattlesnake much earlier on than in the book. In the book, one of the workmen kills a rattlesnake to open up the same conversation about how summer means more snakes.
  • In the film, it is detailed that Galloway was in prison for manslaughter. This isn’t mentioned in the book.
  • In the book, Serena makes a bet with a man called Bilded about how tall a tree is. She wins and gets him sacked, showing her power straight away. There is no such character in the film and hence no such bet. Instead, Serena is merely seen in the background looking after the workmen’s children.
  • In the book, Bilded’s foreman role is given to Galloway. In the film, we can assume he had this role the whole time.
  • In the book, there is also a character called McIntrye who constantly preaches about the Bible. He believes that Serena’s arrival is linked to the end of the world. He later goes loopy and has to have electric shock therapy. This character is not in the film, either.
  • In the book, Pemberton talks about Serena’s night terrors. She doesn’t have these in the film.
  • In the film, since they have been having plenty of sex already, Serena abruptly tells Pemberton that she is pregnant. In the book, it’s not until later that she tells Pemberton not to use protection because she wants to make his heir.
  • There is a lot more about Rachel’s life in the book. We see her struggles looking after a baby on her own and her relationship with a woman named Widow Jenkins who sometimes looks after the baby for her. We don’t hear about Widow Jenkins until the end of the film so we don’t get to see how much she helps Rachel beforehand.
  • In the book, we also see more of Rachel’s friendship with a worker called Joel. In the film, Joel is referred to by his surname, Vaughn, so it’s not obvious that they are the same character. Although it is implied that he is looking out for her, their developing relationship isn’t made clear until the end.
  • In the book, Pemberton dwells on his past with Rachel more. He doesn’t in the film since Serena tells him early on to put his past behind him.
  • In the book, the workers don’t know why Serena gets an eagle or why she asks the men to put all of the rattlesnakes in the barn. In the film, she tells them they need an eagle to catch the snakes so her intentions are obvious.
  • In the book, Serena is more delusional from the lack of sleep and food from spending two straight days training the eagle, whilst she seems fine in the film.
  • In the film, the men are impressed with the eagle, whereas they are worried that Serena is disrupting the circle of life in the book.
  • In the film, Buchanan brings Sheriff McDowell to the worksite and makes an offer with him without Pemberton. In the book, Pemberton, Serena, Buchanan, Wilkie, and Harris all work together on their plans. Pemberton and Harris are close partners throughout, but neither his or Wilkie’s characters are included in the film.
  • In the book, there’s not as much conflict between the men at first. In the film, Buchanan seems set against Pemberton straight away and even threatens to go the police about him bribing other landowners. This isn’t in the book, either.
  • Later in the book, Pemberton forces Wilkie to sell his land. He is much more forceful. Again, Wilkie isn’t in the film so we don’t see this.
  • In the film, there are fewer partnerships, deals, contracts, and schemes, a lot of which Serena is involved in, so neither Serena or Pemberton have the same threatening presence as they do in the book.
  • In the film, Pemberton looks around an empty cabin and finds out about Buchanan’s negotiations with Sheriff McDowell. This doesn’t happen in the book.
  • In the book, Serena goes with the men when they go hunting for the mountain lion. In the film, they are hunting for a panther and Serena doesn’t go with them.
  • In the book, a bear attacks Pemberton and Serena saves him, again showing more of her strength and bravery. In the film, Serena isn’t there so this is when Pemberton takes his opportunity to kill Buchanan. In the book, he kills him a little later whilst they are hunting for deer alone.
  • In the book, it is obvious that Serena has told Pemberton to kill Buchanan. This isn’t obvious in the film and Serena isn’t as persuasive or manipulative.
  • In the book, Sheriff McDowell questions the men but gets nowhere. In the film, Galloway defends Pemberton.
  • In the book, the setting is much darker and the land is covered in snow. It is not in the film.
  • In the book, Rachel has to walk for miles in the snow to get her baby some medicine but she passes out. She wakes in the Suttle’s house and is looked after by them. None of this is in the film so we don’t get to see the two nearly die and therefore don’t have the chance to feel sorry for them as much.
  • In the book, Rachel asks Pemberton if she can come back to work and he asks for Serena’s permission. She has some terms which Rachel accepts. In the film, Rachel just turns up with the baby and almost taunts Serena. Instead, in the film, Serena sees Pemberton going to talk to Rachel and is annoyed by this.
  • In the book, Rachel is given the cold shoulder by her workers and is often called a whore because she is so young. In the film, she is much older and the workers don’t seem to know that the baby is Pemberton’s. She is merely thought to have had a baby out of wedlock so people aren’t so mean.
  • In the film, a photographer takes a picture of Rachel and her baby at work and Pemberton takes a copy of it out of the paper. In the book, he pays a funeral worker to take one for him.
  • In the film, Pemberton sends Rachel some money to help her to look after the baby. In the book, Pemberton sends Rachel money later on to help her whilst on the run, which is more of a betrayal to Serena.
  • In the book, Galloway sees ruby in the land that they are buying and Harris wants to dig for copper. None of this is mentioned in the film.
  • In the book, Serena has kept her pregnancy a secret and the workers are surprised when she accidentally reveals her bump. In the film, they seem to have known the whole time.
  • In the book, there are more accidents at work and Doctor Chaney worries about the number of men dying. We don’t see much of this in the film and there are not as many deaths.
  • In the book, there is an employee called Jacob (which is the name of Rachel’s baby) and Pemberton is upset after seeing him get crushed at work. None of this is in the film.
  • In the book, Serena uses her horse reigns to save Galloway’s arm. In the film, she uses a belt.
  • In the book, it is explained that Serena wants to keep Galloway on at work because his mother had a prophecy that he is bound to the woman who saves his life. This isn’t explained in the film.
  • Serena has a miscarriage much earlier on in the film than she does in the book.
  • In the book, Galloway kills Doctor Chaney for telling Serena not to go to the hospital. He doesn’t kill him in the film.
  • In the book, Galloway starts lingering around Serena much more obviously and the workers are more aware of both Galloway and Pemberton killing people to get their own way. Since they don’t kill many people in the film, the workers seem to have no idea what’s going on and aren’t as afraid of them.
  • In the film, Serena gets drunk at the work party and makes a fool of herself. She seems a lot weaker. In the film, Pemberton takes her into a different room when she gets upset but she keeps her appearance up in front of the others. In fact, she still tries to get money out of them, putting the business first.
  • In the book, Serena instructs Galloway to kill Harris. The police then say that Harris has been found dead after falling down the stairs and the workers begin to click on to what’s going on. In the film, Harris doesn’t exist.
  • In the film, more focus is put on Campbell, instead, but we don’t know what happens to him after he runs off with the money. In the book, Campbell’s brother tells everybody that Pemberton has killed him.
  • In the film, Serena finds Pemberton’s picture of his baby with Rachel and this fills her with anger. In the book, Serena only finds out that Pemberton has sent them money, which happens much later on.
  • In the book, Pemberton sees Serena leave with Galloway in the middle of the night with a knife in her hand and all we know is that Widow Jenkins ends up dead the next morning. In the film, we see Serena and Galloway turn up at Rachel’s house as Rachel hides inside with her baby. The police then turn up after receiving a warning call from Joel.
  • In the book, Sheriff McDowell shows up at the worksite the next morning wanting to question Serena. In the film, Sheriff McDowell turns up that night and tells Pemberton that Serena was after his baby.
  • We don’t know if Serena was after the baby or just Rachel in the book, he is only worried that she has killed somebody and wants to make sure that she doesn’t go to jail. He even bribes people to get them to back off. In the film, Pemberton is more worried that Serena wants to harm his baby and is angry with her.
  • In the film, Serena has killed for revenge. She tells Pemberton that she did it because Pemberton hurt her and that she wasn’t enough for him. In the book, they are both seemingly on the same side. She doesn’t show any feelings of anger towards Pemberton and instead says that they are closer than ever since that they have both killed.
  • In the film, Serena starts coming across as crazy and unstable at this point. In the book, she is just shown to be powerful and in control, of herself and of everybody around her.
  • In the film, Pemberton strangles Serena in front of their workers. In the book, there is no such conflict between them. Pemberton still cares for her very deeply since there was no motive for Serena to harm his baby.
  • In the book, Sheriff McDowell spends more time with Rachel as he helps her to escape. In the film, we only know that he has done so.
  • In the book, this is when Pemberton sends Rachel money and it is this that Serena finds out about, not the photograph.
  • In the film, because Pemberton is angry with Serena, he asks Sheriff McDowell to give him 48 hours to find Rachel and protect her from Galloway, and makes a deal to hand himself in afterwards. In the film, he is just glad that they have got away and his loyalties remain with Serena.
  • In the film, Pemberton finds Galloway going after Rachel and slits his throat. In the film, Rachel escapes from him and Pemberton isn’t out protecting her, so Galloway doesn’t die.
  • In the book, Pemberton and Serena go to a carnival. There, Serena’s eagle has a fight with a komodo dragon, again showing Serena’s power and influence. This doesn’t happen in the film.
  • In the book, Sheriff McDowell sets fire to Pemberton’s cabin whilst he and Serena are asleep but they both escape. It is then assumed that Galloway kills Sheriff McDowell. This doesn’t happen in the film and Sheriff McDowell remains alive.
  • In the book, Joel has run away (presumably to find Rachel) and people expect that his body will show up next. Rachel begins a new life although she is constantly on edge. In the film, Rachel meets up with Pemberton and allows him to say goodbye to their baby as she is thankful for him saving them. She then goes off to start a new life with Joel.
  • In the book, Serena throws Pemberton a 30th birthday party. They aren’t on such good terms in the film so this doesn’t happen.
  • In the film, Pemberton is killed by the panther that he has been hunting. Sheriff McDowell asks Serena to identify the body but she refuses to come out, later setting fire to their cabin as she locks herself inside. In the book, Serena makes Galloway take Pemberton out hunting for the mountain lion. He gets bitten by a snake, but he dies because Serena has poisened his food. Again, this shows two very different sides to her character. The film shows a much more mentally unstable and weak Serena, whilst she maintains her power and strength all the way through the book, choosing to kill her husband because of his betrayals instead of committing suicide.
  • The book ends with a chapter that is set in 1975 when Serena has an article in Life Magazine in which she says that she doesn’t regret anything. Rachel sees the article and Serena is later killed, presumably by Pemberton’s son who is now grown up. The book closes with Serena dying whilst she’s standing up, ending with the image of her holding on to her powerful stance until the very last minute. None of this epilogue is in the film since Serena has killed herself.

Overall Verdict:

Although the book is a good read, I didn’t fully appreciate the impact of it until I had seen this poor adaptation.

I find it hard to believe that a character, especially in the days of female empowerment, has been allowed to be so mistreated. It’s only five years old, but if this book were adapted today, it could be shelved next to the like’s of Lizzie and Lady Macbeth if it had better direction behind it.

From a female director, I expected a lot more; a unique take on the typically male-driven genre with the unforgettable presence of a woman with no boundaries, making her mark in history as it ends with the image of her making her mark in the world, standing on top of a self-made tower of the bodies of those who have gotten in her way. Instead, the character that Ron Rash so well crafted is left to burn because of her self-pitying insecurities.

Now that I’ve seen how underdeveloped a character like Serena can be so negatively impacting, I much more enjoyed the book on a second read and I can now see that the character that Rash created was a powerful and influential one that deserved a lot better.

If you want to give the film a watch, which Cooper and Lawrence will entice many people to want to do, then I would recommend that you do so before reading the book, and then allow Ron Rash to detail to you what he actually intended to do with such a great character.

About Charlie Morris

Proofreader and film blogger living in Cornwall.

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