Thursday, August 6, 2015

Watching a Story come to Life, Or Not

I mentioned a few times already how much I love reading stories and watching them on film and oftentimes, watching the film version of a great book is a treat.  Or sometimes not.  I recently finished reading Serena, a novel written by Ron Rash and set in 1920’s Smoky Mountains, around the time the timber empire was threatened by the government’s desire to preserve the beauty of those mountains by establishing the park we know today.  Rash is a writer who resides just up the road from me in North Carolina and, like me, is a Clemson University alum.  I was initially drawn to reading the book because of these things we share and the strong recommendation from a co-worker.  I’d started out by listening to the book on Audible, but was so intrigued and so had to know what happened next that I ended up purchasing it and spending the better part of the night reading it after Connor and Lydia had gone to sleep.
And so, when I first saw the film advertised on Netflix, I was beyond excited.  The trailer promised beautiful scenery, ideal casting choices, and most importantly, it looked as though the film was going to capture the true spirit of Serena as a character.

The film started with the initial sound of a slow, steady rhythm of a guitar, a shot of mist and sun and, finally, the title character’s name rising above the blue and green mountains all around is nothing short of breathtaking.  The actors all looked and felt the part of their characters.  Everything was lovely, just as I’d pictured it. 
Perhaps what pleased me most was, like the book, the film shows Serena as knowledgeable of the timber business as anyone around her, capable and unafraid of running the camp, even venturing out alongside the workers, singlehandedly training an eagle to catch rattlesnakes that have been wreaking havoc on the workers and calmly saving the life of a man, Galloway, who’d lost a limb.  She also suffers a devastating miscarriage that nearly kills her and causes her husband, George, to give her his blood despite not knowing whether they are the same blood type.

Another thing the movie keeps is George and Serena seeking to take down the trees of his expansive property to make money off the timber all the while going up against government, who is to preserve the beauty of the Smoky Mountains by establishing the park .  They are willing to (and do) take down those who stand in their way just like they take down the trees at an alarming rate.  I must admit I enjoyed the symbolism and the fact that the film kept that. 
But it is beyond this that readers of the book can see the changes from book to film, some for the better, some for the worse.  One change I was disappointed to see take place begins early in the book as well as the film.  On the very first page, readers learn that George Pemberton’s life is actually on the line as we get a description of an impregnated teenage girl’s father waiting outside a train station, waiting to challenge Pemberton (the baby’s father, now married to Serena) to a knife fight and kill him.  Serena is there too, and encourages and watches as Pemberton not only wins the fight but kills the man in the process.  She then coldly tells the young girl, named Rachel, that she has gotten all she ever will from George and will gain nothing more from him now that she (Serena) is here.   The book follows Rachel’s story in part, through her struggle in learning to raise her son, Jacob, selling most of her material items, and relying on neighbors, particularly a kindly old woman called the Widow Jenkins before being forced to ask for her job back as a cook in the Pembertons’ lumber camp.  We get a sense of her struggle and have compassion for her.  The film portrays none of this.  The initial exchange between George and Rachel’s father is silent, almost non-existent, and furthermore we don’t follow Rachel’s journey as closely as in the book, only hear about her time with Widow Jenkins in passing, and see a few scenes of warm exchanges between her and George and few scowls she gives Serena.  Though I felt a bit of sorrow for Rachel given her predicament, in the film I got more of a sense of her simply being pitted against Serena rather than learning to survive the way she did in the book.

A change that I feel was somewhat for the better involves Serena’s own pregnancy.  Just as in the book, Serena loses her baby due to a doctor’s misdiagnosis in the film.  In the book, she expresses mostly disappointment over this and gets back to work, and Galloway (the man whose life she saved, who owes her a life debt) takes her revenge on that doctor by killing him.  In the film, Jennifer Lawrence displays a quiet agony that never leaves her.  She openly sobs when she learns of her baby’s death, frantically orders George to do away with a crib he’d purchased and doesn’t work for a long time.  Having suffered two miscarriages, I can relate, and I think her reactions in the film were well-portrayed.  I remember once someone telling me that a certain amount of beauty lies in tragedy, and this was a moment when the film and Lawrence embodied that idea.  Perhaps my personal experience factors into my feelings on this, but overall, I prefer this change.
I suppose it is after this that I began to have the most trouble with some of the changes.  The book portrays Serena’s rage and jealousy at not being able to produce an heir for George causing her to send Galloway to hunt Rachel and Jacob down.  She even kills the sweet Widow Jenkins in the process.  Rachel and Jacob begin a run for their lives with Galloway, following the instructions of his psychic mother (yes, I'm not kidding--this woman can see the future) on where they are, trails them by only a step.  They are able to make it to the state of Washington, and Galloway’s mother loses her “sight” of them.  Pemberton finds out through the sheriff that Serena and Galloway are suspected of the murder of Widow Jenkins and their attempts to find Rachel and Jacob.  He does provide money for Rachel and his son, but a fire at their home (caused by the sheriff in a fit of rage, believing the Pembertons evil) causes him to realize that Serena is his life, and his love.   Meanwhile, Serena, filled with a calm rage that George dare send his son and his son’s mother money to help them (that he put them above Serena), allows a photographer to take their portrait and then orchestrates George’s death by preparing a poisoned sandwich for him as he sets out to hunt a famed mountain lion in the area.  George succumbs to the poison as well as rattlesnake bites, but this part of the novel ends with him tending to his wounds, making his way back to camp before stopping to rest and resting assured that his beloved Serena will come for him and save him.  He does not die in this moment but we are meant to know that he is near it, that his past actions of trying to help his son ultimately lead to his end.  At this point, the novel skips ahead some forty years.  Serena has made a name for herself as a timber baroness, having traveled to Brazil, and is famous enough for Life magazine to publish an article on her, an article a woman in a hospital in Washington sees and shows to her son . . . a man roughly in his mid-forties.  The novel then briefly describes Serena and Galloway as having died in the night from knife wounds.  When authorities ask a witness to describe the killer, all he can do is point at a picture hanging in Serena’s home, the picture of her and George Pemberton taken the day he died.

The film most alters this storyline, the one that had me turning the pages at a lightning-pace.  In the film, when Serena discovers her husband has set aside money for his son and the mother of his child and is keeping a picture of them, a rage she cannot contain ends with her on the floor sobbing and scratching away the image of the photo with a letter opener.  It causes her to become increasingly unstable.  In her grief and jealousy, she does hunt for Rachel and Jacob and kills the Widow Jenkins, who is never seen.  Instead of George deducing this, Serena freely admits this to George in the film.  And he anything but accepts it.  He responds by nearly choking her to death and it is he, in the film, who tracks down Galloway as he is about to murder Rachel and Jacob.  Pemberton kills Galloway, thus saving the life of his son and his son’s mother.  He makes peace with them before they leave and returns home to hunt a much-coveted panther, who ends up killing him.  When Serena, waiting at home for George, learns of this, she simply gives up and checks out, calmly laying down in their bed and dropping an open lighter on the floor, setting the house on fire.  One of the last images we see is the house all ablaze with Serena still inside.
And so . . . in altering this ending, I feel the movie changed the story into more of a tragic romance rather than a story of people’s lives coming full circle because of past actions.  I feel it also lost the delicious feeling of suspense and finality that the book delivered.  I don’t like that Serena gave up and committed suicide because George died.  I feel a defining layer of her was lost in that action.  In the book, yes, there is the intense relationship between Serena and Pemberton at the heart, but she it's not everything.  Don’t get me wrong.  I love romances and many of my own works center on romantic relationships.  However, with this story, I believe the way Rash laid it out worked better and had more impact.  Though the film is beautiful to look at and the actors all deliver with what they’re given, and even some scenes (like the miscarriage) work very well in the film, some of Rash’s most important and thought-provoking meanings are lost, which is why, in this case, I’d clearly have to recommend the book before I did the film.

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