Is Serena the Worst Book to Film Adaptation in the History of Cinema?

Serena

I picture the caption for the screenshot above to be something along the lines of, “Jenny, baby, look, we’re in one of the worst films ever made!”

I couldn’t help, while watching the travesty that is Serena, of the infinite monkey theorem (and believe me, thinking about the infinite monkey theorem is a better way to spend two hours than watching Serena), which states that if you sit 100 monkeys at 100 typewriters for an infinite amount of time, eventually their random keystrokes while churn out the works of Shakespeare…or any given text, really.  Any given text.  Like Christopher Kyle’s feces covered script for Serena.  Had monkeys actually written the script for Serena, at least we could’ve said, “Hey, 100 monkeys at typewriters wrote that?  That’s not too bad considering it was monkeys…but let’s not try this again…like, ever.”

But it’s not just the script for Serena that is so bad.  It’s everything.  Every damn thing is awful.  The only thing the film gets right (and this is really stretching it) are the few stock footage images in the beginning of mist rising through the trees atop anonymous mountains (meant to be the Great Smoky Mountains during the Great Depression) which look like screen savers I would’ve used when I lived in North Carolina.  The sets look they were built for a posh prep school play (as do the costumes) which means it looks like they spent a lot of money and everything looks 100% inauthentic.  The music score might as well have been written by a computer (or 100 monkeys!).

And what about this Oscar-pedigreed cast and director, you say?  Well, it’s interesting, because when they first announced that Ron Rash had sold the film rights to Serena (which, as a huge fan of the novel, made me positively ecstatic…as it’s one of those vivid barn-burners that reads like a great film) and Darren Aronofsky and Angelina Jolie were attached…I thought…hmmm…well if it doesn’t work, it will at the very least be bat-shit insane.  (Ironically Aronofsky instead went on to direct his own worst film of all-time, Noah.)  But then those two stepped out and in stepped Susanne Bier to direct.  Bier was a director whose early works I greatly admired but she didn’t seem the right choice.  Then they cast Jennifer Lawrence in the lead, which right from the get-go (she’s too young…too modern and “of the moment”) seemed like an egregious mis-casting…but at least we knew (thanks to Winter’s Bone) that Lawrence had talent, and who knows…maybe this could’ve been a transformative role for her?  And then I heard they drug poor Bradley Cooper in to play George Pemberton – and again, though the guy has proven his talent…he’s too much of a modern matinée idol Hollywood it-guy to inhabit this towering character.

Based on the finished product, I was right.  Bier, it seems, took the studio’s money, then doled it out to some second-unit directors to make the film in the cheapest way possible while “copying her style.”  Hence we have some shaky cameras and poor framing, as if students were trying to emulate Bier’s signatures but with no sense of meaning or cohesion.  During the film’s long-post production process (which kept it shelved for over two years after filming was complete) word got out that much of the sound design had to be redone because during filming in the Czech Republic so many planes flew overhead during key shots that when they watched the dailies, you couldn’t hear a damn thing (this version of the film might have been preferable as it would’ve spared us from Kyle’s stilted dialogue).  But seriously, what kind of incompetent location scout picks an area underneath major flight paths?   Then, in what has to be one of the worst editing jobs of all time, some poor schmuck slopped it all together with lazy counter-intuitive precision, removing any sense of tension or pacing with a scalpel, leaving behind a mongrel ghost of a film that captures none of the novel’s suspenseful brooding tone or raison d’etre.

Oh how Kyle and Bier butcher Rash’s story and characters!  It’s as if Kyle read the Cliff Notes version of the book while high and forgot to look at the two pages dedicated to major themes.  It’s as if Bier understands nothing of America and made no attempt to research North Carolina or the Great Depression.  The film might as well have been set on the moon.   Rash’s novel was the stuff of chilling American Gothic and reached mythic and Shakespearian heights, but nowhere in the film is there any sense of the unchecked greed and eventual madness that drove the Pembertons in their quest to build the ultimate timber empire.  Nowhere is there any sense of the deep backstory or complex character motivations.  On screen George Pemberton is a virtual non-entity – a man obsessed with hunting and having sex.  Serena is rendered to be a simple woman with a tragic childhood who gets drunk and jealous.  Together, Cooper and Lawrence have zero chemistry (contrary to their previous famous couplings on screen) as they are given nothing to work with.  But the worst is what they do to the character of Rachel Harmon – who forms the heart and soul of Rash’s novel.  Here she is given a mere five minutes of screen time (played by a blank-slate, big-toothed generic European actress) appearing pregnant or carrying a baby and uttering a few lines with a horrible Southern accent.  While watching the film with my girlfriend, I had to go back and reread my review of Rash’s novel to remind me of what this was supposed to be about and then share that with her so she could make heads or tails of what the hell was going on.  Even backed by knowledge of the novel, the film is an incoherent mess.

In the end, all I can think of is poor, poor Ron Rash.  Like a rabid mob in some ancient Greek tragedy, they took your baby and dashed its brains across the cinematic stones.  In my imagination…I picture years from now some Rash-ites gathering in Snow Camp, North Carolina and putting on a theater production of his beloved Serena, where they perform in the famous open air-theater during the summer heat, and like the Greek tragedies of our distant past, they translate Rash’s magnum opus through interpretative stone masks and cries of sorrow and madness.  Then…maybe 50 years from that…someone can make a film version that will do Serena’s spirit justice.

Written by David H. Schleicher

Postscript – Many have asked me who I would’ve chosen to direct and star in a film adaptation of Serena.  Though the story seemed so cinematic, it was hard to pinpoint the right star and director…in today’s current field, I wasn’t sure they existed – and perhaps like many classic novels, it’s un-filmable.  After having seen the botched final product, I would like to propose a “re-cast” that would’ve brought back together director Patty “Where the Hell Have You Been?” Jenkins and Charlize Theron in the lead – a classic re-teaming over ten years after their Monster.  It could’ve been a spiritual and cinematic comeback for both of them.  Maybe someone like a Tom Hardy could’ve played George Permberton.  And Rachel Harmon would’ve been played by an unknown teen actress (not unlike Jennifer Lawrence was not too long ago when she signed on for Winter’s Bone).  The film would’ve been shot on location in the actual Smoky Mountains.  Jonny Greenwood would do the score, but Jenkins would pepper it with classic folk tunes from the era.  Robert Elswit would do the cinematography.  Jenkins and Rash would’ve collaborated on the script.

Ahhh…a fan can dream, can’t he?

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10 comments on “Is Serena the Worst Book to Film Adaptation in the History of Cinema?

  1. Shall we share our thoughts on the worst book to film adaptations ever?

    Serena has got to be near the top (or bottom, depending on how you look at it).

    Another one that comes to mind is The Deep End of the Ocean. On the page, Jacquelyn Mitchard cleverly took a melodramatic lost-kid story and wrote it like a page-turning suspense novel. The Michelle Pfeiffer headlining film adaptation was a tepid, soulless, Lifetime movie-of-the-week weeper (as in you will weep for losing two hours of your life to this dross).

    What are some other god-awful book to film adaptations that come to mind?

  2. taitdog78 says:

    Dave, whenever I think of book-to-move-adaptations-gone-wrong, I always think of David Cronenberg’s “The Dead Zone.” Yes, I know I’m alone in disliking it. It’s partly because I can’t stand Cronenberg (I don’t get the love people have for his work; I find him wildly overrated and his films soulless and boring), but it’s mostly because it took a tension-filled psychological story and turned it into 80s pop-thriller dreck. I never got to see the TV series version so I can’t comment on that. The only good that came of this was a sketch on SNL in 1993 where Christopher Walken played a guy who could predict insignificant events in people’s futures (Read this in Walken’s voice: “You’re gonna get an ice cream headache…REAL bad…right here!”).

    Just to end on a more positive note: the adaptation of THE ROAD was a vast improvement over the book.

    • Chris – LMAO – I remember that Walken sketch! Never read that book or saw the movie…but I agree with your general assessment of Cronenberg – though I did find Eastern Promises and that one about Freud that I can’t remember the name of (ha ha) entertaining.

      Excellent point as well, about The Road – though we’re in the minority here – I agree the “okay” movie was better than the overrated book.

  3. WC says:

    Ha!!!! Best review ever!!!

  4. Prakash J says:

    Man! What a review (a perfect postmortem sounds better)!

    I had so much fun reading your review that I feel like watching the movie with a copy of your review in my hand and laugh my guts out.

    The worst book to film adaptations in recent memory for me is Cloud Atlas. The Wachowskis lost the touch after The Matrix but what was Tom Hanks thinking when he signed that script.

    • Prakash – In some bizarre way, I actually recommend people to watch the film – so that they can truly understand how bad a movie can be – how such immense talent can collaborate and get EVERY THING WRONG.

  5. Prakash J says:

    You bet! Negative reinforcement helps—How Not to Adapt a Book to Film 😀

  6. Someone else mentioned on the IMDB board where I also posted this question the Demi Moore Scarlet Letter fiasco. While I never actually read the book…I can agree that is one of the worst movies ever made and that might actually top Serena in terms of cluelessness (as much of that was also in bad taste from what I remember).

  7. Chuck says:

    Well said, I watched part of Serena and couldn’t take any more.

  8. […] was one leading lady who was roped into the year’s worst film, the un-releasable Serena, an unforgivably bad (and not only bad, but flat-out clueless and monumentally inept) adaptation of […]

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