Film Review: Serena

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.


The following post is a review of the film only. You can read my review comparing the film to the book here or 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 story is transformed from being one about a beautifully mesmerising yet powerfully threatening female icon 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 more 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 you can read more about these differences in my Book vs Film Review here), 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.

You can buy the Serena book here

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.

It just doesn’t work. Ron Rash’s book is about a powerful female character who takes charge in a male-led industry, who 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.

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 standing on top of her self-made tower of men [and women] 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.

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