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Hollywood take on novel a flop?

fr serenamovieJust because something looks good on paper doesn’t mean it’ll work in method.

Case in point, the new Hollywood film “Serena,” which is a silver screen adaptation of the Ron Rash novel of the same name. The book, a Great Depression-era murder drama amid the Western North Carolina logging industry, was a New York Times bestseller, with the film roping in two of the hottest stars in modern day cinema — Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper.


And yet, why haven’t most folks, even die-hard fans of the searing onscreen chemistry between Academy Award nominee Cooper and Academy Award winner Lawrence (as seen in the mega-hits “Silver Linings Playbook” and “American Hustle”), heard of this potential blockbuster success?

“Unfortunately, this third time around is a marketer’s nightmare: ‘Serena’ is a colossal bore that wastes the talents of its two co-stars,” said critic Bruce Kirkland of the Toronto Sun in a recent review. “As a married couple in the film, they also have zero sexual chemistry on-screen, so their love scenes are squirmy embarrassments for the audience…As a result, ‘Serena’ the movie looks authentic to its period. But that effect does not carry us very far. The rest of the 109-minute running time is an ordeal.”


From the page to the screen

Written in 2008, Serena was a fictional bestseller, one that pushed Rash, a Parris Distinguished Professor in Appalachian Cultural Studies at Western Carolina University, further into the national spotlight as one of the finest Southern writers of his time. And within the history of cinema lies the age-old saying, “the book was better than the movie,” an adage that is applying more to “Serena” as the bad film reviews roll in.

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“I’ll let the people decide for themselves on what they think about the film,” Rash said this past week. 

Even though Rash wrote the book, once he sold the movie rights, the story, and its fate, was out of his control. 

“I haven’t seen it or really kept up with it. I haven’t even read the screenplay. I stayed out of it. It’s hard enough to write a good story, so I just concentrate on that,” he said in an interview with The Smoky Mountain News this past December. 

Set right after the Wall Street Stock Market Crash of 1929, the story takes place in Waynesville, where timber tycoon George Pemberton (Cooper) and his newlywed wife Serena (Lawrence) find themselves amid a once-profitable Southern Appalachian industry falling into hard times just as the United States government eyes the vast landscape for the eventual creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It’s a tale of greed, murder, love, jealousy and seemingly everything else in-between. Quite simply, the words on the page read for Hollywood cinema gold. 

But, it seems a perfect storm of problems converged, turning a possible Oscar-contending film into another “straight to DVD” release with only around 75 theaters participating in the nationwide film release on March 27 (the movie originally premiered in London last October). 

For starters, the book itself is an intricate, detail-rich piece of prime literature, with a massive operation undertaken to be able to distill it into a 109-minute film, and yet still keep the storyline respectful to the novel. The landscape seen onscreen is not that of the Great Smoky Mountains; rather it is portrayed by the peaks of the Czech Republic — an overseas location that is more cost-effective and easier to adjust to time periods (lack of industrial development and less societal infrastructure interference) than in America. Add in post-production delays, editing issues, a moving target for a release date, a heap of bad reviews and a lack of marketing and promotion, and you have yourself a $30 million Hollywood production falling through the cracks of 21st century pop culture. 


Let It Roll

So, now what? On with the show, as they say.

“We still plan to show it, but will consider it more in context of the novel and create supporting events around it, rather than expect attendance for the movie’s sake alone,” said Lorraine Conard, co-owner of The Strand at 38 Main. “Even a less-than-perfect silver screen version of a successful novel creates a wonderful opportunity for engagement around different aspects for the adaptation and the topic in general.”

Upon viewing the film, one is easily lost in the plot points, where rather large segments of the story are often rushed through to get to the next scene. Characters are thrown into and out of the film as if a tornado rolled through the screenwriting process. And those main actors that do put the film on their shoulders barely scratch the surface of the people they portray. Granted, the cinematography and mountainous landscape are beautiful, but that is all too easily dismissed with simple dialogue, a cheesy panther attack that appears to be computer generated, and not to mention the bear hunting scene, which shows a grizzly being shot at (an animal not native or documented to have existed in Western North Carolina).

“The scenery is certainly evocative of Western North Carolina — the beauty of our area is portrayed and positively represented. I think local folks will feel the difference, but for people unfamiliar with the area, it’s still visually compelling,” Conard said. “Ultimately, the film is about our area, the book it’s based on by a local author. We want to make sure our community has the opportunity to experience the film in our community.”

The Haywood County Tourism Development Authority has similar sentiments.

“The fact that it is a story that encompasses the characters that were written in Ron Rash’s novel is what should be looked at,” said Becky Seymour, video production manager for the TDA. “There will always be positive reviews and negative reviews and it is up to the individual to judge the film. Either way, it is a good marketing tool for Western North Carolina, like any film that mentions or was shot in our area.”

Seymour also heads the Haywood County Film Commission, a branch of the TDA that aims to attract film productions to shoot locally, to embrace the unique people and landscape of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Take in mind, too, that another legendary book about Haywood County, Charles Frazier’s bestseller Cold Mountain that became a box office hit in 2003, was filmed in Romania, though its popularity, in both book form and cinema, still positively affects the tourism of our region.

“Depending on the context used to represent Western North Carolina and Haywood County in these productions, the exposure is a great thing,” Seymour said. “The fact of the matter is, the real location is what people need to focus on. A lot of these movies are supposed to be the Great Smokies, but are really filmed in another country. It’s my job, along with the TDA, to continue to use these films as a marketing tool but still push the real adventure and experience that visitors can have, outside of the camera lens.”


A Lost Opportunity?

How could a plot this rich be squandered? There was romance, murder, exploits, and mystery. There were larger than life characters, a sweeping period setting and a clash of worlds amid the falling forests of Southern Appalachia.

“What happened to this potential Academy Award-winning story? Who messed it up? How did they ruin it?” pondered Gary Carden, a Sylva-based writer and winner of the North Carolina Literature Award, who is also a friend of Rash.

Then again, is it really such a surprise?

“The best thing that can happen to you is Hollywood will buy your book and never make the movie,” Carden said. “Because if they film it they will mess it up.”

Still, it’s got be disappointing to Rash, even though he won’t say so publicly. Serena was his masterpiece, and even during the writing of it, he saw it as prime material for a feature film.

“Ron has wanted a movie for a long time. He has written a few books hoping they would become movies,” Carden said. “[But] what he could not control was Hollywood.”

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