“Books Starring” is a column doing book to movie comparisons of at least two movies that share an actor or actress.
Ashley: We all knew this day would come: It’s time to tackle all those movie adaptations led by Jennifer Lawrence. OK, not all of them, because there are just so many between her breakout hit Winter’s Bone and her role in the recently released Red Sparrow. I have to admit I’m somewhat of a Jennifer Lawrence fangirl, or at least was during the years the four Hunger Games movies were coming out. (She plays my beloved Katniss Everdeen! And spoilers, she makes a great Katniss. Plus, have you ever seen Lawrence’s early interviews before massive stardom? This girl had me in stitches with her stories.) I’ve seen most movies Lawrence has starred in, whether they were originally books or not, but for the purposes of this column, I’m going to focus on Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews, The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick, and — of course — the Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins.
Before heading to the theater to see this spy thriller (I’ll admit I watched the movie before reading the book), I had trepidation. As the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements gain steam, I knew this story about a Russian spy, Dominika Egorova (Lawrence), who’s trained in sexpionage and falls in love with her American target, CIA officer Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton), was polarizing, for both critics and general audiences alike. While Lawrence says her nude scene made her feel empowered, many others didn’t feel the same watching it. Emily Gaudette wrote for Newsweek, “Red Sparrow is intended to be a sexy thriller, but it's little more than a canvas for one director's limited vision of women, of which there are only two stereotypes: lovely creatures to be beaten into submission, and cruel, useless hags.”
I’m not going to argue that Red Sparrow is some feminist masterpiece, but I do disagree with critic claims that it’s “intended to be a sexy thriller.” Because while there’s a lot of sex, it’s mostly unwanted, and Dominika’s anger about being used in such a degrading way, and her attempts to reclaim her agency, are the entire point. Dominika resents having been sent to “Sparrow School,” where people are trained in the art of seduction. Every scene at Sparrow School is unpleasant for how unsexy it is. (This is the location of Lawrence’s nude scene.) The psychology about sex taught by the Russians here is intended to be insidious. So no. It’s not a sexy spy thriller. Because it never wanted to be a sexy spy thriller.
Does that mean it’s fun to watch Lawrence get punched, kicked, and raped repeatedly all while putting on a fake Russian accent? Despite her funny, silly public persona, Lawrence does often play stoic women who endure a lot of abuse and violence (the aforementioned Winter’s Bone and Hunger Games). But I’m here to watch her punch and kick people repeatedly (she does get to do that in Red Sparrow). Violence overall really isn’t my thing, though, and I did cringe in my seat and cover my eyes during a few scenes that took it a little too far. And no, I could never stop thinking about how Lawrence is faking an accent. I did like watching her have to do some ballet in the beginning of the movie (Dominika becomes a spy after her dancing career gets destroyed by some conniving classmates who literally break her leg), and thinking of how Lawrence has had to get so many specialized teachers for roles at this point. In the end, I left the film wanting to defend it against its harshest critics, but like I said, it’s no masterpiece, feminist or otherwise. Still, I wouldn’t judge you for killing two and a half hours watching this.
But the book is better, particularly since the movie leaves out a key bit about Lawrence’s character. In the book, Dominika has synesthesia, and it’s what makes her such a fantastic spy. She spends a lot of time describing what colors everyone’s words are, what hues lurk behind their heads to signal their emotions. Even if it’s a rare condition, I wholeheartedly buy that it makes Dominika exceptional at almost everything she does. In the movie, I left sort of baffled about what was supposed to make her special (beyond her family connection to Vanya Egorov (Matthias Schoenaerts), the First Deputy Director of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service).
Plus, while the movie is definitely long (again, pushing two and a half hours), it still has to condense and merge and rush plotlines, particularly of side characters, and for a story where the twists and turns make or break it, that’s not really the best thing. (Plus plus, it’s the start of a trilogy! Changes only compound.) You definitely get to spend more time with characters that aren’t Dominika or Nate in the book, and that makes their motivations and thought processes make so much more sense. Because I left the movie thinking, “Really? Some of those people were supposed to be the best spies in the business? Really though?” Not so in the book.
So read the book. But again, not if you want a sexy spy thriller. Go somewhere far less concerned with gratuitous violence for that.
Also available as an audiobook.
Let’s just get this straight right off the bat: There is no way I’m going to tell you the movies are better than the books. And if you’ve only watched the movies, seriously, what are you doing? WHAT ARE YOU DOING?
But one thing I definitely don’t fault the movie franchise for is casting Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen. Trust me, as soon as that casting announcement happened, I had a million doubts. I watched tons of Lawrence interviews and didn’t get it at all. She’s just so silly. She has blonde hair and blue eyes and white skin (Katniss has black hair and grey eyes and olive skin and yes that’s all important!). Who the heck even is Jennifer Lawrence? (Look, 2011 seems so quaint now, doesn’t it?) Whatever, it doesn’t matter — all that matters is she’s too tall for the role. Every point of contention you could have with her not being like Katniss, I felt at this point.
And then I watched Winter’s Bone (for which Lawrence received her first Oscar nomination), and all my preconceptions disappeared. I haven’t read the book version of Winter’s Bone, but Lawrence’s performance as Ree — a teenager living in the Ozarks trying to navigate the world of drug dealing to find her missing father, while also taking care of her family — won me over. Lawrence as Ree taught me that you can convey so much with just your face. She showed just how stoic she could be. She skinned a squirrel. She won the role of Katniss with those skills.
And Lawrence as Katniss, now equipped with a bow and a quiver of arrows, carried the movie franchise. Carried the whole flippin’ thing through shoddy CGI (who thought those fire effects made Lawrence look “as radiant as the sun”? Get the heck out of here!), epic mishandlings of Peeta Mellark’s character (he comes off as a creepy and totally useless stalker during the cave scenes in the first movie), and a general lack of finesse at handling some of the source material’s most moving scenes (I think Catching Fire is the best in both book and movie form, but the movie still totally ruins my favorite scene between Peeta and the dying District 6 morphling).
Lawrence, though, puts on an amazing performance (even if she and Josh Hutcherson, who plays Peeta, have no romantic chemistry and that’s disappointing. I mostly blame Hutcherson). She skillfully navigates being a cynical but loving character who’s forced to put her compassion aside in extreme situations to survive. She even had a radio hit with her performance of “The Hanging Tree” (let’s be real, reading the lyrics of a song is fun and all, but it’s awesome hearing Lawrence make it an actual song). The sequence of events that happens while she’s singing it during Mockingjay Part 1 made me cry.
But, while Lawrence can again convey a lot with just her face (seriously, how?!), her performance cannot stand up to getting Katniss’s first-person perspective in the books. Katniss’s voice may be simple, but it is so cutting and cynical, so compassionate and honest. That doesn’t shine through as much just in Katniss’s straight dialogue, which means it’s mostly left out of the movie. It’s not enough to just watch Katniss from a camera’s perspective. You want and need to be inside her mind to more greatly appreciate the wide cast of quirky characters fighting for their lives in this dystopia.
This one is a breath of fresh air (Lawrence doesn’t have to fight for her life here!), but it’s harder to compare these because the book and movie are pretty different. The book focuses on the struggles of mental illness, whereas the movie brings all the romantic undertones of the source material to the forefront and leans heavily into being a romantic comedy.
I know a good contingent of Silver Linings book fans who begrudge these massive changes to Pat and Tiffany’s storylines (played by Bradley Cooper and Lawrence, respectively). And honestly, that’s fair. Having those characters retain (most) of their mental traumas — the story begins with Pat returning to his childhood home after spending time at a psychiatric hospital (in the movie, it’s specified he has bipolar disorder; in the book, his missing memories and his struggles have no specified source), while Tiffany deals with depression in the wake of her husband’s death — without exploring these traumas as deftly can come off as belittling.
I personally don’t get too hung up on the changes, though, because I treat them as separate stories that happen to share some scenes. In particular, they share one of my favorite moments of all time, which is when Pat, at the very beginning of his attempts better himself and get back with his ex-wife, is reading A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway (one of my favorite books). After reading the super depressing ending, Pat throws the book out the (closed) window in anger. (Don’t worry, I didn’t ruin the joke for you, there’s more to the scene.) Oh, my gosh, Pat, I love you, but also, Hemingway is a tortured genius and A Farewell to Arms is greatness in a book so you’re wrong, Pat, you’re just wrong.
There’s also no better time to read or watch Silver Linings, in the wake of the Philadelphia Eagles’ historic Super Bowl win. I’ve never read the Eagles chant so many times in a book before, and I’m pretty sure I (sadly) never will again. And it’s all extra touching because Cooper is from Philadelphia. It’s a Philly lovefest here. E-A-G-L-E-S EAGLES!!!!
Wait wait wait, you came for a column about Lawrence, who is also great in this movie! Like I said, her role in this is refreshing, not just because you don’t have to watch her get repeatedly punched, kicked, or attacked by mutts, but also because this role is one of the closest — if not the closest — she’s had so far to one that matches her public, lovably ditzy persona. Her humor is darker in Silver Linings than her natural humor, for sure, but still, at least it’s humor (Katniss and Dominika do not have time for the frivolity of joking around). And while at this point we all have Cooper/Lawrence fatigue (they also play leads in American Hustle, Serena, and Joy), this was their start together, and they are cute. (Hence why they kept doing all those movies together.)
So in the end, I recommend both reading and watching the movie. They are different experiences, both worth it. (But don’t do it if you think it’s going to mess with the Eagles’ juju. Philadelphia needs this football team, do you hear me?)