For Pity Sake Publishing

Red Sparrow – A Film and Book Review by Jennifer McDonald

Be the first to comment on this blog and we’ll send you Jen’s ‘one owner – low mileage’ print copy of Red Sparrow
Honestly, boring and predictable wasn’t quite the look I was going for with this blogpost, but it has to be said – the book Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews is so much better than the film version starring Jennifer Lawrence and Joel Edgerton.

This film story of Dominika Egorova, a Bolshoi prima ballerina whose career is cut short by a horrific physical injury that’s not an accident. As the Bolshoi foots the bill for the apartment Dominika shares with her sick mother, and because Dominika can no longer dance for said ballet company, the two are about to become destitute when Dominika’s Uncle Vanya steps in. A high ranking official in the Russian spy bureaucracy, Vanya coerces his niece into Sparrow School where intelligence agents are trained, in the most sadistic and humiliating ways, in the art of ‘sexpionage’. (Just as an aside here, Charlotte Rampling plays the sadistic principal of this Dominika-described ‘whore school’ to a spine-chilling tee.) From there Dominika is sent to Budapest to become acquainted with CIA agent, Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) who the Russian’s suspect is the handler of mole buried deep within their ranks.

The film gets a thorough bollocking from Luke Buckmaster in the Daily Review  who calls it ‘idealistically shallow’ and ‘intellectually putrid’. That’s certainly an eye-catching headline and one I’m not sure I agree with in total, but he does make some valid points. My vote for best quote in Buckmaster’s review is, “…maybe there is a bluff going on, or a double bluff, or a bluff of a double bluff. Boy, have we seen this movie before – usually with a modicum of chemistry between the two leads.” Ouch.

Kevin Fallon in the Daily Beast takes a slightly less pointy-ended approach in his March 1 article, questioning how it is Jennifer Lawrence is such a good actor when her films are so terrible.

I’m not a fan of overly graphic films. I guess that’s why I prefer books and loathe anything Quentin Tarantino. And while I’m not squeamish about blood and gore, I can’t un-see or un-hear the human responses to torture – and there’s a lot of physical, mental and emotional torture in the Red Sparrow movie.  While a number of those scenes are derived from Jason Matthews’ book, I’d go as far as to say they are gratuitous at best and downright grotesque at worst.

As is always the case with book-to-movie transitions certain scenes are merely embellished and others are fabricated to enhance the dramatic effect.  Unfortunately, the embellishments, fabrications and story changes in the movie version of Red Sparrow only serve to deplete any empathy the viewer might have developed for poor Dominika, a victim of an arcane, brutal, patriarchal system if ever there was one.  In his previously mentioned review Mr Buckmaster describes Jennifer Lawrence’s Dominika as having an ‘eat-puppies-for-breakfast demeanour’. Ouch again and not entirely undeserved.

20180304 - Red-Sparrow BooktopiaThere is one scene early in the films that puts exclamation marks after this stark observation!! Remember how I told you Dominika’s ballet injury is not an accident?  Well, in both the book and the movie she is deliberately injured by her dance partner at the behest of his lover, another Bolshoi dancer who’d missed out on the prima ballerina role. When Dominika discovers her career-ending injury had been contrived, she sets her mind to exacting revenge.  Here’s where the book and the movie versions diverge.

In the book, the reader is made aware of the fact that the Bolshoi company strictly forbids its dancers from engaging in any type of extra-curricular relations. Dominika cleverly sets the lovers up to be discovered by a Bolshoi manager, which in turn leads to their expulsion from the company. She muses afterwards how little it took to ruin the lives of these two dancers, and how little remorse she felt for it.

However, in the movie there’s nothing clever about Dominika’s revenge – she bursts in on the lovers mid-coitus and beats the crap out of them with the walking stick she’s using during her own recovery. Any contextualisation of this act of unfettered violence (which, like many others in this movie, was overly graphic and drawn out) is confined to a moment when Dominika notices that the handle of her cane is covered in blood.

For my money, this is the starkest and the saddest example of how the movie fails to portray the complicated essence and motivations of our heroine/anti-heroine.

Clearly, there’s vastly more opportunity for nuance and context in Red Sparrow’s 547 print pages than in the movie even if the latter is two hours and 19 minutes long. In a bid to justify my boring-but-truthful ‘the book’s better’ opening comment I’d like to spend the last few paragraphs of this blogpost telling you why.

Red Sparrow’s author Jason Matthews is a retired officer in the CIA’s former Operations Directorate, now known as the oddly poetic-sounding National Clandestine Service.  As one might expect, the book’s descriptions of international intelligence gathering and espionage ‘tradecraft’ are detailed and compelling. Unsurprisingly, the book reeks of authenticity from start to finish. What did surprise me however, is the humanising and at times, amusing manner in which the book is written.

Don’t misunderstand me – there’s plenty of detailed descriptions of bloodlust, sexual violence and torture in Red Sparrow, but there are surprising moments of lightness and quirkiness too. A Russian operative ‘handling’ a high-maintenance US government mole in Washington fantasises about the good old days when informants who caused trouble where simply despatched in ‘accidental’ circumstances.

Or when our American spy, Nate Nash, apologises to our Russian spy, Dominika Egorova for inviting her to meet at an Afgan restaurant. ‘I was worried you would think I was being provocative,’ he said, to which she responds, ‘I do not think you are provocative.  You are an American, you cannot help yourself.’
But by far the quirkiest and most delightful thing about Red Sparrow (if one can call a spy thriller ‘delightful’) are the recipes that appear at the end of each chapter.  Yes, you heard right – recipes for something that has been consumed by one or more characters during the chapter.  ‘Blinis served at Vassily Egorova’s (Dominika’s father’s) wake’ appears at the end of Chapter 3. ‘MARBLE’s Rustic Tomato Pasta Sauce’ cooked in his own apartment no less, appears at the end of Chapter 30.

Once I got over the weirdness of seeing recipes in a spy novel, I realised how clever Matthews was to include them.  When all’s said and done, spies are still human beings who eat, drink, think and feel, despite their rigorous training and the daily skulduggery of their work. Humanising them in this way opened the door to a more thorough exploration of the characters’ underpinning beliefs and motivations for doing the shadowy, dangerous work they do.

Sheer genius in my opinion, and a pity this level of context and nuance didn’t have a hope of making it to the big screen.





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  1. Shayne Sommer Reply

    Today I passed a lady with a t-shirt emblazoned with “the book was better” … I was going to try and find this online for me, I’ll pick one up for you too, Jennifer?

    • Jennifer McDonald Reply

      Yes please, Shayne. I would love a t-shirt that says that – save me having to write those words as often as I do! Congratulations on being our first commenter. My copy of ‘Red Sparrow’ will be winging its way to you shortly.

  2. Warren Reed Reply

    Love the blog. It’s plain-speaking, and combining a book review with a review of the movie made from it is clever. Comparisons will always be made and dealing with them in this way saves a lot of time for readers and moviegoers. With the author of Red Sparrow, Jason Matthews, being a former CIA operative he knows better than most spy-thriller writers the sorts of atmospherics that best apply to his story, and give it realism. But movie directors, by their very nature, are as far removed from a spy – current or former – as you could get. Their creative instincts and juices tend to flow in a different direction. Therefore, getting them both to run parallel with each other, like railway lines,is a great expectation. Nevertheless, excellent movies have been made out of some of John Le Carre’s books (as David Cornwell, he also had a stint in secret intelligence)and there are also movies that are better than the book. Clearly, the Red Sparrow movie has taken more liberties than usual. Matthew’s advice to the director might be, If you’re visiting Salisbury Cathedral be careful where you take coffee! Warren Reed, former ASIS officer.

    • Jennifer McDonald Reply

      Hey Warren – Your ex-spy’s eye view of this blog is much appreciated. I never read the book but I loved the movie version of Le Carre’s ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’. I’ll be interested to hear what you think about the ‘Red Sparrow’ read, when you have a chance – particularly the recipes!

  3. Jean Ellis Reply

    The book is so so much better!!
    Especially the colours that Dominika can see around people which give her such insight into their motives. Film ending was more satisfying however.

    • Nala Reply

      Yes, on the whole the book was great, but the ending of the movie was quite satisfying…

  4. Eric Reyes Reply

    I’m so sick of movie destroying what were great books. All the writers, director, and producer had to do was follow the book to a T and they would have had a fantastic movie. Even the dialogue in the book was far better than the movie. Also the lead actors were not a great choice. Joel Edgerton was an awful pick. He is so vanilla and boring. Lawrence was OK but there are at better actresses for this role. The receipe to make a great movie outbof a great book is to follow the book to a T and try to reinvent the wheel. But unfortunately that rarely happens.

  5. Anne Clayton Reply

    I am reading the trilogy and would not even consider seeing the movie as books are always better. I would love to have a cookbook with the recipes. Will that ever happen?

  6. Bloggins Reply

    The book portrayed a deeper view into the many aspects of espionage and it’s global effects. The book was so good that I had two get next two books immediately because I wanted more of what next.

    The movie didn’t explain or build up the excitement towards conducting specific events or operations. This was the movies’ nearsightedness. Since the movies playwright is limited to 2hrs, prehaps this this leads me to feel that maybe a movie format is not how the book should of been transferred to video production.

  7. Jennifer McDonald Reply

    In the main, I agree Bloggins. Most books aren’t done justice by their movie counterparts but then some are. In my previous response to another commenter, Warren Reed, (a former ASIS agent and now For Pity Sake author – look out for ‘An Elephant on Your Nose’ to be released in November) I mentioned that I’d not read Le Carre’s ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’ but absolutely loved the movie. That could have been the actors of course – it’s hard to top a line up like Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumerbatch, John Hurt and Tom Hardy – but I suspect the screen writers are really the ones we should thank here. They’re authors of sorts, just in a different medium. I think ‘Red Sparrow’ could have been great on the screen but the producers chose to take all the humanity out of it and multiply by 100 the gory-factor. As ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’ shows us, the human side of spying is usually the most fascinating part of the story. Thanks for commenting!

  8. Warren Reed Reply

    Jen, thanks for that. When a movie is made from a spy thriller the emphasis, as you observe, is understandably placed on the most exciting and gory bits. Sadly, this usually leaves the human side of spying – especially the stresses and strains of all the action and excitement on the spy himself or herself – untouched. That’s where John Le Carre’s books stand out. He examines all of the psychological dimensions of a spy’s life. Often, the spy has more than one exciting thing happening in there life at any given time. They’re often deluged by a blizzard of demands and priorities, and that’s before you consider what’s going on in a spy’s personal domain. That’s usually the first thing to go by the wayside.

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