From Page to Screen: The Adaptation of Red Sparrow

Joy Cheriel Brown breaks down the adaptation of the novel Red Sparrow from book to film, highlighting both positive and negative changes.
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Joy Cheriel Brown breaks down the adaptation of the novel Red Sparrow from book to film, highlighting both positive and negative changes.

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The novel, Red Sparrow, written by Jason Matthews, was such a huge success because the author was a former operative of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The book was praised for its authenticity and won two literary accolades—the ITW Thriller Award for Best First Novel and an Edgar Award for the Best First Novel by an American Author. The interesting fact about the novel, though, was that the rights to turn it into a movie were sold before the book was even published.

Changes That Had To Be Made

Red Sparrow was adapted for the screen by Justin Haythe. When adapting a novel into a screenplay, there will obviously be changes that have to be made. One of those changes is the length of the story. A 431-page book is not going to fit nicely into a 90-120 page screenplay. There are edits that have to be made.

One of those major changes employed in the adaptation of Red Sparrow is that, in the book, the protagonist, Dominika Egorova (played by Jennifer Lawrence), goes to school to become an agent and she goes to Sparrow School, which is a special division of becoming a Russian spy where the recruits learn how to use their feminine wiles and sexuality to get what they want. In the movie adaptation, regular spy school was skipped and they went straight to Sparrow School.

Another necessity in movie adaptations is to eliminate some characters absolutely and to combine others. In the book, we briefly get to meet Dominika’s father. This relationship with her father informs the relationship she later has with her superior, Korchnoi, played by Jeremy Irons in the movie, and by relationship, I mean that of a parent and a child. However, when the movie starts, Dominika’s father is already dead.

Eliminating this character from the movie basically changes the entire theme of the story. In the book,

Dominika’s father worries about her blind loyalty to Russia. The book is about a young woman’s awakening to how her country uses her and doesn’t look out for her best interests and selfishly does not care for its citizens. The book also features a suicide by Dominika’s fellow Sparrow School classmate, Anya, which also helps drive home this point. In the movie, the story is more about how her uncle, Vanya (played by Matthias Schoenaerts), who works for the Russian government, can heartlessly betray his niece by sending her to Sparrow School. Keeping the story the way it is in the book would make much more of a political statement and thus would probably be harder to sell overseas, but it would have arguably made a better movie.

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Another character that is completely eliminated from the movie is Golov—a Russian spy who is getting secrets from an American Senator named Stephanie Boucher. In the movie, Stephanie is a Chief of Staff for a Senator, not an actual Senator herself. Also, in the movie, the character, Marta, handles Stephanie, not Golov. In the book, Marta is an older retired spy who mentors and advises Dominika and has nothing to do with Stephanie Boucher, but in the movie Marta is made to be a much younger woman and is more of an adversarial character to Dominika.

There is also more diversity added to the casting of Red Sparrow than is found in the book. In the book, the character Benford says that he doubts that there is any Russian blood in his heritage, so it makes sense that an African-American actor, Hugh Quarshie, was cast to play him. Also, in the book, Forsyth is a man, but in the movie, the character is played by Indian-American actress, Sakina Jaffrey.

Another change that had to be made was that the stakes in the book just weren’t high enough. In the book, as in the movie, Dominika’s mother’s well-being is held over Dominika’s head to make sure that she became and stayed a spy. But in the movie, they gave her mother an illness, which she doesn’t have in the book. Giving her mother a debilitating illness instantly made the stakes higher.

Changes That Hurt the Movie

There were also changes that hurt the movie. One of the most glaring mistakes was casting Joel Edgerton as Nate Nash who is about 20 years older than the character was meant to be—in the book, Nate Nash is around the same age as Dominika. This one change alone could have tanked the movie.

Nevertheless, this one change—though major—is probably not what hurt the movie the most (the film only made $46,874,505 domestically). The biggest change that quite possibly doomed the movie was changing the ending (I will not spoil it for those of you who still want to see it). The ending of the movie was completely different than the book, and this undoubtedly angered the book’s fans, thus prompting them to tell other people not to see the movie. However, I saw the movie before I read the book and actually liked the movie’s ending better.

The other major change from the book to the movie that may have also hurt the film was that in the book, Dominika was a synesthete who sees color that emanates from a person that tells her what kind of person she is dealing with and if they can be trusted, which is what makes her such an excellent agent. I do not have a possible explanation for why something that was so central to the book was taken from the movie. In the film, Dominika tells Nash about a dream she had where she can see color coming from people, but it is never suggested that it is something she can also see during her waking hours.

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One of the quirks of the book was that at the end of each chapter, there was a recipe for a dish that the characters partook of during the chapter. I do not know why this was in the book, other than to point out the cultural diversity of cuisine when you are a spy, and I do not have a fully formed opinion as to why this was completely taken out of the movie other than that it would have been a waste of time to include it. But, it would have been nice to have some homage paid to it in some way.

What We Have Learned From The Adaptation of Red Sparrow

What I would like each one of you to take away from the adaptation of Red Sparrow—from the book to the movie—is to think twice before making such major changes, as changing the age of a lead character by either making him or her significantly older or younger than the character is in the book. I would also avoid completely changing the plot of the book to give it a different ending, or altering it in such a way that the book’s theme isn’t even the same anymore.

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