Ron Rash does not typically write happy stories. He specializes in the grim and grit of Appalachia, and it has worked for him. This year, his tales of woe have come to the big screen not once, but twice. The Noah Wyle–led The World Made Straight dropped in January. And the long-gestating, star-studded adaptation of Serena finally hits theaters today, after debuting across the pond last year.
For the uninitiated, Serena centers on a Depression-era North Carolina lumber camp, and the power-hungry couple at the center of the maelstrom: George and Serena Pemberton. Together the pair, burning with passion, decimates not just forests but any foe who dares stand in their way—until passion turns to madness, that is. Portraying these ill-fated lovers are Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, leading a cast of big names and bigger talent in a uniquely American spin on Macbeth. Though Rash does not write happy stories, he does give happy interviews. Here he reflects on watching his book become a movie (with some major deviations from its source material), and reveals the secret behind Toby Jones’ authentic accent.
Let’s talk about the book. This is a bleak story, almost gothic. Did you ever imagine it becoming a film?
I did not. I did not. I’ve never thought of any of my books being films. So it was surprising.
What was it like to get that call? Did you have any apprehension about these strange movie people taking your novel and redoing it?
Well, there’s a [quote from] Harry Crews, who’s a writer I admire a lot, and somebody asked him the question, “Are you worried about how your movie might your change your book?” And he said, “The movie would not change one word in my book.” And I think that’s a good attitude to have. And I went in not expecting the movie to be exactly like the book. To me, it’s like a translation.
And as for the movie, it’s been an unusual road to release.
Yes, it has!
I can’t imagine it was easy for you to watch the process. What was it like dealing with that?
Actually, there’s another movie that just came out based on another book of mine, The World Made Straight, and I made a decision with both that it’s just best for me to stay out of the director’s and the screenwriter’s way, and I did that. And I’m glad I did that, and I’m sure they were as glad as I was.
What’s next for you?
I’ve got a new novel coming out in September. It’s called Above the Waterfall. It’s a little bit different from my other novels. I mean, I know it’s my most optimistic book—which is not saying a lot. It’s a book about wonder, natural wonder, and trying to see it in an age when so much of our culture wants us to be unable to see it, to be staring at our computer screens.
Well, that sounds like a change of pace from Serena‘s lumber camp.
Right. And as a writer, what we have to do is be as true to the world as possible, even in our fiction, and there’s more to the world than evil.
As for the movie itself, for Serena, it diverges pretty substantially from the novel. I know you said you were kind of hands-off, but did they talk to you at all about those decisions? Are you okay with that from a storytelling perspective?
I think if you agree to have the movie rights, then you have to accept that.
I, for one, missed the epilogue. And I really enjoyed the sawyer crew in the book that serves as this Greek chorus. Those are some of the elements I missed in the movie.
Yeah, but once again I think that’s the challenge of making the screenplay for directors. In a two-hour movie, how do you try to bring about what went on in a 400-page book? I don’t know. That’d be very difficult.
That said, you can’t ask for a more all-star cast for this movie? I thought Jennifer Lawrence was really great in a very unlikable role. What did you think of the performances?
I thought they were very good. To me, the character I thought was the best as far as being connected to the novel was Rhys Ifans as Galloway. I just thought he did a really good job with that kind of menacing, brooding. And I think Lawrence, one of her strengths is physicality. She grew up riding horses. She’s real athletic, and I think that really made a difference.
Now you’ve had Serena made into a movie. You’ve had The World Made Straight made into a film. Is there anything in the future you’d do if Hollywood came calling again?
To me it’s a win-win. To me, when a movie’s made, it brings readers to read a book they never would have. And that’s been one thing with Serena, so many people have come to that book because it got them curious.
Any other thoughts?
One thing that might be entertaining to the reader is Toby Jones played the sheriff. I talked to the screenwriter on the phone several times, so he knew my accent. And I got an email from the screenwriter, because he’d asked me a few questions, and he said Toby Jones would like to talk to you on the phone. I thought it might be just about some aspects of the sheriff, and it turned out that that Jones just needed to hear me talk. You know, that was pretty funny. I can just imagine the screenwriter telling Toby Jones, “You’ve got to hear this accent.”
Serena hits theaters today.