I came to Red Sparrow by way of a movie critique that I heard on the radio last week. Based on the plot summary alone, I knew instantly that I had to see it. Jennifer Lawrence as a Russian spy trained to set honey traps? Does she become a double (perhaps triple) agent working with the CIA? Yes, please. Anything involving Russians spies feels apropos these days, anyway, right?
Like any dedicated reader, I decided to hit Jason Matthews’ 2013 best-seller first. It’s a meaty, deliberately-paced 400-page novel (almost 600 pages on my iPad). It’s set in a dour, dangerous, highly restrictive Russia where the whims of its president and secret service control nearly everything. Our heroine, ballerina Dominika Egorova, has few choices that are her own—especially when her career is sabotaged by jealous fellow dancers. With her father dead and her mother on the outs with the State, she’s vulnerable enough to be used by her creepy uncle, whose career is ascendant at the nuevo KGB.
Dominika is groomed by her uncle and eventually forced to attend State School Four, which is, as she puts it, “whore school.” Students are taught seduction and to view sex, love, and human contact as cold weapons of war. Once trained, she’s deployed to Scandinavia to get close to CIA agent Nate Nash, who is the sole contact of a highly placed Russian mole. Her job is to extract the name of the Russian agent from him, by any means possible.
By the time Dominika ends up in Helsinki, she’s starting to question the nationalistic orthodoxy she grew up with. “Sparrow school” was as painful as it sounds—and she’s sick of being taken advantage of. Nate is clean cut and eager to prove himself to the CIA after mishandling an agent meeting in Moscow. He’s not an easy target for a honey trap, and she’s determined not to set one. She’s ready to do things her way. Each must recruit the other to survive in their respective careers, though the stakes for Dominika are much higher.
Author Matthews was a 30-year veteran of the CIA, so presumably he shares actual trade craft. His spies aren’t armed, there are few car chases, and no one is an alcoholic. Instead, primacy is put on secrets—moving without being followed, discretion, earning trust. Recruitment happens through talk, through human connections, and for personal motivations, like revenge. There’s violence in the book to be sure, but it’s not a blood bath or a “shoot ‘em up.”
If I Liked the Book, Should I See the Movie?
Of course you should! Have I mentioned Jennifer Lawrence is a sexy Russian spy? Come on! Who doesn’t like to see a book come to life on the big screen? It’s worth it for the 30-foot wide set pieces alone. That said: the movie is tonally different from the book and the ending diverges dramatically. Also, be prepared to watch a good bit of it between your fingers because the violence is graphic.
Jennifer Lawrence is a stand-out comedic actress, but I bought her as inscrutable Dominika. It’s hard to capture the nuance of a novel in cinema, so the screenplay connected motivations to actions with a straighter line. That’s okay, but the movie didn’t show Dominika’s emotional vulnerabilities or her aptitude with good, old-fashioned spy craft, like avoiding detection on the street. Instead her ability to read people is tied into her sexuality in a more overt way. I believe it was difficult to give Dominika more depth because of the way the screenplay changed the character of Nate (played by Joel Edgerton).
In the book, Dominika is attracted to Nate because she intuits that he’s a genuinely good guy. He’s more boy scout than cynic. Book Nate is young, a believer in the cause that New Russia is dangerous, and above all: he wants to do a good job. Dominika trusts him, and she sees the contrast between him and people who use her, like her uncle and the secret service. The movie changes Nate significantly, and reliance on the old trope of the hard-drinking, lonely, prostitute-using spy robbed Dominika (and Nate) of complexity.
A standout performance is credited to Matthias Schoenaerts, who plays Dominika’s uncle. Schoenaerts channels Putin and is a stand-in for the evil machinations of a fresh red scare. He was superb. Mary-Louise Parker plays the role of a nervous, self-interested senator’s aid, and her vaguely comedic bit is a welcome break from the increasing horror-show violence that’s inflicted upon Nate and Dominika (mostly Dominika). Much of it was in the book, but it’s more gruesome on the big screen. The degrading treatment of sparrows is worse in living color too—just a warning.
In my opinion there’s no way to perfectly and exactly turn a lengthy novel, especially a spy thriller with all the requite twists and turns, into a movie. The collapsed timeline makes certain expedient choices necessary, so I accept that. Some of the plot turns got a little confusing. The biggest change is the ending, which I actually thought worked very well. If you require fidelity to the source material, you might disagree, but I thought a Hollywood finale smoothed over the uneven edges of the screenplay. Over all, is Red Sparrow worth the price of admission? Da.