by Jason Matthews
Simon and Schuster
Warning: Some very minor spoilers for
both this novel and the movie version.
I already reviewed the movie version of Red Sparrow in 2018 (you can read that here) so I won’t be getting into the general story arc again when it comes to taking a look at the original novel on which it was based. In that review I think I mentioned I wanted to read the books at some point so I will take the time out here to thank Reuben and his lovely wife @ClareVP for gifting this to me at Christmas, displaying a rare form of telepathy in the process.
Red Sparrow is the first in a trilogy of novels written by ex-CIA agent Jason Mathews, about a Russian double agent called Dominika Egorova. She is not the famed ballet dancer she is in the movie version but a successful ballet school student (which makes a hell of a lot more sense in terms of her future career arc, to be honest) and she gets recruited against her will by her uncle, taking advantage of a double misfortune, into the Russian intelligence agency. Specifically she is retrained at the Red Sparrow school in sexual spy techniques before being put into the field and, from then on, getting involved with an American agent in a professional and not so professional capacity. And that’s, as I said, about as much of the general arc as I’m going to reveal here. The rest of the review is going to be about some of the specific changes, which are many, from the novel to the screen version and why, ultimately, as good as the movie version is (and in improving on it in a certain dramatic capacity), why the novel is so much better, although at this point I think I can live with it better if I think of them as separate entities (like the little or no relation the movie version of Modesty Blaise bears to either the original newspaper strips or novels).
Now then, this is not the absolute best spy novel I’ve read by a long chalk... Adam Hall’s series of Quiller novels will always be the coldest and coolest espionage thrillers around for the cloak and dagger stuff. However, this one is pretty amazing and, while it does the whole Hall, Le Carre, Deighton thing of highlighting the ‘trade craft’ of a spy out in the field, as Matthews refers to it, it does so with a much more modern and light hearted approach... at least in terms of the American characters in the novel. I can only assume that this is more up to date in terms of the attitudes and humour now at large in the field and I find it interesting to still note the contrast between the ‘kids’ in the CIA etc and the prevalent, stereotypical mental attitudes of most of the Russian agents in the story.
One of the big things here, which is absent from the movie and which makes more sense in terms of why Dominika is so good in the field and also at second guessing the intentions of those superiors putting her in harms way and using her as a pawn (something which, to be fair, the Americans also do), is the fact that she has what I personally would call... superpowers. That is to say, she’s a synesthete. She has a truly overpoweringly clear synaesthetic response to all the people she meets. So she knows when they’re in work mode, if they’re lying, if they’re hiding that they’re angry or plotting something counter to what they’re saying, because she can see it in the colours that float around them as they speak. So she knows if a person is being completely honest and truthful to her, for example, because they have a strong purple halo around them. When someone is green or yellow, things might not be so good and she needs to be on high alert and watch what she says. Which is, of course, very handy because she knows how insubordinate she can be around various people, what she can get away with and so on. It’s a nice touch and, while it takes the novels slightly out of the realm of normal cold war fiction, it elevates things and gives them a new slant. I appreciated this aspect to the character and thought they could maybe have included it in the movie adaptation.
Other, more puzzling additions to the film version tend to be the inclusion of more action scenes and much more dramatic, hard hitting set pieces than realised in the book. For example, there’s no scene where she gets her revenge on a girl and her lover for ruining her career by half killing them with her crutch. Instead, the revenge is much more subtle and less dramatic but, in the book it makes sense because you are privy to all her thoughts and it seems much more of a big deal than it might have done in a visual medium, where the film short cuts that for the sake of brevity and shows her ruthlessness at the same time.
Similarly, the ‘willing rape versus power play’ scene in the Sparrow school doesn’t exist in the novel (where I would have thought something like that is not what a cautious Hollywood, with their eye on the box office, would make up). Admittedly, there are other stronger elements but they are more abstract in the way they are described and there’s a good deal of stuff that goes on here which didn’t make it into the movie... and which all helps shape the character in the book. Even the torture scene where she has to be complicit in torturing her lover for show for a while is absent in the book so, yeah, Hollywood surprised me with their version. It’s not that the novel isn’t hard hitting though, it’s just that it chooses to build up to things in a more subtle way, allowing the weight of the history of situations to reveal the ultimate betrayals and gut punches rather than hit you over the head with them. I think both the writer of the novel and the writers of the film made the right choices for their respective mediums and I don’t think I can fault either one too much.
What I can fault is, with all the many changes and expected exclusions in the movie version from the source novel, that the ending and its implication is so totally different in the filmed version. Okay, so there is a prisoner exchange scene at the end of the novel which ends pretty much the same way as it does in the book but... yeah, I’m not going to tell you which two prisoners are being exchanged here because, it’s not the same as the film and hobbles the future of the filmed versions in certain respects. Also, there’s a big aspect of the ending of the movie version which just doesn’t happen and, although I suspect Mathews is leading up to something similar in book two or three, I think Hollywood would be unable to film them because of maybe jumping the gun and finishing the trilogy off at the end of the first movie, in some ways. So, like the Jason Bourne films, they’d have to just buy the titles and do their own things with them for future installments. Not that I expect there to be any more movies as, ironically, although there are more stylised and obvious action sequences in the film, I don’t think there was nearly enough action for the segment of the audience that the box office needed to reach. Which is a shame because, novel aside, it was a pretty good movie.
And that’s me done on Red Sparrow. I was surprised about what did and didn’t make it into the movie version from this book but this original novel has a gravitas all its own which maybe hits harder because, not in spite, of the lighter tone of the characters in it. Also, if you are into food, then the writer does a nice thing where, in all but one chapter (I won’t give away which one), he inserts a recipe at the end in a little box, relating to something specifically eaten by one of the characters in that particular chapter. So, if you want to go the whole hog and eat your way through the novel then, that might be a thing food people might want to try. Would make a good vlog project for someone, I reckon. Either way though, if you like spy novels which acknowledge the fact that the cold war never ended and which are, as much as the author could probably get away with, bang up to date in terms of spycraft, then Red Sparrow is definitely one to read. I'm definitely planning on picking up the other books in the series at some point in the near future.