Sweetbitter: Everyone is Soigné

Hello novel2screeners!

I wanted to take a moment to follow up on my previous article on STARZ’ new limited series Sweetbitter. I’m not sure how many of you have seen the first three episodes, but if you’re looking for something to watch, I definitely recommend it. Spoilers below.

This very short series (only six episodes) is based on the book which I reviewed here. And I have to say, it’s a real challenge to turn a whole novel into only six half-hour episodes. At first, I wasn’t quite sure they were going to pull it off. (The first episode seemed to be pushing the relationships a bit too quickly for me.)

But I love the challenge, from a novel-to-screen point of view, of HOW exactly writers can take what is a very literary and quite poetic novel, and dramatize it in a way that captures that youthful magical unknowing moment that is so beautifully fleshed out in the book.

Ella Purnell as Tess

Tess, the protagonist, is quite perfectly cast here with the wide-eyed Ella Purnell. A young woman right on the precipice of becoming an actual adult, but for now still relegated to the bleachers of life, she spends a lot of time watching other people do things.

She watches the way Simone carries three plates at once. She watches the strained interplay of the senior servers waiting on former waitress Serena like she’s the queen of England. She even seems to be, well, watching herself sleep with fellow waiter Will, a relationship she stumbles into not so much because she wants to, but because she doesn’t not want to enough to bother saying no.

Tess, the morning after

It’s a delicate balance. Normally, a passive protagonist is the kiss of death for drama. But it’s the excitement of her potential to become a player in all this madness that keeps the energy going, and keeps us, watching Tess watch the world, engaged.

As anyone who’s ever worked in a restaurant knows, choosing this setting as the milieu for this story is quite brilliant too. A restaurant really is its own ecosystem. A restaurant even has its own propriety language (86 the chx!), and as such, it becomes a mini family, fiercely protective of its turf. Sure, it’s an incestuous and dysfunctional family, but as a wise man once said, “It’s better than drinkin’ alone.”

Tableau of a restaurant in action

Nowhere could this be better illustrated than by the treatment of Serena. The look of hurt on Serena face throughout dinner–the sharp glance of jealousy at Tess, the uncomfortable way she accepts her fancy meal, the anorexia that keeps her from enjoying any of it–it’s because she understands what’s really going on. “You are not one of us anymore,” is what all this formalness is telling her.

Serena came to the restaurant to see old friends, to remember the place she once belonged, maybe even to gloat a little about the rich man she married. “I made it out of here! You never will.” But that knife cuts both ways. Serena may have “made it,” but in so doing, she’s out of the family. Now she’s nothing but a “guest” here.

And watching Tess watch Serena’s sad ending, she learns for the first time that the family of the restaurant, warm and enticing as it may seem for the moment, can disappear as quickly as a plate of fancy food.

Tune in tomorrow for my review of HBO’s Fahrenheit 451.

Till then…

For more on your favorite books and adaptations, follow Rebecca Phelps on Twitter @DownWorldNovel, “like” us on Facebook at Novel2Screen, or just follow this blog.

Photos courtesy of Plan B Entertainment and STARZ

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