By the Book: The Girl on the Train

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One thing you can always count on in Hollywood is people are always looking for “the next <fill in the blank>,” so when the 2012 novel and 2014 film adaption Gone Girl both made a truckload of money, it’s no surprise that people started looking for the “next Gone Girl.”  A lot of critics and movie-goers think they have found it in The Girl on the Train, the 2015 thriller written by British author Paula Hawkins and fast-tracked into a Universal film released a few weeks ago. With its disappearing woman, emphasis on unreliable, first-person narrators, and a twisted, corkscrew ending, it’s easy to see why. But is it really the next Gone Girl? And how does the novel hold up to it’s movie adaptation? Find out after the break! (And spoilers ahead!)

“The Girl on the Train” follows the lives of three women – Rachel, an alcoholic reeling after the collapse of her marriage; Anna, wife and mother and the driving force behind the collapse of Rachel’s marriage; and Megan, a troubled, young woman with a connection to both, whose disappearance and murder act as the catalyst for the entire plot. The story is told in first person narrative by each of these characters and Hawkins does a great job of moving the plot along, often by showing the same scenes from those different points of view. All three of the narrators are decidedly unreliable, especially Rachel, whose alcoholic black-outs leave vast gaps in her memories that are filled by reports from others or her own vivid imagination. It’s one of these blackouts, occurring on the night of Megan’s disappearance, that drives the plot, as Rachel tries to tie together these fragmentary knots of memory and figure out who killed Megan.

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The story ultimately deals with the narratives we build about ourselves and those around us. This is convincingly displayed from the start, when we meet Megan – not as who she really is, but as a character in an ongoing narrative that Rachel develops, based upon glimpses of Megan and her husband that Rachel catches from the train. To Rachel,  this fictionalized Megan represents all the things Rachel should be, all the things she lost when her marriage fell apart. But of course, people – both real and imagined – rarely live up to the stories we build around them, and we find that Megan is, in fact, a troubled young woman with a dark past and a murky future.

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This playing with story and evolving point of view allows Hawkins to take some of the familiar female archetypes and run them through a blender. So Anna, who we first see as Mother, also wears the veil of the Seductress (her affair with Rachel’s husband ends the marriage), and the final act finds her in the role of Wronged Woman Seeking Revenge. Megan’s story arc brings her through nearly a half-dozen archetypes. After her initial, incorrect introduction as The Girl Next Door in Rachel’s fantasies, she is seen as The Seductress, who uses her sexuality to lure good men down bad paths, until we finally find she is actually The Victim, whose troubled past haunts her and ultimately leads to her death. And of course Rachel, who starts the story as the Victim – enslaved by alcohol and depression and the manipulation by others – becomes a Crusader, a champion of truth and ends the story as a Warrior who defeats the villain by using the very symbol of her enslavement.

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The Girl on the Train must have been an exceedingly difficult novel to adapt. Books that rely so heavily on internal narrative do not always translate well to the screen, and having one unreliable narrator is hard enough, let alone bringing in three. From a plot perspective, the adaption is almost slavishly accurate to its source material, but it suffers the way many adaptions do. The need to fit the story into a neat two-hour run time requires the screenwriter to compress scenes that ordinarily would give us time to know the characters and understand their motivations. Compounding this were several decisions to make changes to several small, but impactful areas of the story. The Americanization of the movie stripped it of a great deal of the novel’s British charm, and the decision to move the location from a working-class, suburban London neighborhood to a one-percenter collection of Hudson Valley mansions  made the film’s characters much less relatable. One particular decision, to mention Megan’s brother’s death only in passing, leaves a big gap in her backstory. His death, mentioned several times throughout the novel,  is THE driving force that makes Megan act the way she does, and is what turns the scheming Seductress into a character that has earned our support and pity. The characters, including the secondary ones, really were the finest point of the novel; but the shorthand needed to bring them to the screen reduces their appeal and makes the movie a less compelling piece of entertainment.

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So is The Girl on the Train the next Gone Girl? Not really. The Girl on the Train lacks the simmering anger and dark humor found in Gillian Flynn’s novel and David Fincher’s film. The three protagonists in  The Girl on the Train are just OK, interesting in how they mix and match the female archetypes, but none can hold a candle to the deliciously psychotic Amy Elliott Dunne, who may be one of the most compelling characters to come out in the last decade. Ultimately, the plot of The Girl on the Train leaves a little to be desired. The BIG TWIST revealed at the end seems almost forced, like someone tacked it on to make it more like the earlier work – which is a shame – because if they had continued working with those themes and archetypes, and found more and more interesting ways to turn them on their head at the end (vs. the classic Women Wronged by Man Fight Back), both works could have stood on their own.

Did you watch the movie and/or see the book? What did you think?

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Posted on October 18, 2016, in by the book, General, movies and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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