Welcome to By the Book, where we compare books with their cinematic adaptations. Are they faithful and delightful partners in storytelling, or are the authors turning in their graves through these unholy versions of their work? This time, its Tate Taylor’s adaptation of Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train…
The Girl on the Train has a story reminiscent of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. Characters that are difficult to mark as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ are trapped in a mystery of sex, violence and relationships that shocks with each new development. The similarities between the two books make it easy to see why Tate Taylor would choose to create a film that is similar in tone to David Fincher’s recent hit adaptation of Flynn’s novel. Taking inspiration from Fincher’s style, Taylor has created a slick-looking, borderline glamorous adaptation, set around a beautiful American coastal railway line just outside New York. However, The Girl on the Train has some interesting textual features that don’t translate well into this style of film adaptation.
The change in setting is one that could detract from the gritty nature of the book. In the film, Rachel (who witnesses a strange event from the train window) glides along a railway sandwiched between a glistening lake and a well-spaced row of huge beautiful homes that, in the film world, all Americans seem to live in. Book Rachel rides an old faulty railway line into London’s rather charmless Euston station, staring at the rows of upper-middle class but uniform Victorian houses that haven’t been represented on film nearly as much as the homes of the American middle classes.
The decision to set the film in the US glamorises its overall look, but doesn’t bring anything new to the table in the way that the setting of the book does. Perhaps reading as a British person makes for a biased perspective, but it was refreshing to see such perfect thriller fodder set in England.
Despite the stylistic problems, Taylor manages to communicate Paula Hawkins’ complex writing style with some competence. The film employs a literary style of storytelling, frequently using flashbacks and voiceovers to communicate a plot which relies heavily on deep characterisation. The central female characters – Rachel, Megan and Anna – are introduced much in the same way that the book introduces them: with a title stating their name, and a following voiceover monologue that briefly summarises what kind of person each is.
While this is effective in covering all aspects of the characters’ motives and histories, it is a heavy-handed approach to use in a visual medium, choosing to tell instead of show what is happening, and resulting in constantly feeding the audience large chunks of information which can easily be forgotten.
The Girl on the Train thankfully characterises Rachel the best. An alcoholic who is obsessed with her ex (who is now married to Anna), Rachel’s drinking problem and obsessive tendencies are revealed slowly to the audience, much in the same way that the book leaves hints and lets readers work out her predicament for themselves. The decision to cast Emily Blunt in the leading role caused some initial outcry from book fans who claimed she was too pretty and slim to play Rachel (Book Rachel is described as being overweight). However, Blunt’s fantastic job of playing an unhinged ex makes for a fairly faithful representation of Hawkins’ main character.
Megan – who goes missing – is probably the least developed character in the book. A woman who feels trapped by monogamy and the idea of being a mother, she uses casual affairs as a distraction and an escape from her life, which ends up in her demise. Unfortunately, Megan is simply boring in the film. Played by Haley Bennett, she drifts about her therapist’s office, spouting sexual innuendos that are meant to increase tension and mystery but instead come off as a cringe-worthy and shallow attempt to add more excitement through the inclusion of sex.
The Girl on the Train is a thrilling book that relies on multiple first-person narrators and the complex weaving-together of different storylines, culminating in a high-stakes final act. However, the film still relies on a literary approach to telling the story, combining hefty monologues with sleek-surfaced visuals in order to impress the audience. The film is an entertaining watch on its own, with some standout acting from Emily Blunt, but a poor effort in comparison to Hawkins’ skilful handling of the story in the book.