I was late to the party, but The Girl on the Train is one of the most entertaining thrillers that I’ve read this year. My mom and I both waited impatiently for it to be released in paperback, and last weekend we saw the movie together. As you may have gathered from the previews of disgruntled Emily Blunt demanding to know WHAT HAPPENED THAT NIGHT, it’s about an alcoholic woman trying to piece together her involvement in another woman’s disappearance.
What makes the novel so interesting is also what makes it difficult to adapt to film. Paula Hawkins tells the story from three women’s perspectives and uses a nonlinear structure. The narrators are Rachel, the titular “girl on the train”; Anna, her ex-husband’s new wife; and Megan, the woman who disappears. Like Gone Girl before it, an easy criticism of this novel is that none of the characters are particularly likable. I happen to love Gillian Flynn’s penchant for deeply flawed women, and I feel the same about Paula Hawkins. Also similar to the experience of reading Gone Girl, I find my sympathies evolving as the book reveals more about each character. I wouldn’t want every book I read to have characters like this, but I enjoy it under the right circumstances.
Nonlinear story structure is usually an exciting device in fiction, especially for mystery writers. It can add to a sense of unease or confusion while also necessitating that the reader be engaged with the details of the mystery in order to follow along. However, visually indicating shifts in time can feel awkward on screen. The Girl on the Train attempts to do this with time and narrator shifts, which felt clumsy to me as a viewer. I also spent the first 20 minutes confused about why almost everyone in suburban London had an American accent, only to realize that the film switched the setting to New York and the Hudson River Valley. Except Rachel is still British and Anna has a slight Scandinavian accent. Paula Hawkins has pointed out that the story could take place in any commuter town, but I certainly missed the British-ness of the novel.
The three female perspectives are my favorite part of the novel. At first they seem quite different, but the reader begins to see commonalities in their experiences. On the other hand, the film is shot from a very male perspective. This is particularly apparent with Megan, who is frequently half-dressed and being ravaged by her husband with a bored look on her face. An aggressive sexuality is part of her character, but the film makes her an object rather than an agent. There’s also a certain meekness to Anna that isn’t present on the page. For a story that delves into three women’s psyches, a detached and sexually voyeuristic mood feels incongruous. Rachel suffers the least in this respect, both from getting the most screen time and Emily Blunt’s committed performance.
As is often the case with adaptation, I might like The Girl on the Train better with a second viewing, but for now I’ll stick to the book.