When I first decided to start doing book to screen reviews on this blog, I went to my local library and started checking out books that I heard would be turned in to movies in the coming year. The first one to grab my attention was The Girl on the Train. I read the synopsis, was intrigued and brought it home. I read the novel in a day.
The Girl on the Train is a novel by Paula Hawkins which centers around a woman named Rachel Watson who watches a couple and imagines a life for them from her seat on the train. She calls the picturesque couple “Jason” and “Jess” and fabricates a perfect life for them within her own damaged and broken mind. To Rachel, Jason and Jess are perfect.They are a beautiful couple who love each other and embody all that she has lost the last few years. However, all of that changes when Rachel sees Jess kissing another man on her balcony and, after a drunken rage-filled night, she wakes the next day beaten, bloody, and learns that Jess – who’s real name is Meagan, has gone missing. Thus, begins Rachel’s search to find out what really happened on that fateful night.
Along the way, the story introduces a slew of potential suspects, including Dr. Kamal Abdic, Jess’ therapist, Jason – her husband, and the mysterious red – haired man on the train. Rachel struggles to find meaning and purpose in her life again while trying to solve the mystery of Meagan’s disappearance, building fragile relationships with all the people in Meagan’s life. However, as the story progresses, we come to learn that Rachel’s ex-husband Tom is far more devious than we were led to believe and may have a major part to play Megan’s disappearance.
The Girl on the Train has been out for a few weeks and critic consensus is in. Although the book was well received, the movie leaves much to be desired. Critics have bemoaned the film for being melodramatic, predictable, and un-suspenseful and likened it to a ‘knock off Gone Girl’. Personally, I was pulled in by the novel. I found Rachel’s sad, pitiable, intrinsically flawed character to be interesting even as I was mentally yelling at her for being so dumb from time to time. While watching the movie, I felt no such draw, so I certainly understand what the critics are saying.
But that’s not why I write these reviews.
As I have stated from the start, my Book 2 Screen reviews are not meant to judge which is better. As a lover of storytelling, I almost always prefer the book to the movie and The Girl on the Train is no different in that regard. But how do these two mediums go about telling the same story? What must be changed? What do they keep the same? Do they even tell the same story?
I think the thing I found most interesting about the, The Girl the on the Train film adaptation was how faithful it was to the novel. With the exception of a few minor details and storytelling devices, the film is probably one of the most faithful adaptations I’ve seen in a while. So why, if the book was so successful and compelling, did the movie fall short? The answer is, as many have argued when book fans complain of changes from book to screen, that what works in a novel doesn’t always translate well to the screen. Let’s compare the stories side by side.
The Girl on the Train (Novel)
The 2015 novel, The Girl on the Train tells the story of Rachel Watson and her connection to the disappearance of Megan Hipwell. The story is told from the perspective of three women; Rachel, Anna, and Megan, with each chapter specifying the date and sometimes (if there is a separate revelation on the same day) the time of day – whether it be morning, afternoon, or evening. While Megan and Anna’s narratives move the story forward, giving the reader insight in to what is currently happening in the lives of these two women, Megan’s narrative takes place in the past and ends where the novel starts, giving the reader insight in to what led up to her disappearance and brutal murder. Doing this gives us a full picture of the events of the story while maintaining the intimacy of a first person narrative.
As readers get to know Rachel, it becomes apparent very quickly that she is not a very reliable narrator. She is an alcoholic mess with bouts of depression. She also suffers from blackouts do to her alcohol consumption. She does not trust herself, thus the reader understands that they cannot fully trust her either. She escapes her pitiable reality by living vicariously through the fictional lives of ‘Jason’ and ‘Jess’, the picture perfect couple that live a few houses down from where she and Tom used to live. She becomes mentally and emotionally invested in this fictitious life to the point that she takes the revelation that ‘Jess’ is unfaithful as a personal betrayal. After ‘Jess’, who’s actual name is Megan, goes missing, Rachel becomes obsessed with finding out what happened to her, both as a means to find purpose and to clear her own doubts about herself.
As all this is happening, we also learn about Anna, Tom’s new wife. From Anna’s narrative, we get to see Rachel from an outsider’s perspective. Although Rachel’s self hatred already paints a bleak picture of her, Anna’s anger gives the audience the impression that Rachel might actually be dangerous. And for good reason! Anna, is beautiful and loves life with Tom and their new baby Evie. She has everything that Rachel wants. Anna is also incredibly vain, spiteful, and honestly, not the type of woman you ever want to meet, much less have around your husband. She feels no shame about stealing a married man. She’s proud of it, in fact, and only pretends to feel bad. Anna is a bitch. But despite that she is still a mother, genuinely fearful for her and her child’s safety. We learn through Anna how Rachel’s constant calls to the house, emails to Tom, and random appearances outside their home effect the new family. We also learn of an incident where an intoxicated Rachel walked in to their home and picked up their baby, Evie, and walked with her out into the yard while Anna was sleeping inside. This view of her gives readers the impression that, while Rachel may be a sad sack, she may not be harmless. Would it be so hard to believe, then, that Rachel killed Megan in a drunken rage thinking she was Anna? Neither Rachel nor Anna seem to think it is.
Interspersed throughout the story, we hear Megan’s narrative as well. We learn that Megan is nothing like the perfect ‘Jess’ character that Rachel created. Megan is a housewife, bored and unsatisfied with her domesticated life. She yearns for more, for her gallery, and is completely uninterested in becoming a mother, something her husband, Scott, wants desperately. She is depressed and is suffering from insomnia. To fill up her time, she takes on lovers, enjoying the rush of excitement it gives her. She also worked as Tom and Anna’s nanny for a short time – another attempt to assuage her boredom, and she hated it to the extent that she lied about finding another job to give herself an excuse to leave. Eventually, her insomnia and depression become too much for her Scott to handle and he insists that she go to a therapist. Anna obliges, having nothing else better to do, and quickly grows attached to her therapist, Dr. Kamal Abdic. As she reveals more and more about herself in therapy, the reader begins to understand more about Megan -the parts of her that she is unwilling to admit even to herself. We also learn of the affair she ends up having with him and the child she lost as a young girl. All these revelations serve to give us context for the clues that Rachel is finding back in present day but does not understand completely.
The three narrative structure works in The Girl on the Train partially because it is a written medium. For the most part, the story centers around these women’s reflections and observations. It’s a lot of talking, feeling, and remembering as opposed to action. We get to see how these women work, what their shortcomings are and what role they play in this larger story.
Thematically, the story plays with alternate versions of reality. What is real? What is not? For example, Rachel’s view of Megan and Tom, her life with Tom, and what happens to her when she drinks too much, are largely figments of Rachel’s imagination. How she sees these things can be wither corroborated or refuted by another person’s account. She also begins to perceive things differently throughout the story as she begins drinking less frequently and thinking hard and critically about the past. But Rachel is not alone in this. Anna, Megan, Scott, and Tom all deal with their own versions of reality. Like Rachel, Anna lives in isolation, living in her own fantasy where she is the winner and her biggest obstacle is Rachel’s meddling. Rachel is the problem. Not Tom. She holds on to that line of thinking even after realizing he is a liar and a cheat, something that she knew since he lied and cheated to be with her, but never thought he would do to her. Megan escapes her reality by taking on lovers whom she quickly tires of, while Scott insists that a baby will change the reality of their listless marriage. Finally, there is Tom. As the reader reaches the end of the story, we realize that Tom is a compulsive liar. He lies, even about things he doesn’t have to lie about and does so, so frequently that Rachel makes the realization that he begins to believe his own lies. He deludes himself into believing that he is the amazing, caring, sympathetic husband and father he pretends to be.
These alternating realities are the crux of The Girl on the Train novel. So how does the film tell this same story?
The Girl on the Train (Movie)
There are a few minor differences between the Girl on the Train novel and book. A few of them are:
- The movie takes place in America, while the book takes place in England.
- Rachel, in the movie, begins going to AA meetings but does not in the book.
- Megan never engages in an affair with Dr. Kamal in the movie but does in the book.
- Rachel never sleeps with Scott in the movie but does in the book.
- Rachel learns from one of Tom’s former associates that she never did the things Tom claimed she did, rather than realizing it gradually over time.
The change in setting does little to affect the overall story other than switch around what the detectives investigating Megan’s disappearance are called but what about the other changes? I do not recall a moment in the book where Rachel goes to AA meetings, although she does make an effort to not drink as much. She frequently relapses due to stress, but there were no AA meetings where she goes and spills her heart out to a group of strangers. However, in the film this addition becomes a necessary tool to extrapolate revelations from Rachel that would not otherwise happen organically. In the book, the reader can read an entire chapter where we learn about Rachel’s past with Tom or how she lost her job, while she does nothing but reflect while sitting and drinking on the train. But this does not transfer well to the screen. One of the basic principles of film, being a visual medium, is to show – not tell. The film then, does it’s best to structure scenes so that these mental revelations and memories can be expressed to the audience using voice over and flash backs. Using scenes like the AA meetings, being questioned at the police station, and sitting with Dr. Kamal in therapy are easy ways to do this.
The next two differences I listed deal with how the book deals with it’s characters interpersonal relationships versus the movie. While the movie marketed itself as a sexy, thriller and featured prominent scenes of people (specifically Megan’s character) engaging in sexual behavior, the book both goes further and shows a bit more restraint in that regard. The book does not describe any sex scenes in detail yet brings it up more often than the film. Anna revels in the memories of her affair with Tom while he was still married to Rachel and blissfully enjoys her sexual married life with him. Megan successfully seduces Dr. Kamal in the novel and sleeps with him, it is implied, on a number of occasions even though he tries to keep things ‘professional’. Yet, this divergence from professionalism actually plays a hand in Megan truly opening up to Kamal and coming to terms with her pain. At the end of the film, the audience sees that Rachel’s initial perception of Megan and Kamal kissing was off. In this version of the story, Megan and Kamal were never lovers. What Rachel saw was not a passionate kiss between lovers but a reassuring hug between a patient and a doctor she confided in. This plays in to the story’s theme of conflicting perceptions of reality. By contrast, when Rachel, lonely and isolated, engages in a one night stand with Scott Hipwell, her interaction with him is marred by depression and shame. Unlike Megan’s affair, Rachel sleeping with Scott only serves to break down the relationship they created.
This relationship was built on lies and false perceptions. He believed Rachel was a friend of Megan’s, she believed Scott was the “Jason” she created in her mind. Scott’s revelation that she’s not who she claimed to be, mixed with the shame he feels for sleeping with her brings out a monstrous side of him that Rachel didn’t know existed. This culminates in a te
rrifying scenario where she fears for her life while being trapped in his house. Again, the perception and the reality of who Scott is, are very different beasts and I feel that the movie would have been well served to have included it.
Finally, there is the big reveal. In the movie, Rachel recalls an incident where she blacked out at one of Tom’s work related functions. Tom told her that she got drunk and disorderly and caused a scene that resulted in him being fired. When she sees the wife of Tom’s old boss (the woman she supposedly threatened) she goes to apologize, only to learn that she did no such thing. Tom lied. This spurs Rachel to begin to remember things differently. Many of the horrible things she was told she did when she blacked out were lies Tom convinced her of. This is a bit different than the book, where she slowly begins to realize that she’s been lied to after speaking with Dr. Kamal and trying to understand why she doesn’t “feel” bad about the things she’s supposedly done. While trying to recall these
instances where she was violent or abusive, the only emotions she feels are remnants of fear and anxiety, not anger. In the film, they try to get these points across by using separate flashbacks; one with her perceived recollection of the events and later, what actually happened. These revelations expose the truth of Tom and Rachel’s married life and what Rachel actually saw the night Megan disappeared. However, the film does not have the luxury of time that the book does and, rather than this reveal being a gradual one, tacks it on closer to the end. This is necessary because the film, having been marketed as a thriller, needs to have some type of a twist to keep the audience engaged. Unfortunately, in an age where audiences are used to these types of ‘whodunits’ it was easy to guess that Tom would end up being the up being the murderer. I feel that this is what caused many audiences to feel bored by the movie, whereas the book readers picked up on Tom’s deviousness incrementally, realized he was likely the killer, gained confirmation he was the killer, and then agonized over knowing, definitively, something the three female characters in this story were only just figuring out.
I really enjoyed reading The Girl on the Train, especially because it had been so long since I’d read anything just for the sake of reading. Does the story suffer from melodrama and
insufferable characters from time to time? Yes. Most certainly it does. But it’s still a fun read. The movie suffers these same issues, which is what’s so fascinating. The film is actually a very truthful adaptation in many respects. It has the same themes and tries it’s best to give all the same information you get in the book with a few detail changes to fit the new medium. Yet, the book is still met with higher favorability than the movie. Why? Because the structure of the story suits a novel far more than a movie. Most of the momentum takes place in the final scene. Until then, most of what happens in the book, happens in the three women’s memories and perceptions. There’s not much running around or finding hidden clues or political intrigue. It’s the stories of: a woman who drinks on a train everyday going to and from nowhere in particular, a stay at home mother, and a bored housewife in therapy. And though the narratives they weave can be fully engaging to a reader, to an movie audience, there needs to be more.