Trials and Tribulations of Desperate Housewives

Tate Taylor’s screen adaptation of Paula Hawkins’s bestseller novel is a film of wasted potential, a monotonous tale of lifeless people who seem to attract everything that is wrong with the world into their miserable existences. It should not have been that way, though, the potential was there, ready to be translated into an exciting, if slightly pulpy thriller.

“I’ll never read this book,” was what I said last year, more or less at the same time the Emily Blunt starrer was hitting cinemas all over the world. “I’m too tired of exploitation stories manufactured into quasi-psychological thrillers with the same rules of simplified characterization and drama: expressively detailed emotional states, suggestively written and much exaggerated inner turmoil, over-complicated storylines in which life resembles a not particularly memorable soap opera.” Yes, I was prejudiced, I’m the first to admit that. But that was how I perceived the book from reading my friends’ reviews and some general summaries posted on the web.

"The Girl on the Train" book cover

“The Girl on the Train” book cover

And yet I did read The Girl on the Train. Out of variety of reasons, curiosity being one of them, which is quite amusing when taking into consideration that voyeurism and its different forms are one of the book’s main themes. To be honest, this is exactly what convinced me to read it in the first place. It’s so easy to extend your feelings, desires and worldview on anonymous people who seem as happy/rich/in love as you would like to be, and thus live this life that may never be for a few brief moments. Like poor, alcoholic Rachel whose life has become a series of boring interludes between riding on trains and catching glimpses of people who seem to have everything she had lost. I liked this aspect of Hawkins’s novel, it seemed not only real but also well-planned in storytelling terms. I also liked her structural flair and clever ideas (unreliable narrators, mixed chronology, using passage of time to reveal important details, etc.), as well as the book’s psychological groundwork (suburban illusions, the role of women in male-dominated world).

Unfortunately, in The Girl on the Train most of the really interesting, complex stuff got relegated to the background. Never fully explored in favor of bombarding the reader with cleverly written but irritatingly excessive constant flow of externalized thoughts of the trio of utterly miserable heroines/narrators whose stories intertwine. Rachel, the ex-housewife and bitter alcoholic, lives only to reminisce good old days with the husband who stopped loving her, and to prepare herself to finally win with her debilitating addiction. Anna, Rachel’s ex-husband’s wife and mother to his child, fights the mundaneness of every exhausting day while reminiscing the exciting, simpler times when they had sex in secret, without any commitments. Megan, the young and beautiful trophy wife and Rachel’s illusionary role model, seems to spend her free time thinking how bad she is to continuously cheat on her husband and – yes, you guessed it – reminiscing her past, all of life’s twists and turns that made her the bored, caged and confused suburban housewife.

I am exaggerating but only a little. You see, I was right, The Girl on the Train is an exploitation novel in the guise of a psychological thriller about three broken women who suffer physical and mental abuse. I know such women exist, and suffer much more intensely and quietly, which is why I am grateful to Paula Hawkins for raising some difficult questions about the modern world. The problem lies in the way it is presented: by appealing to the reader’s most basic emotions and primitive instincts with expressive adjectives and evocative descriptions that create a world where even the grey areas seem to provide very easy answers. Hawkins is able to brilliantly manipulate the reader into thinking her world is rich with colors, shades and tones, but when you slow down and think about it, the characters behave so illogically that it’s not enough to present some tragic events from their past to justify their actions. But that is the book’s charm, I guess. You judge them, you feel sorry for them, you thank God you have a different life, you sympathize with them, you judge others who made them that way. Finally, you judge the book for how it made you feel, or think. And go read the next one.

Let me be straight, I don’t claim this is a bad novel or that people who loved it are morons, like the book’s haters do on numerous online discussions. The Girl on the Train is a typical modern page-turner, the psychological thriller genre’s equivalent of Dan Brown’s historical fiction may not be very intelligent but is a great and quick read. A matter of taste, as simple as that. And, hey, maybe the book actually helped someone abused to make an important decision. Because, why not? Books have that power. Anyway, one thing struck me when I finished – that this could be a great, if slightly pulpy thriller with something important to say. All they had to do was to limit Hawkins’s soap opera instincts, exclude the illogical bits, and tighten the suspense.

And then I watched Tate Taylor’s The Girl on the Train.

I don’t care that they’ve made many structural and narrative changes to the novel, I believe that a film adaptation has to be an autonomous thing to work properly. The film’s biggest problem is that they stayed so close to the novel in terms of following the plot that they couldn’t make the story their own, while simultaneously losing both the overblown emotional impact and the fascinating psychological/social background. Seriously, watching The Girl on the Train felt like experiencing a grossly simplified summary of Hawkins’s story, with characters mentioned or present whose backstories were written out of the screenplay. Like with Rachel’s friend, Cathy, who is the protagonist’s conscience in the book but in Taylor’s film has two or three scenes without any real value to them. Rachel could easily live on her own. And then there’s the case of Megan’s brother whose tragic death was one of major catalysts of her fragile emotional state – in Taylor’s film he is mentioned in one or two sentences and quickly forgotten to get back to the criminal investigation concerning Megan’s disappearance.

Emily Blunt looking through a train window, still from "The Girl on the Train"

Emily Blunt as Rachel, still from “The Girl on the Train”

That the filmmakers decided to focus on the investigation, both the official one and the one conducted by the drunken, unreliable Rachel who one day saw something from her train, was no surprise to me. Even though this was not the most important aspect of Paula Hawkins’s novel, it seemed a perfect starting point for the film. While searching for Megan, they could easily depict all the problems and dilemmas of Rachel and Anna, and make a series of statements on how the modern society wants their women, meek and submissive. What’s more, in the visual medium of film entire pages of Hawkins’s excessive drama could be tightened into several seconds of great acting and expressive imagery. And thus have even bigger impact. But Tate Taylor’s The Girl on the Train is lazy, by-the-book, predictable in how everything is narrated and resolved. Even considering Charlotte Bruus Christensen’s evocative cinematography, my wife and I were not sure if we are watching a popular theatrical release with a budget of 45 million dollars or some made-for-television sullen drama.

Hayley Bennett, still from "The Girl on the Train"

Hayley Bennett as Megan, still from “The Girl on the Train”

The question that looms over most of the film is simply “Why?” There were many inaccuracies in Hawkins’s book but the author used her knack for descriptive actions and emotional adjectives and made it all irrelevant during reading. When Tate Taylor uses close-ups of people who Rachel, the film’s current narrator, sees from the moving train, there is no explanation for that. Yes, you get a clear look of Megan and her husband, and Anna with her baby, but the reality of the scene disappears because people don’t have zoom in their eyes. Another thing that is gone is the aspect of voyeurism as Taylor leaves nothing to the viewer’s imagination. Everything is obvious.

Rebecca Ferguson and Justin Theroux, still from "The Girl on the Train"

Rebecca Ferguson as Anna, and Justin Theroux as her husband, still from “The Girl on the Train”

This happens in the first couple of minutes of The Girl on the Train and foreshadows the rest of the film. Which is basically a series of scenes and sequences glued together by the ‘whodunnit’ element of the story and Emily Blunt’s wonderful, committed performance, but devoid of any kind of passion towards the female characters and their journey. You know the filmmakers try to say something compelling, relevant even, but you do not see it, you do not feel it, you only hear about it from time to time through not particularly subtle dialogues. In effect, what could have been an imaginative retelling of an interesting, timely, if pulpy story, became a generic and tiresome thriller. While the novel is much flawed and definitely exploitative, the film adaptation could not even stir any controversies. It just happens to exist, an escapist picture like thousands of others, a flavorless film that can probably offer a good fun to some viewers but it will not be remembered in a year or so. Unless through comparisons with the bestseller novel.

Too bad.

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