I’m not a great literary critic, but when I read The Girl on the Train this summer, I enjoyed it. Fast-paced, thrilling, unreliably narrated, suburban intrigue: perfect for a poolside read. In fact, I binge-read it in 2 days. So of course, when I saw the first trailer for its cinematic adaptation, I could not contain my excitement. Those action-packed 2 days condensed into 2 hours? Yes please.
But something was off. Well, many things were off, but they all boil down to the fact that the aesthetic is all wrong. It’s too stylish. Make no mistake, I love stylish thrillers – Gone Girl, Basic Instinct, Fatal Attraction – but at the helm of these movies is always a suspiciously attractive female antagonist who is too mysterious for the audience to like. Here we have the opposite. Forgive me, but something is not right if an alcoholic heroine who lies about her job, obsesses over her ex-husband, and repetitively chunders on her fed-up flatmate’s carpet is considered ‘stylish’.
Many things in The Girl on the Train contribute to this dissonant vibe. An unforgivable plethora of close-ups try to convince us that the make-up team have done all they can to make Emily Blunt appear puffy-faced and frumpy, but she’s just too flawless. The absence of a crucial sexual encounter between Blunt’s Rachel and the missing Megan’s husband Scott (Luke Evans) leaves the possible culpability of his character much less believable. The film is also severely lacking in character development – the villain, Tom (Justin Theroux), is barely seen before he is revealed to be Megan’s killer, and the source of Rachel’s hazy memory.
Part of the original story’s appeal is the hopelessness and despondency of Rachel’s situation – that she is a talentless and lonely drunk locked out of the too-ideal world of the middle-class, where the role of a woman is to be faultless and to pop out babies on cue. But, in true Hollywood fashion, she of course has to be gifted in some way: drawing. Clearly the director is trying to conjure up a reason, albeit desperate and nonsensical, to actually like our heroine, when the whole point of Hawkins’ novel is that we’re not supposed to. Something else in the film which breaks away from Rachel’s despairing existence in the novel is her flatmate, Cathy (Laura Prepon) – now a steadfast and loyal friend who, though is vexed by Rachel’s inebriated shortcomings, ultimately looks after her. Book Cathy, on the other hand, is merely an acquaintance from university who only really takes Rachel in because she needed someone to help her pay rent, and gives pitiful looks and tuts at the first sight of a bottle of wine.
It is, however, important to remember that this resigned and pessimistic view on life is distinctly British, whereas this movie is distinctly American. Away from the North London commute to Euston, the film adopts the Metro-North Line to New York City, and with it a sadly less tragic and more hopeful attitude to our narrator and her story.
The Girl on the Train is no doubt enjoyable and suspenseful, much like its source material, but this disorienting culture change, though it may allow the film to be more relatable to a wider audience, ultimately distorts what was arguably the most relatable aspect of the book.