Every so often a book comes along that proves pop culture isn’t confined to Netflix, superheroes, or Kardashians. It’s normally a debut novel, usually a thriller, and naturally a lure for any Hollywood studio keen to board the gravy train. In 2015, that book even had train in the title, and keeping up with this girl was a journey nobody wanted to miss. And then came the film …
All aboard for The Girl on the Train Book Vs Film comparison. Tickets please!
Published in the US and the UK two days apart in January 2015, Paula Hawkins’ debut novel sold over a million copies in under two months. By the time the film came out in October the following year sales had topped 15 million, and it was fastest selling adult hardcover novel in history. But why?
We’ve all been there: staring out of a train window into passing gardens, glimpsing snapshots of lives. If it’s a regular journey, some houses may become landmarks along the way and some strangers may become people we almost know. But what if, one day, you learn a terrible secret about one of them? What would you do?
That’s the book’s terrific premise, and it works so well because it not only appeals to the voyeur in all of us, but also could happen to any one of us. Finally we don’t have to be a space traveller, secret agent or short person with a magic ring for this to be our story – and that’s just one reason we connect with its protagonist, Rachel Watson.
Rachel’s journey begins with her daily journey, to London. That she doesn’t do it sober immediately tells us there are issues. The drinking has already cost dear – it ended her marriage to Tom (so she believes), lost her that job she pretends to go to each day, and turned her into a serial liar with the few friends she has left – and whilst she tries to kick the bottle, Rachel’s knack for bad choices means a relapse is never far away. We haven’t seen dire straits this big since Mark Knopfler sang Money for Nothing.
And yet, in one of the book’s recurring themes, first impressions are rarely correct. Rachel’s misfortunes stem from being unable to get pregnant with Tom, which led to the drinking. Now she clings to her married name as much as the hope her ex-husband will give her another chance, but what Rachel really needs is to give herselfanother chance. Her interactions with other men are the clue. She’ll believe they’ve fallen for her, but this isn’t a runaway ego at work – Rachel left her marriage thinking she was unlovable, and she needs to realise that’s not true. She has to know there’s still a way back for her. Who can’t empathise with that?
Next up is Megan. As the book opens, it’s her seemingly perfect life with Scott that Rachel looks forward to glimpsing each morning from that train – until Megan’s spotted kissing another man, and Rachel’s aghast that she could jeopardise such happiness. Then Megan disappears, and we learn she’s been carrying more baggage than a King’s Cross trolley. A tragedy in her past has defined the woman she becomes, and whilst at times it’s hard to sympathise with her, not once do we dislike her.
The third principal female character is all set up to be disliked though. Anna is Tom’s new wife, and mother to their baby daughter. She openly pursued Tom whilst he was with Rachel and had no qualms about playing marriage wrecker – but as we get to know her better, hidden depths are revealed. By the end Anna is almost as changed as Rachel.
The two male leads – Tom (Rachel’s ex) and Scott (Megan’s husband) – make up the main cast of characters. They’re nicely drawn, but I didn’t find anything that really separated them. Scott’s anguish at Megan’s disappearance is conveyed well, but there were times I struggled to tell them apart; an issue I also had with the film.
Although written in the first person, the book is told by three different characters. Most of it is Rachel’s point of view, starting shortly before Megan vanishes. Megan’s story is set several months earlier, detailing her life up to her disappearance. And Anna’s narrative binds the trio together. It’s superbly written, with each voice distinct from the others, and I suspect the reason the men aren’t as effective is because we never get inside their heads.
One striking factor is the use of an unreliable narrator. Rachel’s drinking means she often doesn’t know what’s happened, making her reliant on others for the truth and leaving us susceptible to their lies. This technique led to some unflattering comparisons with Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. However, where Rachel’s confusion was genuine, Amy Dunne’s misdirection was deliberate – so those critics rather missed the point.
That’s not to say the book isn’t flawed. The plot suffers from repetition, (Anna spies Rachel on her street so often, it happens twice in 20 pages at one point), and the final showdown risks being a letdown. There are no unexpected twists, as we already know who did what, but rather than succumb to dramatic contrivance we instead witness that most British of pastimes: a cup of tea and a chat. And it works. By focusing on characters over events, and keeping the story grounded from the first page to the last, Paula Hawkins ensures The Girl on the Train is a journey we’ll remember long after it ends.
All change here for a look at the film. Mind the gap …
It’s a testament to the novel that the film rights were snapped up ten months before it was published. Dreamworks quickly assembled a team to bring it to the multiplexes whilst the book was still in the public eye. With Tate Taylor (The Help) directing, the film opened in October 2016 – as the paperback sat at number one on The New York Times Best Sellers list. Not a bad bit of free publicity, that.
One thing the film gets right even before the lights go down is the tagline. It’s not a part of the story, but as a foretaste of what to expect it deserves a mention. The book has “You don’t know her. But she knows you”, hinting at a dangerous obsessive similar to Allison Jones (Single White Female) or Alex Forrest (Fatal Attraction), yet Rachel is nothing like either woman. The film uses “What did she see?” in the UK, and “What you know can hurt you” in the US, and both capture the story better.
Scripted by Erin Cressida Wilson (Independent Spirit Award for Best First Screenplay winner, for Secretary) it’s a faithful retelling. All five main characters are brought over seamlessly, and there aren’t any major diversions for the book’s fans to fret about. That’s not to say there aren’t changes though, including a very significant one. Location, location, location…
The Big Smoke is now the Big Apple. Relocating books to the other side of the Atlantic is nothing new (War of the Worlds, three times – four, if we’re counting a certain radio broadcast), and occasionally it works in the film’s favour (High Fidelity), but this isn’t one of them. The semi-detached suburbia vital to the novel’s relatability has morphed into a cinematographer’s wet dream; ringed by picket-fences, these homes are the type where couples sit around a fire in the garden at night, the type few of us will ever live in, let alone pass by on our way to work.
Due to the restrictions of a two-hour running time it’s expected that Megan and Anna’s storylines will be reduced – and some characters are excised completely – but a crucial change comes with the addition of someone not in the book. Martha (Lisa Kudrow) clues Rachel in to what really ended her marriage, which leads her to remembering so much else. Whilst it’s a quick fix to getting Rachel several steps along her journey, and Martha’s appearance on the train is established earlier, this still feels lazy – and robs our protagonist of finding the truth herself.
All five leads give good performances, though again it’s not easy to differentiate Tom and Scott, due to Justin Theroux and Luke Evans coming off the dark-haired-and-broody production line (in fairness, scheduling conflicts meant Chris Evans had to pull out; a shame, as casting Captain America would have been a great piece of misdirection). Likewise, Rebecca Ferguson and Haley Bennett work hard with little material as Anna and Megan respectively. But the story is Rachel’s – and this adaptation absolutely belongs to Emily Blunt.
For much of the film she’s playing it drunk, bleary of eye and unsteady of foot, but Blunt still manages to win over the audience. Curiously, considering the switch to America, Blunt retains her English accent, possibly adding to Rachel’s alienation as her life unravels. It’s a tricky performance, but she is totally convincing, and her efforts were justly rewarded with BAFTA and Screen Actors Guild Award nominations.
Rachel makes a few questionable decisions, such as deserting the road for the trees when being followed (a choice that looked dumb in 80s slasher-films) but perhaps we can blame that on the drink. What makes no sense, though, is how we discover Megan’s fate. It’s a flashback, which appearsto be Rachel’s recollection initially, but unless she’s imagining what happened next there’s no way she can know the actual events. As for the person who doesknow, there’s nothing to imply we’re hearing a confession – unlike in the book – so how do the other characters learn this?
The detectives searching for Megan – Gaskill and Riley – also undergo a change. In the book Gaskill (a man) is the lead investigator and Rachel, thinking he’s attracted to her, tries to recruit his support; but the film has Riley (a woman) head up the investigation instead. The director wanted a prominent role for regular collaborator Allison Janney, but in losing the Rachel / Gaskill subplot, along with the book’s deeper relationship between her and Scott, we’re denied a crucial insight into Rachel’s psyche. And Janney’s detective is so indiscrete you wouldn’t trust her to issue parking tickets.
Upon release the film was greeted with mixed reviews, though as is often the case the public disagreed. From a budget of $45 million it grossed a respectable $173 million, and in January 2017 it won the 43rdPeople’s Choice Award for Favourite Thriller Movie. True, it didn’t generate the same fanfare as the book, but if the tension at times is lacking there is still much to enjoy. And it looks beautiful.
The key to understanding The Girl on the Train is right there in its title. Rachel’s inner journey is our story; so whether that train arrives in London or Manhattan should be irrelevant. Where Rachel’s reallygoing is to a showdown with her personal demons, a reunion with her forgotten past, and a realisation her future will be okay once she chooses a new destination for herself. Megan’s disappearance, and the slow unravelling of her fate, are all just stops along the way.
A lot of care is given to ensuring we like Rachel in both versions, but by jettisoning her need to feel wanted the film loses her most redeeming quality. It’s a cry for help we no longer hear. The book also handles its reveals better (the discovery of a mobile phone’s owner is one example), and whereas the film occasionally feels like it needs a can of Red Bull to give it wings, the book just flies by. Therefore, as we reach the end of the line, the station announcer is happy to reveal the winner of The Girl on the Train Book Vs Film… is the book.
BIO: Nick Jackson is the author of several published short stories, and will next appear in the Momaya Press 2018 short story review. He lives in the North of England, and doesn’t ride trains because folk up there don’t trust owt that’s not pulled by a horse. That, and he can’t afford it.