The recent film adaptation of Paula Hawkins’ thriller novel, The Girl on the Train was not received well by a healthy majority of film critics. With 44 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, and a variety of insults from acclaimed critics such as Manohla Davis (New York Times) and David Edelstein (Vulture) most would suggest avoiding this “lurid, plot-hole- riddled soap opera with a body count” (Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, A.V. Club).
However, despite this apparently common opinion, I choose to give credit where it’s due. No, “The Girl on the Train” will not be added to the rather extensive list of my most beloved films, but it’s worth the price of admission. Cinematic adaptation is challenging, to say the least.
There are two different types of audience members that the adapting screenplay writer must constantly keep in mind: those who are devoted to the written words of the original novel, and those who know only what the screen tells them. One must simultaneously impress and excite the latter while striving to create on screen what the former has imagined in their head. Unfortunately in most cases, sacrifices must be made based on time, budgetary restrictions, and a new vision created by the production team. Being that TGotT is a point-of- view text with varying chronology, this particular production team did a good job at keeping the plot of the film in line with the plot of the novel.
Let’s begin by glancing at the premise: everyday, struggling and spiraling Rachel Watson (Emily Blunt) takes the train into the city, and becomes captivated by a seemingly perfect couple (Hayley Bennett and Luke Evans) who lives by the train tracks, oddly close to where she used to live with her ex-husband, Tom Watson (Justin Theroux). Despite the couple being complete strangers to her, she feels an indescribable connection with them, until the day Meghan Hipwell kissing another man. She becomes dangerously unhinged and is launched into a mystery in which the evidence she seeks lies somewhere in her damaged mind.
Technically speaking, the film excelled. With the help of Danny Elfman’s notably eerie themes, purposely shaky camera work aiding us in empathizing with our drunken protagonist and the surprisingly brilliant casting of Emily Blunt, “The Girl on the Train” might, in fact, be mistaken for a fantastic movie. Additionally, although the film takes place over a series of weeks, the weather remains dark and foggy, casting an ominous glow around the film, and acting as a warning signal to the audience members. Inserting rain or thunder to signify danger and sadness is very cliché, yes—but it works.
However, many changes irked me and disturbed the overall tone of the film and its characters. Many emotions and actions were downplayed due to time constraints and the limitations of the film medium.
The character of Meghan was warped into a sexual robot rather than an emotionally crippled young woman, striving to find meaning in her life without being pressured into having children by her abusive husband, Scott Hipwell. Yes, Meghan is supposed to be socially closed off, but the book lets us listen in to her deepest thoughts, hopes, and dreams, whereas the film focuses solely on her affairs and sexual encounters. In her narrative, she tells us about the art gallery she had, its closing, and her desperate desire for something more. In the film, we learn none of this, and her two dimensional character gives us no reason to like her or sympathize with her.
The film makes her seem unfamiliar, unrelatable, and just plain antagonistic.
Anna Watson, Rachel’s ex-husbands new wife, shows little emotion throughout the entire film, a poor performance on Rebecca Ferguson’s part. Although her character does pity Rachel, Anna is supposed to go through a roller coaster of emotions after she finds out dark secrets of her husband’s past. Anger, betrayal, confusion—all these feelings were not properly conveyed as they should have been hiding behind Anna’s meek front.
Furthermore, Dr. Kamal Abdic, played by the deadpan Edgar Ramirez disappears from the narrative all together at a certain point and although his name suggests Middle Eastern descent, Ramirez performs using a subtle Spanish accent and while comforting Meghan, speaks to her in Spanish to calm her. Why was this change necessary? It must be possible to find a handsome Middle Eastern actor who can play the part with more sentiment? Tom Watson and Scott Hipwell no better – humorless, sexually obsessed, presumptuous and even sociopathic, it’s difficult to feel for any of the characters with the exception of Rachel.
A common complaint amongst devoted readers was the casting of Emily Blunt as Rachel Watson. Rachel is self-described as being no longer desirable, dirty and slightly obese with greasy hair and a face that makes strangers turn away in shame. The author of “The Girl on the Train” strongly dislikes this opinion and fights back against those accusing her of falling into Hollywood’s infamous pattern of hiring only attractive actors and actresses for roles that do not call for them.
“People say ‘Oh she’s way too beautiful to play her, but that doesn’t matter. The thing about Rachel is her self-loathing, about what she feels about herself, and Emily really brought that out in the way she carries herself. All the damage is visible,” explains The Hollywood Reporter.
And here is where my review becomes positive. Blunt’s performance as Rachel is so emotionally stirring and so incredibly engaging that concentrating on her depiction reminds me of the story at hand. Her journey as she searches inside her own mind is so powerful, you’ll want to see it again. Despite the other two dimensional female leads and the unreliable predators that are the male leads, Blunt draws you into the plotline and gets you wrapped around the mystery.
There are several other discrepancies between the book and the film, including absent scenes, absent characters, and a completely new setting. The book is set in suburban London, whereas the film is set in the suburban outskirts of New York City. Despite the discrepancies, one thing remains clear: the intrigue of the plot is enough to distract and hypnotize you into solving the mystery alongside Rachel Watson.