The Girl on the Train: British book vs. American adaptation

I’ve always been a movie buff, a regular cinema goer, and although I enjoy a good book every now and then, I’m not a big reader. Every year I encourage myself to read more, keep the mind active. After all reading’s good for you, right? But alas, it never materialises. It’s so much easier and less time-consuming to watch the film adaptation; two hours allows you to absorb the whole plot plus a musical score. You don’t get scores and soundtracks in books do you! Nevertheless, my conscience continues to creep up on me; that sensible voice at the back of my mind telling me to read. ‘Stop procrastinating, stop playing on your mobile phone, stop browsing Amazon for gadgets and gizmos you don’t need. Just read a book, a whole book’.

It was only when I caught the trailer for the recently released film, The Girl on the Train, that I suddenly decided I would read the best seller before allowing myself to see the much anticipated film. A good incentive I thought; I love films and was instantly grabbed by the look of this one. Therefore, Paula Hawkins novel might be a good place to start me on the track to regular reading.

Warning: This review contains spoilers.

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Plot: Hawkins psychological thriller is narrated by three women: the eponymous Girl, 32 year-old Rachel Watson; Megan and Anna. Rachel is a reckless alcoholic who divorced Tom following his affair with the beautiful Anna, whom he later married and fathered a daughter with. The new Watsons now live in the house he once shared with Rachel, while she is forced to rent a room in the home of her friend Cathy. Every day Rachel takes the train from Ashbury to London, claiming she’s commuting for work when, unbeknownst to Cathy, she lost her job due to her excessive drinking. Her days, like her commute, represent the typical monotony of life as an alcoholic. A dependence on gin and tonic in particular leads to blackouts, aggression, injury and memory loss.

Rachel’s daily journey passes Blenheim road in Witney where she lived with Tom, offering her a passengers’ insight into his new life. Seemingly obsessed with her former husband, she continually harasses him and Anna to the extreme; calling and even visiting their residence unannounced. A few houses down from the Watsons, live Megan and Scott Hipwell, an attractive young couple on whom Rachel becomes fixated. She watches them from the train and invents for herself an idealised version of their life, investing in them, in their love for each other and in their perfect marriage. So when Rachel sees Megan kissing a man other than her husband, her illusion is shattered. Angry and disappointed, she spends the night binging, then wakes in a bloody and bruised state with no memory of the night before.

It soon transpires that Megan Hipwell is missing, and having seen Rachel drunkenly stumbling around the area on the night in question, Anna reports her to the police. Rachel denies any knowledge of Megan yet feels instinctively that she is somehow involved, and so she conducts a self-led investigation. She later decides to report having witnessed Megan with the unidentified man, suggesting they were having an affair and that he must therefore be involved in her disappearance. She meddles further, contacting and lying to Scott about having known Megan, and learning that the man in question is Kamal Abdic, Megan’s therapist.

Disturbed by her blackout and intent on piecing together the series of events surrounding what evolves to be a murder; Rachel finds a much needed purpose. It emerges that Megan was pregnant at the time of her death, though neither Scott nor Kamal are the father. Anna, despondent at the persistence of Rachel’s presence and harassment, begins to question Tom’s reluctance to report his ex-wife to the police. She uncovers a spare mobile phone belonging to Megan and realises that her husband, like Kamal, had also been having an affair with her.

Increasingly able to certify her own memories, Rachel not only unveils facts about the night of Megan’s disappearance, but also about her former life with Tom. A skilled manipulator, he had blindsided Rachel for years, causing her to believe his accusations and blame herself. When unable to conceive, he betrayed her by sleeping with Anna, and then proceeded to cheat on Anna with Megan who became pregnant with his child. Rachel seeks to warn Anna at the family home, but Tom returns and a violent confrontation ensues, the result of which sees both Rachel and Anna participate in Tom’s death.

We learn that what Rachel had seen that night in her drunken stupor was Megan getting into Tom’s car. Thinking initially that it was Anna and not Megan, due to their uncanny resemblance, Rachel called after her and incurred her injuries when Tom approached and attacked her. Following this, the car drove away to obscure woodland where Megan informed Tom of her pregnancy. Unable to pressure her into pursuing an abortion, Tom murdered and hurriedly buried her in a shallow grave.

My thoughts: A first person narrative told from the point of view of three interwoven women, I personally found the novel a fairly easy read. Each chapter is voiced by Rachel, Anna or Megan, and as such the perspective changes considerably, along with the dates; posing the only minor challenge for the reader. The pace at times was for me a little slow and drawn out, mainly throughout Rachel’s chapters, though this serves to represent the drudgery of her purposeless existence. She’s a divorced, unemployed, alcoholic and like her pointless daily commute into London, her life is headed nowhere. However, the pace and tension picked up substantially in the final third of the book. A dark and dramatic conclusion rooted in the realms of reality will maintain your attention and keep you enthralled to the last.

A heavily character driven plot, every individual we meet is flawed and hard to really care about. I sympathized with Rachel’s downfall; her life having disintegrated following a failed IVF attempt and her husband’s affair. After Tom marries the much more beautiful Anna with whom he has a daughter, Rachel completely lets herself go. Reason enough to reach for the bottle, or in this case a can of gin and tonic. But as her obsession with Megan’s case unfolds, her increasingly extreme actions stem from pure desperation and loneliness. Her erratic behaviour and confused recollections cause both she and the reader to suspect that she could be the killer. Nonetheless, I have to admit that by just over half way through, I correctly judged that Tom was the guilty party. Though by no means apparent, it appeared to me that any of the other characters would have been too obvious.

Inevitable comparisons have been made with its recent predecessor, American author Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. Though understandable, The Girl on the Train, or more accurately the woman on the train, is a much less sensationalised psychological thriller. Furthermore, it is a thoroughly British psychological thriller touching on themes such as voyeurism, addiction, the psyche and even Feminism. This consideration regarding the novel’s ‘Britishness’ brings me to its newly released screen adaptation.

Directed by the American Tate Taylor, the film starring British actress Emily Blunt is significantly set in New York as opposed to London. Blunt as Rachel travels the Hudson line to Manhattan, and leafy Westchester takes the place of the Victorian town of Witney. We see our anti-heroine drinking in Grand Centrals iconic Oyster Bar rather than raiding an off license for pre-mixed cans of gin and tonic, as in the novel. Even Central Park is featured, specifically the Untermeyer Fountain and its sculpture of three dancing maidens; a physical representation of the three female voices. Consequently, the stop-start nature of London’s rail works and the sense of hustle and bustle is lost in the films glossy New York scenery. Whereas I had envisaged a grittier, greyer world more reminiscent of ITV’s Broadchurch; Tate Taylor’s reimagining presents a moodier, broodier, more sexualised James Patterson vibe.

The characters in the film are underdeveloped and their traits and actions are never fully explored. There’s far too much ‘Hollywood’ posing and as a result they lack dimension, humanity and are less sympathetic than Hawkins’ inventions. I think had I not read the book first I would have struggled to follow and comprehend the events as depicted on the screen since so much detail has been casually brushed over. For example, Megan’s dead brother Ben whom she loved dearly and made future plans with, is briefly mentioned only once.

As much as I love Emily Blunt, she is a far cry from Hawkins’ creation. She certainly doesn’t have the physicality to portray an overweight, bloated, lacklustre binge drinker and as Hawkins herself says, she is far too beautiful. Nevertheless, she retains her English accent, presumably to hark back to the story’s original setting. Then again, perhaps it was just easier than adopting the Manhattan drawl? That aside, Blunt gives her all and offers a convincing portrayal of a woman on the edge. Hers is by far the standout performance. For the most part, all characters are well cast though some such as Edgar Ramirez who plays Kamal Abdic are somewhat underused.

Overall, I’d recommend saving your money on a cinema ticket. While it’s worth a watch, I feel this was a missed opportunity. Had the filmmakers followed Hawkins lead more closely in terms of tone, setting and character focus, it could have received the same applause as David Fincher’s Gone Girl. By all means indulge in the novel, you won’t be disappointed. If like Rachel, you are a daily commuter, maybe even consider reading it on the train for added effect.

1 thought on “The Girl on the Train: British book vs. American adaptation”

  1. Thanks for a great review. You really summarise the book perfectly – I really enjoyed the book and always find a novel has waaay more depth than most movies made from them. I wasn’t sure about the movie and now will wait til it comes out on Netflix or pay TV or similar – great to know and keep up the great reviews 🙂

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