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Courtesy of Universal Pictures

October 12, 2016

Not Your Typical Trainwreck

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Had you said anything negative about Edward Cullen around me circa 2008, you would have been slapped. Like many repressed 13-year-old girls, I found Edward to be the perfect embodiment of the male species, a possessive, jealous, sparkling blood-sucker: what more could anyone want?

Admittedly the only obstacle separating us was his fictionality. When the realization finally set in that I was obsessed with someone I had never and would never meet, I reached out to my life gurus on Yahoo Answers for guidance. How could my heart rest knowing I would be kept from my soulmate forever because we weren’t on the same page?

Fiction readers’ allegiances for their favorite characters are something to be marveled at. While I was preparing myself for a life of celibacy without Edward, others were busy getting Harry Potter’s face tattooed on their forearms or naming their children after beloved dramatis personae (resulting in Katniss becoming the 14th most popular baby girl’s name in the United States in 2014).

Some may view this behavior as extreme on a generous day, and batshit crazy on a regular one, but as the author Charlie Lovett once said, “a good book is like a good friend.” In reading, characters become real entities, their stories extensions of our own.

If books are our friends, then it makes sense that The Girl on the Train readers don’t want anyone messing with their clique. After Friday’s release of the movie based on Paula Hawkins’ 2015 novel, uproarious readers took to Twitter to air their dissatisfaction with director Tate Taylor’s (Pretty Ugly People and The Help)’s cinematic interpretation of the best-selling thriller. Readers’ consensus was that the book did not compare to the movie, with a number of viewers stating that they found the movie so devoid of merit they walked out of it in the middle.

Critics were also largely underwhelmed. On the aggregate review site Rotten Tomatoes, the movie is rated at 44 percent on the tomatometer, with reviewers employing every train pun possible in their assessments of the film—  which apparently “goes off the rails,” “was more off-peak saver than first class” and “careened off the tracks.”

Though I am usually of the ideology that “the book is always better than the movie,” The Girl on the Train inspires a different reaction. It’s true that the movie does not capture the nuances of the novel. Time constraints require fast pacing, and as a result, The Girl on the Train becomes predictable and didactic with a storyline that can no longer be categorized as mystery. Viewers know from its outset that Tom Watson (Justin Theroux) is the murderer, whereas readers of the novel were forced to scurry down a circumspect path to attain this revelation. However, the film did not completely tank like Thomas as critics would have you believe. Its patent plot allows for greater emphasis on gaping psychological surveys of the victims — an ultimately more satisfying focus in a genre that has previously relied on a stagnant “whodunit” schema.

The Girl on the Train features a troika of female characters, each played by acting powerhouses. Female leads are usually held to some feminine ideal. They are perfect, and if they have in fact stumbled somewhere along the way, the journey to recovery is clear. What’s different about The Girl on the Train, however, is that it honors its characters’ flaws. It is not only concerned with cursory details of female identity, but with exploring the quotidian experiences of women. It does not abhor the domestic, it embraces it, and in doing so renders it valid fodder for art.

Rachel Watson (Emily Blunt) is a certified mess. Crippled with grief over her ex-husband starting a family with another woman, Rachel turns to alcohol to cope. While sipping on vodka from a water bottle on her daily commute from Ardsley to New York City, she develops a fixation with Megan (Haley Bennett) and Scott Hipwell (Luke Evans), a couple that resides on the street she lived on before her divorce. Rachel idealizes Megan and Scott as the perfect couple, until she spots Megan kissing a man that is not her husband. The next day, Megan has gone missing.

Blunt’s portrayal of Rachel is a tour de force, equally devastating and frightening. Though readers of the book are certain she did not kill Megan, her performance arouses doubt in her innocence nonetheless. For the majority of the movie, Blunt is reserved. She may shake and slur her speech, two behaviors characteristic of alcoholics, but her ability to function with addiction makes Blunt’s depiction all the more realistic. She has normalized her dependence, trivialized getting fired from her job and hanging out in bars. But Blunt doesn’t play to the caricature; her approach to acting as Rachel is holistic. Though Rachel is indeed an alcoholic, her characterization is not defined by her addiction: it is defined by self-loathing. She is an alcoholic because she’s in pain and she’s in pain because she’s an alcoholic.

Haley Bennett as Megan gives an equally formidable performance. She appears to be the typical femme fatale, a stock character the audience can’t take seriously. However, when she reveals to her psychologist that she doesn’t want to have a baby with her husband because her first child died when she was 17, the audience is gripped by her layers of depth. Pain manifests itself in different ways. For some, like Rachel, it is visible and for others like Megan, it is hidden deep within crevices no one even knew existed. Bennett’s candor is a reminder of the limitations of sight.

Finally, Anna is another character who is easy to write off as inconsequential. She is a new stay-at-home mother, concerned primarily with eating organically to keep her baby healthy, and a representative of stereotypical wine-drinking and Pilates-loving suburban women. But Ferguson gives credence to Anna’s struggle to be a good mother and wife with her protective concern and caretaking for her family.

Though not reflective of female empowerment, Justin Theroux’s acting as a sociopathic murderer should still be lauded. When The Girl on the Train apexes, Theroux as Tom instructs Rachel that she is like an “unwanted, mistreated dog” that keeps coming back no matter how many times you hurt it. His abuse is trenchant and effectively creepy and it is revealed that he has been gas lighting — manipulating someone into questioning their own sanity — Rachel for years.

The author of The Girl on the Train herself said “There’s no such thing as a 100 percent faithful adaptation of a book to screen.” The mediums call for different tactics and methods to engage their diverse audiences. To satisfy a large fan base is nearly impossible, and if we learned anything from Aesop’s Fables, it’s that you can’t please everyone. But though The Girl on the Train does not exactly mirror its literary counterpart, it encapsulates the spirit of the novel as well as the crux of its tensions — perhaps the best readers can hope for when their favorite book finds itself on the wrong side of the tracks.

Gwen Aviles is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at gaviles@cornellsun.com. 

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