Tate Taylor’s filmic adaptation of Paula Hawkin’s psychological thriller The Girl on the Train fails to translate the importance of the novel’s domestic violence narrative, missing a vital opportunity to confront issues of abuse on the big screen.
I gave into this summer’s popularity hype and recently read Hawkin’s hugely successful best-seller. The perspective of three intertwining female narratives creates a multifaceted journey, allowing the writer’s debut to explore a variety of topics regarding suburban life and relationships. Although the formative style isn’t particularly groundbreaking, Hawkin’s incorporation of a dramatic plot twist in the finale demands to be discussed and reverses the novel’s otherwise slightly forgetful nature.
Rachel, a recently divorced and unemployed Londoner, is an alcoholic. Her past relationship with ex-husband Tom fell apart after several unsuccessful pregnancy attempts and his unfaithfulness with a young professional named Anna. Drinking her way through an increasing number of bottles of wine provides Rachel with a necessary coping mechanism for the breakdown of her marriage, numbing feelings of betrayal and disappointment associated with her loss. In drunken-fuelled stupors, she behaves neurotically and dangerously towards Tom; both in the past (recalled through painful flashbacks) and in the present. The void caused by alcohol gives Rachel only snippets of memory, and events are clouded with the frustrating confusion a heavy night of drinking brings. Only damaged possessions and endless placed calls to Tom’s phone provides concrete evidence of her spiralling madness and violent nature. Travelling to and from London to keep up appearances of her old job in the City, she wastes her days obsessing over an attractive young couple named Megan and Scott who live in a house she views from the train. Placing ideals of the suburban dream upon the strangers, Rachel feels personally victimised when she witnesses Megan commit adultery from her position of spectatorship; watching the female passionately kissing an unidentified man. How can a woman in a perfect relationship sabotage the life Rachel once had and so terribly craves to own again? After Megan mysteriously disappears in unexplainable circumstances, and Rachel awakens bloodied and bruised with no recollection of the evening’s events, she can only begin to blame herself for the apparent crimes committed against the new object of her rage.
For the focus of this article, I want to forget the murder mystery surrounding Megan and and instead discuss the novel’s other climatic revelation.
Throughout, Hawkin’s narrates the continued memory loss of our unreliable narrator in Rachel’s segments of the book; repeatedly describing in upsetting detail the protagonist’s inability to remember her behaviour and actions. Rachel’s substance abuse has placed her in a weakened position of no longer being able to know the truth to any situation, only that alcoholism is the cause. Yet Tom has always filled in the empty spaces, retelling the embarrassing scenes created in front of colleagues or the violent rages acted out towards him. He has provided continual support of Rachel’s deranged behaviour, even when it threatens the relationship with his new wife Anna and the safety of his child. But why is he keeping his ex-wife as an integral part of his life, when it threatens the happiness of his new found relationship? Why does he always choose to help Rachel in her difficult situations, going behind Anna’s back to protect Rachel from harm?
Preying on vulnerability created by addiction, Tom has physically and emotionally abused Rachel throughout their relationship, whilst effectively reversing the blame away from himself. After all, how can somebody blame you for abusive behaviour, when they are unable to recall the events? Tom’s patient, calm exterior showcases a warmth and affection towards Sober Rachel (ensuring she never suspects or questions him), but masks an abusive nature. In moments when she can only recollect broken mirrors and bruised skin, it is Tom that has committed violence – not Rachel.
Hawkin’s reveals the nature of Tom’s crimes in an honest chapter detailing his behaviour through a selection of flashbacks that reposition the angles on past events in a truthful light. It is a difficult chapter to read, but Hawkin’s provides a perspective of humility and emotion that focuses on the importance of Rachel’s feelings and approaches the situation with care.
Although Taylor included this narrative revelation in his filmic adaptation, he fails to register its importance by creating a rushed and flawed perspective on domestic abusive relationships. The sequences are brief – with no emotional understanding of Rachel’s discovery – and instead, shamelessly uses the discovery as nothing but a mere plot catalyst for the following scene.
Although Hawkin’s novel was undoubtably flawed, her inclusion of topics such as alcoholism and domestic violence are important – they remain subjects that are largely unspoken of in the public sphere. So, why has Taylor chosen to navigate his way through Hawkin’s dialogue in such a way that fails to grasp its potential?
Imogen and I discussed two possible reasons: the transition from female writer to male director and the time-restraints created by a film’s production. Whilst Hawkin’s novel includes humility and emotion towards Rachel’s character, presented through an in-depth development of her character and experiences of abuse, Taylor’s film instead feels both rushed and two-dimensional.
It was nothing but a disappointment to see Taylor’s unsuccessful attempt at adapting an important literary source. With the hype generated by Hawkin’s novel and the draw to the box office for big names such as Emily Blunt, Luke Evans, Justin Theroux and Rebecca Ferguson, the opportunity to portray domestic violence and abuse to a widespread audience has been completely missed. It’s disheartening to think Taylor may have disregarded this specific aspect of the content in an ironic attempt to attract audiences.