Rachel Watson has, to put it mildly, seen better days.
An unstable alcoholic who is prone to blackouts, she no longer has a husband, job, or home. Instead, she’s reduced to living with a friend and spending her days riding the train because she has nothing better to do with her time. She distracts herself by watching a couple who live in a house next to the railway track.
As she rides by every day, she crafts a story in her head about this seemingly perfect couple. She gives them names and occupations and hobbies. And, yes, that’s as creepy as it sounds. This unhinged respite from her own troubled life is shaken one day when she rides by and sees something that shatters the illusions she has created in her own imagination.
Even more worryingly, she learns soon that the woman who lives in the house has disappeared. Rachel starts to suspect that she may know more about the case than she realizes, but she can’t remember anything. Complications ensue.
Welcome to the debut edition of our new monthly feature “From Page to Screen”! Every month, I’ll be looking at different books and their film or television adaptations.
Before college, I’d never really considered adaptations, beyond not being a big fan of them. I tended to find them pointless and evaluated them solely on how similar they were to their source material.
But then, in a couple of different classes, we analyzed books and their film adaptations, and I developed a greater appreciation for the process of adaptation. Now, instead of automatically dismissing adaptations or judging them solely on their fidelity to their source text, I’m more interested in why directors/screenwriters/producers make those changes and whether they have their intended effect. So, now I am the person who, when other book lovers argue that the book is always better, object and argue, “Well, sometimes it is” and am ready with counterexamples.
In this series, I’ll try my best to avoid major spoilers, but proceed at your own caution.
So, with that being said, I decided to use Paula Hawkins’s 2015 bestselling thriller and last year’s film adaptation of the book, starring Emily Blunt, for my first post for this series. My coworker Mary-Esther suggested the pair to me because of the mixed reception the film received when it came out last year, and I thought that sounded like an intriguing idea, especially since I’d been meaning to read the book for some time. (Thanks again for the recommendation, Mary-Esther!)
Overall thoughts on the book
I went into the book knowing only that it was about a girl, a train, and a missing persons case.
Overall, I found this pulpy psychological thriller quite interesting, primarily because of Rachel’s internal monologue. Her narration is juxtaposed with two other characters’ thoughts, but I was definitely more interested in her side of the story.
That’s not because she is likable, though. Indeed, there really weren’t any likable characters in this story, but the depiction of her descent into debilitating alcoholism stood out to me as one of the more unique aspects of the book.
I read a lot of mysteries and am no stranger to alcoholic detectives and investigators, but they tend to be a lot more functional than Rachel. Off the top of my head, I really can’t think of another book with an alcoholic protagonist that delves into quite as much cringe-worthy detail about the subject. Rachel is not a character who happens to have a drinking problem and has the occasional bad day as a result. She is a complete mess.
In tandem with being intrigued by Rachel in the same way that one is morbidly drawn to a train wreck (pun not really intended), I also found her internal monologue interesting simply because it was such a weird blend of creepy, entertaining, and pathetic. As I said, there are no “good” characters in this story, but I did find Rachel both oddly compelling and deeply unsettling.
That being said, I think the book botches its ending. About halfway through, I guessed the surprise twist and then ruled it out as implausible. I then got to the ending and realized I had been right, but none of the reasons why I found that ending unbelievable or the actions that led to it out-of-character for a few major characters was ever adequately addressed.
I’m being vague here because I don’t want to spoil the book for those who haven’t read it, but I can be more detailed in the comments if you want to discuss. Nonetheless, I did enjoy the book, primarily again because I found the internal monologue intriguing.
Continue on to the next page for my thoughts on the movie!