Adele Wong
by Adele Wong

Adapting novels to screenplays is a mean feat (speaking from experience). I have previously recommended books that were adapted to screen – 5 Bestsellers Brought to Life on Screen

But what happens when one attempts to make an author’s bestselling novel into yet another thriller movie and a successful blockbuster? This is what director Tate Taylor (The Help) and screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson (Secretary) took on with The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins.

Emily Blunt with The Girl on the Train author Paula Hawkins

As with any given adaptation, deviations from the novel are inevitable but, as a whole, Erin Cressida Wilson did a good job in keeping to the style and narrative of the book and presenting it mostly from Rachel’s (Emily Blunt) point of view, with a few glimpses into the world from the other two women in the story - Anna (Rebecca Ferguson) and Megan (Haley Bennett). Rachel becomes a drunk and broken woman after her husband, Tom (Justin Theroux), leaves her for Anna. 

According to Tate Taylor, he viewed it not merely as a thriller but also a complex piece about three troubled women. An effective thriller delivers the plot twist in a timely fashion and allows it to be simple enough for the audience to absorb after being led through a complicated maze. Not everything in the novel can be kept the same as it is necessary to condense it into a 112-minute film. Film devices have to be employed and creative licenses have to be taken. One of the most noticeable changes is that the story in the novel is set in London, but in the film, New York. However, this does not dilute the atmosphere of the location nor the upper middle-class setting. 

Here are some of the differences in the screenplay that I thought made the thriller effective:  

1)    Omission of deeper details that might overwhelm the already complicated female characters and story

Megan’s horrid past is downplayed to become just a sympathetic revelation and an insight into her psyche. The drama and witch-hunt she faces in the novel is omitted, which allows the audience to focus on her storyline as the mysterious, sexual, beautiful butterfly who disappears. In the book, Rachel sleeps with Megan’s husband, Scott (Luke Evans), but this is also omitted from the film without taking away any of the tension between them. 

2)    Female cop Riley is Lead Detective

In the book, a male detective is lead, assisted by a female. But Allison Janney’s Dective Riley brings an emphatic and empathetic presence to the role. Tate Taylor says Janney is in everything he does, and we say more power to him for this excellent choice! In a story about complex women, it seems balanced to see them facing off with another woman in the investigation.
3)    New character Martha by Lisa Kudrow delivers the turning point

In the book, it takes a longer series of incidents to build up to Rachel’s revelation of what truly happened in her marriage and her eventual divorce that culminates in the four words – “And then Rachel remembers.” In the film, this is all condensed into the creation of Martha, and Lisa Kudrow plays the pivotal part wonderfully. This is a device cleverly used to drive the cinematic point home since we all know Kudrow’s seemingly small appearance is not without reason.

4)    Emily Blunt is not quite the picture of what Rachel in the book would look like (Also, Rachel in book drinks gin while in the film she drinks vodka)

Rachel in the book is supposed to have gained quite a bit of weight after her divorce and is not attractive. She is also always drinking and chugs alcohol bought at the train station that she fills up her water bottle with. According to Blunt and Taylor, they made a conscious decision to have Blunt play a drunk instead of just showing her drinking. Blunt did a lot of research into how drunk people behave,  how they try to hide how much they drink, how they try to be discrete, and how they try to hide their drunkenness – all things that Rachel does in the film. It is an excellent choice and a challenge to Blunt’s acting chops to ‘show’ instead of ‘tell’ the audience about Rachel’s drinking problem. Apparently, prosthetics were put on Blunt’s face to stay authentic to the puffiness that happens when she drinks versus when she is sober. You know, so that she only looks a third like a movie star instead of looking fully like one. That said, given her performance, I am sold on how miserable the character of Rachel is and did not need production to dumb her looks down more. It also sends a message that pretty girls are not immune to a sad, pathetic downward spiral.  

5)    The ending is different

In a smaller, pleasant way… And the graveyard. But we shall not spoil it here!


Behind the scenes interview with Emily Blunt & Paula Hawkins