Paula Hawkins’ novel, The Girl on the Train, has sold 15 million copies around the world, largely due to its irresistible concept. Its heroine, Rachel, is a miserable, alcoholic divorcee who gazes at the same house twice every day when she commutes by train between London and suburbia. She likes to imagine that the man and woman she sees in that house have an idyllic marriage, just as she used to do when she lived nearby, before her inability to get pregnant drove her away from her husband and towards the bottle. But her illusions about this seemingly perfect couple are shattered when she spots the woman, Megan, kissing another man. The next day Megan vanishes, and Rachel fears that she might have been involved. The problem is, she was so drunk on the night of the disappearance, she can’t remember what she did, or how she ended up so badly cut and bruised.
It’s a gripping Rear-Window-on-wheels premise, but it’s surprising how little the novel makes of it. Rachel doesn’t do much detective work herself: she mopes around for three hundred pages until her memories conveniently return, and then she mopes around for a hundred pages after that. What worse is that nothing is at stake for her, given that she is already at rock bottom, nor is she in any danger. That is, she isn’t in any danger until she stupidly throws herself in harm’s way, because the book wouldn’t have had a climax otherwise. If that weren’t irritating enough, she isn’t a girl - she’s in her thirties - and the fact that she sometimes travels by train turns out to be barely relevant. “The Woman with no Brain” would have been a more appropriate title.
‘The Woman with no Brain’ would have been a more appropriate title
Still, the shortcomings of the book aren’t necessarily a bad thing, as far as a film version is concerned. David Fincher struggled with two “Girl” adaptations - The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl - because there was too much in the novels for him to cram into two hours. The Girl on the Train, on the other hand, is so hollow that there is plenty of space for a film-maker to fill with interesting detail. That hasn’t happened. Directed by Tate Taylor (The Help) and written by Erin Cressida Wilson (Secretary), the dreary, fragmentary adaptation takes everything that was wrong with Hawkins’ book and makes it worse. If you’ve read the novel, you’ll be annoyed by the changes, and if you haven’t read it you’ll wonder how it ever became a bestseller in the first place.
On the wrong track
A few of those changes have clear commercial reasons. The action, such as it is, has been shifted from London’s suburbs to New York’s, the houses have become bigger and more enviable, and the heroine - who is repeatedly described in the book as being overweight and unattractive - is played by Emily Blunt, who hardly fits either description, even with the smudged eyeliner which the film uses to signify that she is a gin-swigging wreck.
A few other changes are simply baffling: why, for instance, does Megan’s therapist (Edgar Ramirez) have a Balkan name as he does in the novel, when he is Hispanic onscreen? And why has Rachel been turned into an accomplished artist when her drawings have no bearing on the story? And there are other changes which aren’t just baffling, but perverse. They seem designed to make the film less cinematic, not more.
For a start, the film breaks the show-don’t-tell rule of cinema several times per minute. When we first see Rachel, she explains who she is and how she feels in ponderous voiceover. Then when she sees Megan (Hayley Bennett) smooching with someone who isn’t her husband, the film-makers don’t trust Blunt’s acting to convey her reaction, so they have her saying, “Who is that man? What is she doing?”
And it’s not just Rachel. While the vast majority of the novel is narrated by her, the film divides its running time more evenly between Rachel, Megan, and Anna (Rebecca Ferguson), the woman who is now married to Rachel’s ex-husband Tom (Justin Theroux) – and they all keep spelling out what’s on their minds. They are either talking to themselves in voiceover, or talking to their babies, or talking to their therapist, or talking to a police detective (Allison Janney) who investigates the case without actually doing anything.
It’s less like watching a propulsive mystery film than listening to a radio play while looking at pictures of sad people
Moments that should have been dramatic turning points, such as when Rachel steels herself to contact Megan’s brawny husband (Luke Evans), are missed out altogether, apparently because the film-makers were so keen to get back to the three women pontificating about their lives and their memories while tears roll down their cheeks. Sitting through The Girl on the Train is less like watching a propulsive mystery film than listening to a radio play while looking at pictures of sad people.
The endless cutting between different narrators with different perspectives also means that, instead of picking up speed, this particular train chugs back and forth along the same stretch of track, stopping at every station along the way. There are flashbacks, and flashbacks within flashbacks, but we never seem to be getting any closer to the destination, that is, finding out what happened to Megan.
What’s frustrating is that if you stare at The Girl on the Train hard enough, you can just about make out what the writer and director were trying to do. Rather than contenting themselves with anything as lowly as entertaining an audience, they were attempting to fashion an intricately patterned mosaic that drew parallels between the three central women, and which commented on cycles of abuse and denial. It was a noble aim, sort of, but Hawkins’ trashy material would have been better suited to a lurid 1990s erotic thriller. That, at least, might have been fun. As it is, The Girl on the Train has ideas above its station.
If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.
And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called “If You Only Read 6 Things This Week”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Earth, Culture, Capital, Travel and Autos, delivered to your inbox every Friday.