“Ultimately, it’s about a character who renews herself and repairs her brokenness.”
Paula Hawkins’ best-selling novel The Girl On The Train riveted millions, and now makes its way to the big screen.
Award-winning and internationally produced screenwriter and playwright Erin Cressida Wilson (who won the Independent Spirit Award for her first screenplay Secretary in 2003), wrote the screenplay, with Tate Taylor (The Help, Get on Up) in the director’s chair.
Lulled to Voyeurism: The Dramatic Thriller Begins
Although former journalist Paula Hawkins had previously written several books as an author for hire, “The Girl on the Train” was the first novel released under her own name. After its publication in January 2015, Hawkins’ story became one of the fastest-selling novels in history, with more than 15 million copies sold globally. In its first week, “The Girl on the Train” landed in the top spot of The New York Times Best Sellers List. In fact, it remained on the list for more than a year, spending much of that time at No. 1. In 2015, it became Amazon’s Best Seller in Books, Most Wished for in Books, as well as its Best Seller in eBooks, while Hawkins was lauded by USA Today as Author of the Year.
The inspiration for her gripping whodunit of witnesses who become suspects was inspired by Hawkins’ daily experiences on the commuter rail through London. “There was one particular route where the train was always breaking down, and I would sit and look into these apartment blocks, and you could see right into someone’s living room,” she recounts. “I was always hoping I’d see something interesting, although I never did. But it started my imagination going, and that’s where the germ of the story came from.”
Told from the perspective of three women, the book’s primary narrator is Rachel, a thirtysomething commuter on British Rail whose life is a wreck after a failed marriage. While her drinking cost Rachel her job, she continues to take the train into the city, in order to give the impression to her roommate she’s still working. But Rachel also enjoys obsessing upon the lives of others, while furtively sipping liquor from a water bottle.
In Hawkins’ tale, Rachel’s plunge into the depths of alcoholism clouds her memories. It also fuels her growing paranoia when her investigation into Megan’s disappearance points to the chance that she may have been involved. “That’s when we start to discover that Rachel isn’t particularly reliable at all, and she’s got all these problems that suck her into the story,” says Hawkins. “Her memory loss is key to her sense of who she’s become. She has a twisted sense of guilt and responsibility because she doesn’t remember her actions.” Still Hawkins advises, her protagonist is strong underneath the drama. “Over the course of the book, we see her fight back.”
Producer Marc Platt and DreamWorks acquired the rights to Hawkins’ debut thriller in 2014, prior to the novel’s publication. “My colleague, Jared LeBoff, read a manuscript that was submitted and thought it was a great story,” recounts Platt. “He gave it to me, and I loved it. DreamWorks was reading it then as well, and they felt the same. We all got married together, bought the film rights and developed it.”
Platt goes on to describe why he knew Hawkins’ novel would be perfect material for a filmic adaptation: “It had genre elements of a thriller, and yet it felt contemporary, full of interesting, flawed characters. We’re all a bit voyeuristic, so the notion of riding a train every day and being one of the people in the crowd, and observing a life—and then all of sudden seeing something wrong in that view—is very Hitchcockian, very Rear Window, which is a great hook.”
But to Platt—and the millions of other readers who continue to devour Hawkins’ story—the book is so much more than a tantalizing, sexually charged mystery. “In addition to having thrills, it’s a satisfying character journey,” he states. “Ultimately, it’s about a character who renews herself and repairs her brokenness.”
To adapt Hawkins’ book, the filmmakers turned to Erin Cressida Wilson, acclaimed for her film adaptations of female-centric stories, such as Chloe, Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus and Secretary, which earned Wilson an Independent Spirit Award. “We were looking for a female screenwriter, and we had long admired Erin’s work,” the producer says. “Of course, the writer didn’t have to be a female, but it felt like a woman could really capture the voice of the women in Paula’s story.”
Describing “The Girl on the Train” as “the moving Rear Window,” Wilson had also spent much time as a train passenger. “I sat behind that window a lot, and looked at the backs of houses and just loved it,” she reflects. “Paula captures that feeling of the rock-a-bye of being on a train, and being lulled to blissful voyeurism.”
Wilson admits that which few of us have the wherewithal to share. “I’ve always been interested—both personally and in terms of literature in cinema—in voyeurism, and that’s always been sort of a ‘pervy’ thing,” the screenwriter laughs. “Suddenly, Paula was able to make it not so, and make it a tale for everybody.”
While certain chapters of “The Girl on the Train” are also narrated by Megan, half of the perfect couple upon whom Rachel spies, and Anna, the second wife of Rachel’s ex-husband, Wilson knew that one character was pivotal to the adaptation. “It was important to me that this film be written from Rachel’s point of view, just like the book was,” she reveals. “The lens of the film is hers. It’s that of an outsider; it’s removed. It’s frustrated, angry and poetic. In some ways, I had to make the camera drunk. I had to write it like the camera was inebriated, and that was fun.”
Platt understood the translation from book to script would be a challenging one indeed. “Erin’s take on the material was interesting, and she delivered,” he commends. “It is very much taken from the book, so fans will be satisfied, but Erin also found a way to enhance and embellish elements to make the language of it even more cinematic…yet retain the integrity of the source.”
One key change from the novel would be the film’s setting, which was moved to New York and its Metro-North commuter rail line, which runs to Westchester County from the city. The most western of the routes that originate at Grand Central Station in Manhattan, Metro-North’s Hudson Line, passes through Harlem and the Bronx before hugging the Hudson River. Its commuter trains travel through the working river towns, forested parkland, and leafy suburbs of Westchester, and these scenescapes would offer the production an abundance of looks from which to choose.
While the novel is set in London, a city that is built on commuters coming in on a complicated railway system, the filmmakers opted to set the thriller in and around Manhattan. “We thought in New York we could find the same kind of environment because New York is also a commuter city that’s parallel to London,” states Platt. “Setting it in New York also allowed us to have a stronger relatability for our domestic audience, but it doesn’t change the dynamics of the story.”
Switching locales made it even more intriguing for the screenwriter. “I never considered putting it in England, partially because we didn’t know the book was going to be famous,” adds Wilson. “From day one, I said I wanted it on the Hudson Line. I was thinking of films like Falling in Love and Unfaithful, and I love that route and the way that it’s been depicted in films.”
There was no more important audience member to satisfy than the story’s creator. Hawkins, who says that the universal themes of voyeurism and loneliness, addiction and passion in “The Girl on the Train” allow for the story to take place in any city with a mass transit system, blessed the relocation. “We’ve moved out to Westchester, and I actually love the look of it,” she says. “It’s perfect.”
In an interesting twist, Wilson turned in her first draft of The Girl on the Train the same week that Hawkins’ book was published. At the time, no one could have known that the novel would go on to produce such record-breaking sales. “I particularly didn’t expect it to do this well on this side of the Atlantic,” says the author. “But it’s been amazing.”
As the screenwriter adapted Hawkins’ work, she felt that the author hit something in the zeitgeist about what makes us all so very human. “With longing, your lover never lets you down by being boring; they’re whatever you make them up to be,” reflects Wilson. “Rachel’s longing for the perfect lives of the young couple she sees from the train is something many can relate to, especially with the rise of social media, where everyone’s family is beautiful and always happy. We look at people’s relationships and think they’re perfect.” She pauses. “But there are so many things we just don’t see.”
To helm The Girl on the Train, DreamWorks and Platt turned to Tate Taylor, director of the former’s acclaimed drama The Help and Universal’s powerful biopic Get on Up. Nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award®, The Help was also honored with Oscar® nominations for several of its female cast, with the film’s Octavia Spencer winning the statuette for Best Actress in a Supporting Role. “Tate is someone whose work I have long admired,” raves Platt. “His strength is that he understands people, and he has a particular affinity for understanding women. He was drawn to these characters and also has had people in his life who have gone through addiction…and emerged on the other side.”
“Tate is obviously a fantastic director, and his vision for the film is quite similar to my vision for the book,” adds Hawkins. “We talked about keeping the sort of paranoid, claustrophobic atmosphere, but the heart of the story is the same.”
Taylor describes how he once again became involved with the studio, which had proved to be such crucial partners on one of his first films: “Holly Bario, president of production at DreamWorks, called and asked me to read ‘The Girl on the Train’ and if I’d be interested in directing the film. As I read it, I saw a way into it, and I called her and said, ‘I’m in.’ Thus began the process.” As was the case in their last collaboration, the book phenomenon was just beginning to take hold. Says Taylor: “Much like The Help, it unfolded as I began the endeavor.”
The director appreciates any source material that allows him to explore and deepen a character on the screen. “When I saw another book told from the perspective of three women, that immediately interested me,” he offers, “and to flex my muscle in the area of a thriller was exciting. As well, the universal themes of loneliness, desperation and battling addiction touched me. It was important to reveal and portray them truthfully.” In fact, that’s one of the few things Hawkins asked of him. Taylor recalls: “She said, ‘Just make it great, and make it truthful.’”
As Taylor prepared for the shoot, he revisited many of his favorite thrillers in film. Still, there was an ingredient he felt was missing in many of these classics. He notes: “I noticed that while so many were beautifully shot and thrilling, you often don’t get to know the characters well. Perhaps there hasn’t always been room for that in a genre like this. But with Paula’s book, I saw the opportunity to have both for our film, which I call a dramatic thriller. The more you can deepen character and dramatic elements, the more the thriller aspects rise to the top; you’re simply trying to figure everybody out in this psychological puzzle.”
Blunt first became aware of the phenomenon that was “The Girl on the Train” through her sister, Felicity, who is a literary agent. “She told me, ‘This book is selling like quick fire.’ I’d go into any airport or bookstore and saw that it was the No. 1 bestseller. I could see people reading it on the subway and on airplanes. So I was aware of the tsunami of interest before I was approached by the producers. When they asked if I was interested in coming in, that’s when I read the book. And I read it in two days.”
The performer admits that she was struck by just how visceral she found the thriller to be, and grew further impressed with Wilson’s work on the script about this “delusional Nancy Drew character,” as she puts it. “I loved seeing the screenplay capture Rachel’s intensity, and the fact that it is told in a sort of blurry sense…because the lead character is an alcoholic and the most unreliable witness to a crime.
“I was fascinated by how they were filmically going to capture that sense of addiction and voyeurism,” Blunt continues, “what we think we see and don’t, what we think we remember and don’t…and the blurry lines between all of those aspects.” In fact, that commitment to unexpected narrative sold her on the story and the film. “What I loved about the book and the script is that they articulately managed to depict broken, damaged women. You don’t see that in cinema very often, as women are often held in a male ideal. Both the book and the film strive away from that.”
Tate Taylor appreciates any source material that allows him to explore and deepen a character on the screen. “When I saw another book told from the perspective of three women, that immediately interested me,” he offers, “and to flex my muscle in the area of a thriller was exciting. As well, the universal themes of loneliness, desperation and battling addiction touched me. It was important to reveal and portray them truthfully.” In fact, that’s one of the few things Hawkins asked of him. Taylor recalls: “She said, ‘Just make it great, and make it truthful.’”
“I really want you to walk away with a thought about the human condition, take away something that you can relate to that one or more of the characters have come to realize themselves. You may not be in Rachel, Megan or Anna’s situation, but you have more in common with them than you think.”