Book vs. Film: "The Little Stranger" - When Interpretation Goes Too Far
When I pitched a movie review for The Little Stranger, I felt almost positive I knew where and how they would screw up adapting the beloved Sarah Waters novel by the same name. I was so certain that they would miss the subtle but brilliant, meaning-making twist that I actually pitched my column with the title “'The Little Stranger' Twist the Movie Missed.”
Good thing titles can be changed.
Never in a million years would I have guessed how they’d really screw it up. Somehow, they did the opposite of what I expected. They didn’t miss the important twist and ensuing interpretation; they overdid it. Color me shocked, pleased, and ultimately disappointed. But let’s back up.
If you’re unfamiliar with the book, here’s the IMDB summary written by Focus Features:
THE LITTLE STRANGER tells the story of Dr. Faraday, the son of a housemaid, who has built a life of quiet respectability as a country doctor. During the long hot summer of 1948, he is called to a patient at Hundreds Hall, where his mother once worked. The Hall has been home to the Ayres family for more than two centuries. But it is now in decline and its inhabitants—mother, son and daughter—are haunted by something more ominous than a dying way of life. When he takes on his new patient, Faraday has no idea how closely, and how disturbingly, the family's story is about to become entwined with his own.
And here’s my quick review from this post where I covered all six Sarah Waters novels:
If, like me, you’re all about the gothic, The Little Stranger is next in line. If you like your gothic more horror and less romance, this one’s the one for you. This book is seriously unsettling. No, it’s not straight horror and it’s definitely not a thriller; it’s a creeper. It has a quiet, insidious, slow-building type of dread fueled almost entirely by the intelligence and insight of the reader. I can’t even imagine the restraint it must’ve taken to trust that this book would come across how it does—an unnerving feminist commentary on post WWII England. This one has no overt LGBTQ+ storylines and is the only one of Waters’ novels narrated entirely by a man.
The movie, released on August 31, was directed by Lenny Abrahamson, written by Lucinda Coxon, and stars Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Charlotte Rampling, and Will Poulter—all brilliantly cast. It was well made, wonderfully acted, and did an amazing job of staying true to the book and bringing it to life visually with gorgeous sets and costumes.
That’s as far as I can go without spoilers. (So if you haven’t read the book yet and want to, maybe bookmark this and come back to it. And definitely read the book before you see the movie if you plan to do both!) If you read beyond this line, you’re going to get ALL THE SPOILERS. Skip to the second line to get back to a spoiler-free recommendation of if the book and/or movie is right for you.
As I hinted at above in my mini-review, the brilliance of Sarah Waters’ novel is in its subtlety. For a casual, surface, or distracted reader it could easily be interpreted as a totally traditional gothic ghost story. Mrs. Ayres’ dead daughter Susan (the ‘little stranger’) haunts the family until they go mad and die one by one. The narrator, Dr. Faraday, serves as an external point of view close enough to the family to witness key scenes but distant enough to not be attacked himself. Simple, straightforward, creepy—not bad at all.
But Sarah Waters is far more talented than that. Another totally standard gothic ghost story? No, she uses it for more. Close, discerning readers will see another answer hidden in the pages, cleverly disguised by the doctor’s point of view: the little stranger is Faraday himself, inserting himself into the house and the family uninvited, slowly and perhaps subconsciously destroying it all from within. It’s a tale of male fear, class impotency, and hidden rage. Faraday longs to belong so desperately that as a boy visiting the home he violently vandalizes a piece of it to steal. This is symbolic of his yearning; he will harm the things he loves if he cannot have them.
Unfortunately for Susan, Roderick, Mrs. Ayres, and Caroline, they all unknowingly stand in Faraday’s way of obtaining this house and this family. Susan steals all of the attention that Faraday longs for as a child, and so that very evening she gets sick and soon dies. Roderick wants to sell part of the property, and so he is ‘haunted’ and sent away. Mrs. Ayres won’t accept Faraday into the family, and so she is ‘haunted’ and killed. And finally, Caroline won’t marry Faraday, and so she, too, is ‘haunted’ and killed. These hauntings are subtly but clearly explained through astral projection; it’s Faraday’s wayward subconscious coming to the home and interfering with things. Which explains why, after Caroline’s tragic death, when he comes to the house to look for the ghost that they all claimed to be plagued by, he doesn't see the little daughter who died long ago. He sees nothing except his own reflection in the mirror. It’s a truly beautiful moment of symbolic clarity—a twist so subtle that many readers miss it entirely.
The beauty of this twist is that its clear interpretation changes the meaning of the whole book. The Little Stranger is not just a creepy ghost story told simply to entertain; it’s a feminist condemnation of fragile male ego and sublimated class rage. It’s a horror story about how our own twisted desires can destroy our lives. It’s a horror story about how others’ sense of entitlement can destroy our lives. It’s a genius re-framing of the traditional gothic structure to make the narrator, the presumed hero, the villain—without his ever even realizing it. In a way, it's an old-school gothic version of Kristen Roupenian's "Cat Person."
And it does all this with an elegant understated use of symbolism, unreliable narrator, and atmospheric dread. Sarah Waters is one of those special authors who is smart enough to allow her readers to be the smart ones. (We like that!)
The movie, however, beats us over the head with it.
As I said, I fully expected to be writing this review to point out the overlooked twist and explain the deeper meaning. I expected to complain about how the movie missed the point and told instead a fine but lacking ghost story. I expected to go on my rant about how moviemakers need to talk to more English majors before they start.
Somehow, they did the opposite, and it’s not quite as bad as what I’d feared, but still pretty bad. Not the movie as a whole, mind you. It’s beautiful and well worth watching if you love the gothic genre. But if you love the book as much as I do, it certainly doesn’t reach that standard.
It seems they talked to their requisite English major. (I kid.) They interpreted the book well, found the hidden meaning, and perfectly covered that twist. They laid the clues throughout and did a wonderful job staying true to the novel while condensing the story down to movie length.
But they took Waters’ subtlety and turned it into a blaring neon sign that left absolutely no room for interpretation. A person who fell asleep during the movie could probably still pick up on the twist. So at first, as they were laying the groundwork, I was thrilled. They’re getting it! They showed the vandalism, they timed it so that every time Faraday got mad or felt left out, something bad would happen to the family. It was amazing and I was ready to write a rave.
Slowly, though, they began to go overboard. When they talked about the astral projection as an explanation for ghosts—how someone’s subconscious can act out their rage—they actually showed a flashback of child Faraday vandalizing the house. Um, not much room for interpretation there. They forced us to realize Faraday is the one being projected here, and too early. From that point on, all the ‘clues’ were blatant evidence. By the end they were just beating a dead horse. When Caroline turns around at the top of the stairs and says, “You,” we already knew it was Faraday. Even the slow to catch on figured it out when they showed him look in the mirror. We definitely did not need to go back and see Faraday as a ghost child. Come on. He’s the little stranger. We get it. Even the dead horse gets it.
Okay, I’m being snarky here, but the truth is it’s still an excellent film. It's entirely possibly that the blatant projection of the meaning is a symptom of Hollywood or even of what movie-viewers look for; I really don't know. I suppose I’d rather they make the interpretation too clear than miss it altogether. I imagine that many who read and loved the book on that surface level will now “see” the hidden meaning that was in the book all along, which is cool. It’s just frustrating to me, because I thought the refinement was part of the beauty of the art. As is most often the case, at least for my tastes, the book is simply better than the film.
So who should read the book, and who should go see the movie?
Anyone who likes gothic fiction, horror fiction, historical fiction, and/or books in general. Especially if you haven’t seen the movie yet. Read the book first. The only people I would dis-recommend it for might be people very easily scared or highly impatient readers (it’s a slow burn).
Fans of the book, regardless of how you interpreted it. Seeing the characters and settings come to life was worth it alone, to be honest. I have a new appreciation for the maid Betty, for example, and a much more vivid impression of that infamous dog scene. Also, people who know they’ll never read the book. It’s still a very good movie. People who might want to skip, again, are impatient viewers (the movie is also a slow burn). However, I found the movie significantly less creepy than the book, so I think even most scaredy-cats should be safe.
Those are my thoughts. Have you read the book? Seen the movie yet? What did you think? Note: I can’t keep the comments spoiler-free, so read on with caution!
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