Book vs. Miniseries: "Sharp Objects"

Maybe it’s easy for the uninformed to shrug off Gillian Flynn as some kind of cookie cutter commercial writer. I guess it comes with the territory of becoming insanely popular. It’s that annoying hipster mentality, right? If everybody likes them, then they must suck. I won’t deny also once having this mindset. I’ve thought the same thing about writers like Lee Child, too. I’m too cool for these capitalist sellouts! my dumb rebellious brain would think, which was apparently all of thirteen years old. I only read real authors, like Chuck Tingle and Mandy De Sandra! Anyway, this is, of course, a terrible mindset. And besides, any doubts I might have once held about Gillian Flynn were immediately obliterated the moment I opened her novel, Dark Places, and read the opening two lines:

I have a meanness inside me, real as an organ. Slit me at my belly and it might slide out, meaty and dark, drop on the floor so you could stomp on it.

This is not the kind of writing I expected. This is the kind of writing that grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go until the story’s over and everything inside you has been thoroughly crushed. I had been an absolute fool to allow any misconceptions to crawl in. Listen to me when I tell you this: there is a good reason Gillian Flynn is so popular. She fucking brings it.

Recently HBO adapted Sharp Objects into an eight-episode miniseries. Marti Noxon (former Buffy the Vampire Slayer writer) served as showrunner, Jean-Marc Vallee (Dallas Buyers Club) came aboard to direct, and Flynn once again took care of the writing. It’s difficult to really compare the miniseries and the novel since so much of the miniseries is beat-by-beat faithful, but there are some differences made here for the sake of the medium, which I’ll discuss after the giant spoiler warning below.

Behold one of the most fascinating mother-daughter relationships to ever spray across the page.

GIANT SPOILER WARNING

Seriously, don’t read any more of this article unless you’ve seen and read Sharp Objects, or you aren’t bothered by major plot points being revealed on literary websites.

Odds are, if you’re still reading at this point, you already know the plot behind Sharp Objects. Honestly, it’s pretty standard. A reporter returns to her hometown after some children are murdered and faces the demons from her past. A town where when people say “bless your heart” they’re really saying “fuck you.” It’s Stars Hollow without a Disney layer. Not exactly an original premise, but Flynn’s execution separates it from all the rest.

Behold one of the most fascinating mother-daughter relationships to ever spray across the page. I’ve been obsessed with cases of Munchausen by proxy since Erin Lee Carr’s 2017 documentary, Mommy Dead and Dearest (also released through HBO), so to encounter this very peculiar mental illness in Sharp Objects was an unexpected surprise. For the uneducated, folks diagnosed with Munchausen tend to feign illness to gain attention. So, Munchausen by proxy is a little different, wherein a caretaker—often a mother—creates fake symptoms or straight-up poisons someone under their supervision. They enjoy taking care of someone. They enjoy the sympathy others offer. They’re fucking sick in the head, and I eat this kind of thing up in a book or movie (or, uh, HBO miniseries). In the case of Sharp Objects, the narrator’s mother has a real bad case of Munchausen by proxy. She murdered the narrator’s sister when they were younger and now she’s right on track to repeat history with the narrator’s teenage half-sister, a sibling she hasn’t seen much of since getting the hell out of town several years ago. This illness is meant to be a twist toward the end of the novel/miniseries—however, any reader/viewer paying close enough attention will be able to piece together what’s going on fairly early in the story.

The novel is written in a first-person point of view, allowing Flynn a chance to really dive deep into her narrator’s psyche. Some of the darkest thoughts imaginable escape onto the page. Obviously, it’s a lot harder to portray what someone is thinking on screen, but I feel like the atmosphere does a decent enough job. One bonus of the miniseries is we are allowed to view what else is going on around town while the narrator’s off doing her thing. Sometimes this can be a drag, sure, but on the other hand we are also gifted a wonderful scene featuring one of the lead investigators prying the teeth out of a dead pig’s head, so I think the good definitely outweighs the bad here.

In the novel, there is plenty of retrospective offered by the narrator, which the miniseries manages to take full advantage of by providing some of the most unique flashback sequences I’ve ever seen attempted. Memory is a major theme played throughout the story, and I really appreciated the way it’s handled on screen, often blending multiple time periods together into one surreal edit. And, because the miniseries insists on being eight episodes, we’re given a lot of extra content, including a rather interesting relationship the narrator once had with a suicidal teenager while locked up in a psychiatric ward.

At times, the length of the miniseries definitely weighs down on the viewer. Perhaps it would have felt more exciting if I had not just finished reading the novel beforehand. I almost wish it had strayed a little farther from the source material, created something a little more surprising for those already familiar with the plot, but of course that’s just a personal preference. I love the route this story takes, regardless, and I recommend both the novel and the miniseries. However, I would also advise not to consume both so close together.

I am happy to report I am now a Gillian Flynn fan for life, and I can’t wait to visit her other two novels. Also, have you seen the trailer for Widows, which she penned? Holy shit. Sign me up.

Image of Sharp Objects
Author: Gillian Flynn
Price: $8.25
Publisher: Broadway Books (2007)
Binding: Paperback, 254 pages

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Comments

voodoo_em's picture
voodoo_em from England is reading Zombie Bake Off by Stephen Graham Jones September 12, 2018 - 12:42am

The mini series was a gorgeous slow burn, and so well done. The flash backs, the hidden words, the fact that all the music used in the soundtrack comes from a source on screen. Amazing, I couldn't imagine a better adaption for one of my favourite books.

It would be great if the same team did an adaptation of Dark  Places as a mini series too, as the film was so disappointing.

P.S - The opening quote you use is from Dark Places, not Sharp Objects. But it is indeed a killer opening hook!

Max's picture
Max from Texas is reading goosebumps September 12, 2018 - 4:54am

@voodoo_em thanks for reading, and also goddammit, thanks for pointing out my glaring error. what happened was, I read SHARP OBJECTS on my kindle, and at the end of the eBook there's a sample for DARK PLACES. so, two months after finishing SHARP OBJECTS and reopening the file to prepare writing this article, it opened on Chapter One for DARK PLACES, mixing me right the hell up. just made a quick correction.

Deets999's picture
Deets999 from Connecticut is reading Adjustment Day September 12, 2018 - 6:38am

I didn't read the book, but I was looking forward to the limited series. In my view, it was far too long given even just the size of the source material - again, didn't read the book, so I'm at a disadvantage. But even so, some episodes did absolutley nothing to move the plot or story forward. It was an hour on stylistic tricks, building tone, theme, etc. And that's all important, but not at the volume they did. It's a distrust in the viewership that we can't figure out this is southern gothic. We can't figure out this is a fucked up family in a dying, town with one industry. That needs to be done in conjunction with story, not in replacement of it. 

I'm all for long form, but the pacing was terrible and this would have been a stronger series at 4 - 6 episodes - and perhaps not racing through the last 80 minutes when it finally picked up and got very interesting, though perhaps a bit silly.

I'm not going to nit pick at plot holes, all stories have them - but there were some noticable ones. e.g. serial killer on the loose but all these 15 year olds sneak out every night - does anyone parent in this town or are they all too hammered to every night?

Amy Adams continues to show why she's an amazing actor - all the acting, photography, etc was a feast for the eyes and soul (yes, bad writing on my part)

But what can I say, too often I found myself saying "get on with it already" (and I'm a patient guy), so that's not always a good sign for a limited series. The Night Of by HBO is a better example of pacing in my view, though was more plot/story centric, it gave you plent of theme and mood.

Kedzie's picture
Kedzie from the SF Bay Area is reading The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien September 17, 2018 - 8:45pm

Great article! Not sure why so many are so down on Ms. Flynn, but the response does occur to me: “Oh, OK. And what, exactly, have YOU written lately?”