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.
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.
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