Friday, August 31, 2018

Book VS Series: Sharp Objects

Gillian Flynn's novels are easily some of the most difficult contemporary stories to adapt. She's one of the most hardcore voices out there that dives deep into her anti-heroines' psyche, often weaving their experiences into a disturbing, no-holds-barred thriller. Even after the successful adaptation of Gone Girl (and the forgettable flop Dark Places), one never knows how her rage-filled worlds will come to life. With three generations of complicated female characters tackling everything from misogyny to self-harm and abuse, her original debut novel Sharp Objects becomes a damn fine mini-series.

This post deals with themes of the book and show - self-harm, abuse, rape, etc - and contains spoilers - you've been warned.

Before another network blows the lid off of a developing story, journalist Camille Preaker reluctantly returns to her small hometown and investigate the disturbing disappearance of two young girls. The case hits a little too close to home as her return becomes the missing piece of a puzzle that only fractured memories from Camille's adolescence can solve.

If there’s one thing I can always count on with Flynn, it's delivering flawed female anti-heroes. Told through Camille’s perspective, the story lets us closely experience her painful discoveries from her childhood where her sister passed away, a broken relationship with her manipulative mother Adora  can never be mended, and a tortured kinship with her half-sister Amma. Camille faces triggers at literally every turn when she returns to Wind Gap, troubles that were literally born into her family and skin. More than just a suspense novel about missing teen girls, Sharp Objects explores the dark side of women; it doesn't necessarily ask the question about who killed Ann and Natalie, but how does Camille survive all this pain and the women who inflict it on each other.

In the book, Camille is consumed by what she thinks and feels, and the series expertly explores her awakening mostly through misdirection, either in the form of flashbacks, montages with exquisitely-picked music, and visions. The memories Camille has of Marian and herself growing up almost define her identity, splashing together everything from them hanging out as normal kids to breaking down at her sister's funeral, and how mother doted on Marian not because she was better at grades or sports (as some mothers might do) but because Marian gave into the pain her mother inflicted on her. After losing her sister and best friend, Camille was cut off from Adora's love. On top of which, from her memories we discover Camille was gang-raped by football players as a teen, she started cutting, and later checked into a psychiatric hospital where her roommate committed suicide. By all means, Camille is a survivor in every sense of the word, returning home is the ballsiest move anyone could possibly make, even if it's at the 'tough fatherly love of her boss' that makes her go back.
Go ahead, Camille. Prove you're not dead.
A big part of her identity is consumed by the loss of her sister: her memories are always before, during, and after when she actually had love in her life, the complicated way she found pleasure through pain (cutting and sex), and how her mother strips her of any purpose other than not living up to the daughter she killed. By never giving into what Adora wants, Camille's feels like she might as well be dead.

And yet, she continues to fight. Despite not being loved from her parents, Camille attempts to take care of her roommate in the psychiatric hospital; she tries to instill Amma with the care and attention she never got; she gives John Keene the benefit of the doubt while everyone in the town are convinced he's the killer. Camille also has a home-away-from-home with Curry and his wife Eileen, who're a wonderful contrast to what she experiences with her own kin; Curry's the loving tough father figure and Eileen is ready to divorce Curry in a heartbeat if anything happens to her. When Camille's not in Adora’s toxic presence, Camille’s allowed to be at ease with herself and let her walls down.

Because the book is told from one point-of-view, it’s truly a dizzying journey and page-turner of what it was like for Camille to grow up in Wind Gap. To transition that from the book for the screen, there had to be a leading lady who could not only give raw emotion to Camille’s post-traumatic stress but also shine to the point where viewers just want to take her in and protect her; Camille deserves true pleasure, to let loose,  love and vulnerability. Amy Adams rarely, if ever, delivers a bad performance, and here she gives one of her most captivating portrayals yet. It’s difficult to take your eyes off of her and everything she’s feeling; how much she fights against and succumbs to what her mother always wanted her to be: the perfect child to coddle to death. It's the kind of performance you can't honestly put into words.
Though Adams alone is enough to carry the series, there's is a trifecta of powerhouse female performances with Patricia Clarkson as Adora and Eliza Scanlen as Amma.

For the former, Adora has the whole town wrapped around her finger; she knows exactly the masks she needs to wear in order to gain sympathy from her submissive husband Alan to the Sgt. Vickery, who has a bit of a crush on her and willing to side with her on anything. Clarkson splendidly manages to get underneath our skin to fall for her delicate exasperated shtick, we can’t often see her genuinely cruel nature where her approval is as enticing and cutthroat as her withdrawal.

Scanlen, on the other hand, does a marvelous job with the series’s version of Amma; trying to please her mother but “playing the game” for Adora’s affection and attention. We can never truly tell when her character is putting on a show: what is she doing to please her mother, to get on Camille's good side, or take up the mantle as the next head bitch in charge with her friends. At only nineteen years old, Scanlen has a big career ahead of her (she’s already lined up to be in Greta Gerwig’s Little Women), and like Adams, impossible to put into words all the layers she gives her character.

As superb as the performances were by the leading cast, what I missed from the series were Amma's  choices. In contrast to the book, Amma's painted more or less as a rebel in disguise, doing whatever teenage shenanigans she can to get away with when her doting mother isn’t looking, so she can be looked on afterwards. Though Scanlen's performance shines because of her talent, and how the series was directed with heavy visual symbolism and metaphors, there's a lot of indications about Amma's backstory that's missing. While Camille and Adora's relationship was explored more through direct push-and-pull interactions, Amma and her friends as a stronger suspect for killing Ann and Natalie, the victims' backgrounds, and the fragile class system of women in the town were disappointingly left out.

Like most books that go through the adaptation process, changes were expected and weren't that bothersome. However, one element I disagreed with was the trail of breadcrumbs leading up to the ending, which is a big source of love-or-hate with its following so far. Though the most of the alterations were subtle in nature (such as expanding the roles of Sgnt Vickery, Detective Richard Harris, and Alan Cremlin), the big reveal of Amma and her friends as the killer misses out on some other key elements from the book that I loved: the importance of nurturing (or lack of it) between women, how toxic motherhood runs rampant in Wind Gap, and the victims’ similarities to Camille.

Mirroring the town’s slaughterhouses where pigs are impregnated and then milked to death, Wind Gap's women are produced almost entirely the same way. While the football players grow up to be drunks working at the factory, Flynn describes female characters of all ages as barely having the opportunity to be little girls before they’re instantly women. From birth to school, girls climb to the top of the social ladder or are left to be picked on. Almost all of the women who survive the horrors of adolescence in Wind Gap wind up marrying one of the 'better' guys they could get away with and make babies;  not because they aspire to be loving mothers but because motherhood is the next rung of the ladder. Interestingly, the only female characters who offer warmth and support excluding Camille are women of color: Camille's real mother-figure Eileen, Adora's housekeeper Gayla, Camille's classmate Becca, and Amma's future victim May, so I subtly wonder if there's an intersectional feminist message or it just happened to naturally come out that way. The gender norms, expressed by Camille's peers as empty yet 'rewarding' lots in life, are heaped upon the women and keeps them the docile creatures they are meant to be as baby machines. Nobody even wants to confront the idea that Ann and Natalie's killer could be a woman because it means admitting that women are capable of the same evils men are supposedly, inherently capable of.

From generation to generation, there's a hen who rules the roost in Wind Gap. Adora, is the first prime example of this. She alienates herself enough from her 'peers' that they don't want to get on her bad side, and yet they're left wanting to emulate her i.e. Jackie's strongly aware of the type of woman Adora truly is and how the town operates, but immediately replaces her on the pedestal when Adora is taken down. Adora grew up believing from her own mother that you inflict pain upon others in order to earn their affection; she's not mentally aware that killing her youngest daughter Marian through 'kindness' was wrong. Similar to the psychological belief that a father shows his daughter the type of man she should marry, moms are supposed to act as a mirror to the type of women daughters should grow up to be. When the latter is not present, all hell breaks loose. (This is seen in how Amma's dollhouse reflects their real house and how Amma dresses up exactly like Adora, playing the role of the eternal child who will never grow up.) It's through Adora that we see how a severe lack of mother's influence can be deadly.

Amma could've been the other great example of this in the series, however, the show left her adolescence of sorts with other female characters (excluding Camille and Adora) behind. Whereas Camille inflicts pain against herself as an outlet to Adora, Amma in the book is far more external: she was a massive bully to other girls in the neighborhood; she was feared as much as she was admired. While the series has a lot of decent shots of Amma skating around with her friends and breaking her mom's rules so she gets her attention, the show cuts out how they her two closes friends help her kill Ann and Natalie, and for the biggest glossed over reason why: Amma was jealous for the attention Adora was giving them.
I mean there’s all this talk of God versus science, but seems like with babies both sides agree. The bible says: be fruitful and multiply. And, then science–I mean when it boils down to it, it’s just what women were made for.
Throughout Wind Gap in the series, there's hardly any evidence through nurturing between female characters, except Camille. We see the power of sisterhood in the memories she has of herself and Marian growing up; how they supported one and another and kept each other going. As an adult, Camille shows that despite her own mother withholding any kind of love from her that didn't come at a price, she still grew up wanting to give it.

Most importantly, the victims closely paralleled Camille. First, all three of them only sought a connection to a mother-figure; Adora was growing close to Ann and Natalie as a tutor (no doubt, maybe she was grooming them or purposely trying to make Amma jealous). Second, Camille's individuality alienated her from Adora; Ann and Natalie were outcasts and didn't fit in with their classmates. Lastly, all three of them have a history of violence: Camille was self-harm, Ann stabbed Natalie with a sewing needle, and Natalie stabbed a girl with scissors/bit John Keene’s girlfriend’s ear off. Like Amma, they too had a penchant for acting out their anger. In the book, Camille saw the victims as similar to herself; the difference being that her individuality practically saves her life from Adora, and yet Ann and Natalie didn't have a chance in hell of surviving Amma's wrath.

For me, the book has a stronger trail of breadcrumbs over who the killer is and why. Despite the horrors lurking underneath the story, the series's direction is quite languid throughout; even to a point of creating filler with the minor characters who aren't that memorable once they're off-screen: Richard and Camille part ways because he was turned off by her literal emotional and physical scars; Vickery’s crush ultimately ended; Alan can listen to music in peace and probably visit Adora and Amma on the weekends. After all of the investment in John's innocence, the series excludes his letter to Camille explaining why he kept a close eye on Amma because he suspected she was the killer. And, the most poignant of all, Camille continues to see Amma in prison once she's found guilty; Eileen and Curry help her stabilize after breaking down and she's left striving to change her family's legacy by loving with genuine kindness. The series on the other hand is certainly terrorizing as all of Amma's rage explodes in a jarring revelation, and Camille's helpless discovery over what Amma had done is heartbreaking, but leaving the murders to two brief post-credit scenes was a little disappointing.

Where the series lacks for me in writing, it succeeds in the direction and production design.

Jean Marc Valle has been exploring women's stories in all of their imperfect glory, and respectfully doesn't shy away from showing Camille's awakening and the general investigation. From Cheryl Strayed's unforgettable memoir Wild to Liane Moriarty's murder-mystery Big Little Lies, he's developed an uncanny ability to make you feel like you're looking into a character's life like a voyeur and living out every uncomfortable or beautiful moment of revelation with them.

Visually, the series was absolutely stunning. Because the book dives into Camille’s journey and everything she feels/experiences, the show wonderfully uses images as its guide through her pain and anger: Camille’s triggers for self-harm splash and contort across the screen to let you know what’s on her mind; seeing the same Wind Gap landmarks over and over again shows how small the town is; the use of fans to show how hot it is in summer time but also how stifling the environment is everyone; no one can catch any relief. Through Vallee’s seasoned use of flashbacks and montages, he packs in everything he can about Camille and fills in the cracks of Wind Gap as much as possible. Every episode has brings a creep yet hypnotizing Victorian gothic quality to the 21st century through cinematography and production design, it's difficult to catch it all the first time around…and definitely makes you want to re-watch it again.

One of the biggest lasting effects of the series will undoubtedly be its ability to explore that there's no such thing as the perfect victim, breaking down the toxic myths of mothers and daughters, and how it handled Camille’s self-harm. In this day and age, where it's difficult to represent difficult experiences like these without being torn to shreds or fall into stereotype-storytelling, Sharp Objects took its time to delve into all of Camille's facets. The series came alive for me when I saw Camille’s coping mechanisms explored and how she used her body to deal with the pain. By all means, Camille more than the only product of her environment, she's a survivor of abuse and facing her demons. Though the book managed to merge Camille and her family with the victims' disappearances a little more strongly, the series's isn't that far behind.

Series: ★★1/2☆
Have you read or watched Sharp Objects? What did you think?

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