When Gillian Flynn published Gone Girl in 2014 many people – including me – loved the book so much they went back and read her back catalogue, including her debut novel, Sharp Objects (which she wrote while she was still a journalist for Entertainment Weekly and was released in 2006). In many ways, her debut was just as good as Gone Girl, and once again showcased Flynn’s canny knack of fusing the classic psychological thriller with a stonking whodunit, and subverting gender stereotypes along the way.
Since Gone Girl, Flynn has become hot property in Hollywood and has gone on to adapt her work for the big and small screen. Some authors take a backseat when it comes to transforming their work for television or film. Not so Flynn, who likes to get involved. She adapted Gone Girl, she worked with Gilles Paquet-Brenner to bring her Dark Places novel to the big screen (a movie that starred Charlize Theron, among others) and has co-written the film Widows, due for release soon. There’s also a US version of Channel 4 series, Utopia, in the pipeline, too.
In a recent, fascinating interview with fellow boundary-pushing American author Megan Abbott in Vanity Fair – who has also begun to work with words beyond the format of the novel – she said that she’s ready to return to books after a lengthy absence. Until that time, we get an eight-part adaptation of that debut novel, Sharp Objects, and for it HBO (remember them?) has gathered the great and the good. Flynn has teamed with Marti Noxon for screenwriting duties, Big Little Lies’ Jean-Marc Vallée is behind the camera, while in front of it, multiple Oscar-nominee Amy Adams (who I would quite happily watch paint sheds) and the brilliant Patricia Clarkson headline the cast.
The reason why I’m prattling on about the backstory of Sharp Objects is that I was beyond excited when I heard it was coming to the small screen. Often, this excitement is overtaken by disappointment, but in this case, my pre-watching excitement turned out to be entirely justified.
Camille Preaker is a journalist for a newspaper in St Louis. She has bad dreams: in among the Obama posters in her apartment, she sees two teenagers creep from one floor to the next; one is her younger self, the other likely to be a sister. They always end up by her bedside, uncoiling a paperclip and about to dig the sharp end into the skin of her hand. She always wakes up just in time.
There’s no doubt Camille (Adams) is troubled. Broken, even. She swigs neat vodka from miniatures before she goes to work, convinced that no one will smell vodka on someone’s breath. When she goes into work on this particular day she’s greeted by a surprise. Her avuncular editor, Fred Curry, wants her to go back to her hometown to write a story on the murder of one teenage girl, and the disappearance of another. “Might be good for you,” he says, “y’know, after all you’ve been through.”
She protests, but he insists. She drinks more vodka. She drives for miles and miles in her old Volvo (a feature I really remember from the book), drinks more vodka, chain smokes and listens to her music – her smartphone (with the cracked screen, naturally) and her music library is a constant companion. Like the booze, it helps to block out the world. And the memories.
These memories come thick like long grass as she’s driving. They come to us thanks to almost subliminal jump cuts and extended flashbacks. We see the teenage Camille play with her sister, we see her swim in a creek, head just above the water as she’s harassed by young play-gun-toting boys, and we see her explore a shack in the middle of the woods where slithers of freshly-butchered animal meat is drying out on wooden shelves, flies buzzing around them. These flashbacks are almost like strobe lights, flickering on and off, and give the whole piece a dreamlike, nightmarish quality.
She checks into a motel in the present day. She takes a bath and we see more flickers of memory. The word ‘dirty’ scrawled into dust on the bonnet of a car. The screws on the toilet pan.
She can’t escape them and she’s being forced to re-examine and relive them.
Sure enough, she reaches Wind Gap, Missouri – in the heart of the American Midwest and known for its pig-farming industry – and she tentatively starts to poke around. With her journalist head on the long grasses of memory are easier to circumnavigate and give her purpose. She interviews the town’s police chief who’s less than happy to see her. She meets a gang of teenage girls on rollerskates smoking in the park. She meets a policeman from Kansas City, drafted in to help the investigation. She meets the father of the murdered teen.
And then she goes to meet her mother.
Missouri. Not quite the Deep South, but her mother lives in a stately, mansion-esque house that looks for all the world it has come from deeper down in Dixie. There’s a whiff of the colonial or Antebellum about it, and, of course, it’s incredibly well kept. Camille, with her slightly battered Volvo and her baggy, grey sweatshirt and jeans immediately looks out of place in this bubble of perfection. And, sure enough, when her mother Adora opens the door, she’s less than impressed. Why didn’t you call me, she swoons, I wish you would have called me to let me know you were coming.
Everything is perfect inside Adora Crellin’s house. Alan, her quiet husband, plays classical records on his brand-new, high-spec sound system. Adora, meanwhile, sort of glides around the house – serene in a pink housedress, sipping on sweet, spiked ice tea, but seemingly in a constant state of anxiety. Everything Camille does or says is met with a dramatic sigh, and she constantly jabs at her daughter with serrated barbs. Not surprisingly, her daughter jabs back. They’re still fighting over territory and superiority after all these years, and Adora is disgusted that she now wants to write a story about those poor children.
Adora has a habit of gently tugging at her the eyelashes on her right eye. The camera zooms in on this, presenting it simultaneously as in the present day and as a memory. There’s no doubt this detail could be significant.
To watch these two go at it and to explore their toxic relationship is to watch two actors at the top of their game: Clarkson plays Adora as deft, sneaky and manipulative, while Adams plays sensitive, emotional and prickly, resentful of the fact that, despite a successful career as a journalist, she has now regressed into the same teenage girl she was when she left the house. “When you’re here you’re my daughter,” Adora hisses, and try as Camille might Adora is right. So Camille tries harder.
It’s quite something to watch.
Camille drinks more. She stays out late more. She’s snarky, sarky and cynical to anyone who tries to be nice to her, including Kansas City cop Richard Willis who makes the mistake of engaging her in conversation and then flirting with her. He’s met with slight incredulity and a really? stare. She’s built up these walls and on the outside is unemotional to everything. Until that is, she finds the missing teenage girl in an alleyway – sitting in an open ground-floor window, mottled and dead.
This sends the last few minutes of the first episode into freefall. Everything that proceeded it played out at an engrossing, haunting and slow-boil pace. It took its time and had a real sense of space, which gently drew you in and hooked you. The final scenes saw Camille meet Adora’s step-daughter Amma for the first time (who leads a dual life: sweet as apple crumble at home for her mother, and then transforming into one of the smoking, rollerskating, jeering teens Camille met earlier), flashbacks and the revelation that her sister, Marian, died from an unnamed condition; and then a bathtub scene right at the end, where Camille disrobed and revealed the manifestation of her troubled life – a thousand little scars from a thousand self-harm cuts all over her upper body. The word ‘vanish’ had been scrawled into her right forearm.
She put in her headphones, turned up the music and escaped once again.
As first episodes go, you won’t find much better – it was the perfect mix of procedural intrigue and psychological thriller, with a wash of gothic melodrama. That and the exploration of wounds, explicit and healed and those still festering beneath the surface, could make this a really intense watch. Not an easy one, but a really good one nonetheless.