The Danger Of Seeing “Perfect” Lives On Social Media

I'm almost jealous of anyone who hasn't read Paula Hawkins' bestselling book, The Girl On The Train, which made its literary debut in January 2015. Why? Because if you haven't devoured it yet, that means you'll experience the movie version cold, without knowing the twist. And it's a big one.
Only almost jealous, though — because if you have not read the English author's psychological tale yet, you're officially missing out, since the movie just might make you appreciate the book even more. Though, Hawkins is on the same page about her fans being in for a real theatrical treat. We spoke to her about this runaway hit, how she got cut from the movie, and details about her forthcoming next novel. So there was a brief moment where you were actually in the movie, right, but then you got cut?
"It’s quite funny, but it’s not a big deal. All that happened was: I happened to be visiting the set, and Tate [Taylor], the director, said, 'Oh come on, get on the train, get on the train, be in the shot.' So it was one shot and it happened not to make it into the final cut. I’m not heartbroken about it." Did anything else on set that day take you by surprise?
"It was actually amazing to see because that day they were [filming] in Grand Central Station. They had all these extras coming on the platform and Emily — Emily Blunt — walking amongst them, getting onto the train, and then Lisa Kudrow as well getting on the train. It was really exciting to see them actually there, and to be at the real place: It wasn’t a set. This was actually in Grand Central Station with an actual train." When you saw the film's premiere in London, were you at all nervous?
"Yeah — obviously, you want it to be good. You want people to enjoy it. So there is a slight kind of odd, weirdness about it: I got the feeling that the audience was really engaged with it, and people gasped at the right points and laughed at the right points."
Photo: Kate Neil.
Paula Hawkins, on the train.
Do you think having read the book at all compromises seeing the movie?
"It’s quite an odd thing, because — although obviously I know what happens — I still found it incredibly tense, and suspenseful, and frightening at the end. In a sense, there’s some degree to which if you know what’s happening it heightens the fear of it. It’s all that anticipation, and it is genuinely a very fresh take, although it’s faithful to the book. It feels different." Were you at all hesitant about the decision to switch the setting from England to New York City?
"Well, to be honest I hope that it could work in many places: That was a decision that was taken, I think, probably for commercial reasons. I’m sure there are artistic reasons, too. I think this location works really well because it’s peaceful, and it’s dramatic. I was never that bothered about it because I don’t think that the actual place to which she is commuting — the city to which she is commuting — is actually the important thing. The location is almost the train, and the commute itself... I understand that some people are annoyed and I’ve communicated with people who commute to London and they were really hoping to see glimpses of their own journey. But I think people will forget about it very quickly once they sit down and start watching it." Apart from the psychological suspense element of the book, I think this story is also one about female competition, and sort of how we see someone's "perfect life" and covet it. Sort of like social media. Do you have any insights on that?
"The thing is that, actually, in this book, I don’t really talk about social media very much. Although she does in the film, it is used a little bit. Rachel’s voyeurism is quite old-fashioned: She’s actually watching people in real life. But it’s a similar effect, isn’t it? The looking at somebody’s life.

We all know that what we see on social media isn’t real. People aren’t always happy or smiling. Their children aren’t always being delightful. It’s a fake thing.

Paula Hawkins
"In the book, Rachel is projecting this idea that these people have a perfect life. Whereas on social media, I think people project their own version of that. The effect can be quite damaging [to] the person who’s watching, because it’s so easy to compare yourself and think that you don’t measure up. It’s obviously ridiculous, because we all know that what we see on social media isn’t real. People aren’t always happy or smiling. Their children aren’t always being delightful. It’s a fake thing. But knowing that doesn’t actually help, you still feel how you feel when you see those things. And it’s so easy to feel inadequate, sometimes even defenceless: Other people have chosen something else and it seems to be working so well for them. And you can see how those things create those divisions, particularly in situations where people are already feeling a bit vulnerable or a bit judged for their choices." I think the other side of that is the pressure to perform perfection, or keep up that appearances.
"[Laughs] Well — of course, it doesn’t actually mean your life is perfect. And in a sense, it may even make you feel worse, since you know you’re projecting this image that isn’t real." Can you talk to me a bit about the criticism that your lead character is "unlikeable"?
"Well, I think it’s quite boring and unrealistic for everybody who appears on our screen or in books to be likeable. There’s that thing about women having to be pleasing, which is irritating — women aren’t there just to be pleasing. They’re out there living their lives, that may at times be complicated or messy; they may be feeling difficult things — they secretly are because they’re people, and that’s how life goes. At one point or another, everyone struggles certainly, or behaves badly, or does something stupid." Does any of that translate to the new book you're working on?
"It centres on the relationship to two sisters — there are lots of other characters, but that’s kind of the core relationship. And it’s a relationship that’s broken down over things that happened to them in their childhood; it’s sort of trying to figure out how they got to where they got, and what went wrong. "But it’s so much about community, and family, and our relationships to each other, and about how we reinterpret events of our childhood — the stories we tell about ourselves. Everyone creates their own narrative, and after years and years of creating it you believe it; you believe it to be the truth, even though it may have started with exaggeration or manipulation or just a childhood misunderstanding of something. I’m interested in what happens when, later in life, you realize that maybe the story you’ve been telling yourself isn’t the real one, isn’t the true story. What does that mean for your person, for your identity, if the story you’ve been telling about yourself your whole life isn’t actually true?" The Girl On The Train is out on October 7, 2016.

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