Nobody writes female characters like Gillian Flynn. Equal parts terrifying, manipulative, whip-smart, and hilarious, they’re always (whether hero, villain, or something in between) three-dimensional people with inner lives and flaws. They’re also some of the few literary characters who are just as magnetic on screen, as we saw in David Fincher’s 2014 film adaptation of Gone Girl. And now Flynn brings her 2006 novel Sharp Objects to television as a limited series on HBO, directed by Jean-Marc Vallée of Big Little Lies fame.
Amy Adams stars as Camille Preaker, a reporter who returns to her childhood home of Wind Gap, Missouri, to investigate the murder of one pre-teen girl and disappearance of another. Camille, haunted by past trauma, medicates with alcohol and self-harm, and in hot and humid Wind Gap, the past is just as real as the present. This is a Southern gothic mystery that plays out like a ghost story.
We spoke to Flynn about adapting her books for film and television, and how they explore the violence committed by and against women. Sharp Objects premieres July 8 on HBO.
Gillian Flynn: “Oh my gosh, people are going crazy for that book! I have it on my shelf, but I haven't started it yet.”
It’s wonderful! One of the things she writes about is the “the dead girl plot” where a woman’s death is the catalyst for the action, usually centered around a male detective. The “dead girl” is a main character, but she’s also voiceless, virginal, and pure. She’s not usually a real person. I feel like you subvert this trope in your books — especially in Sharp Objects. How deliberate that was for you?
“To me Camille very much identifies with the dead girls. Their murders rock her so completely and infect her so much. The question is not ‘why did this happen to them,’ but ‘why does this happen to us?’ Sharp Objects is very much a story of violence toward girls and violence done by girls and women. It’s a very personal thing. Why is so much violence always directed toward girls, and why do we direct so much violence toward ourselves, physically and psychologically?”
I’ve had this thought also of #MeToo as a true crime story. It hasn’t been explored that way, but there are so many criminal elements to it. And even though the book Sharp Objects is 12 years old, it feels so perfectly timed to be airing as a television series now. Why do you think that is?
“The timing is very strange. And there's a reason that women are the top consumers of true crime, in general. Why we watch the ID channel; why we watch Dateline; why we are so fascinated by it. I think it gives us a vocabulary to talk about these things that we're still not talking about, and it gives us this way in to talk about the violence that's directed at us every single day, and in many different ways, small and large.
“I talk to men all the time who try to make light of women’s situations, and I say, ‘Well, you don't understand a woman's day-to-day life. You don't have to walk through your day saying, ‘Okay well tonight, I'm going to go to this thing, and if I park here, I hope I don't get raped.’ You know, that never ever crosses your mind.
“I'm not someone who's a panicky person or nervous about that thing, but you still have to be conscious of that possibility. All women — half our population — have to be conscious of that idea. I was at a hotel the other night, and I thought, ‘God I'd love to go for a run, but gosh, I probably shouldn't.’I'm peeking out of the hotel window and thinking, if I do that and I get raped, no one's gonna feel sorry for me. It's not well-lit, and they're gonna go, ‘What was she doing out there anyway?’"
There is so much victim-blaming. There is an idea that women put themselves in “these situations.”
“Right. It would be like, ‘Why did she put herself in that situation anyway? She knew that was a possibility. That's no well-lit running path.’ No man has to think about that. I do think that there is a true crime element that we, as women, are interested in, because it gives us a way to discuss that strange underlying fear that is constantly there.”
You've done books, you've done film and now you're doing this limited series for television. They’re all such different mediums. Is there one you prefer?
“It's tricky. Each one has a different quality to them, you know. Growing up, my parents were both teachers. My dad taught film and theater, and my mom taught reading. I grew up toggling back and forth between those worlds: My mom was always putting a book in my hand and talking about how novels were constructed, and my dad was always telling me about how movies and TV were put together. I was always very comfortable with those worlds and never favored one over the other. I was never taught to believe that one was better than the other necessarily. I always loved them both. Kind of, very deeply.
“But I was a writer from a very young age, so it came very natural to me, so the novels easily came first and still feel the most natural to me.”
And what was the experience like working with David Fincher on the screenplay for Gone Girl versus being in a TV writers’ room?
“Gone Girl was a nice next step from the novel because I was collaborating in a slightly bigger sphere. I was writing the script, but I was writing a script based on my novel. It was still just me doing the writing and having the amazing mentor that David Fincher was. No one could ask for a better first mentor in the world. I just completely lucked out with that, and we were such a wonderful fit together. It was the perfect next step of writing a script.
“Doing TV was an insane plunge because I’ve never been in a TV writer's room. I will be honest with you — I do not know how people do that as a career regularly, day after day, year after year, because I found it really invigorating and thrilling, but also completely innervating.
“You’re just constantly on — it feels like being inside of a popcorn popper. I could see how it gets addictive because everyone there was very funny, bright, and sharp, and I looked forward to going to work every day because it was just fun. But I would get to the end of the day, and I was kind of on the floor. It was a lot for me. I’m a quiet little novelist who's used to her underground lair of safety, and it was like, ‘What the fuck just happened in there?’ It was thrilling, but it didn’t feel organic to how my brain and body chemistry usually works.It was a blast, but it was wild.”
What was it like having people pitch ideas for characters you created?
“It didn’t bother me at all. I’m not the kind of precious author of where everything has to be exactly as it was in the book. It's a very faithful adaptation, but my whole view on books to film in general is that I never want them to be the exact same thing. What is the point of that? I always think that they should be complementary to each other. Why would I bother going to see something that is exactly the way I'd imagined it or read it?
“I always went into it thinking let's play a little bit. And fortunately with [Sharp Objects] it was 12 and wasn't still fresh in my brain. I hadn't looked at it since then. People would say things about characters doing something in the book and I would say, "Oh, did they? Oh I had forgotten that, okay!’"
Before you go, can you tell us what you’re reading and watching right now?
“My husband and I have been gobbling up Killing Eve, and he actually said, ‘This is so great and so strangely revolutionary because all the female parts are male.’ It’s never commented on, but the women on the show are doing all the action, and it's the man back home who is taking care of dinner, or the guy stuck back at the office doing the usual typing to pull up the information. Usually that’s a woman’s role, where it's like, ‘I'll get that information for you!’
"And I’m reading The Hate You Give, which is fantastic.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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