Author Paula Hawkins’ debut novel “The Girl on the Train” was practically engineered for bestselling success, a twisted tale that drew early comparisons to Gillian Flynn’s infectious “Gone Girl” and handily capitalized on a desire for more stories centered on so-called “unlikable” characters. The thriller unfolds in various compelling ways — playing with both timeline and narrator with ease and smarts — but its basic plotline follows alcoholic Rachel Watson after she discovers that a woman who she sees every day from her morning train commute has gone missing.
Tate Taylor’s seemingly inevitable big screen take on the story casts Emily Blunt as Rachel, a broken woman who has been unable to get over her divorce from Tom (Justin Theroux), who has moved on with a new wife (Rebecca Ferguson) and a brand new baby, though he’s still living in their old house. And that house just happens to be located a few doors down from Megan (Haley Bennett) and Scott Hipwell’s (Luke Evans) house, the very same couple that a deluded Rachel fixates on as she takes the train past their house every morning. When Megan goes missing, Rachel plunges into a haphazard investigation that only takes her deeper into her own dark past.
While Erin Cressida Wilson’s script – mostly penned before the book even hit shelves and became an overnight success – is faithful to a number of elements of Hawkins’ original work, there are a few differences between book and movie that stand out. Here are the most important ones, from a location switcheroo to a jawdropping new scene to some clever takes on casting.
Spoilers ahead for both the book and the movie.
1. The Film’s Location
Hawkins’ book takes place in and around London and its suburbs, and moving the action all the way across the pond to New York City and a pair of Hudson River-adjacent towns is arguably the film’s biggest change. The transition, however, is a relatively smooth one. Instead of Rachel riding the rail into London every morning, eyeing up both the Hipwell home and the house a few doors down that used to belong to her (and is now occupied by her ex-husband and his new family), she now takes the Metro North down into Grand Central Station and her non-existent job in New York City.
The scenery is a touch more isolated — the Hudson River on one side, a cozy stretch of homes on the other, and plenty of forest for evil deeds to unfold — and Wilson’s script even builds in a brand new excuse for why the train often stops right outside the Hipwell house: Constant construction on the track. The film does still nod to its British roots, though, as London-born Blunt uses her own accent in the film (the Swedish Ferguson, however, is saddled with an American inflection).
2. Detective Riley Is Now The Main Investigator
In the novel, Megan’s disappearance is investigated by a pair of detectives — the hard-nosed Gaskill and the slightly more sensitive Riley — but Wilson’s script essentially pulls them into one complicated character, played by Allison Janney. Although Gaskill (a man) leads the charge in the book, the film cedes almost all control to Riley (a woman), who combines book Riley’s suspicion with book Gaskill’s hard-charging investigatory skills.
Throughout the book, Rachel grapples with determining how much she can trust Gaskill, and that takes on a compelling edge when she’s instead forced to reckon with a fellow woman, one who doesn’t like her much and isn’t swayed by their shared gender. So much of “The Girl on the Train” hinges on women trusting and believing in each other, and adding in another female character for Rachel to work off of only adds a sharper dimension to that theme. (And, of course, Janney is just aces in the role.)
3. Roommate Cathy’s Story Gets Shrunk
There is, however, at least one female character who gets short shrift: Rachel’s roommate (and sort-of friend) Cathy, played in the film by Laura Prepon. In Hawkins’ novel, Cathy gets her own subplot involving her boyfriend Damien, and the book imagines a much richer life for the character, but in Taylor’s film, her part is shrunk down to just a few key scenes. Not to worry, though, Cathy definitely gets to look both pissed off and concerned in equal measure as her roommate’s life spirals even further out of control.
4. And So Does The Backstory Regarding Rachel’s Job
Although Taylor’s film unspools one of the story’s most shocking little mysteries — Rachel hasn’t had a job in months! but she still rides the train to the city every day! — in much the same way as the novel (read: slowly, and with a jawdropping reveal), Wilson’s script cuts out a lot of the backstory regarding Rachel’s lost gig in public relations, including a seriously awkward run-in with her former co-workers. In the book, it only helps to drive home Rachel’s embarrassment and isolation, something that is served up in different ways in the final film.
5. Rachel’s Drink of Choice Is Different
In the London-set novel, Rachel routinely chugs pre-mixed cans of gin and tonic that she purchases at the train station (with occasional dalliances with warm wine and champagne), but by moving the film to a premixed-G&T-free New York City, Rachel instead becomes a vodka drinker. She still purchases her booze at the station — a particularly effective scene sees her emptying a full bottle into her trusty water bottle while hiding behind a Grand Central Station trash can — and routinely imbibes it while on the train. And although she thinks she’s being sneaky, the film makes it clear that she’s not, and plenty of her fellow riders know exactly what she’s doing.
6. Scott Hipwell Has Been Softened
The question of whether or not Scott (played in the film by Luke Evans) is actually abusive towards his wife Megan haunts the first half of Hawkins’ novel — is Megan just projecting her own issues on to Scott? is her therapist, Dr. Abdic? — and Wilson uses a similar style for her script. But while Hawkins eventually takes a very definite stance towards Scott’s behavior, making it clear in the latter half that he’s not only emotionally, but also physically abusive, Wilson’s screenplay never makes that leap. Instead, her Scott is never shown raising a hand to Megan or Rachel. While a terrifying scene in which he shows up Rachel’s apartment (another slight change: in the book, she goes to his home) to confront her smacks with tension, it’s a far cry from its predecessor in the novel, where he shoves her into a room and locks her up.
7. The Watsons’ House Doesn’t Look Like the Hipwells’ Anymore
In one of the book’s most biting commentaries on the insulated suburban world where much of the action takes place, the Hipwell house and the Watson home are mirror images of each other. Cookie cutter to the extreme, it’s a nice little note that works well in the novel — Rachel is constantly thrown off by the floor plan of the Hipwells’ abode, which adds still more weirdness to her interactions there with Scott — but one that’s missing from the film.
8. The Man on The Train Doesn’t See As Much
Throughout the novel, Rachel finds herself being observed by a fellow commuter, one who seems to know she’s up to something. Although it initially scans as if she’s being paranoid from her drinking — oh, and the possibility that she actually hurt Megan — an eventual confrontation with the man reveals that he really did see her on that fateful night. He even saw her with Tom and Megan, which is a terrifying prospect, considering that the cops are already all over her.
In the film, that same man does show up, but he sees far less (read: no Tom and no Megan), a small choice that serves to further play up Rachel’s isolation (though not any possible criminal activity).
9. The Big Turning Point Comes Care Of Someone New
Consider this one the biggie. In the novel, Rachel eventually comes to realize that all of her hazy, boozy memories from her failed marriage to Tom — and, later, the night of Megan’s disappearance — have remained hard to grasp for one shocking reason: Most of them didn’t actually happen. Turns out, Rachel may be a drunk, but she’s not a violent or abusive one, those were all stories fed to her by Tom in an attempt to batter and gaslight his wife. Tom’s skill at doing this is so profound and so pronounced that it even extends to the night Megan goes missing. While Rachel saw him with Megan — and he screamed at her and hit her as punishment — she’s so used to believing that she is the bad guy (and Tom is the victim) that she blocks out most of the events of the evening, leading her to think she must have done something bad.
In Hawkins’ novel, Rachel realizes this steadily, slowly and after lots of ruminating on the events of her life — and it doesn’t hurt that she’s falling asleep, stuck between wakefulness and dreams when the lightning bolt hits — ultimately discovering for herself that Tom is the real bad guy. That sort of psychological scene might not play so well on the big screen, so Wilson added in a pair of scenes that help make the truth that much easier to understand. In the film, Lisa Kudrow shows up as a character named Martha (in the book, she’s Clara), the wife of Tom’s ex-boss. Early on in the film, Rachel spots her on the train, forcing her to remember an ill-fated party at Martha’s house that ended with a drunk Rachel flinging around hors d’oeuvres, screaming at everyone and basically ruining Tom’s reputation. Later, the pair argue and a totally wasted Rachel lashes out at him physically. In Rachel’s mind — and Tom’s telling — her behavior that night was responsible for Tom getting fired.
Later, though, Rachel runs into Martha again on the train, and takes the opportunity to apologize for that seriously bad party. Martha is flabbergasted, and tells Rachel that she’s got it all wrong — she may have gotten a little tipsy at the party, but it only led to her lying down for a bit, certainly not getting violent with anyone (least of all some deviled eggs). And Tom? Oh, he got fired because he was banging everyone in the office. He was such a bad guy, Martha tells Rachel, and how good that you got away from him.
That does it. Suddenly, Rachel is remembering and seeing everything — especially Tom — in a brand new light.
10. A Major New Scene Has Been Added
That’s not the only new scene that Wilson has added in, as the film also plays home to a show-stopper of a sequence that sees a very drunk Rachel living it up at local bar, making a new pal and attempting an embarrassing selfie in the bar’s bathroom. As it winds on — and her smart phone, accidentally set to video, records what happens — it goes from a red-faced night out to a disturbing look inside Rachel’s psyche, as she works herself up into a rage over the things that have happened to her, culminating with the kind of announcement that sounds like a confession. When Rachel finds the video later, even she’s horrified by what she finds, and it goes a long way towards convincing her that she might actually be behind Megan’s disappearance.
11. The Ending Has Been Changed (In Ways Both Big And Small)
While the conclusion of the film hews very closely to that of the book, fans of Hawkins’ work will notice a couple of key changes. For one, when Rachel goes to visit Megan’s grave, it’s the only one she finds — Megan’s dead baby daughter hasn’t been moved to join her, a sad omission that only further highlights the tragedy of Megan’s life.
But that pain is somewhat diluted by the film’s final scene, which sees a very hopeful-looking Rachel back on the train and speeding straight into a new life. While the book ends with some hope, it’s hardly this upbeat. (It’s a nice, satisfying change.)
“The Girl On The Train” chugs into theaters on Friday, October 7.