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‘Sharp Objects’: How Gillian Flynn’s Novel Kept HBO’s Drama From Becoming Another ‘Generic Dead Girl Story’

Amy Adams, Patricia Clarkson, Eliza Scanlen, and showrunner Marti Noxon explain how the story's nuances elevate this show.

Sharp Objects HBO

Amy Adams in “Sharp Objects”

HBO

“You just looooove dead girls,” Amma (Eliza Scanlen) croons drunkenly at her older sister Camille (Amy Adams) in “Fix,” Episode 3 of HBO’s “Sharp Objects.” “Couldn’t stay away.”

It’s a statement that pokes at the heart of the genre which “Sharp Objects” can’t help but invoke. Change the director, change the tone, change the approach as much as you like, but so many great TV shows can’t help but invoke this one classic trope: the premature death of a girl.

The tragically dead girl in fiction, especially crime fiction, is hard to avoid. “It’s very prominent in all of TV and film,” Scanlen told IndieWire in a recent interview. She might be a teenage innocent who drifted along a path to darkness (“Twin Peaks”). She might have just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time (“The Killing”). She might be a dead Baltimore girl whose murder never gets solved (“Homicide: Life on the Street”). Or, in the case of “Sharp Objects,” she might be a daughter who goes to visit a friend and never arrives where she’s supposed to be.

However, while this might be a common way to start a story like this, showrunner Marti Noxon made it clear that to her, “this wasn’t to me a generic dead girl story. If it had been, it wouldn’t have appealed to me.”

Noxon instead feels that the HBO drama is “so much more of a meta-examination of the genre,” due to the source material: Gillian Flynn’s novel, which follows investigative journalist Camille’s return to her Missouri hometown after a young girl, and then another one, is found dead. The murders, however, are almost more background noise to the true symphony: Camille contending with her brittle, emotional mother Adora (Patricia Clarkson) and rebellious half-sister Amma.

“This is a story of repression and what happens when women are not given full agency to just be who they are,” Noxon said. “So, there was something about the fact that the girls were also repressed, and part of the reason that they were eliminated is explored in the show. It had something to do with the same stuff — with not being acceptable.”

Sharp Objects HBO

Said Noxon: “What appealed to me was that this was a female story. Pretty much, there’s a sort of trope of these mysteries, with a damaged heroine who goes to seek out her past and root out the evil. Almost always the major actors in the story, who are propelling all the drama and the danger, are men.”

Not the case with “Sharp Objects,” given how Camille is rooted squarely at the center of the story — the way in which she navigates her hometown. As Adams told IndieWire, her perspective on it comes down to where “Sharp Objects” focuses the narrative: “I feel like this is a town that wants to keep its secrets, so we’re not telling these stories in a way that’s exploitative, because we’re not just telling the story of the girls,” she said. “We’re telling the story of the secrets that allowed this to happen and the generational violence that allows this to happen, and the secrets that we keep and the damage that it does.”

As Clarkson said, “We are a culture that likes to see people who are damaged and people who are troubled.”

Added Scanlen: “In the end, I think the show, it’s just so nuanced, and it chooses to not romanticize the deaths of the two girls, but more so take a focus on how trauma might affect a family.

“It’s a conversation I don’t think we discuss enough in society, and there’s a certain reluctance to speak about it, and also a certain weakness associated with mental illness,” she continued. “We see these really strong female characters in ‘Sharp Objects’ who are navigating their lives and they’re high functioning individuals, but they’re rattled by mental illness and the people around them are affected by it too.”

Which is why Noxon feels that, much like the book it’s based on, “Sharp Objects” is “more of a character study than a whodunit thriller. That’s inside of the character study. I think that keeps it from being exclusively a thriller or a mystery. It’s like a character study inside of a mystery.”

There may be dead girls involved. But it’s the living ones who drive the story, whose survival is why we’re watching.

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