October 30th 2016
Today I’m going to review The Girl on the Train, and it’s failed closing image.. I’ve been eager to see that film ever since I heard they were making the book into a movie. I like screen adaptations of novels because I get to see how the mental picture I created when reading the book compares to someone else’s mental picture (i.e. the director). However, this movie adaptation came with two differences.
One, it is the first time Alice has seen an adaptation of a movie after she’d read the book.
Two, the entire plot of the book’s story is picked up and migrated from Outer London to New York City.
On that first point: Alice has never been a great reader. She’s read four sevenths of the Harry Potter books, and that’s about it – and only after seeing the film. I can’t describe how proud I was when I heard her say ‘I think the book was better than the film.’ Seriously, my heart swelled and my eyes watered. She really enjoyed the book, and was just excited for the film as I was.
On the second point, it’s difficult to compare my mental image from the book with the world created in the film because the location is transatlantic. Reading a well written book is liking watching a movie in your head, except instead of watching the movie on a 100-foot screen you’re watching the story unfold as if you’re there on the train, sat one seat over from the characters. A silent observer.
As a kid when I read Harry Potter the image I created of him in my head looked exactly like Daniel Radcliffe, except I didn’t know who Daniel Radcliffe was yet. That’s both great writing, and great casting.
The Girl on the Train the book had good writing, and the film had good casting, y’know, except for the whole ‘everyone is American’ thing, although, saying that… Emily Blunt is British but she talks with an Ameri… never mind.
I enjoyed the film, but echo Alice’s sentiments of it not being as good as the book. But I’m a writer of novels, I have to say that. I’m a writer of novels but an appreciator of film. I love film, and I love the idea of writing film because there are some things that are just better expressed visually than with words.
And that very point is where I was disappointed with The Girl on the Train the Movie. Let me explain.
In screenwriting there is this unwritten rule where the final image of the film should be a direct inverse of the opening image. (In fact, that’s not an unwritten rule, considering I’ve seen it written down in a chapter of a book that literally describes the rules of screenwriting)
The opening image should reflect the point the character is at when the movie begins, the closing image should reflect the point the character is at when the movie ends. These two images show how the character grows throughout the film, and the two images are, when done correctly, usually very similar.
The opening image (left) of Punch-Drunk Love shows Adam Sandler’s Barry Egan working alone at the desk in his office. The shot is wide to show the emptiness, and loneliness of Barry’s life. He’s on the phone, and rapidly shuffling through papers as he tries to grow his business. In the closing image (right) the scene is similar. He’s still in his office, he’s sat down in front of a desk, except it’s not a desk. It’s a piano-type thing that acts as subtext throughout the film. And he’s not alone anymore, he’s with his new girlfriend, Lena Leonard. The two images show almost the same thing, in almost the same situation, but the nuances show Barry’s growth throughout the film. He started committed solely to his work, and slowly began to learn to live and love.
The opening image (left) of Gone Girl shows Rosamund Pike, laying with her head on Ben Affleck. The closing image (right) of Gone Girl shows Rosamund Pike, laying with her head on Ben Affleck. In this instance, the shot is exactly the same but the nuances come from lighting, appearance, and expression.
In Whiplash (incidentally, my favourite ever film) the opening image shows Miles Teller practicing a drum solo at the end of a dark corridor – it’s clearly late at night so we are to assume that he’s been practicing for a while. He’s alone, he’s practicing hard. In the closing image we see that the practice was worthwhile, and he’s performing on stage with a full band. The difference between the opening and closing image shows us the journey, do you see?
One final example before we get back to The Girl on the Train, I promise. In Boyhood, the opening image shows Ellar Coltrane led outside on the grass looking up at the clouds, daydreaming. In the closing image we see Ellar Coltrane (yes, that is the same boy in both frames – go watch Boyhood) outside on the grass again. But he’s stood up, and looking straight ahead, and he’s with a girl. The nuances obviously being the girl, standing instead of laying, and the fact that now he’s older he has to look ahead, rather than daydream and look up.
In The Girl on the Train the opening image (above) shows, naturally, Emily Blunt on a train. She’s looking out towards this house that becomes integral to the movie. She’s sat on the side of the train closest to the house, and her nose is pressed up right against the glass. And then, a load of shit happens in the house (no spoilers) and it’s a film. In the final image (below) she’s sat on the side of the train furthest from the house, she takes a quick look, and then turns away from the house and faces towards the window on her side, and looks forward.
So, that passes our opening/final image test pretty well, but the problem is not with the images, it’s with the narration. Accompanying the final image is a narration that says ‘Today I sit in a different car, and I look ahead, and anything is possible.’
That exact moment, the last moments of the film, summed up to me why The Girl on the Train was a disappointing film. That final scene is great, it does everything it needs to do to show the character’s growth, and it sums up the journey she’s been on, and it shows us that she has left her previous problems behind and is getting on with her life properly now. And it shows us all of that. And then it tells us that again.
That narration is amateurish. It is telling us too much. It is telling us what we are seeing, it is telling us what we were supposed to deduce for ourselves. I can see that you’re sitting in a different seat, I noticed that as an eagle eyed audience member, I can see that you’re not looking at the house any more, I can see that you’re looking forward. Please shut up.
I said before that ‘there are some things that are just better expressed visually than with words’ and that final scene was one of them. In a book, you have to use words to get the message of that journey across, in a film you get the luxury of silence.
Until tomorrow, Emily, you should have stayed silent.