How ‘The Girl on the Train’ tries to go deeper than your average mystery thriller

Emily Blunt in “The Girl on the Train.” (Photo by Jessica Miglio, DreamWorks Pictures-Universal Pictures)

Director Tate Taylor didn’t exactly roll his eyes when he was first approached to adapt the international bestseller mystery “The Girl on the Train” into a movie, but he wasn’t jumping at the chance, either.

“I just said, ‘OK, I know what this is going to be,’ ” Taylor said recently during an interview. “There’s not going to be rich characters in it, it’s going to be about the ‘who did it,’ the twists and turns.”

As Taylor (“The Help,” “Get On Up”) found out when he finally sat down to read Paula Hawkins’s novel, it does have many familiar elements of a “whodunit” tale – yet it’s complemented by troubled characters that are deeper than those in your average thriller. He eagerly signed on to the film, now opening Friday as one of the most anticipated releases of the fall.

“It’s such a heartfelt, painful, truthful look at what happens when you chase an idealized dream in life, and how you can destroy yourself in the process,” Taylor said. “And then it’s a thriller, too. I was like, ‘Wait a minute – this (combination) doesn’t happen.’ “

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Although marketing for the film adaptation focuses on the mystery aspect, “The Girl on the Train” is really a study of three broken women, particularly how the pressures of motherhood warp their psyches. Rachel’s (Emily Blunt) infertility leads to a spiral of depression and alcoholism; her husband leaves her for Anna (Rebecca Ferguson), who gets pregnant and is completely consumed by her new baby. Megan (Haley Bennett) resists starting a family because of a tragic secret from her past.

Most of the film is told through the eyes of the recently divorced Rachel. She spends her days listlessly riding the train from the outer boroughs of New York into Manhattan, where she used to work at a public relations firm until she was fired for drinking on the job. During these miserable train rides, she becomes obsessed with an attractive couple, Megan and Scott (Luke Evans), who live in a beautiful house by the tracks.

Every day, Rachel gets a brief view of their lives as she chugs vodka out of a water bottle and sketches their faces in a notebook, concocting elaborate backstories. One day, she’s jerked out of her daze when she spots Megan on the balcony … kissing a man who isn’t her husband. Then, Megan, who lives two doors down from Rachel’s ex, Tom (Justin Theroux), mysteriously goes missing a few days later. Soon all the characters become tangled in a complicated web of lies and twists that we don’t dare spoil.

Even before the book was released, comparisons to the smash hit “Gone Girl” began. Unreliable, problematic female protagonist? Check. A woman with marital problems who disappears? Indeed. A grown woman referred to as a “girl” in the title? You bet. A controversial ending that will leave some readers enraged? Absolutely!

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The parallels no doubt helped buzz for “The Girl on the Train,” which shattered records in the U.K. (Hawkins, the author, is British) when it stayed at No. 1 on the hardcover book chart for 20 straight weeks, and it has sold about 11 million copies worldwide.”The Girl on the Train” certainly hopes for the box office success of “Gone Girl,” which earned $369 million worldwide.

The two are remarkably different stories,but they both faced the same major challenge:how to tell a story when viewers can’t trust the narrator. Rachel’s memories are hazy, and you never know whether what she’s remembering is real. Hawkins said that while writing the book, which was inspired by her own train commutes to London, she often had to go back and check: “Did Rachel think she did that or did she actually do that?”

Hawkins would often keep it vague. After all, she said, “that’s the way life is.” In the movie, however, Taylor had to invent some scenes to avoid confusion. For example, Lisa Kudrow plays a new character named Martha, whom Rachel meets on the train and helps clear up important details.

“In the novel, Paula just writes, ‘Rachel remembers,’ ” said Taylor, who worked on later drafts of the script with screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson. He felt that would be difficult to present visually, so he had to get creative. “There’s no way I can film her having a ‘moment’ unless I put a lightbulb over her head and it goes off.”

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There are a few other key changes from the source material. The story now takes place in New York, not London. And in the novel, Rachel is repeatedly described as unattractive and overweight. So, the opposite of Blunt, who took on colored contacts and pasty skin for the role, yet still looks like a movie star.

Hawkins, who was mostly uninvolved with the movie (and thrilled with the way it turned out) didn’t mind the physical differences. “The core of Rachel is not what she looks like, it’s what she thinks she looks like and how she feels she’s being perceived,” Hawkins said, adding that Blunt nailed the shameful way that Rachel carries herself as her life falls apart; viewers can feel the self-hatred radiating off her body.

Taylor was also impressed by Blunt’s commitment to the role – she had to play a believable alcoholic when “there’s not an addictive bone in her body.” Along with prepping by marathoning “Intervention” episodes, she and Taylor adopted a shorthand for how Rachel should act in any given scene, with four intoxication levels. “We would talk about ‘OK, this is a three.’ Then she’d say, ‘I think this is kind of a two.’ And I’d say ‘Yeah, you’re right.'”

Through it all, the biggest challenge for Taylor was trying to juggle the psychological implications of all the abrupt plot turns that shape the characters – yet not give away too much. This was especially important during the pivotal scene where Rachel sees Megan kissing another man. During filming, it was impossible to entirely cloak the man’s identity from viewers. Eventually, Taylor realized that the impact on the character was more important than whether the audience had a hint of the twist to come.

“I went … ‘We can know who it is. Who cares? (Rachel) just can’t know,'” Taylor said. Ultimately, that moment is about a woman who feels betrayed by a couple she’s idolized from afar. “It’s her life falling apart again.”