Gillian Flynn's 'Sharp Objects' Is A Whodunit ... And A Who Is She?

Jul 6, 2018
Originally published on July 6, 2018 12:51 pm

Gillian Flynn's wildly successful Gone Girl helped spawn a batch of best-selling mystery novels featuring complex female protagonists. That was sweet revenge for Flynn, whose first novel, Sharp Objects, had been turned down by publishers who didn't think people wanted to read stories about less-than-perfect women. Now, Sharp Objects has been adapted as a limited series, debuting Sunday on HBO, starring Amy Adams.

"What I really wanted to write about was the darker side of the female psyche," Flynn says. "You know — female violence and female rage — what made us do bad things, why we messed up, why we became violent and particularly what that looked like generationally."

That desire led Flynn to create the character of Camille Preaker, a reporter struggling with depression, alcoholism and a history of self-injury and cutting. Camille's newspaper editor sends her back to her Missouri hometown to cover the stories of two girls — one missing, one murdered. The assignment lands her back in a world dominated by her mother, a southern belle of the iron butterfly variety.

Flynn describes her book as a murder mystery wrapped around a character study — not just a "whodunit" but also a "who is she?" The novelist wants the audience to be as interested in understanding Camille as they are in unraveling the mystery.

"You start learning that there are certain secrets and awfulness that happened to her all throughout her childhood," Flynn says. "And there are certain things that she has never wanted to look at too closely. ... She inflicts this violence, this anger and this hatred upon herself."

Jean-Marc Vallée, the director of HBO's Sharp Objects adaptation, says Flynn has created a singular story and a singular character. "I've never met, never seen, never heard anyone like Camille Preaker ... " he says. "It's pretty rare ... to hear someone being that honest — someone that talks about her wounds, her insecurities, her fears, her scars, her sexuality."

The screenwriters, including Flynn, deliberately decided not to use a voiceover for Camille. Instead the audience sees flashbacks — shards of memories that only gradually come together to create a fuller picture of the past. As Camille's past starts to merge with the present she begins to unravel.

Vallée says it can be tough to watch a character you're rooting for make a series of bad decisions. "We want to tell her sometimes: Don't do that!" Vallée says with a laugh. When she invariably does it anyway, the director says, "we still care for her because there's something about her that is so human; her humanity is deeply moving."

Sharp Objects is full of complex female characters — but Flynn says as interested as she was in exploring the dark side of the female psyche, she never lost sight of one thing: "It's also a really juicy detective story ..." she says. "I've never, ever had a problem entertaining people."

Because Sharp Objects is an HBO production that also involves well-known Hollywood players, it has drawn comparison to HBO's Big Little Lies, which was also directed by Vallée. But Flynn says they really have only one thing in common: Very talented women drawn to telling stories about flawed and fascinating women.

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NOEL KING, HOST:

With the success of "Gone Girl," the novelist Gillian Flynn helped spawn a bunch of best-selling mystery novels featuring deeply flawed women as the main character. Flynn's first novel "Sharp Objects" was turned down by many publishers who didn't think people wanted to read stories about complicated women. Now "Sharp Objects" has been adapted as a limited series which debuts Sunday on HBO. It stars Amy Adams as a very complicated woman. NPR's Lynn Neary has more.

LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: When Gillian Flynn was writing "Sharp Objects," novels that had been dubbed chick lit were all the rage.

GILLIAN FLYNN: There were a lot of books about - can the girl find the perfect shoe? Can she then find the perfect boy to wear the shoe (laughter) on a date with?

NEARY: Flynn says she was not interested in writing that kind of book.

FLYNN: What I really wanted to write about was the darker side of the female psyche - was, you know, female violence and female rage and, you know, what made us do bad things, why we messed up, why we became violent and particularly what that looked like generationally.

NEARY: Out of that impulse toward darkness, emerged the character Camille Preaker. She's depressed, alcoholic and has a history of cutting herself. She's also a newspaper reporter, and her editor sends her back to her hometown, Wind Gap, Mo., to cover a story. One young girl is missing, and another has been murdered. The assignment lands her back in a world dominated by her mother, a Southern belle of the iron butterfly variety, played by Patricia Clarkson.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SHARP OBJECTS")

PATRICIA CLARKSON: (As Adora Crellin) When you're here, everything you do comes back on me. Understand?

AMY ADAMS: (As Camille Preaker) Honestly, no 'cause that might have been true when I was a kid, but I'm an adult now.

CLARKSON: (As Adora Crellin) Not when you're out here. When you're here, you're my daughter.

NEARY: "Sharp Objects," says Flynn, is as much a who-is-she as a whodunit.

FLYNN: You start learning that, you know, there are certain secrets and awfulness that have happened to her all throughout her childhood. And there are certain things that she has never wanted to look at too closely. But, you know, the truth will out and then that it has come to form on her skin that she inflicts this violence and this anger and this hatred upon herself.

JEAN-MARC VALLEE: It's a very singular story, very singular character. I've never met, never seen, never heard anyone like Camille Preaker.

NEARY: Jean-Marc Vallee is the director of HBO's "Sharp Objects."

VALLEE: The main quality of the book to me was her internal monologue, her internal voice. It's pretty rare to be that honest, to hear someone being that honest - someone that talks about her wounds, her insecurities, her fears, her scars, her sexuality.

NEARY: The screenwriters, including Flynn, deliberately decided not to use a voiceover. Instead, Vallee created flashbacks that feel like shards of memories that only gradually come together. And in the present, as Camille becomes more and more obsessed with finding out what happened to the two girls, she develops a relationship with a good-looking detective.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SHARP OBJECTS")

ADAMS: (As Camille Preaker) In Wind Gap, every woman gets a nasty label if they don't conform to the rules of engagement.

CHRIS MESSINA: (As Detective Richard Willis) What's your label?

ADAMS: (As Camille Preaker, laughing) Too many - too many to name.

MESSINA: (As Detective Richard Willis) Oh, come on.

ADAMS: (As Camille Preaker) No.

MESSINA: (As Detective Richard Willis) I can handle it.

ADAMS: (As Camille Preaker) That is so Wind Gap of you, you know. You figure out someone's secrets to use it against them later.

NEARY: As Camille's past merges with her present, she begins unraveling. At times, Vallee says, it's tough to watch as she makes a series of bad decisions.

VALLEE: We want to tell her sometimes - no, don't do that. No, you're not supposed to do drugs with your little sister; you're not supposed to have sex with an 18-year-old. What are you doing? And (laughter) - and she does it. And yet, we still care for her because there's something about her that is so human. Her humanity is deeply moving.

NEARY: Camille Preaker is not the only complicated woman in this story. "Sharp Objects" is full of flawed women, ranging from merely catty to downright evil. But Gillian Flynn says, as interested as she was in exploring the dark side of the female psyche, she never lost sight of one thing.

FLYNN: This is also a really juicy detective story. I'm very aware, first and foremost, you know, having written "Gone Girl," that I've never, ever had a problem with entertaining people.

NEARY: Because "Sharp Objects" is an HBO production that involves some well-known Hollywood players, it has drawn comparisons to "Big Little Lies," which was also directed by Jean-Marc Vallee. But Gillian Flynn says they really only have one thing in common, some very talented women were drawn to telling stories about some women who are less than perfect.

Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE ACIDS'S "TUMBLING LIGHTS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.