After the success of 2014’s Oscar-nominated Gone Girl and the uh, existence of 2015’s less successful Dark Places, Gillian Flynn’s novel Sharp Objects seemed to be the odd one out, stuck waiting in the wings for its time to shine. But it hasn’t had to wait too long. Originally planned to be adapted as a feature film back in 2014, executive producer Marti Noxon pitched it as an 8-part series instead, which HBO ordered in 2016. Filming started last month.
Noxon, the executive producer for seasons 6 and 7 of Buffy, was definitely on to something pitching for TV rather than film. The novel has a lot going on, and the plot gradually unravels via slow reveals. Trying to condense the events of the novel into a feature film would be a challenge in terms of pacing. Giving the story space to develop should keep that all-important tension and mystery simmering. But managing the twists and turns of the plot is not the only challenge that Noxon is facing as showrunner.
I loved the novel, but my goodness, it’s bleak. It’s really unpleasant. Some of it is nigh on unfilmable. I know audiences are fairly primed for bleak and unpleasant at the moment (I’m looking at you, The Handmaid’s Tale) but this one really goes for it.
The premise doesn’t sound too far away from a grisly procedural: Camille, a reporter (Amy Adams), returns home to cover some violent murders, and has to confront some trauma from her past. So far, so predictable. But the novel’s starting point is murdered and mutilated pre-teen girls, being reported on by a young woman whose body bears the scars of truly elaborate self-harm. “A child weaned on poison considers harm a comfort,” she says. From there, it’s a twisting journey through horrific child abuse, underage sex, some highly questionable sex decisions from the adults, and other things that I won’t name here for the sake of spoilers. The plot goes where you don’t want it to go. And it keeps on going. If you thought Gone Girl’s ending was bleak, this one goes way past that.
The most unfilmable part? Camille’s little sister, Amma. Book Amma is 13 years old. Babied by her mother, who treats her like a little doll, Amma is a troubled, deeply cynical and precocious Mean Girl who gets high and naked a lot. When she isn’t terrifying, she’s deeply worrying.
“Sometimes if you let people do things to you, you’re really doing it to them,” Amma said, pulling out another Blow Pop from her pocket. Cherry. “Know what I mean? If someone wants to do fucked-up things to you, and you let them, you’re making them more fucked up. Then you have the control. As long as you don’t go crazy.”
Australian soap star Eliza Scanlen has been cast as Amma; Scanlen is 19 so presumably they have aged up the character to make some of Amma’s behaviour a little less shocking. It’s a sensible choice in terms of the practicality of filming and recognition of how much audiences will stomach. Similar choices were made in adapting Game of Thrones; here though, one wonders how an older Amma will change the tone of the events that play out.
Camille and Amma’s mother, Adora, (sadly not a Princess of Power) is played by Patricia Clarkson, who seems perfect for a role that calls for a will of iron and unhinged menace cloaked in fuzzy, superficial fragility. “Some women aren’t meant to be mothers,” we’re warned. Highly strung, melodramatic, keen to portray herself as a martyr, Adora is a woman who makes grief a “hobby” that she will not be “distracted from”; “Every tragedy in the world happens to my mother.” Here’s an example of Adora’s psychotic viciousness, shown via flashback in the novel:
“My mother had a cluster of friends over for afternoon drinks. One of them brought a baby. For hours, the child was cooed over, smothered with red-lipstick kisses, tidied up with tissues, then lipstick smacked again. I was supposed to be reading in my room, but I sat at the top of the stairs watching.
My mother finally was handed the baby, and she cuddled it ferociously. Oh, how wonderful it is to hold a baby again! Adora jiggled it on her knee, walked it around the rooms, whispered to it, and I looked down from above like a spiteful little god, the back of my hand placed against my face, imagining how it felt to be cheek to cheek with my mother.
When the ladies went into the kitchen to help tidy up the dishes, something changed. I remember my mother, alone in the living room, staring at the baby almost lasciviously. She pressed her lips hard against the baby’s apple slice of a cheek. Then she opened her mouth just slightly, took a tiny bit of flesh between her teeth, and gave it a little bite.
The baby wailed. The blotch faded as Adora snuggled the child, and told the other women it was just being fussy.”
Just a casual bit of baby biting there. Did I mention this was unpleasant? In case you are running for the hills, the novel’s unpleasantness is purposeful rather than just provocative for the sake of it. It’s more ‘psychopaths in suburbia’ than gratuitous horror. If that helps at all.
The show also stars Elizabeth Perkins (Weeds), Henry Czerny (Quantico, Revenge), Matt Craven (Justified) and Chris Messina (The Mindy Project). The first screening will be at the ATX Television Festival in Austin on June 7.
I’m curious to see if Noxon has made significant changes to the plot or whether she’ll try to make it a little less bleak in its resolution. Flynn is co-writing the adaptation with Noxon; whether that means it’s more or less likely to stay fairly faithful to the novel is unclear. Either way, this is definitely one to watch out for.
Be mindful of spoilers in the comments!