Tardy to the Party: Sharp Objects

A southern belle is never late. She always arrives precisely on time, impeccably dressed, and bearing the perfect gift for the occasion. I’m a born and bred Jersey girl, so I can’t make the same claim. I’m no stranger to running behind schedule.

And so I find myself tardy to two separate, but related, parties once again. The first is the book Sharp Objects, a freshman novel I stumbled on only after the author had already published two others. The second is the series by the same name, based on the book—my lateness the result of refusing to pay the ridiculous fees that go along with the privilege of HBO viewership.

I discovered author Gillian Flynn through a review of her novel Gone Girl in an issue of Entertainment Weekly. If memory serves, I read the book shortly thereafter, enjoyed it, and quickly devoured her first two works, Sharp Objects and Dark Places. I remember my experience with the former vividly—after spending several days in Florida with my friends, splitting our time between Universal Studios and various Disney-related parks during a mild-ish hurricane, we had reached the end of our trip. My friends wanted to spend the day in the sun lounging around the hotel’s pool until we had to go to the airport. Unfortunately, my fair, skip-the-tan-go-straight-to-sunburn skin isn’t made for that kind of indulgence, so I lingered by the pool only as long as I could hide in the shade, retreating to the safety of artificial lights when the sun’s rays finally chased me inside.

It was there in the cool hotel lobby that I read Sharp Objects in its entirety.

When I heard that HBO was making a limited miniseries based on the book, it caught my attention. About 5 years had passed since I read it, and frankly I didn’t remember much about it; to be honest, I recalled more about the circumstances surrounding my reading it than I did about the details of the book itself. But I knew that I liked it, enough that I was interested in watching the series when it came out. Of course, I don’t have HBO and I’m one of those ridiculously honest, by-the-book people who’s uncomfortable with the idea of using someone else’s account to access a service I don’t pay for myself, so I’d have to wait. It took just about a year, but I finally managed to get the DVDs via Netflix.

Sharp Objects premiered on HBO in early July 2018. Comprised of 8 episodes, it tells the story of a troubled young woman who reluctantly returns to her hometown in order to investigate the murders of two girls. Episode one, titled “Vanish,” opens with a scene that appears to be a memory at first, until it morphs into what ends up being a dream: two young girls sneak back into their huge Victorian house after enjoying some carefree time roller skating through town, but as they walk through a bedroom door their surroundings suddenly change to a modern apartment. They come across a sleeping woman and poke her finger with the end of a paperclip. Reporter Camille Preaker (Amy Adams) wakes with a start to the sound of a vibrating phone which beckons her out of bed and into the world. She drives to work where her editor unexpectedly peppers her with questions about her birthplace, Wind Gap, Missouri. It turns out that a couple of tragic events have occurred there recently—a local girl was murdered last year and another went missing a few days ago. He encourages her to go back and write an article about it, convinced that her connection to the town might inspire her to come up with “a damn good story,” as well as giving her a chance to exorcise some of the demons from her past.

Cue the inevitable montages: first we have the packing montage, which includes some not-so-subtle hints that Camille suffers from a serious drinking problem. Then there’s the “driving to Wind Gap” montage during which she smokes multiple cigarettes, reminisces about her childhood, drinks vodka from a water bottle, and listens to music. When she finally reaches city limits, she decides to check into a cheap hotel just outside the town proper, allowing herself one last night of peace before she ventures back to the place she left behind so many years ago.

The next morning Camille proceeds into town. She notices the makeshift memorial to the dead girl as she drives by the town square on her way to the police station, where she tries to get information about recent events from the chief of police. He’s understandably hesitant to say much, which understandably frustrates Camille. This mostly unsuccessful interview inspires her to join the search for the missing girl in hopes of gleaning useful material from some of the locals. On her way there, she encounters a trio of slightly obnoxious teenage girls all giggles and tight tops and short shorts, Detective Richard Willis (Chris Messina) who’s been brought in from Kansas City to help with the investigation, and a couple of other colorful characters.

Cut to Camille’s drive to her mother’s house, where she stops just outside the gate to apply lipstick, take another swig from her vodka-filled water bottle, and pop a breath mint before braving the lion’s den. The house is large and beautiful, gracefully perched atop a hill with a porch that wraps all the way around and the obligatory squeaky (yet fittingly lovely) screen door. The initial interaction between Camille and her mother is calm but full of tension, possibly the warmest exchange they share during the entire series. Their uneasy peace doesn’t last long, as Adora (Patricia Clarkson) is disgusted and deeply troubled that her daughter has taken on this particular assignment. Her quietly fierce disapproval saturates the series and is clearly one of the reasons why Camille hasn’t spoken to her mother in months. Adora exhibits little respect or affection for her eldest daughter, though the southern belle feels obligated to offer her hospitality, giving Camille permission to stay in her old bedroom for the duration of her visit.

Almost immediately upon settling in, a painful memory surfaces, compelling Camille out of her childhood room and into a bar, where she fails to interview the missing girl’s brother and has a somewhat flirtatious conversation with Detective Willis. Tired, frustrated, and drunk, she ends up falling asleep (passing out?) in her car listening to music, draining her battery and forcing her to get a jump start the next morning. Upon arriving home, Adora is appalled by what she deems inappropriate behavior and warns Camille that everything she says and does is a reflection of her mother and demands that she conduct herself in a more ladylike manner.

Already fed up with Adora’s overly dramatic tactics, Camille heads into town to purchase some more alcohol despite the early hour (just before 9:30am) and stops by the dead girl’s house in order to interview her parents. While the girl’s siblings eat cereal in the kitchen, their father patiently answers Camille’s questions. For her part Camille is gentle and kind, at least superficially, seemingly interested in what little Ann was like when she was alive.

On her way home, she notices the group of teenage girls from the day before giggling as they remove flowers and stuffed animals from Ann’s memorial while the missing girl’s brother watches disinterestedly. Shocked by their actions, she scolds them, only to be interrupted by a scream from a nearby alley. Natalie, the missing girl, has been found dead, propped up in the window frame of an abandoned store. As one of the first people on the scene, Camille is brought in to be questioned by the police. Detective Willis volunteers for the task, pouring them both some whiskey before attempting to discuss what happened with her. While Camille eagerly accepts the alcohol, she wholeheartedly rejects his repeated attempts at kindness, refusing his offer of a ride home and rudely insisting that he share information about the case for her article. Repulsed by her attitude, the detective leaves (with the bottle) and Camille returns home where she exchanges more barbs with her mother and finally encounters her half-sister Amma (Eliza Scanlen), who has been strangely absent since Camille’s arrival. The funny thing is, she hasn’t really been absent at all. She’s been hiding in plain sight as the leader of the small group of teenagers Camille keeps running into, although her appearance is drastically different. At home she dons conservative, childlike dresses and ribbons in her hair instead of the much more modern, revealing outfits the rebellious 13-year-old wears in public.

Camille and Amma’s first substantial conversation is revealing—this Amma is sweet and docile, a “little doll to dress up,” the complete opposite of the brass, independent, cruel person she is around her friends. As the pair makes their way up to their rooms, Amma broaches the subject of their dead sister Marion, the middle child who passed away when Camille was about the age Amma is now, long before Amma was born. Does she bring Marion up maliciously, to subtly punish Camille for staying away so long? Or did the discovery of Natalie’s mutilated body earlier that day simply remind her of another dead girl? Either way, it inspires Camille to enter her sister’s bedroom, a perfectly preserved shrine to a sick child, and brings back her memories of Marion’s funeral.

The episode ends with a drink (par for the course at this point) and a bath. But as Camille disrobes and lounges in the warm water, we see that her body is covered in scars, words etched into the skin covering her back, arms, and legs. It’s evidence of a lifetime of profound pain cut into flesh, wounds that have healed physically even though she is still deeply psychologically damaged. The word “vanish” in all capital letters appears clearly on her right arm before the screen quickly fades to black.

Considering how much I remember liking the book (and how little of the book itself I remember, which we’ll get to in a moment), I expected to be completely captivated by the series. But in spite of my fondness for the source material and the agreement amongst critics and fans alike that it was masterfully done, I wasn’t such a big fan. In fact, it wasn’t until the very end of the fourth episode that I finally started getting into it… right when I had to send one DVD back and wait for the next one to arrive so I could finish the series. It’s important to mention that I remember very little from the book because I tend to become ridiculously attached to the first version of a story I’m exposed to. As such, it shouldn’t be surprising that I’d be disappointed by the miniseries; however, I went into this with the barest recollection of the general story. There’s only one key plot point I remembered vividly, one that was supposed to be shocking but I figured out surprisingly early in the story (I credit my obsession with true crime). As a result, I don’t think the fact I read the book first colored my opinion of the series in this instance.

My reaction to the series made me wonder if I really did enjoy the book after all, so I went back and re-read it. The answer is, yes, I enjoyed it immensely. Much more than the series. Interestingly enough, as I went back to re-watch key parts of the series to write this article I found myself liking it more, as if my positive opinion of the original work began to bleed over into the television version of it.

This story is full of noticeably unlikeable characters. Nearly all of them have distinctive mean streaks that lash out with precision, causing various degrees of hurt. The three main female characters are extraordinarily manipulative in their own ways—Camille’s shrewd attempts to get usable quotes for her article while feigning concern during casual conversations, Adora’s overly sensitive nerves that demand constant tending to, and Amma expertly changing her personality as the situation warrants in order to ensure that she remains the center of attention, whether that means playing the queen bee mean girl with her friends, the doting, obedient daughter with her mother, or the coy, flirtatious vixen with members of the opposite sex. This is the case with all of Gillian Flynn’s works, a fact I had forgotten until I was ruminating over the first four episodes as I waited for the next DVD. It’s one of the most impressive features of Flynn’s writing, that she’s able to craft narratives crammed with so many intensely unpleasant characters, yet people still want to read/watch them. Not only that, fans find themselves so obsessed with her stories that they’re unable to put her books down or pause at the end of an episode, greedily consuming as much of the material they can as quickly as possible.

Nevertheless, there are a few exceptions to the “everyone is awful” rule in Sharp Objects, notably those who are not Wind Gap natives. Detective Willis is one, a hard working cop determined to solve the cases. Clues are scarce, local police disagree with his theories, and the townspeople are far from welcoming, making his job all the more difficult. Still he perseveres. More importantly, he makes multiple attempts at having nice, normal, off-the-record conversations with Camille, even though all she’s focused on is obtaining facts for her article. He seems to sincerely like her and wants to get to know her. In the end, one might argue that he isn’t such a nice guy after all (I disagree—I think he simply can’t handle the reality before him, which might be sad, but it’s a fair enough reaction). Even so, his potential awfulness pales in comparison to the rest of the characters. Admittedly I liked him a lot better in the series than the book, though I’m not sure if it’s because he’s played by Chris Messina, who I have great affection for (I lit up when I saw his name in the opening credits), or because they fleshed out the character a bit more in the series.

Other “not awful” characters include Camille’s editor, who can be tough on her, but that’s because (1) he’s her boss and (2) he genuinely cares about her. They speak on the phone throughout the series, and while he’s always urging her to do more digging and get more information for her article, he’s also checking up on her. He wants to make sure she’s okay emotionally and psychologically… after all, part of the reason he sent her down there was because he hoped it would help her deal with her past. When it becomes clear the situation is getting to be too much for her, he insists on her coming right back, offering to pay for her flight and take care of everything. There’s also Natalie’s brother, an outsider because his family had only recently moved to Wind Gap. Considered a prime suspect by virtually the entire town, he’s quiet, sensitive, and sweet. He ends up bonding with Camille over their dead sisters; he understands her pain and accepts her in a way no one else can. Whether their relationship is entirely appropriate or not (he’s barely 18 while she’s in her 30s), there is a kind of twisted beauty to it.

Speaking of Camille, part of the reason I prefer the book is because it’s told from her point of view, granting us a level of insight missing in the series. Voiceovers could’ve achieved a similar effect, but I don’t think they’d have worked well with this particular production. We hear a lot about her skin in the book—how it buzzes and tingles and screams. How certain words light up or burn in different situations. We learn how important words are to her, how she began compulsively writing down everything that happened to her shortly before permanently etching words into her skin. This is why she’s a reporter, and part of the reason she’s so determined to get quotes for her article. We also get a better idea of how she feels about contacting the deceased girls’ families, that she’s loath to bother them but understands that doing so is part of her job. The reader gains a significantly better understanding of Camille in the book than in the series and I much prefer that. As a result I liked her better.

At this point, I think my opinion on the matter is clear. Many critics wrote about how delighted they were with the “slow burn” of the series, how it was brilliantly filmed and the actors all exceptionally talented, how the final reveal was perfectly portrayed between the final scene, mid-credits scene, and after-credits scene. Meanwhile, I thought the “burn” was far too slow, bordering on excruciatingly boring until things picked up near the end of the fourth episode. I didn’t particularly care for the way they filmed some of the scenes, especially the frantic seconds-long flickers of memories Camille experiences. While I understand why they did it that way, I still found it exceedingly annoying. As for the end… well, it was shocking all right. But it left a lot unsaid and aspects of the plot remained unexplained. Once again I prefer the end of the book for several reasons, especially in regards to Camille’s actions—in the book she takes a calculated risk, while the series portrays her taking a much more irresponsible, potentially lethal risk. The book also more accurately portrays the aftermath of certain events (I can’t say more without spoilers) and gives the reader all the details that the final scenes of the series merely gloss over in manic flashes.

The only point the critics and I agree on is the caliber of acting, which was superb.

Don’t get me wrong, Sharp Objects (the series) isn’t bad. In truth, it’s very well done, as the critics have said, and I’m glad I watched it. For all my problems with it, it vividly brought Wind Gap to life, and the actors did an excellent job portraying its not-so-nice inhabitants. If you’re interested, by all means I encourage you to watch it. Of course, I’d recommend reading the novel to watching the series in a heartbeat—it cuts so much deeper.

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