Demystifying the appeal of ‘The Girl’ in 5 thriller novels

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As the cinematic adaptation of Paula Hawkins’ book “The Girl on the Train” hits theaters this week, we line up five more “The Girl” novels and examine why they remain in the bestseller lists.

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) —  “The Girl on the Train,” which premieres in cinemas today, has the makings of a Hitchcockian concoction. Above all, there’s the significance to the plot of the titular mode of transportation, whose intermittent presence is as menacing as it is meditative. And then there’s the “Rear Window”-esque voyeurism carried out by the title character, a barely functioning alcoholic who gets entangled in the disappearance of a suburbanite woman whom she had been observing on her daily commute.

But the film is not a study in suspense and mystery. Slightly miscast (with Emily Blunt in the lead role, made up so heavily as to pass for an emotional train wreck) and largely misdirected (by Tate Taylor of “The Help” fame), “The Girl on the Train” trundles past red herrings and gaslit flashbacks to a rather anticlimactic conclusion. By journey’s end, it reveals itself to be little more than a two-hour soap opera about oversexed couples with seemingly underdeveloped senses of propriety and the dipsomaniac divorcee who couldn’t stay away from their affairs for her own good, let alone stay awake to the harsh reality of her sad situation. And throughout, with its disjointed fragments of storytelling and snatches of voiceover narration, the film struggles to suppress signs of its origins in print, lending credence to the truism that the book is almost always better than the movie.

“The Girl on the Train” is, in fact, adapted from the bestselling novel of the same name by Paula Hawkins. Published in January 2015, it’s one of the recent entries in the spate of paperback potboilers with “Girl” on their titles, which shows no signs of stopping with the continuing arrival of new additions. This year alone has so far seen the release of a number of such books, including “The Crow Girl” by Erik Axl Sund, “The American Girl” by Kate Horsley, “The Second Girl” by David Swinson, “Girls on Fire” by Robin Wasserman, “All the Missing Girls” by Megan Miranda, and “The Girl Between Two Worlds” by the Australia-based Filipino writer Kristyn Maslog-Levis.

“Girl” is at risk of semantic saturation, the word subjected to such overuse on book covers that its repetition may at times render the word all but unrecognizable. But authors and publishers can be scarcely faulted for going along with the trend, considering that “Girl” in titles, especially those of thrillers, has become something of a marker of bestseller potential or status and, in some cases, a call for movie adaptation.

Here are five notable cinematic “Girl” thriller novels, listed in order of publication.

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“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” by Stieg Larsson (2005)

By many accounts, the “Girl” titling trend was kicked off by the posthumous publication of Stieg Larsson’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” A spider’s web of mystery anchored by the relationship between a disgraced journalist and an asocial computer hacker, this crime novel became an international bestseller and spawned two movie adaptations: a Swedish film starring Michael Nyqvist and Noomi Rapace and an English-language version directed by David Fincher and starring Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara. Its stilted prose aside, the book is famed for its tackling of important social issues, not least in relation to misogyny, as signaled by its original Swedish title, which directly translates as “Men Who Hate Women.” The first book in the “Millennium” trilogy, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” is followed by “The Girl Who Played with Fire” and “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest.” Not to be confused, of course, with the comedian Amy Schumer’s recently released memoir, “The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo.”

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“Gone Girl” by Gillian Flynn (2012)

David Fincher’s follow-up to his “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” is the postmodern adaptation of another popular “Girl” novel, this time one that shares its name with a Johnny Cash song. Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl” unfolds as a twisted game of “he said, she said,” alternately narrated by a man and his missing, probably murdered wife (played in the film by Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike). Theirs is a pair of narrators whose unreliability is surpassed only by their unlikability. Theirs is a combined cache of secrets whose unraveling makes the novel not a whodunit so much as a WTF. Theirs is a marriage that reinforces the assumption made by the main character in a short story by Arthur Miller, that “most people married not out of overwhelming love but to find justification in one another, and why not?” The title of that story? “Plain Girl.”

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“The Girl with All the Gifts” by M.R. Carey (2014)

Of course, not all “Girl” thrillers are about women being endangered by men. Sometimes they’re about men, women, and children being consumed by zombies, as is the case with M.R. Carey’s “The Girl with All the Gifts.” This horror drama begins pretty much in typical zombie-apocalypse fashion: In the not so distant future, a mysterious disease has turned humans into hordes of flesh-eating, walking dead. But it evolves into something out of the ordinary: There are uninfected adults and, of greater import to the plot, infected children who retain their mental faculties even as they crave the flesh of the living. One of these children is a 10-year-old girl genius, and she might just hold the key to restoring humanity — albeit in a different form — in the world. “The Girl with All the Gifts” is both a thriller about intelligent zombies and an intelligent thriller about zombies. The book has been adapted into a 2016 film starring Gemma Arterton and Glenn Close, whose producers initially wanted to call “She Who Brings Gifts” but, perhaps upon realizing the commercial wisdom of having “Girl” in titles, thought better of it.

The Girl on the Train  

“The Girl on the Train” by Paula Hawkins (2015)

Touted as “the new Gone Girl” when it came out, Paula Hawkins’ “The Girl on the Train” goes one better by having not just two, but three unreliable and unlikable narrators — all of them female. There’s Rachel (played by Emily Blunt in the film), a problem drinker who makes an unhealthy hobby out of watching people from her train window. There’s Megan (Haley Bennett), who goes missing the night Rachel visits her neighborhood. And there’s Anna (Rebecca Ferguson), Rachel’s ex-husband’s wife, for whom Megan used to babysit. It doesn’t quite manage to come near the height of devious delights effortlessly reached by “Gone Girl,” but “The Girl on the Train” does make for reading that’s far from stop-and-go.

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“The Girls” by Emma Cline (2016)

Even before it got picked up for publication, “The Girls” had already attracted the attention of Scott Rudin, the producer of David Fincher’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” who optioned the screen rights for Emma Cline’s debut novel. Perhaps it’s the book’s basis in fact, specifically the case of the charismatic cult leader Charles Manson, whose followers committed a series of widely publicized murders in 1969. Perhaps it’s the book’s dealing with such of-the-moment issues as patriarchy and feminism. Perhaps it’s the book’s narrative voice, that of a middle-aged woman recounting her coming of age in the dicey company of feral females from a commune of dubious civility. Whatever made it an easy sell for publisher and producer alike, one thing is for sure: “The Girls” favors style over substance. Indeed its prose is so luminous that it has the tendency to shed blinding amounts of light on the significance of otherwise mundane matters and events. But in spite — or maybe because — of that, “The Girls” has earned rapturous blurbs from the Pulitzer-winning novelists Richard Ford and Jennifer Egan and from Lena Dunham, best known for creating and starring in that HBO show with the all too familiar title, “Girls.”

 

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All featured books are available in National Book Store and Powerbooks.