Gillian Flynn likes her female protagonists psychotic and her endings twisted. In Sharp Objects, her debut novel turned HBO mini-series, she doubled down with two violent, unhinged women, and a pair of twisted endings. Just when you think everything is resolved, the story splits wide open again: If you don’t see the surprise coming, the grisly details about Wind Gap’s true killer — like that dollhouse floor inlaid with the victims’ pearly whites — will knock you flat.
This isn’t Flynn’s first time bringing one of her novels to the screen, of course. She also wrote the screenplay for David Fincher’s faithful but transformative adaptation of Gone Girl, so she knows the ropes on what it takes to turn her prose into into a living, breathing thing. We talked to the master of the modern thriller about Sharp Objects’ wild ending, the rise of angry women, what she did (or didn’t) change from her book, and why she “can’t wait to hit the message boards” to see what people think of the finale.
The first thing I want to ask you about is those teeth in the dollhouse floor. It’s such a disturbing feature of the book. What was your reaction when you saw it come to life?
It was just gut-wrenching. Everything has been so perfect in how it’s been visualized. Jean-Marc was always carrying around the book with sticky notes in it, so it shouldn’t surprise me. For me, obviously knowing how it was going to end, I felt my stomach clench, too. There’s something about reading and writing something that’s very different from actually seeing it as an audience member. And I felt unsettled, queasy, frightened. I was the audience member going, Don’t look in the dollhouse! Don’t look in the dollhouse! and also at the same time, Look in the dollhouse! Look in the dollhouse!
You once said that “in the first draft, the actual killer was the cheerleader.” Did you ever work through possible alternate endings for the TV series, something to shock people who had read the book?
No, never. We were all in agreement that we wanted it to be faithful to the book, particularly since it was a fairly under-known book of mine and so many years had gone by that people would want to see it anyway in its full form. It’s such an iconic ending for those have read it, changing it would be mystifying. We never discussed ever changing it.
Camille is rescued by Curry and Richard in a way that she isn’t in the novel. Did you have any concerns about taking some of that power away from her?
No, because Camille’s not an action hero. To me, she had been strong enough in going back into the mouth of the demon. She had swallowed the poison — that was what she wanted to do. The whole point was that she had made herself sick enough to the point of death. And we wanted that suspense. I liked that idea that she had sickened herself to that point of almost no return. And we loved those two actors [Chris Messina as Richard and Miguel Sandoval as Curry] quite a bit, particularly Curry, who I’ve always had a soft spot for.
Well, since you’re a former journalist …
[Laughs.] Yes! To me, it was sanity inserting itself into Wind Gap. All those phone calls [between Curry and Camille] were like the voice of sanity coming over the lines of Wind Gap. And it became a viable possibility [for Curry to show up at Adora’s house] with the move from Camille living in Chicago to St. Louis.
Was that the reason that was changed? So that Curry would be closer? Or were there logistical issues?
That idea was changed for multiple reasons, for very logistical reasons, so that Richard could go visit Camille’s rehab and do that investigative work. People were toying for a while with the idea that Camille could have had something to do with the murders, because she was close. I don’t think we played with that too much, ultimately, but we still really liked that idea.
You’ve talked a bit about using your fiction to write about women unleashing their anger. Now, in the years since you’ve written Sharp Objects, there a ton of women out there writing metaphorically ugly, violent, angry women. I’m thinking of Ottessa Moshfegh and Megan Abbott. Do you have an idea about where you think fiction should go next? Do you think we’ve hit a peak?
I think fiction, as far as it regards women, just needs to tackle that idea of pressing to make sure that women of all different types are seen and explored and related to. That was my push, that women do have their dark side, and that should be allowable. I don’t know that there has to be a push of “the uglier the better”; that’s never been my motto. Let’s allow women their full range of emotions, good and bad. Let’s allow women their full range of good and bad qualities. And we still need to see tons more women of color, more LGBTQ, all kinds of women represented of different socioeconomic stature. There’s always room to see more kinds of women.
I have to ask, what are the odds of a season two? Do you have an interest in that or do you feel happy saying this was the story and it’s done.
This was the story. This was the story that we wanted to tell. I’m really happy where we are right now.
I saw that one of the nurse’s names on the whiteboard behind Richard is M. Abbott? Is that a little note to Megan Abbott?
[Laughs.] That is not! If I could have done it I would have. That’s so funny, I adore Megan Abbott! I don’t know who wrote that up there!
Adora is this totally fascinating woman. You pity her because there’s something wrong with her, but at the same time she’s such a monster. When the police lights flash through the bedroom and Adora runs out calling Alan’s name, do you think she’s running to get help for Camille or out of some self-preservation instinct?
I think that’s an interesting Rorschach test that we liked leaving up to the audience. We like certain bits of ambiguity. I can’t wait to hit the message boards because people are going to be all over the place as far as deciding what “level” of murderer and abuser Adora is. And I think some people will have real pity for her. I feel some empathy for her in that I don’t think she sees what she’s doing or understands what she’s doing. It’s her version of care in the sickest and weirdest way. I’ll let you and other readers imagine what her mother’s home was like and what made her that way. But you know, Munchausen by proxy is a very specific, very, very strange mental illness. I don’t want to sound like a monster — I don’t have any pity for her for what she did to her children. I want to be very clear on that part! [Laughs.] And I’m fascinated by what people will think of Alan and his level of involvement.
Alan in the show is much more complicit than the Alan of the book.
Yes, and I love that.
What made you ratchet that up?
In the book, it was a little more “church and state” and he was left out of the more intimate scenes. The case was made that now we’re seeing he’s under this roof and this is a very intimate sort of thing. But I liked the idea that he’s not going to get away with saying, “Oh my goodness, I had no idea.” I appreciate the scene where he’s watching Adora while she’s filling the bottles and you realize he’s seen this before. He knows what’s going on.
Did you feel any need in the post-#MeToo moment to point out complicit behavior and complacency as problems?
I think it certainly is going to feel like that now. We wrote this pre-#MeToo. We wrote this before all that was happening, but I think people are going to be feeling his complicity all the more strongly because of that.
At the very end of the show, we get those end-credit scenes of Amma actually killing Ann, Natalie, and Mae. In the novel we get her explanations, but we certainly never get to see the murders. Why did you include that? And why are they tucked away in the end credits?
About them being tucked away in the end credits, that’s a question for Jean-Marc. We didn’t know where they were going to land, or at least I didn’t write it that way. I like it that way. I like that [they play] just when you’re recovering your breath and going, Wait, what?
We tried so many versions. There are so many different ways to do that ending. We had many more scenes of the trial. I really, really wanted to see Amma in her little child sociopath jail yard. [Laughs.] But ultimately, after you had already stayed around for the epilogue, it just felt like another epilogue. The feel felt very different from how it does in the book. It just felt like too much. We felt like we had included enough in there of seeing her getting jealous and seeding her neediness that people could put their debates together. And we like it because nobody really knows why sociopaths do anything. You could have a young child explain why she thinks she did it, but you’re never going to have the whole picture.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.