Where Did You Go, Eileen? On Ottessa Moshfegh and William Oldroyd’s Adaptation
By Brianna Di MondaFebruary 9, 2024
What repels readers from Eileen also incites a compulsion to stay with her. “I like writing about the things that people spend their whole lives trying to pretend aren’t there,” Moshfegh told another interviewer. We can’t stand to look at Eileen because of our affinity with her, because Moshfegh has recorded every moment of shame of a person who is—murder aside—fairly typical.
After all, Eileen asks, hasn’t everyone thought about killing their father?
Moshfegh has said in interviews that she is “channeling a voice” when she writes, that part of her is “just a conduit” for this supposedly “divine voice”: “When I started intellectualizing, the voice shut down. […] I just write down what the voice has to say.” Moshfegh considers this process her “predetermined destiny,” although it seems more plausible that she just hasn’t heard of the bicameral mind. Eileen, we are to understand, is one of the characters that has “appeared” to Moshfegh as she writes. She refers to Eileen as her “freak book” dressed up in a “spiffy noir package” and admits to having “disguised the ugly truth” about Eileen’s innermost thoughts—the true story she wanted to write—in a commercial project.
So, in 2015, Moshfegh published a book that studied what might motivate someone to commit patricide. As it turns out, this despicable woman was not alienating: Eileen was short-listed for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Man Booker Prize, and won the PEN/Hemingway Award for Debut Novel.
It was ironic, really, that the book was so well received, considering the luridness of her main character. A disheveled misanthrope, Eileen navigates the mundane by disappearing into disturbing daydreams. Here is Eileen, by her own account:
I looked so boring, lifeless, immune and unaffected, but in truth I was always furious, seething, my thoughts racing, my mind like a killer’s. It was easy to hide behind the dull face I wore, moping around. I really thought I had everybody fooled. And I didn’t really read books about flowers or home economics. I liked books about awful things—murder, illness, death.
Now, eight years after its publication, that project has been adapted into a screenplay by the author and her husband. The story, set in the 1960s, follows the titular Eileen (Thomasin McKenzie), a 24-year-old living in the attic of her alcoholic father’s house. Employed at a boys’ juvenile detention center, Eileen, unlike her married sister, has never left her hometown. Timid, calculating, reticent, and burdened by self-loathing, she has never been in love.
The film’s Eileen, in contrast with the one on the page, is animatedly awkward, McKenzie’s performance alluding to but never revealing her underlying roughness. Sure, she eats too much sugar, chewing on sweets and spitting them out, pouring a quarter cup of sugar into her coffee. Yes, she masturbates in her car while watching an unassuming couple make out. And one of the film’s best moments—the truest to our leading lady and the original novel—comes the morning after she drinks too much at a bar. She wakes up in her car, her cheek stuck to frozen vomit, having crashed in her father’s driveway. Climbing through a window to get into the house, she displays for us, if only briefly, her morbid determination.
But gone is the Eileen from the book, who is, by her own description, “always furious, seething, my thoughts racing, my mind like a killer’s.” In McKenzie’s performance, we get a meek and desperate Eileen, one whose encounter with Rebecca (Anne Hathaway) is thrust upon her. Nowhere is the Eileen that describes Rebecca as “my match, my kindred spirit, my ally.” I miss Moshfegh’s debut Eileen: insolent and probing, lying in wait for the opportunity to carve a path to her freedom.
Much has been made of Eileen’s laxative abuse in the book, along with her desire to be raped. She takes laxatives once a week and uses the basement bathroom to hide her bowel movements from her father, which she describes in detail: they feel, she says, “as though all of my insides had melted and were now gushing out, a sludge that stank distinctly of chemicals and which, when it was all out, I half expected to breach the rim of the toilet bowl.” Moshfegh has said of her characters that “[t]hey present themselves to me as they are and then I let them say what they want. Usually they’re saying something too honest.”
This honesty is a hallmark of Moshfegh’s skill as a writer: she articulates perverse human experiences. “I’d always believed that my first time would be by force,” Eileen thinks. “Of course I hoped to be raped by only the most soulful, gentle, handsome of men, somebody who was secretly in love with me.” In other words, the divine voice guides Moshfegh to reveal these base impulses, to hide challenging ideas about humanity in a noir novel. “We need characters in novels to be free to range into the dark and wrong,” Moshfegh insists. “How else will we understand ourselves?” She is literature’s Antichrist, here to save us from our Protestant repressions. But even though they came to her via divine ordinance, neither the laxative abuse nor the desire to be raped is included in the film.
Despite an ostensibly cinematic premise—a mysterious woman moves to a small town and inspires a messy, quiet girl to seek freedom—with a more timid Eileen, the film’s meaning becomes both glaringly obvious and infuriatingly opaque. When Rebecca arrives, we are hit over the head with her allure. Her red suit and blonde hair contrast with the drab, gray Massachusetts town. She is a noir cliché: a Hitchcockian blonde, inspired by that director’s Rebecca (1940), in which a dead woman who never shows up in the movie, but whose beauty is conveyed by her ex-husband, turns out to be something she is not. In Eileen, when the two go out for drinks, Rebecca tells Eileen that she needs to be single: it’s her “modus vivendi, or [a] pathology, depending” how you look at it. Eileen orders a martini, just like Rebecca, seduced and in awe. It is a collision of two archetypes: the virgin and the femme fatale.
The book is grounded in Eileen’s cold perspective on the world she has chosen and continues to choose for herself. As an elderly Eileen reflects on the dark bond that changed her life, she feels no remorse for the murder she and Rebecca committed. She simply took advantage of an opportunity that Rebecca, misjudging Eileen’s reticence for groveling, dropped in her lap.
Without Eileen’s narration of her past, we get only her exterior, “boring, lifeless, immune and unaffected,” played by a mousy McKenzie. Our antiheroine loses her own modus vivendi because she never, at any point, chooses anything for herself. “[Y]ou can set people free if you can get them to tell the truth […] That’s what I want to do,” Rebecca says to Eileen in the bar. Things get worse at the climax of the film, when Eileen, apparently, hardly even chooses to murder. Following the gunshot, there’s a close-up on McKenzie’s face: she looks vaguely confused, standing stock-still. Hathaway carries the scene, shaking as she forces sleeping pills down the woman’s throat. Crying, Rebecca asks Eileen why she shot the gun. “I was upset” is all she says. What would the crafty, demented Eileen of the novel have to say in the face of such inarticulateness, such a lack of vision?
A striking difference between the two Eileens is exemplified by the pivotal moment when she is given her father’s gun for safekeeping. In the book, Eileen holds it with reverence, then drops it in her purse, unsure of what to do with the object:
I’d never handled my father’s gun before, or any gun for that matter. It was a heavy thing, far heavier than I’d expected, and ice-cold. Holding it frightened me at first. I couldn’t have told you at the time what kind of a gun it was, but I remember the look of it clearly. “Dunlop” was etched into the wooden handle. I’ve since looked in books about guns and have identified it as a Smith & Wesson Model 10. It had a four-inch barrel and weighed nearly two pounds. […]
I put the gun in my purse. I didn’t know what else to do.
By contrast, when Eileen is given the gun in the film, a daydream begins wherein she promptly shoots herself in the jaw. (As if one violent fantasy isn’t enough, there is a second daydream where Eileen shoots her father in the chest.) While the novel subtly shows Eileen’s understanding of the weapon, the moment on-screen becomes a heavy-handed insight into the character’s unconscious mind. A gun shown in the first act of a story must be fired before the end. When Chekhov said this, he didn’t mean you should have the character think about shooting it every 20 minutes.
With all these changes to Eileen, it seems that the script is afraid we won’t intuit its meaning, that it doesn’t trust the viewer. If Moshfegh pulled it off in a novel, why does she seem so afraid of being misunderstood on-screen?
It made sense to tap William Oldroyd, who previously worked on Lady Macbeth (2016), to direct Eileen. Both movies grapple with the ethical cost of freedom. With Florence Pugh as the breakthrough lead, Lady Macbeth built suspense to its murders with a handheld camera and suffocating interiors. Another tale of domestic abuse, Lady Macbeth centers on a crime driven by a woman’s own horrific treatment at the hands of her alcoholic (again) husband. While we empathize with her need to plot an escape, the protagonist’s freedom ultimately comes at the cost of another, innocent person’s life. Our complicity—and intimacy—with Pugh’s character turns into a source of great discomfort.
Eileen similarly wants to convey the shock of how far a woman will go to get her freedom, but the film loses sight of Eileen as an aggressive, unremorseful agent. Even Eileen’s father, as the two sit drinking in the kitchen, all but calls her an NPC, saying he can imagine her with a gun, but only if she used it to kill herself. He says that there are people in the world who live like they’re “in a movie,” the “ones making moves.” But Eileen is the other kind of person, he says: “They’re easy. Take a penny, leave a penny. That’s you, Eileen. You’re one of them.” The novel knows this to be far from the case; the film cannot decide.
Return to me, Eileen: pacing the attic, gulping down laxatives, reading about lobotomies, indulging dark fantasies, lying on the cold basement floor, slumped over the car’s steering wheel. Return to me the Eileen that is not just impressionable and lonely but also easily enraged, self-obsessed, vigorous. When she wrote this screenplay, what story did Moshfegh mean to tell? Why did she take Eileen from us?
In my own daydreams, I see an alternate world: one in which Yorgos Lanthimos adapted this Moshfegh novel, a director unrelenting in his candor and physical curiosity and who regularly pushes back on civility and repression in his work. I can’t imagine him flinching from Eileen and all her depravity. (It was announced shortly after filing this review that Lanthimos is working on the script for Moshfegh’s 2018 novel My Year of Rest and Relaxation—which is why I say that manifesting is one of my talents.)
As it is, these on-screen characters are unchanged from the noir archetypes Moshfegh borrowed as scaffolding. The film remains interesting only insofar as a typically skillful writer has produced something deeply clumsy. A term for a writer unable to transcend mediums—who can write only books, or graphic novels, or television scripts, but not any combination thereof—might be useful, given the recurring challenge presented by adaptations. Or maybe, as they say, it was the studio’s fault. Then again, Moshfegh may have been onto something when she said that the father in Eileen “isn’t a whole person. He’s more like a ghost.” Maybe the problem is that without first-person narration, Moshfegh’s characters become screen specters: pale shadows of real people.
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