Is HBO's Sharp Objects True to the Book?
When Gillian Flynn’s iconic novel Gone Girl hit shelves back in 2012, it didn’t take readers long to realize they’d struck thriller gold. In the first year alone, the book sold more than two million copies and spawned an inestimable number of conversations between women about how liberating (and feasible!) it might be to vanish from their own lives. Hollywood quickly turned the bestseller into a movie and proved that a screen adaptation can be just as good as the original. Possibly even better.
This weekend, we get to see that trick again. Twelve years after its debut, another Flynn novel, Sharp Objects, has made its way to the screen—this time, the small one. A series by the same name debuts on HBO today.
Not to worry if you’re a diehard fan of the written word: We’ve had a sneak peak of the first five episodes, and largely the changes are TV business as usual. There are the compression of timelines and mixing of scenes, minor character makeovers, and the addition of cinematic magic. We’ll be getting into the differences between the series and the novel in deeper detail, episode by episode, in the weeks to come—and updating this story as we go. (There will be spoilers.)
For the most part, the series sticks to the storyline: Camille Preaker, a young reporter with a painful personal history, returns to her hometown to investigate the gruesome murders of two young girls, and she doesn’t so much stir up the past as whip it into a frenzy. Starring Amy Adams as Camille and Patricia Clarkson as her bloodless mother, Adora, the seven-episode show is just as hypnotic and dazzlingly dark as fans could have asked for. Though the eagle-eyed among you might notice it’s not a perfect facsimile.
There has been one relatively obvious overhaul: As Camille, Adams isn’t the mangled twentysomething of the novel but an older, more grizzled version of that self, and other characters are aged up accordingly. Mostly, the show benefits from the layers that can’t help but appear when text takes on flesh and a talented ensemble cast brings it all to life—two reasons it is being called this summer's Big Little Lies. The overall effect is a series that results in feverish obsession, even if you already know how it ends—the true sign of a great adaptation, which is exactly what HBO’s Sharp Objects is.
Episode 1: “Vanish” (Air date: July 8)
Much like the beginning of the book, the kickoff episode of the series introduces us to key characters and sets us up for what we’re in for. But there are some departures from the original right off the bat. First of all, in the novel, Camille is working at a third-rate newspaper in the suburbs of Chicago. In the series, the location has been switched to St. Louis, where she’s a reporter at an arguably more high-profile paper, the fictitious St. Louis Chronicle. When she gets the assignment from her editor, Curry, he references how another reporter had covered a hometown murder story and won a Pulitzer; in the book, he referenced a different story, about a reporter who had covered a flood in Texas and took home the coveted journalism prize.
When she arrives in the town of Wind Gap, she meets detective Richard Willis (Chris Messina) almost immediately, while she’s headed to aide in the search for the missing girl. We quickly learn that—in addition to being an alcoholic—Camille is a chainsmoker. In the book, smoking isn't a core part of her character; her constant puffing in the series alludes to the pervasiveness of her self-destructive tendencies.
The ghosts that haunt Camille’s past, on the other hand, are much more clearly drawn in the novel—from the boys who chased her into the woods when she was a teenager to the relationship she had with her long-dead sister, Marian (played by Lulu Wilson). The scenes showing the girls together as pre-teens, both healthy, help establish something that the book skirts: that Marian’s illness was not ever-present, but rather something that came and went. The novel also puts more distance in age between the two girls, while the series makes them seem more like peers.
When it comes to the mother character, the series makes it clearer earlier on that Adora is not just a fragile flower; there is anger boiling below the surface, which Camille is capable of provoking. Amma—Adora’s other daughter and Camille’s half-sister—is portrayed as slightly older in the series (in keeping with the general up-aging of the family), as well as with an overall more empathetic character. Rather than terrorizing Camille at the outset, she befriends her early on, demonstrating that they are alike in the sense that they both refuse to be controlled by Adora—Amma just does a better job of hiding her double life.
Perhaps the biggest shift from book to series in the premiere is the way it engages with Camille’s memories of her sister Marian’s funeral. While in the book we get snippets of memories, in the series the depiction is viscerally detailed, from Marian’s dying moments to Camille approaching her small casket and trying to vigorously rub the pink lipstick from the dead girl’s lips, and being dragged away. Overall, what we get from this episode is an enhanced understanding of the relationship between the two girls, which gives greater context to why Camille is such a mess as an adult, almost two decades later.
Episode 2: “Dirt” (Air date: July 15)
In this episode, we get to know more about the murders, as well as about secondary characters in a way that expands upon their roles in the book. Adora’s husband, Alan, becomes more dynamic: Music becomes a marker of his onscreen character; he is the pianist at Natalie Keene’s funeral after her body is found, and also has an impressive speaker setup on the ground floor of the family home. We also meet the Nash family, whose daughter, Ann, was killed a year before the most recent murder, and find all the kids slightly older than they are in the book.
We also see Camille sneak into Natalie Keene’s bedroom after her funeral, where she finds a spider in a jar and brings it outdoors to release into the wild, at which point she meets Natalie’s father, a series of events that was not in the novel. Calls between Camille and her editor, Curry, and his wife, Aileen, are more intimate than in the novel; they seem invested in Camille in a way that feels very parental, and Aileen is clearly concerned that Curry has pushed Camille to do something she wasn’t ready to do.
But the biggest shifts from the novel in this episode have to do with Detective Richard Willis as well as Camille’s behavior. When Richard finds out from the coroner that the girls’ teeth were removed with household pliers after their death, he decides he needs to understand how hard it would be to do that and acquires a pig head to bring home so he can try it out himself—a scene that’s missing from the book, but adds a new layer of disturbing detail to the story. As for Camille: Though in the novel she is largely portrayed as being in recovery from her self-harm behavior—cutting, which we now understand is alluded to in the book and show’s title—in this episode she acquires a travel sewing kit at the local gas station and keeps it at the ready. In the final moments of the show, she puts the needle to use in a way that might make even the least squeamish of viewers feel compelled to look away.
Episode 3: "Fix" (Air date: July 22)
Unlike the novel, we get to witness Camille and Alice, her roomate at the psychiatric center, build their relationship in the third episode. In a sequence of scenes, Camille helps Alice put on lipstick in the bathroom and the two of them talk about their cutting behavior. What’s clear is that Camille treats Alice like a surrogate younger sister. But where the series really leaps from the novel is when Alice commits suicide. As viewers, we find out that Alice kills herself by drinking Drain-O, which prompts Camille to cut herself once more, scrawling jagged letters — FIX — down her forearm until orderlies carry her out of the room.
In the series, the connection between Vickery and Richard, the detective, is more solid than the book. The struggle between the two is apparent: Vickery thinks it’s a Mexican trucker who must have killed the girls, while Richard insists that there’s something else at play. On the other hand, the relationship between Richard and Camille is more combative. Though, there’s definitely an attraction there, it’s played down. Richard seems annoyed that Camille is stirring up trouble and playing by her own set of rules—until the night they meet at the bar, that is, and wind up drinking outside in the moonlight. Amma interrupts, unlike in the novel, and there’s nothing physical between Richard and Camille at this point.
Just like the book, John Keene’s girlfriend, Ashleigh, sets up the meeting between Camille and John. It’s important to point out that John isn’t presented in the same way as he is in the novel. In the book, he’s described as being beautiful in an almost otherworldly, androgynous way. However, he’s a little more all-American (blonde hair, broadly handsome) in the show. His girlfriend is also less scheming in the series, and is more concerned about John than seeing her name in the paper.
Another key difference between the book and show is that when Camille follows Amma out to the slaughterhouse, Amma sees Camille through the window. Later, Adora has a frank conversation with Amma about how Camille is not someone to idolize, which doesn’t appear in the book. In the end, it becomes apparent that Adora is the one pulling the strings.
Episode 4: “Ripe” (Air date: July 29)
At the beginning of the episode, it’s pretty obvious a scene’s been added to the series: We see Camille, long enough after Marian has died that her hair is grown long, she’s abandoned her tomboyish looks and donned a cheerleading uniform. Pausing in Marian’s bedroom while Adora can be heard weeping down the hall, Camille peers at her sister’s things before bounding down the stairs. When she gets to the bottom, Alan beckons her into the kitchen. He and Gayla are waiting for her — with a birthday cake. Camille brushes them both off and runs out the door.
One of the biggest departures from the novel is the development of secondary characters, like Alan and Gayla, who all but disappear into the text but come much more clearly to life in the series. It actually bugged me during the book that Alan was this throwaway character, who hardly seemed aware of his role in his wife’s debauchery, his daughter’s death, and his younger daughter’s shenanigans about town. On the show, his disconnectedness is becoming increasingly important as the episodes go on.
When Camille finds Amma and her friends upstairs, about to go smoke pot behind the stables, they’re scrolling through Instagram and cackling at memes of “John Keene: baby killer," a subtle modernization that was necessary for a TV show airing in 2018. Speaking of John: In the series, he has a job at the slaughterhouse, which he gets fired from as suspicion grows that he’s behind the murders.
But the series presents another side of John, too: As the surviving child, he’s left to take care of his mother. He makes sure she showers and eats, and he takes care of his sister’s spider collection. When he can’t find the tarantula, he’s confused — and clearly worried about where it’s went.
Another addition to the series: There’s an upcoming pageant in Wind Gap to memorialize Civil Wartime events in the town. Amma plays the leading lady and rewrites the show to reflect that a women’s militia rose up to defend the land. When her teacher, Mr. Lacey, objects, she coyly comes onto him. Alan notices and seems to suspect that there’s something between Vickery and Adora, and, at the very least, he’s upset with her for not acknowledging his grief for Marian. For the first time, Alan acknowledges that Adora’s been too hard on Camille — not everything can be the oldest daughter’s fault, he tells her.
More new subplots abound: Brief scenes reveal that Curry is undergoing chemotherapy; we see sweet moments between Amma and Adora — and Camille’s jealousy of the love between them. Richard reveals to Camille that before he decided to be a cop he wanted to be a veterinarian. Chief Vickery visits Adora and asks her to cancel the town pageant; he also tells her he wants to talk about her daughters. “One of them is dangerous, and the other one is in danger,” he says.
Also, that moment in the woods where Richard and Camille hook up has arrived … except it’s not quite what readers might be expecting. When he goes to kiss her, she avoids it, unzipping her pants and instructing him to touch her instead. When she orgasms, we see her about to bite him, hard, on the shoulder.
We also get a crucial clue in this episode, about how Amma was friends with Natalie and Ann, and the little trio used to play in the shed in the woods together. Camille assumes the worst — that Amma could be next.
Episode 5: "Closer" (Air date: August 5)
Prepare for a lot of this episode to be different from the novel, since we’ve officially reached the day of the pageant, which wasn’t in the book at all. Richard and Vickery are at odds about whether or not it should happen; Camille wants no part of it but helps Amma prep for the play. Adora is 10 types of keyed up, as the show gets on the road. Camille also winds up confronting Amma about having been friends with Ann and Natalie, which puts her on the defensive; then, when Amma sees Camille’s latest newspaper story on her cell phone, the sisters are suddenly at odds again.
And then there’s the Adora, Amma, and Camille shopping outing, which does happen in the novel, though not in prep for the pageant. This time, it’s the saleswoman, not Adora, who pushes Camille to try on skin-baring dresses; in the dressing room, Adora commands that she come out, and when she does it seems like — unlike in the novel — this may be the first time her mother has ever been confronted with how extensive her self-harm is (we see scars from Camille’s collarbone to her ankles). Little sister Amma sees, too, and is shocked. Before Adora turns away, she tells Camille that she’s like her father in that they are both motivated by pure spite. By the time they get back to the house, Camille is ready to pack her bags and go. But Amma comes to find her, asks her to stay, and shares a pretty long-sleeved dress with her, and Camille reconsiders — especially when she sees Richard roaming around.
But the day’s drama continues. Ann’s dad, Bob, and Richard have it out at the pageant, when John Keene shows up, and Bob wonders whether or not justice will ever be served. And speaking of justice unserved: Amma’s history teacher turns out to be one of the football players who sexually assaulted Camille when she was a teenager.
There’s also a scene added between Richard and Adora: She insists on giving him a tour of the house and then grills him on his relationship with Camille. For the first time, he gets a look at what Camille’s childhood would have been like. They reunite thereafter, and the pageant begins. When it’s winding down, Bob Nash attacks John Keene, and during the distraction Amma sneaks off into the woods. Adora is beside herself — as is Camille, who goes to find her, and knows exactly where to look: the cabin in the woods.
After Camille brings Amma home safe, Adora asks her to go have a drink on the porch. They have a heart to heart, and it actually seems to be a soft moment between them at first. But then, just as in the novel, Adora tells Camille that she never loved her. But in the series, she gives a reason: It’s because Camille, again like her father, is incapable of getting close to anyone. That sends Camille straight to Richard’s hotel — almost as if she has to prove to herself that her mom's assessment is wrong. They have sex. She never takes off her clothes.
Episode 6: "Cherry" (Air date: August 12)
The morning after her night with Richard, Camille heads back to the house in a better mood. She runs into Adora in the kitchen, who is on her way out the door; Adora sees Camille eating cherry pie and comments that it’s the first time she’s seen her hungry since she got there—and then gives her a knowing smile. The cherries connect to a memory, of Camille entering the kitchen in her red cheerleading uniform for the very first time, and Adora looking at her like she’s all tarted up.
Meanwhile, Richard is out cruising around and stops at the crime scene where Natalie was found. Adora’s old friend Jackie is there, “paying her respects,” but she also points out that the flowers left on the memorial look like something a child would have put there. It’s clear she thinks she knows what’s happening in Wind Gap. Then Richard get a call that definitely doesn’t align to the book: A child’s bicycle has been dredged from a pond on the slaughterhouse property. Bob Nash, who has been called to the scene, identifies that the bike belonged to Ann.
Camille doesn’t yet know this is going on when she agrees to a date with Richard, but at the end of the call he tells her the bike was found, thanks to Adora. Camille is furious when she gets home that Adora didn’t tell her. They have a terse exchange, after which Adora asks Alan to tell Camille that she’s no longer welcome in the house.
Despite whatever is going on between them, Richard — just like in the book — is starting to look into Camille’s past. But unlike in the book, we get to watch him do it: He drives to the institution where she was being treated for her cutting disorder and starts poking around into her records. When he returns to town, he goes straight to the bar. He finds Jackie there, and after a couple rounds of drinks he asks he why Camille would have been hurting herself.
Meanwhile, via a phone call between Camille and her editor Curry, we get to know his wife, Aileen, for the first time ever — book or series. She and Camille are obviously warm familiars, and Aileen feels as much like a mother figure as Curry does like the father Camille has never known. It almost makes it worse when Camille goes downstairs and Alan calls her over to talk, just to tell her she’s going to have to go if she doesn’t stop upsetting Adora. The exchange is exactly like it is in the book, including an upsetting memory of Adora’s own childhood.
Camille exits the conversation by climbing into a car with a girlfriend who whisks her away to an actual pity party, where all her high school friends are crying about the small problems they face in their own lives. But she also runs into Amma’s history teacher, who is now married to one of those women. He apologizes for what he did to her, along with the other boys, that day in the woods. She won’t even acknowledge that it happened, and tells him if he’s still thinking about it, then they “both got fucked.” Camille exits again, this time hitching a ride with a friend to the liquor store.
Back at the house, Adora confronts Alan about not having taken care of Camille leaving. He’s resistant to it, rocking in his chair with a whiskey and Frank Sinatra playing in the background. One thing that’s much more prevalent in the series is the fact that there is a dynamic of struggle in their relationship; it’s clear that Alan is under pressure, and on the verge of boiling over.
Leaving the liquor store, Camille runs into Amma and her friends. As in the book, they talk her into joining them at a house party, where Camille ends up taking drugs, and she and Amma roller skate home. The dreamy sequence is followed by another departure from the book: Richard is sitting at the greasy spoon diner having a meal when Vickery strolls in, having just watched Amma and Camille roll by. He gleefully tells Richard that his days in Wind Gap are numbered: A worker at the slaughterhouse has identified John Keene as the person who threw the bike into the pond — so now the case is nearly solved.
Amma and Camille take off their roller skates and have a heart-to-heart on the front lawn. Amma tells her she loves her, that she thinks she’s her soulmate; they grab hands and spin around and around in circles. But as they’re spinning Camille starts to see the dead girls who came before: Her roommate, Alice; Ann Nash. She lets go and they both fall to the ground. The sisters wind up in Camille’s room where Amma speaks the most chilling question of the novel: “Do you ever feel like bad things are going to happen to you, and you just have to wait?” But an even more frightening moment arrives when another character speaks the line that, in the book, belonged to Jackie. Right before Camille passes out, she catches a glimpse in the mirror: It’s Marian, kneeling on the floor, holding her hand. She says: “It’s not safe for you here.”
Episode 7: “Falling” (Air date: August 19)
The next morning, Camille wakes up and, like in the novel, Adora has stripped her down and changed her clothes — she wants to take care of her, but Camille won’t allow it. She’s leaving the house for work but stops in Amma’s room, when she finds out that John Keene is being arrested. The police show up at the pool house where John has been staying; his girlfriend, Ashleigh, at first tries to protect him but starts talking when the police tell her she’ll be a town hero if she helps them find him.
In another part of town, Richard is trying to dig into a different angle: He’s at the hospital, and he’s gone looking for the nurse who was on duty when Marian used to be treated, and wrote a complaint in the documentation about Adora. Beverly tells him that Marian was often suspected of having different illnesses, but there was never a final diagnoses. But she thought something else was going on: that Adora had Munchausen syndrome by proxy, and that she was hurting Marian so that she could take care of her, and be seen as the hero.
Meanwhile, Camille heads out to look for John Keene herself and winds up finding him. He’s out having a final drink before he gets arrested, and he seems potentially even a little suicidal. He tells Camille that when they found his sister, she had her fingernails painted; Natalie wouldn’t ever have painted her fingernails. He tells her he didn’t kill his sister and she believes him. On the way out they’re laughing. Then he asks her to prove she’s not already dead.
Back at the house, Adora is trying to “take care” of Amma, but Amma tells her she doesn’t need medicine because she’s not really sick. Adora gets angry and bullies Amma into taking the medicine, which we know now isn’t really medicine. (Not so far away, Richard is going through Amma’s records. At one point, Adora had Amma fitted with a feeding tube.) When Adora is downstairs, Amma manages to sneak out of her bedroom. She goes into Camille’s room where she finds the research file, which contains photos of the dead girls.
Camille takes John to a hotel to sober up a little bit before he turns himself in to the police. He asks her if he can see her scars and reads them. It’s the first time she feels like she’s being seen by someone and doesn’t have to hide. He strips too, and eventually they have sex, like in the novel (though slightly out of sequence). They’re laying there afterwards, talking, when all of a sudden Camille gets a sense that they are about to get caught — and they do. Vickery and Richard bust in and find them both, half-naked.
Vickery arrests John but Richard stays behind to talk to Camille. He tells her he’s been investigating her for awhile now, and he knows exactly who she is: a drunk and a slut, nothing special. We don’t get this end note on their relationship in the novel, which only says that Richard is disgusted by her scars. But when he leaves the hotel in the series, it seems like he still thinks that they’ve arrested the right man.
After that, Camille heads to Jackie’s. She confronts Jackie about Marian’s medical files, and makes the point that Jackie had requested information about Marian’s medical files, over and over — and always been denied. In the novel, Jackie makes some allusions to what happened; in the series, it’s much more explicit. Jackie seems to know what Adora was doing all along. And she also tells Camille that Marian was cremated, not buried. There will be no way to find out what happened. Camille realizes that Jackie always knew what Adora was doing to the girls, and never did anything.
Camille runs out the door and calls Curry’s house and gets Aileen on the line: She tells them that Adora is the murderer. Back at the house, Amma is vomiting. Downstairs, Alan is looking back on his life, thinking about the daughter he lost, the one that is sick, and how he was never able to protect any of the girls from his wife.
WATCH: The Relevance of Sharp Objects Today
Episode 8: “Milk” (Air date: August 26)
At the beginning, Camille comes back to the house, where Alan, Amma, and Adora are having dinner. Amma is still sick, but they’re all celebrating the fact that John Keene has been arrested for the murders of the girls. Camille can tell that Amma has been drugged — she’s dressed up like Persephone, the Greek goddess who is married to Hades but spends half the year in the land of the living, with her mother. Camille asks Adora if she can take her half-sister back to St. Louis with her for awhile. Adora is suspicious that the girls are scheming. Camille ultimately falls ill at the table, collapsing into Adora’s arms, finally giving into her mother and being the kind of daughter she always wanted her to be: a sick one.
The fascinating part about the television version of these events is that you get such a clearer sense of how much Camille wants to be able to let her mom take care of her. Her sense of conflict in the book is made clear. But it’s more painful when Amy Adams brings it to life onscreen. When she gives in to Adora, it looks like a relief. It also finally makes the cutting make full sense: Camille hurt herself because she wanted her mother’s attention. But she hurt herself in a way that would keep her mother away from her.
Back down at the police station, Richard and Vickery are interrogating John. Unlike in the book, it seems like Richard actually thinks that John did it. When they take a break, Vickery tells Richard that he’s sorry about what happened with Camille, and confesses that she’s a lot like Adora in the sense that both women want a lot of attention. Suddenly, it starts to seem possible to Richard that he’s got the murders all wrong. After that, Vickery goes to the barber to get a shave and runs into Alan, who leaves in a huff after intimating that there’s something too familiar between Adora and Vickery. It never comes to a head in the book, and it’s satisfying to see it said plainly that Alan is jealous.
When he gets back to the house, Alan finds Adora in the kitchen, mixing stuff up on the stove. He seems to know what’s going on. “Don’t go overboard,” he says, toeing the line between admitting that he knows and not letting on. Upstairs, Amma has crept into Camille’s room, and Camille tells her to go get Richard and tell him what Adora has done to her. Amma tries to sneak out, but she’s intercepted by Alan, who tells her that it’s not the time for her to step in and try to help her sister.
Upstairs, Adora is telling Camille the story of how her own mother rejected her. It would be touching were it not for the fact that the whole time Adora is spoon feeding her poison. Adora leaves and for a second it seems possible that Camille will die by drowning in the tub. But then she has this sudden moment of strength and pulls herself out of the water — conveniently at the exact time that Richard has come to the door looking for her. Alan intercepts once again, telling Richard that Camille is out with girlfriends, but it seems like Richard knows something strange is happening: He keeps calling her phone and it’s going straight to voicemail.
Camille manages to pull herself out of the bathroom and comes across Amma, who she thought she had saved, but who is sitting on the floor in her room, apparently having elected to stay their mother’s good girl no matter what it takes. She collapses on the bathroom floor. But then red and blue lights begin to flash in the windows: The police have arrived, along with Curry, who — unlike in the novel — comes down to figure out what’s going on with Camille himself.
Amma and Camille are moved to the hospital, where Richard comes to break the news about all the ways that Adora has poisoned them both. After that, Amma comes to live with Camille in St. Louis. She makes friends. Her life starts to look more normal. Camille is clearly happy to have her sister under her wing. But she also takes her to see Adora in jail, where Amma and their mother talk through the glass while Camille waits on the other side of the door. They are still thick as thieves.
All the while, Camille is working on a story about everything that happened with her mom, and why she’s chosen to care for Amma. Curry reads it out loud, and loves it. That same night, Camille and Amma, and Amma’s new friend, all have dinner with Curry and his wife. What becomes clear over the course of dinner is that Amma is jealous of her new friend, and she doesn’t want anyone to compete with Camille’s affection. That night, Camille tucks Amma into bed, and Amma asks if Camille wishes she were a writer, too. Camille responds by telling her that she just wants her to be happy. The next morning, her friend, Mae, is nowhere to be found. Mae’s mom comes to Camille’s door looking for her, and tells Camille that the girls have had their first fight.
Then Camille finds the dollhouse bedspread, that Mae and Amma have been working on together, in the trash. She picks it out and heads to the dollhouse, and that’s when she sees it: a tooth, tucked beneath the bed of Adora’s miniature bedroom. When she looks closer she realizes that the entire floor is made of teeth. That’s when Amma walks into the room and knows that Camille has found out her secret. “Don’t tell mama,” she says, looking not quite afraid, but a little excited.