Caution: potential spoilers ahead for ‘The Girl on the Train’.
The recent Netflix release The Girl on the Train is an official adaptation of Paula Hawkins’s novel of the same name. The bestseller revolved around a concept introduced in a play in 1938 that was made widely known by movie adaptations in 1940 and 1944.
Patrick Hamilton’s Gas Light gave the English vocabulary a ready shorthand term to describe psychological damage caused by sustained emotional manipulation and deception. The word “gaslighting” is now commonly used to refer to a form of abuse that makes the targets party to their own destruction. Gaslighting is a state especially familiar to women, who are often told by the men in their lives that they don’t know or mean what they say and are being needlessly anxious or paranoid.
By denying women their intelligence and eroding their confidence and self-belief, some men seek to put them in the same position as the villain in Hamilton’s Gas Light, who works on driving his wife insane in order to steal a set of jewels.
The heroine of Gas Light is trapped in a web of lies dexterously woven by her spouse. Bella has begun to doubt her short-term memory and her very sanity. She cannot remember where she has put things, is gripped by an unexplained anxiety, and avoids company. When the gas light in her bedroom mysteriously dims every night, she is told by her husband that she is imagining it. The gas light that waxes and wanes is an apt metaphor for her situation.
Paula Hawkins skillfully put gaslighting to use in a thriller revolving around crimes against women. Through three unreliable female narrators and a non-linear plot, Hawkins brilliantly explored the ways in which gaslighting softens the brain and messes with memory and perception. An alcoholic divorcee who gets embroiled in the case of a missing woman achieves a breakthrough only when she realises that she has been deceived by her husband for years, causing her to stop trusting her instincts.
In 2016, before the Hindi movie, directed by Ribhu Dasgupta and starring Parineeti Chopra, the novel inspired a Hollywood production. But The Girl on the Train, starring Emily Blunt, was unable to transport the emotional cadences of Hawkins’s prose and the complicated timeline onto the screen. The Hindi version is an even greater misfire, especially because it ignores the novel’s strong feminist thrust.
Hamilton’s Gas Light remains a handy tool for films revolving around domestic peril. In such productions, the partner – usually the husband – is the least trustworthy. Marriage ushers in crime and possible death, rather than love and stability. The house itself is a potential crime scene, with rooms that conceal secrets and objects heaving with unsavoury implications.
In the first movie adaptation of Gas Light, items such as a brooch and a painting are used to convince the heroine that she is losing her mind. The British production Gaslight, directed by Thorold Dickinson, arrived two years after the play was premiered. The movie stays mostly faithful to the play, retaining an air of staginess.
Bella is already heading towards the edge when we first meet her. Her husband Paul is openly sinister, and there is little doubt that the hands of the faceless strangler we see in the opening scene belong to him.
Paul was played by Anton Walbrook, whose foreign origins – he was born Adolf Wohlbruck in Austria – added an extra layer of danger to Bella’s situation. Walbrook’s faintly accented English and Continental looks are contrasted with Bella’s English ways and the kindly former policeman, who suspects that something is not quite right.
A whiff of foreignness similarly clings to the husband, played by the French-born Charles Boyer, in the Hollywood version. The 1944 film Gaslight was directed by George Cukor and produced by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. This Gaslight shone with glossier production values, more fluid camerawork and a cast led by movie star Ingrid Bergman.
The second film diverges considerably from the play. Among its devices is to maintain an air of suspense about the husband’s real identity. In Italy, Bergman’s Paula meets and marries Gregory (Boyer), a suave and loving man whose motives are revealed only much later.
Gregory is actually Sergis Bauer who, like Paul in the previous movie, has a mild accent and a Continental air. He has a thing for precious stones and marvels at the Kohinoor diamond, among others, during a visit to the Tower of London.
Among the additions is a nosy neighbour (May Whitty), who helps Scotland Yard detective Brian (Joseph Cotten) in solving a 10-year-old case of murder and missing jewellery. The acclaimed British actor Angela Lansbury, then only 17 and in her first movie role, plays the maid with whom Gregory openly flirts.
In some respects, the 1944 film fares better than its predecessor. Filled with sinister shadows and moments of foreshadowing, the Hollywood Gaslight moved away from the source material’s stage origins. The MGM studio appeared to have thought so too. In an act that can only be described as a form of violence, MGM attempted to destroy all prints of the 1940 film. What else is the effort to erase any memory of the first movie and deny its very existence but a manifestation of gaslighting?
Fortunately, this story had a happy Hollywood-style ending. The 1940 Gaslight wasn’t entirely snuffed out. Surviving prints have since been restored by the British Film Institute.
Both movies have their merits. Anton Walbrook is a far more compelling villain. Paul’s treatment of Bella and contempt for his maid suggest misogyny that goes beyond a lust for jewels. In the 1944 production, Ingrid Bergman suffers marvelously as Paula. The stringing out of Paula’s predicament creates greater empathy for her character (the luminous close-ups of Paula’s distressed face help too).
Paula is reduced to complete emotional dependence on Gregory. I don’t know what I do any more, you must be gentle with me and bear with me please, she pleads. Over 80 years after Hamilton’s play, his ideas echo beyond the stage and the screen and help us deepen our understanding of the complex nature of abuse.