This article contains spoilers about the novel Behind Her Eyes and its Netflix adaptation
If you thought the Netflix series Behind Her Eyes had an exasperating ending, you’re not alone. When British novelist Sarah Pinborough was shopping around the screen rights to her 2017 page-turner of the same name, some TV executives thought the story needed a more uplifting conclusion.
To spoil the divisive twist: the book follows a London receptionist named Louise, who becomes romantically entangled with her psychiatrist boss, David, while secretly befriending his enigmatic wife, Adele. But the psychological thriller turns out to be a stealth supernatural drama, and themes of envy, resentment and double lives take an unexpected turn when it's revealed that Louise and Adele have the ability to separate their souls from their bodies.
In fact, Adele is not Adele at all, but rather her former rehab companion Rob, who years ago used astral projection to swap bodies with her, dispose of the real Adele and take over her life. The novel concludes with Rob repeating the trick, as he seizes Louise's body, ruthlessly kills her (while she’s trapped in Adele’s body, if you're keeping track) and uses his new form to elope with an unwitting David.
So yes, it’s bleak – and strange.
Those TV executives thought it was too much. “They wanted a happier ending,” Pinborough says. “I think they wanted Louise to survive. You know, I get that. But yeah, that wasn’t going to happen.”
Instead, Pinborough sold the rights to British production company Left Bank Pictures, which envisioned a more loyal adaptation. Starring Simona Brown as Louise, Eve Hewson as Adele, Tom Bateman as David and Robert Aramayo as Rob, Behind Her Eyes was released as a six-part limited series in February on Netflix. Although the casting of Brown led to a reimagined Louise, and two of Rob’s dastardly deeds from the book were dropped, the series otherwise hews closely to the book’s narrative.
Speaking earlier this month over video chat from her London home, Pinborough discussed those changes from page to screen, the discourse around the ending and how she thinks some detractors misinterpret the plot's twists.
Q: So, they didn’t change the ending, but they did change other things. Some cast members, for example, don't quite match the characters in the book. How did you respond to that?
A: They're all so beautiful. Now I can’t see [the characters] any differently. In the book, Louise was definitely older than Adele, whereas now they're kind of similar ages. And obviously in the book, Louise was a dumpy blonde and we've now got this beautiful woman of colour. When I wrote the book, it was six, seven years ago, and I gave her very stereotypical female insecurities, like, “I’m a bit overweight, I drink too much, I smoke too much.” Whereas Simona is so gorgeous that they couldn’t have her worrying about her weight, so they just made her more insecure in her life, which I think worked really well. She really got the ditziness of Louise’s character and the wanting-to-please element.
Q: Were there any other changes from the novel that stuck out to you?
A: I’m very glad they didn’t kill the cat [as Rob does in the book], because when I was watching it the first time and we got to the cat, I was like, “Oh, my God, oh, my God – writing it is one thing, but I don’t want to watch the dead cat.” I think it would have been a step too far for the show. Actually, if I was writing it again, I probably would have taken that out. And I’m glad they took out that when Rob went into Adele’s body, she was pregnant [and he has an abortion]. I think that would have been really too dark for TV.
Q: I was going to ask about how the series, though still quite dark, softened the book’s edges with those decisions. So you agreed with them?
A: Oh, totally. Because we’re killing Louise – we've got the main character dying, which is quite a dark thing anyway. I think to then have an abortion would be too much, way too much. I tend to go to extremes when I'm writing. I tend to go, “I’ll put that in and see if my editor lets me keep it in.”
Q: The book’s ending created quite the stir back in 2017, and now you’ve seen that happen all over again with the reaction to the series. What has that experience been like?
A: I’ve got to say it was amazing. When the show landed, some of the British press were quite snobby about it and they were like, “Oh, this is ridiculous,” which is fine. But then to see the reactions – it was rolling and rolling and rolling on Twitter, and it was just making me smile. Even the people who hated it – I was like, “Get on here. You’re allowed to hate it. It’s fine.”
Q: Some of the people frustrated with the ending criticised it as just going for shock value. What’s your take on that?
A: I’m an ex-teacher, and I get very teacher-like when people say, “She just drew that out of nowhere.” And I'm just like, “No, go back and look at it again. There are clues. It’s all there!” [Laughs] So that’s the only thing that annoys me. I don’t mind if they expect it to be a straight crime thriller and then it’s not, because that's fine. But when they think [the twist] was just sort of added for shock value, then I think, “No, that was planned all along.” And there’s nothing wrong with a bit of a shock.
‘Behind Her Eyes’ by Sarah Pinborough. HarperCollins, £8.99
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