‘Sharp Objects’ Author Explains That Brutally Abrupt Ending
Sharp Objects, the riveting HBO miniseries starring Amy Adams as an alcoholic cutter returning to her Missouri hometown to report on a pair of child murders, was one of the TV highlights of the summer. Much of its creative success can be attributed to the work of Adams and the rest of the cast, especially Eliza Scanlen and Patricia Clarkson, and to director Jean-Marc Vallée’s hypnotic approach to merging the show’s past and present.
But a lot of credit also goes to the scripts by Marti Noxon, Gillian Flynn and others adapting Flynn’s 2006 debut novel, which offer twists, turns and brutal comments on the tragic relationship between Adams’ Camille and Clarkson’s overbearing mother Adora.
Spoilers for the finale, and the season as a whole, are coming up soon, I’m bleeding as fast as I can…
The finale stuck close to the plot of Flynn’s book while being presented in a different way, particularly at the very end. Camille and her cop lover Richard Willis (Chris Messina) independently figure out that Adora killed Camille’s sister Marian years ago through Munchausen syndrome by proxy — a compulsion to make her own child sick in order to feel needed. She nearly does the same to Camille before Willis and Camille’s editor Frank Curry (Miguel Sandoval) burst into the Crellin house to rescue Camille and Amma and arrest Adora for the deaths of Marian and the two recently murdered girls, Natalie and Ann.
In the aftermath, things seem to be settling into a peaceful, even happy ending where Camille brings Amma to live with her in St. Louis, and the half-siblings start to heal each other’s emotional wounds. But then Camille notices something amiss with Amma’s dollhouse, and inside finds one of the teeth that had been wrenched out of Natalie’s and Ann’s mouths. As Camille’s worldview begins to rapidly unravel with the knowledge that Amma was the killer, her kid sister appears in the doorway, begging in a half-whisper, “Don’t tell mama” — and we immediately jump into the closing credits, accompanied by the noisy guitar sound of Led Zeppelin’s “In the Evening.”
And then, as if we’re not already shaken up by how abruptly this all fell apart, the credits themselves are interrupted by a rapid-fire montage of a feral Amma assaulting the girls:
Viewers who stayed all the way through the end of the credits also got to see a glimpse of Amma as the story’s oft-mentioned Woman in White, lingering on the edge of the forest:
It’s an appropriately brutal and jarring way to conclude what had been an ugly story from the beginning. And unlike Flynn’s book, which continued for a bit after Camille’s discovery, it gives the viewer no time to really consider what’s happened before the story’s over.
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Last week, I spoke with Flynn about how the ending changed, why its most important details didn’t, what was up between Alan Crellin and Chief Vickery and a lot more.
We have to start with that ending and how abruptly we cut from the revelation that Amma killed the girls, to the Led Zeppelin song, to the credits. How did you and Marti and everyone decide that was how you wanted to wrap up the season?
That was mostly a Jean-Marc choice. It was his idea to have, right at the moment people are looking at each other to start theorizing about what happened, those quick shots of what exactly happened, and then that last final shot of Amma as the Woman in White. If you stay long enough; I don’t know if you saw that part.
I did, but that’s still a relatively new thing for television. The Marvel movies have trained audiences to watch through the credits, but outside of Westworld, TV doesn’t do much of this. Was there any concern that the audience might turn it off before getting to that?
Now that everyone watches TV differently, the idea is that you can go back. If it becomes a viral thing, like the different words [on Camille’s body] that people were looking for, you have an opportunity to go back and look for it a second time. You can hold the episodes on your DVR or on your devices and go back easily.
The book spends more time letting Camille and the reader absorb and contemplate Amma’s role in things. As the author, how did you feel about Jean-Marc’s choice to end things so abruptly after that’s revealed?
That was all of our choice. The only Jean-Marc part was the trippy Led Zeppelin cut. Books are just very different from film, and I had to respect how that was going to feel. There was a lot of discussion in the writers’ room about how much time we were going to have after Amma comes home with her, that there was going to be that extra twist. We wanted to preserve that moment but give enough time so that it does feel like the rug is being pulled out from under you. You want to give enough time where Amma and Camille are being like sisters so that it is that moment of incredible shock. We went around a lot about what was the correct amount of time to have the proper amount of gut-punching! Which I say with an evil laugh!
Because people who’ve read the book remember the ending so well, and those who haven’t could easily Google it, was there ever any discussion of changing it to maintain surprise?
Never once. My thought is, if you’ve read the books and you’ve committed to seeing a version of that book, I’m not interested in changing it just because you’ve read the book. For the most part, people would be outraged if we changed the endings. People who’ve read the book tend to be very, very loyal to that book, more than anything else I’ve written. If we changed the ending, they would rise up and storm my house. I would never want to abandon that just to treat the audience to a neat little surprise. I don’t change things just to offer a goose. I don’t think that’s how you make a good show. There was never any discussion of that.
For the benefit of people who didn’t read the book and have only that ending montage to go on: Adora was responsible for killing Marian with Munchausen by proxy, and was doing the same to the Natalie and Ann, but it’s Amma who went and killed them on her own?
She wasn’t necessarily doing Munchausen by proxy — she was tending to [Natalie and Ann], and that made Amma very angry. Amma is the one who feels like she’s made that sacrifice. She has allowed herself to be sickened by Adora, and therefore she feels like her treating any other girls is a deep violation of that contract. And I don’t blame her in her child mind logic. That made her angry, so she sociopathically chooses to kill the girls.
A question is asked late in the finale about how a tiny woman like Adora could have pulled out the teeth of those girls. Amma’s not exactly built like She-Hulk.
She also has friends with her. The back of the book does deal with that more. I don’t want to go too far into the logistics of what’s largely a feminist fairy tale, but I did consult on the physics of all this.
If someone were inspired by that ending to go back and rewatch the series looking for clues that Amma was the killer, what might they find?
She’s not leaving a trail of bread crumbs or anything, it’s more her watchfulness. I’m not sure we left deliberate clues. We left intentional emotional clues in the way that she acted: as she talks about Persephone at the dinner table, that’s her talking about her life and what’s going on with her, and when you see her interactions with Adora about the Munchausen’s. But we weren’t leaving procedural clues.
What was your thought process with regard to Camille being a largely passive, rather than active, participant in the story’s climax? Her call to Frank in the seventh episode gets him to come save her, but she’s incapacitated and unable to stop Adora, or even to get Amma to go for help.
Now that Curry was so close physically — we moved her from Chicago to St. Louis for other logistical reasons with the story — we didn’t believe that he wouldn’t get in the car after that phone call. He’s one of my all-time favorite supporting characters. I’ve always liked the idea of him being in Wind Gap. We ended up doing it that way with him, and with her finally sickening herself almost to death. To me, that felt very emotionally viable, that at that point, Camille had taken all the evidence into her system that she can possibly take, and her best friend comes to get her. It doesn’t bother me. Camille’s not an action girl. Camille has done something proactive by going to her mother in the first place, and it’s about her symbiotic relationship with her mother, that she had to finally succumb to her mother and put all that poison into her body to prove what her mother is. For me, that was enough. But we did have a lot of conversations about that.
There’s a recurring thread about tension between Alan and Chief Vickery, and the suggestion that it’s because something has gone on between the Chief and Adora. How much more do you know about that?
That is one of those weird, interesting things that grew to life in the writers room. We just kept liking the idea of exchanges between those characters. The more we talked about Adora growing up in this town, she had been there longer than Alan had, and had some flirtations and courtships, and what was she like growing up? That was a fun thing we enjoyed: that of course Adora would enjoy playing those two off of each other. We never decided anything in the room about picking sides, but I don’t personally believe Adora would have ever been with Vickery. She would’ve believed it was her lowering herself. They probably grew up in different classes. I’ve seen some people speculate that he’s Camille’s father. I can put that one to rest. But I think she’s always enjoyed flirting with him.
One of the finale’s bigger gut-punches is when Alan sends away Willis, knowing what’s happening to Camille upstairs. Until then, it’s been implied that Alan chooses not to know what the rest of his family is up to, but there, he’s an accomplice. How much did he ultimately know?
Again, I’m uncomfortable saying more. I can say what I think, but I do like the idea that it’s very clear that he knows what’s going on. How could he not? That’s another thing made stronger than what’s in the book. I’m glad we did it. We had conversations in the room: “Of course. He lives in the same house. How could he not know? Let’s make it a little more clear.” I’m glad we did it. It makes him less passive. He’s so passive throughout, and I like at the end, “Oh, no, you’re a bastard. I’ve been feeling sorry for you through so much of this show.” For me, watching it is a real gut twist. It’s one of the moments that makes me angriest at the show! “I’m feeling sorry for you, and you do this? Fuck you!” I love that my book has become this thing that can still make me this upset.
You’re getting upset, and he’s a character you created!
After 12 years, and in a new way. That’s pretty cool.
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