The movie rights for the 2018 debut novel by A.J. Finn — a pen name selected by author and publishing industry vet Dan Mallory, in part, he’s said, for its readability on-screen — were sold to Fox 2000 at the same time William Morrow scooped up the manuscript for $2 million in a two-book deal, following an eight-way bidding war. Then the trope-faithful tale, about an agoraphobic, alcoholic trauma victim who believes she’s witnessed a crime in a neighboring house, became a bestseller out of the gate. The film adaptation recruited a trio of heavy hitters (Amy Adams, Julianne Moore and Gary Oldman) as stars, was filmed in New York last year and scored an awards season release date in October 2019. Smooth sailing. But reports last month revealed that test audiences at early screenings were “confused,” as reshoots were scheduled and the release got bumped to some not so Oscar-baity date next year.
Some might say the project was cursed from the jump, after Mallory was exposed, in a New Yorker article last February, to have perpetrated a slew of untruths — including an inoperable brain tumor and two doctorate degrees — to elicit good will among colleagues and climb the ranks in publishing. Having been an unreliable narrator in his own life — later claiming it had all been a function of “delusional thoughts” and “morbid obsessions” brought on by bipolar II disorder — he was well-equipped to conjure “Window’s” Anna Fox, a narrator prone to her own delusions (like the conversations she has with her dead husband and daughter), while also fixating on her neighbor’s murder.
Then again, whether he actually conjured Anna or not has been up for debate, after critics pointed out uncanny similarities to plots and protagonists that came before — not just “Rear Window” or “Gaslight,” which Mallory hat-tips throughout the novel in meta-noir fashion; but also the 2016 novel “Saving April,” about a housebound woman prone to panic attacks who spies on her new neighbors and witnesses a crime. “April” took place in a sprawling London suburb, not bustling modern-day Harlem, where Mallory set “Window.”
But then critics have further noted that Mallory — who, as one of his Ripleyesque put-ons, returned to New York from studying at Oxford with suddenly English-accented speech, favoring words like “keen” and “loo” — crafted an oddly quaint Manhattan that felt more like an English suburb, what with its residential courtyards and communal-minded neighbors.
“Window” also appeared to pull straight from the 1995 film “Copycat,” about an agoraphobic psychologist, just like Anna, who, also like Anna, whiles away her shut-in time playing online chess and chiming in on a chat forum, mixes anxiety meds with alcohol and is considered a fantasist nut by police.
But whatever material Mallory was drawing from, he still managed to write a propulsive, if hackneyed, thriller that a big studio deemed worthy of a starry cast and hefty budget.
So what, after all, could have made the film, which was trodding worn territory to begin with, so confounding to early audiences? Articles about the movie’s delay didn’t elaborate, and Fox 2000 president Elizabeth Gabler (who’s since left, following the studio’s merger with Disney) didn’t either, offering the Hollywood Reporter the obtuse statement, “We’re dealing with a complex novel.”
Certainly all psychological thrillers are complex. What made this one so hard to translate to the big screen? Anna’s tone, for one, could have certainly complicated things. She’s hardly the straightforward stress case. Though she feels helpless to change her debilitating mental state, and declares herself “dead but not gone, watching life surge forward around me, powerless to intervene,” she also seems not to have lost a shred of perspective. She’s self-aware, self-deprecating: “A freak to the neighbors,” she says, describing the perception of the person she’s become. “A joke to the cops. A special case to her doctor. A pity case to her physical therapist. A shut-in. No hero. No sleuth.”
She’s deeply depressed, yet consistently, wryly witty: “Ambitious language for a room with a toilet,” she riffs about the shade of blue, “Heavenly Rapture,” on the walls of her powder room. She suggests she’d like to join a neighbor’s book club instead of spying on it, to read “Jude the Obscure” along with them. “I’d say I found it rather obscure. We’d laugh.” When she meets her new teenage neighbor, Ethan, she listens to him describe his state of new-kid loneliness and quips, “I’d like to hug him. I won’t. ‘Local Recluse Fondles Neighbor Child.’ ”
She’s almost always drunk on merlot and woozy from antipsychotic meds — yet impressively clear-eyed when disseminating mental-health expertise to fellow agoraphobes in her online forum.
Such paradoxes might have made it hard for the Anna of the book to appear believable on-screen (then again, Amy Adams has a knack for nuance, as her six Oscar nominations could attest). But there’s also the matter of the narration itself.
So much of the book takes place in Anna’s head and is delivered as a conversation with the reader — a voice-over could do some heavy lifting on-screen, easy enough. Yet Mallory’s writing style is supremely specific, stacked with staccato wisps of sentences that I imagine only a few actors doing justice to: Kathleen Turner? Lauren Bacall (once upon a time)? A breathy, lush, deep-register voice that could describe meeting the sympathetic detective (“ ‘Here,’ he says, thumbing a card from his breast pocket, pressing it into my hand. I examine it. Flimsy stock.”); as well as the unsympathetic one: “Her voice is slight, girlish, a bad fit for the high-rise sweater, the . . . leather coat. . . . She is Bad Cop, no doubt about it.”
Anna’s obsessed with watching smoky noirs, and she narrates like she’s living in one. A popcorn flick that’s attempting to play with that tone, to appear as self-conscious as Anna is, could certainly leave audiences, well, “confused.”
Not that I really know what went wrong, as I wasn’t among those early viewers. I do know that Mallory wrote a book we’ve all read before, seen before — right down to the climax, where the real killer does that trite thing psychopaths in movies often do: inexplicably confess, in a long angry diatribe, every detail and motivation of their crimes to their next target — giving the new victim plentiful time to plan an escape.
If anything’s confusing, that is.
Rachel Rosenblit is a freelance writer and editor in New York.