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Trigger warning: Sexual assault, abuse, gun violence. Book-to-film adaptations have many challenges that could be forgotten in the world of miniseries domination: everything has to move at a more rapid pace; Easter eggs get dropped; storylines get cut entirely. Netflix's new hit movie, the adaptation of the 2015 Jessica Knoll novel Luckiest Girl Alive, deals with several of these dilemmas while also bringing a story about the psychological aftermath of sexual assault and gun violence to the small screen. Knoll herself wrote the screenplay for the film, which stars Mila Kunis as Ani FaNelli, a magazine editor and mass-shooting survivor who delves into the secrets of her past while participating in a documentary, weeks before her wedding to WASP dreamboat Luke Harrison (Finn Wittrock).
Fans of the original novel (myself included) were rocked by the sardonic, brutally-honest story of the Bradley School, as the book version of Luckiest Girl Alive parsed out details little by little until we were flipping through the pages at light speed, refusing sleep until we finished the ride. With the movie, Knoll had to present a plot twist from seven years ago in a novel way, while also updating a story that had some admittedly dated details for the 2022 viewer. Read on to learn the differences between the 2015 novel and the 2022 film, and why both are worth experiencing.
Ani was all in on the documentary in the book.
The biggest difference between the book's treatment of the documentary and the movie's is that we learn what the documentary is about very quickly. In the book, we only know that a tragic incident happened when Ani was in school; the details of the shooting aren't mentioned at all until the high school timeline catches up to the day. It was a huge twist when the book first came out (2015 me couldn't put the book down), but now that it's a seven-year-old surprise, it makes sense to reveal the shooting from the beginning.
As for Ani's participation, the movie's version of the editor is very nervous about it, having to be convinced by the director Aaron, her best friend Nell, and a much more supportive Luke (more on that later). In the book, she's keen to participate from the beginning, wanting a chance to clear her name on the mysterious incident (we only learn after the reveal that she was investigated as a possible accomplice).
Ani's teenage fall from grace took longer in the book (and she didn't know Ben).
Condensing a 338-page book into a two-hour movie means that many of the events need to be cut down to its essentials or trimmed completely. In the present-day timeline, most of the changes come from selecting specific wedding-planning rituals and bringing Ani's biting inner monologue into the scenes as dialogue. (The conversation with Nell at the dress boutique does a great job explaining Ani's thoughts about the security she gets from dating Luke.) The biggest changes and cuts come in the high school storyline, where the time between Ani first semester and the aftermath of the shooting have to be condensed.
In the book, we spend much more time getting to know Ani as a kid. The film skips over her backstory as a Catholic school girl who got soft-expelled for pot, as well as the interactions with her parents (her dad isn't even mentioned). The aftermath of her assault is also different; she tries to remain friends with the popular group and is physically assaulted by Dean a second time at a different party. That night is when she runs into Mr. Larson. Also, in the book Dean convinces Ani to deny everything to the headmaster, so that uncomfortable conversation was added to the film (showing how unfortunately victims are often blamed for their own assault).
Arthur and Ani had more time to bond in the book (and she never met Ben).
The book's Bradley timeline also shows more of Ani and Arthur's friendship after she's ostracized by Dean's group. They made a routine of hanging out at Arthur's house, smoking and defacing pictures of their tormentors in the middle school yearbook. In these scenes, we get hints of the future assault; Arthur tells Ani the stories of Ben's self-harm and his own history with Dean. He even shows Ani the rifle he later uses at the school; rather than Ani briefly holding the rifle during the attack, she touches it and gets her fingerprints on the gun ahead of time.
While the book has a major aftermath plot where Ani is accused of being an accomplice in the shooting, with the 14-year-old even being questioned by the police multiple times, that storyline is given less importance in the movie. The film weighs the assault more heavily instead, with Ani's decision on whether to participate in the documentary hinging on whether she plans to go public with the assault. Part of the change could be an effect of the shooting being a huge twist in the book; the increased Arthur and Ani scenes leave a trail of breadcrumbs to follow hinting toward the attack.
In addition to Ani and Arthur's friendship getting more time to build in the book, there's also more of an air of mystery around Ben, since he doesn't go to the school and Ani doesn't meet him until the attack. There's also a weight brought to the present timeline. In both the book and the movie, Ani and Arthur's friendship ends with a fight over his expulsion and her decision not the prosecute Dean, but she also steals a very important item during their fight: a picture of Arthur and his estranged dad in a frame covered in seashells.
Mr. Larson and Ani had more interactions in the present day.
While Ani and Mr. Larson only reunited at the client dinner in the film, they had much more present-day interaction in the book. After the dinner, Ani meets with him to discuss the documentary, and later meets up with him again during the shooting, when they break into Bradley to see the school. (The documentary crew wasn't allowed to film inside in the book.) She leans on Larson for support, and they even cross the line and briefly kiss inside Bradley. He later redraws the boundary and a rejected Ani lashes out, with them severing ties again after a fight.
The romantic subplot with Larson was one of the book storylines that didn't entirely sit right even at the time, even though 2015 was a time where teacher-student relationships were more romanticized (see Pretty Little Liars). Taking it out was a necessary update, even though the movie is still set in 2015 (hence all the Hilary mentions).
Dean's appearance in the documentary was originally a surprise.
In keeping with the book's twist-filled nature, Ani doesn't know that Dean will be participating in the documentary until filming has started. Aaron asks her if they'll film together with little notice, saying that Dean wants to apologize for alleging that Ani planned the shooting with Arthur and Ben. There was no mention of the assault until Ani confronted Dean about it on camera; Aaron didn't even know about the assault until Ani confronted Dean during filming.
Dean then asks the crew to stop filming and give them space, with the following conversation playing out similarly to the scene at Dean's book signing in the film. Dean still offers to apologize and clear Ani's name on camera in exchange for Ani not mentioning the assault, saying straight out that his public image would suffer. In the book, Ani gets him to admit that he, Liam, and Peyton raped her, and that private admission is enough. She then goes along with the plan and films the scene without mentioning the assault.
This is the first of the film ending's big changes, and as a book fan I appreciate that Ani's given more agency by recording the conversation. Even if movie Ani decided not to go public, I can imagine her keeping that recording as a reminder to herself if ever Dean or someone else involved later tried to gaslight her again about the incident. (Also, New York is a one-party consent state, meaning as long as Ani consented to it, recording the conversation was legal.)
Luke is less supportive in the book (and Ani had more doubts about the marriage).
Luke comes off way better in the film than in the book. While both have their blindspots, book Luke is outright mean, with Ani's narration including flashbacks to times where he was insensitive and an outright bully during their relationship (to a college peer rather than to her, but still) He's also completely unsupportive of Ani doing the documentary, minimizing Ani's pain and saying that he wishes she would "move on from the past" and "get over high school."
We also get a running narrative of Ani questioning the marriage throughout the novel, as they go through wedding planning and conversations with Luke's family (including Hallsy, who is his cousin in the book). Her reasons to go with the marriage focus on the safety that Luke's status and wealth would bring her, as well as the name change, similarly to the dress-shopping conversation. However, she slowly thinks less and less of Luke as a person, and her pursuit of Mr. Larson also seems like a mode of self-sabotage.
Ani didn't write an exposé in the book (and she and Luke didn't break up over it).
While the book also ended with Ani and Luke breaking up, Knoll updated the circumstances for the novel. The couple's demise instead stems from the picture of Arthur and his father that Ani stole back before the shooting. As part of the book's documentary, Ani met with Arthur's mother, during which she said she had the picture and promised to bring it back. When Ani gets back home, she looks for the picture, but she instead finds a single seashell that broke off the frame.
For their rehearsal dinner fight, Ani confronts Luke about the missing picture rather than an article. He explains that his friend broke the frame while she was away filming and he threw the whole thing away, picture and all. It's the last straw for Ani, who made the decision to leave him then, knowing that he would never respect her past or the full scope of her.
In the aftermath, she still moves in with Nell, but takes a higher-paying job at another women's magazine rather than move to the Times with LoLo. She also has to film again for the documentary, since she had introduced herself as Ani Harrison. That's when Aaron tells her that she and Dean were still miked during their private conversation about the assault. They were recorded. The book ends with Ani deciding to talk about the assault, and introducing herself as TifAni Fanelli.
Really, the essence of the ending is still there, with Ani realizing that Luke couldn't accept her past and that he only loved a role that she played. The new ending with the exposé gives Ani a more active decision in ending the marriage and going public. She also has to decide whether to leave a nicer, more supportive Luke than the book, but still a man whose views didn't align with her own and who wanted to get closure on her past and ignore it. That kind of pain doesn't come with closure. So Ani chose herself, in an updated way that still honored the original novel.
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