Frankly, it is a travesty that HBO’s Sharp Objects (2018) has not received more attention. Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée and based on the book by Gillian Flynn, the background plot of this series is a slow-burn mystery, crime thriller, and psychological thriller. It is possibly the only television adaptation of a novel that is better than its source material (sorry, Gillian). The general atmosphere is a cross between a Southern Gothic and a feminist story. However, its main angle is a detailed study of its protagonist, Camille Preaker. I may have a biased outlook, as I share too many of Camille’s own issues for comfort. Still, I truly believe that the series Sharp Objects perfects the character study. The series’ editing, cinematography, and acting all work to bolster its themes and plunge the viewer into the world of Camille Preaker.
A few warnings before we begin. I should offer a trigger warning for almost everything in the book. There are mentions of or depictions of alcohol abuse, self-harm, child abuse and neglect, rape, death, suicide, and murder. However, all of these subjects are handled in a very purposeful, careful way, and their placement does not feel exploitative. If it’s any comfort, several of those are serious triggers for me, and I was still able to make it through the series. It’s not necessarily an easy watch, but in my opinion, it is well worth it. In this article, I will be touching on very light spoilers for the series. I won’t reveal anything that isn’t made clear by the end of the first episode. While it is difficult to evaluate the full meaning of the series without referring to main plot events, I will attempt to keep the scope of this article to Camille herself.
The limited HBO series Sharp Objects follows Camille Preaker, played by Amy Adams, a troubled reporter who returns to her Missouri hometown to report on a series of murders. In doing so, she is forced to confront her twisted past and put old ghosts to rest. Wind Gap, Missouri is full of violence, both physical and social. Its main industry is hog butchering, and murders, suicides, and sexual assaults litter its history. Even then, the residents who won’t physically kill you will talk you to death— vicious gossip and blackmail are a way of life. This is the world that Camille was raised in, and it still haunts her years later.
Camille’s mind is a confusing, pained place, and the editing of this series directly reflects that pain. The entire show has a dreamlike quality, as flashbacks weave in and out of reality, painting a textured picture of Camille, her family, and the town. However, these flashbacks don’t come across as hokey as one might expect. Instead, they serve to track Camille’s moment-to-moment thoughts— brief flashes of images conveying her stream of consciousness. Some of these visions are interlaced with spoken lines, showing her progression of thought. For example, a group of mean girls from Camille’s high school approach her at a party to gossip, and she flashes back to an image of them standing in a line in their cheerleader outfits (Episode 5: Closer). Eyeline matches, a film editing technique, do much the same thing by demonstrating where a character is looking and where their attention lies. What’s more, the audio is edited in a way where Camille recalls these memories while the present action continues. Headphones are recommended. This is the way that a person really experiences the world. Our memories do not suddenly take center stage of our consciousness. They form a complicated, twisted network with our thoughts, feelings, and desires; editing can approximate this collage of consciousness.
Sharp Objects was originally a book written by Gillian Flynn. As such, there are elements of the book that don’t transfer over to television perfectly. Camille’s inner monologue is one example, though the flashes of images and memories give us the basic outline of what she’s thinking. However, there is another key element of the book missing. Camille is a lifelong self-cutter, and years of self-harm have left hundreds of words carved into her skin, save only her face, neck, and hands. They form a constellation of illness, succinct representations of every negative thought or experience she’s ever had. In the book, from time to time, Camille will feel a word itch or burn in response to a situation. The HBO adaptation replicates this by having hallucinatory words scattered throughout different shots to reflect Camille’s state of mind. This intention is clear given that the words only appear when she is present, and they always appear within her line of sight. For example, Camille sees the body of a dead girl, and the word “yelp” flares up on the door frame next to her (Episode 2: Dirt). Momentarily, a cheesy inspirational poster flashes from “You are not invisible” to “You are unworthy” (Episode 3: Fix). It is easy to miss these subliminal cues; look away, and they’ve already passed. However, they are a critical insight. By revealing one by one the words that Camille has cut into herself, we get a simple yet deep exploration of her personality and stream of consciousness. They also give a sense of what kind of situations cause Camille the most anxiety; if her thoughts are racing, the words come in faster and faster. The most extreme examples of this occur when Camille fears for the life of another— showing that despite her many issues, she is at heart a caring person.
By the latter half of the season, the flashbacks and visions stop focusing on the past and begin to project Camille’s fears about the future. In one episode, Camille has flashes of all the people she’s seen die (Episode 6: Cherry) overlapping with her view of her living half-sister, Amma (Eliza Scanlen). We quickly get the sense that Camille’s mind is occupied with what could happen to her should she stay in Wind Gap — another dead little girl. These visions escalate, and by the last few episodes, Camille’s deceased, younger sister Marian appears as an almost tangible ghost to guide her through a near-death experience.
While many of us may not relate directly to Camille’s vices, her outward instability is reflective of an inner vulnerability that none of us can completely deny. Take, for instance, the words written by her scars. We all carry words with us that we will never forget— insults, praise, labels affixed by ourselves or others, maybe even last words of loved ones. Camille’s words are just more visible. Every mental scar finds a place on her skin. Camille’s behavior may make you uncomfortable, it may confuse you, and it may even enrage you. However, the narration takes a neutral position; it’s not necessary that we “like” Camille any more than she does. As Amy Adams said on the View, “It’s more important to explore her truth than her likeability, and through her truth, she becomes identifiable”.
This vulnerability is directly facilitated by Amy Adams’s incredible acting. Her eyes are very expressive, and because of Camille’s cold nature, her facial expressions are often subdued. This makes the slightest change in expression stand out, and it makes her emotional highs even stronger. Similarly, Camille’s anger is constantly simmering, and it is usually directed inward in the form of self-harm. Thus, when she finally does lose her temper, it comes across as a hurricane of emotion.
Eliza Scanlen and Patricia Clarkson’s performances are also impressive; they form fascinating characters in their own right, and their unique dynamics with Camille drive her development. Patricia Clarkson plays Adora, Camille’s mother. She acts as a traditional Victorian woman; a Southern belle and homemaker. Adora is eccentric and over the top, and her effect calls to mind a less religious version of Piper Laurie (Margaret White) in Carrie (1976). By the end of the story, we get a good sense of how Camille was raised and how it impacts her specific pathology.
Eliza Scanlen plays Amma, a tween girl who has learned to be a social chameleon. At home she plays an innocent child— “[Adora’s] little doll to dress up” (Episode 1: Vanish). However, when she’s with friends, she’s a ruthless, rowdy teenager. In both of these personas, Camille sees elements critical to her: the innocence of her deceased sister, Marian, and the recklessness she showed in her own youth.
A large part of this series involves a conflict between Camille’s two identities. There is the person that Camille wants to be, and the role that her bigoted small town would like her to play— two ends of a spectrum. She is constantly reminded that she has somehow failed both these people and herself by not becoming a housewife or a mother— the role of a woman in the Victorian South. Upon visiting a house full of dramatic housewives, Camille’s old cheerleader friend remarks to her “just think of the house you would have had if you’d stuck around” (Episode 6: Cherry). She could have been like one of the women of Wind Gap: obsessed with others and devoted to family to a fault, to the point that they would even cover up a murder to protect a family member. This is in stark contrast to her personality while living in Saint Louis— the other end of the spectrum. Camille is cold and aloof, shutting almost everyone out. No family and few friends; in her own words, Camille says “I don’t get close” (Episode 5: Closer). This is a defense mechanism she learned growing up, but the newfound presence of her half-sister begins to break down that barrier. Camille’s love for Amma grows throughout the season, though she is hesitant at first, and it forces her to integrate these two sides of herself. There is the identity that Camille has built for herself as an adult, and there is the older, core part of her personality that she can’t quite escape.
Most importantly, there is the conflict between the good that her allies see in Camille and the bad that enemies express, confirming her own negative self-image. Careful choices in direction frame this dynamic. Scenes, where Camille is alone, are usually more chaotic and intimate, and through the flashbacks described previously, submerge the viewer in the dark tangles of her past. As Camille becomes anxious or upset, the camera becomes shaky, like when her scars are exposed to others in a dressing room (Episode 5: Closer). Similarly, Camille’s interactions with her mother (Patricia Clarkson) are filtered through her own perception, turning a dramatic woman into a caricature. On the other hand, scenes outside Camille’s perspective show others in a more objective light— usually static, widescreen shots. These repeated shifts in perspective reveal just how crippled her sense of self is. As a result, the promise of self-actualization remains a floating question mark.
Faint though it may be, there is still a strong possibility for Camille to self-actualize and overcome her past. The brief moments where we are given an outside perspective confirm this, as in those moments, events are not filtered through Camille’s biases. Despite her flaws and many ethical slip-ups, Camille routinely proves herself as a brave, sensitive, and empathetic person. Gillian Flynn herself explained Camille’s greatest strength in an interview with Vanity Fair: she is “an inherently kind person despite everything that’s happened to her. And you see that when you walk through the day with Camille.” By the end of the eighth episode, Camille is shown to be a devoted sister, an accommodating daughter, and a loyal friend, despite her mental illness and the battle inside her. There is always a conflict between her kindness and her sickness, and the viewer doesn’t always know which will win. However, Camille expresses hope in her own closing monologue: “I waver between the two. Especially at night, when my skin begins to pulse. Lately I’ve been leaning toward kindness.”