Shining Girls Examines Trauma and Agency in Mind-Bending Psychological Thriller
How often do you find an adaptation of a novel that is better than the original work?
The answer is not very often.
But Silka Luisa has taken Lauren Beukes’ Shining Girls, adding layers that propel an already taught story into unexpected depths.
Of course, I was also in the unique position to have watched four episodes of Apple TV’s new series before I dove into the book.
Luisa’s scripts prod you from one episode to another, and I was so intrigued by where the story was going that I thought I’d catch up with the novel.
As it turns out, while sharing the same framework, the two works couldn’t be more different.
Shining Girls the TV series stars Elisabeth Moss as Kirby Mazrachi, a woman whose life was derailed by a terrible assault leaving her in tatters, physically and mentally.
Picking up the pieces after any assault poses a serious challenge, but Shining Girls has a secret that makes it even more difficult for Kirby, who struggles with memory loss and constantly shifting perspectives.
Is she mad, or is something more sinister at play? It’s not a question you need to consider because Shining Girls focuses on her traumatic experience. Everything that follows, and possibly what came before, drives Kirby and the narrative forward.
At its core, Shining Girls is a murder mystery. Kirby survived an attack by a sordid, sadistic killer named Harper (a surprisingly frightening Jamie Bell). He’s one of the first people you meet in the series, but getting to know him and understanding him will be a long time coming.
Harper’s attacks and his need for blood drive the story in the novel. Those he leaves in his wake, of which Kirby is one, react to his actions. The book sits firmly on Harper.
Shining Girls the series, though, upends his narrative reign, catapulting Kirby front and center. It’s her story driving the plot and the mystery forward as she tries to reclaim her life and pursues justice for herself and the others who can no longer speak for themselves and for those in Harper’s future, too.
Taking away Harper’s voice early in the story, the violence becomes secondary to its aftermath, and it’s a much more compelling story with Kirby as the focal point.
Before her attack, Kirby had a burgeoning career in journalism. By the time we meet her, she’s pulling clips from old newspapers for other journalists, helping them frame their work from the inside looking in.
It’s the 1990s, and the MeToo era type of reckoning that indiscriminate killers of women might face later (a neverending fight) is nonexistent. Victim blaming was par for the course.
And catching the sons a bitches that carried out brutal attacks was more about the killer than the victims, leaving victims with little understanding or support.
When another woman is found with signs connecting her to Kirby’s attack, Kirby begins acting more boldly on her own behalf, garnering the attention of Dan (Wagner Moura), a seasoned crime reporter who can’t help but be moved by Kirby’s story.
A functioning alcoholic, Dan finds himself similarly trying to recapture the man he once was. That commonality bonds Kirby and Dan as they lend an ear to each other’s struggles and a shoulder to lean on when the going gets tough.
You’ll have to trust me when I say that given everything you’ve just read, you have no idea how the story will unfold. With a killer on the loose and Kirby and Dan both unreliable narrators, viewers are pulled in many directions, and it’s a fantastic ride.
The script is a taught character study on the effects of trauma and how it infiltrates your life, upending everything you once held dear, leaving you desperate to right the wrong and reclaim your sense of agency.
Kate Winslet won accolades with her portrayal of a woman dealing with trauma in Mare of Easttown. And while Shining Girls has a twist affecting how Kirby deals with it, Elisabeth Moss’s performance in Shining Girls is equally effective and moving.
Moss breathes life into characters who need it the most with significant uphill battles against forces beyond their control.
The one thing that her characters have in common is that they must dig within to find the strength necessary to make changes in the face of impossible odds.
Kirby is a little softer than The Handmaid’s Tale‘s June. Kirby’s not as jaded despite what she’s suffered, and Moss confidently creates Kirby as her own character with an impressive ability to differentiate independent but similar characters.
Moura invests in Dan’s soulful side, assuring he’s far more than an ailing alcoholic whose light has gone out too soon. Dan is as eager as Kirby to prove himself as a journalist and wants to afford Kirby and the other victims the voice they need to stop a killer in his tracks and move on without him plaguing their futures.
Bell wades into uncharted career territory as Harper, proving that he’s got the chops to tackle any role. In Bell’s capable hands, Harper’s eerie ability to walk in and out of his victims’ lives looks easy enough to be disconcerting.
Amy Brenneman is also along for the ride as Kirby’s mom, rock band singer Rachel, and seeing that side of Brenneman is highly entertaining.
Of course, the direction is top-notch, as well. Michelle MacLaren directs the first two episodes, setting a high bar that other rotating directors, including Moss, handily accept down the line.
While Shining Girls is an intricate and mind-bending game of cat and mouse the likes of which you haven’t seen in this genre before, it’s the notions of justice, overcoming trauma, and taking control of your destiny that set Shining Girls apart.
Shining Girls premieres on Apple TV+ with three episodes on April 29, with subsequent episodes dropping weekly after that.
Carissa Pavlica is the managing editor and a staff writer and critic for TV Fanatic. She’s a member of the Critic’s Choice Association, enjoys mentoring writers, conversing with cats, and passionately discussing the nuances of television and film with anyone who will listen. Follow her on Twitter and email her here at TV Fanatic.