Before starting the novel A Simple Favor, I had read some comments on the internet suggesting that it was getting mixed and often not positive reactions from readers. However, knowing that a movie adaptation with Blake Lively and Anna Kendrick was about to premiere, I thought the novel on which it was based was worth a chance.
I listened to A Simple Favor in audiobook format because I think audiobooks lend themselves particularly well to the psychological thriller genre. The suspense and clues peppered throughout this kind of novel are captivating enough that they’re able to keep my attention while driving.
Unfortunately, I really didn’t like the novel. You can read about my full reasons below, but essentially it was bad enough that it kind of felt like it was poking fun of the psychological thriller genre without realizing it. I didn’t know what to expect from the movie, as a result, but I ended up really liking the film. If you haven’t seen it yet, you definitely should make the time to!
The film version of A Simple Favor is actually quite different from the novel, so it’s not surprising that the film succeeds where the novel does not. Many elements were varied in the movie version, from the character’s backstories, to major and minor plot points, to the nature of the protagonist’s themselves and finally to a much more believable and satisfying ending.
Where the novel felt like an unintentional parody of psychological thrillers due to its garish character portrayal and predictable plot lines, the movie leans into this campy and overdone feeling, playing up Stephanie and Emily’s caricatured nature in a way that ends up being both compelling and humorous.
Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively really bring Stephanie and Emily to life with so much more depth and credibility than in the book. Kendrick shines in the re-imagining of Stephanie as a goody-two-shoes mommy vlogger, and the additional context in the movie, like Stephanie’s interactions with other mom’s at her son’s school and her vlog entries with recipe tips, really make her character more relevant and relatable than in the book. Lively, on the other hand, plays a pitch-perfect Emily, just crazy enough to be consistently creepy while being impossibly cool and charming at the same time, which lures viewers (and Stephanie) in.
Seeing how different the novel felt from the movie, I realized that the book to screen equation is not always a straightforward one. For those making the decisions of what to adapt for TV or film and what not to adapt, it doesn’t simply come down to picking a truly excellent novel or memoir. Rather, even a lackluster novel like this one can, with the correct execution, casting and changes, turn into a really great visual product. Whoever made the decision to rework A Simple Favor for the big screen was inspired in the way in which they were able to see through to the bones of a story that needed some significant modifications to really shine.
A Simple Favor
by Darcey Bell
Publication Date: March 21st 2017
Length In Hardcover: 304 pages
Goodreads Rating: 3.20
She’s your best friend. She knows all your secrets. That’s why she’s so dangerous.
It starts with a simple favor—an ordinary kindness mothers do for one another. When her best friend, Emily, asks Stephanie to pick up her son Nicky after school, she happily says yes. A widow and stay-at-home mommy blogger living in woodsy suburban Connecticut, Stephanie was lonely until she met Emily. But Emily doesn’t come back. When Stephanie and Emily’s husband Sean receive the shocking news that Emily is dead, they believe the nightmare of her disappearance is over. Or is it?
A premise with potential. Clearly this novel has been made into a really good movie, so there had to be something in its premise that was captivating enough for it to be first of all even considered for a film adaptation, and second of all to then be developed into a successful movie version. I think the novel did not stand up to the promise of its concept in its execution and you can read my reasons why below. However, the initial idea was a good one (that of a mismatched pair of ‘friends’, the prim and proper one and the mysterious and corrupt one), and it lent itself well to a better creative adaptation. Hopefully Bell will have an equally interesting idea for her next novel and execute it in a more successful way.
Seemed like a spoof of the genre. Bell definitely didn’t set out to write a play on the psychological thriller genre that made fun of the genre itself, but her book unfortunately ends up reading like that. The more I listened to the audiobook, the more I felt like it epitomized all of the elements of the genre in such a cliched and overdone manner that it felt like the Scary Movie version of a psychological thriller novel. If you were trying to write a comedic take-down of the genre, A Simple Favor would be a good start. There are so many quality thrillers of this type out there at this point – there seem to be dozens new popular ones each month – that the ones that lack in complexity and originality just aren’t worth keeping on the radar.
Predictable plot and average writing. The basic idea of a thriller is that it should surprise its readers with unexpected and creepy twists that build the suspense of the novel from start to finish, before a huge final reveal. I could see the ‘twists’ in A Simple Favor coming from a mile (or rather several chapters) away, so once the actual revelation materialized, it didn’t feel surprising or gripping. The writing was also lackluster. I listened to the audiobook, which sometimes makes the reading experience more forgiving, but I could still pick out the frequent repetitions and disingenuous dialogue. A good portion of the book is told in the format of Stephanie’s blog, and I felt in particular that the way in which her blog posts were written was completely unrealistic. No one would write a blog post that way, and no one would read a mommy blog that is just a rambling personal journal and has no useful content for navigating motherhood.
Unrealistic protagonists. Stephanie narrates most of the novel and I really struggled to connect with or care about her character. It doesn’t help that she makes the worst life-decisions of all time, unfailingly, over and over again. Her reactions to the events she’s faced with in the novel are so hard to understand that the only conclusion the reader can come to is that the author meant to portray Stephanie as very very dumb. Her internal monologues in particular are cringe-worthy, as is her constant repetition of “Moms” to address her blog audience, which could have been cut down by 50% and still would have felt excessive. Emily is the ying to Stephanie’s yang, but even she feels unrealistically exaggerated. She’s a big bad villain but somehow she still claims to care about her child and shows she’s struggling with her own manipulative decisions, which a true psychopath would not.
This one is a skip in book version, especially considering how many great psychological thrillers there are out there at the moment. It made for a more successful movie adaptation, so I’d save the reading time and invest it in watching the movie instead.
Darcey Bell was born in 1981 and raised on a dairy farm in western Iowa. She is a preschool teacher in Chicago. A Simple Favor is her first novel.
Have you read A Simple Favor and/or watched the movie? What did you think? Let me know in the comments.
You can also read my prior Book To Screen reviews for Crazy Rich Asians and Ready Player One, or recent book reviews for historical nonfiction title The Mirage Factory by Gary Krist, memoirs Educated by Tara Westover and I Should Have Honor by Khalida Brohi, and the Leonardo Da Vinci biography by Walter Isaacson.
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