Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh (2015)
Eileen directed by William Oldroy (2023)
If you are a fan of the book, I think you should go see this in theaters. It leaves out a lot of details, but the plot itself stays very close to the book. We also get amazing performances by the cast. Speaking of the cast, Marin Ireland played Mrs. Polk and she is a popular audiobook narrator! I have listened to a few she has done and she is always amazing, so it was cool to see her in a movie.
I think if you see this movie without having read the book, you will be left feeling like there should have been more. I heard one reviewer say that when the movie ends, it feels like it should just be getting started. It is also a slow burn, and some may like it and atmosphere it creates, while I could see others feeling like it takes too long to get somewhere.
As far as the movies lack of details though, this is where the book comes in because the book does give a lot more details and will answer the questions you may have.
I also want to say, in regard to the book and movie, both have a detailed story of child abuse near the end which when I read the book I hadn’t been expecting and found very upsetting. So I do want to give people a warning about that because the movie keeps this as well, and while we don’t see it take place in either, just hear about it, it is still vividly described.
Moshfegh is an author I have heard about a lot in recent years, especially since the popularity of her book My Year of Rest and Relaxation. This was my first time reading one of her books and I definitely want to read more! I loved her writing style and was instantly drawn into the story.
This is a character study, and throughout the book she is mentioning how meeting a woman named Rebecca changed her life, and so I kept waiting for Rebecca to enter the story. She doesn’t show up until halfway through! And even once she is introduced, it still doesn’t feel like the plot really starts moving until like 75%-80% of the way into the book.
I love character driven stories so overall this didn’t bother me. I did find the narrator to be repetitive at times and so after a certain point I did begin to feel a bit impatient.
I was very immersed in the story though and Moshfegh makes the town of X-ville and the people in Eileen’s life so vivid. Eileen herself also felt like such a real person.
From here on our I will be getting into plot details which means I will be getting into spoilers!
The first half of this book are about showing us the life Eileen is living with her alcoholic and verbally abusive dad. They seem to have a co-dependent relationship of sorts and she is always thinking how she is going to leave him to go to New York City, but she never does.
We learn so much about her in this first half and I want to share a section that gives a taste of the writing style, and shows the kind of person Eileen is, “[I would read] a chronicle of ancient Egyptian medicine, to study the gruesome practice of pulling the brains of the dead out through the nose like skeins of yarn. I liked to think of my brain like that, tangled up in my skull. The idea that my brains could be untangled, straightened out, and thus refashioned into a state of peace and sanity was a comforting fantasy. I often felt there was something wired weird in my brain, a problem so complicated only a lobotomy could solve it.”
She also has severe body dysmorphia in the book and we later learn that she was chubby as a kid. The movie shows her chewing chocolates, but then spitting them out and not actually eating them. The book goes more into this with her eating habits and her hate of her body and face is something that is brought up a lot. She even says that her dislike of her body is what has kept her from committing suicide, we read, “…the idea of anyone examining my naked corpse was enough to keep me alive. I was that ashamed of my body. It also concerned me that my demise would have no great impact, that I could blow my head off and people would say, ‘That’s all right. Let’s get something to eat.’”
The book is also told by adult Eileen well into the future who is looking back on this time in her life. She comes across as an unreliable narrator because on many occasions she will tell us something but then say, “perhaps I’m misremembering it.” Or “it may not be accurate at this point since I’ve gone over it again and again for years…”
Another detail we see in book and movie is that Eileen wears only her dead mother’s clothes rather than buying her own. In the book we are also told how she rarely bathes and likes to stew in her own filth, as she says. In the movie, Eileen looks too clean and thought she should have at least had greasy hair prior to meeting Rebecca.
She seems to have like a martyr complex with her dad, and a lot of her “suffering”. For example, in book and movie she has to drive with the window down because the car fills with the gas that makes her drowsy and so the window needs to be down to let fresh air in. She says, “Part of me liked having to roll down the windows, even in the cold. I thought that I was very brave. But really, I was scared that if I made a fuss over the car, it would be taken away from me.” Another line reads of her life, “I preferred to wallow in the problem, dream of better days.”
When talking about the suffering the boys in the prison have endured, she says, “Why should my heart ache for anyone but myself? If anyone was trapped and suffering and abused, it was me. I was the only one whose pain was real. Mine.”
But her father is a delusional alcoholic and as said, he is often verbally abusive saying how she will never amount to anything and she is stupid and ugly. In the book she says that they have times where they drink together and talk but we don’t often see those times firsthand. In the movie we see that dad is kind of crazy, but it was a bigger thing in the book with him always thinking there were people after him and spying on him and all that. We get a few scenes in the movie where they are drinking together and talking. In a way they are bonding, but he is usually being insulting.
In the movie there is a scene when she takes her dad to the hospital and on the drive home, he drunkenly is trying to touch her and when she takes his hand away, he says something like, come on Joanie. Joanie is Eileen’s sister who is married now and doesn’t come by anymore. So Eileen realizes that her father had been molesting her sister.
This is in the book, but it was years prior, before her mom even died, that she picked him up from the bar and they had this exchange. The movie makes it seem like a new revelation but that wasn’t the case in the book. In the book Joanie isn’t married but is living with a man and she does still come by and acts fine, in her own way.
The boy’s prison
In both, Eileen is a secretary at a boy’s prison. She had been in college but moved back home to take care of her dying mother, and started working there and then before long the years began to pass. Quick note about her mom by the way, in the movie her dad says that he loved her mom, despite what it may have seemed at times. Obviously implying that he treated her bad, but id telling Eileen is still always loved her.
In the book he and the mom did not get along when she ase alive, and after her death he still talks crap about her.
Anyway, at this boy’s prison there is a guard there who Eileen is obsessed with. She even stalks him. In the movie we see she has a sexual fantasy about him, but don’t see the length of her obsession with him.
The prison is where she meets Rebecca, who is hired around Christmas time to be the prison educator in the book, in the movie she is the new psychologist and in both she had graduated Harvard.
Eileen is instantly smitten with Rebecca and after meeting her, her “love” for the guard evaporates.
Rebecca has a conspiratorial way to talking with Eileen and also has a fun, different aura about her. In the movie she is platinum blonde, whereas in the book she has red hair. Usually, minor changes like this don’t bother me, but her red hair is brought up pretty often, one passage reading, “she had the unmistakable ease and refinement of someone from the upper class… there was also something earthy about her. Her hair, especially in its red color, its roughness, its wild beauty, kept her from seeming like a snob.”
The blonde hair in the movie looks great on Hathaway but was definitely flashier than her earthy red hair in the book.
Anyway, she and Eileen go get drinks one night and dance together to the jukebox music. In the movie in this scene, a man tries to dance with Rebecca and when he won’t leave her alone, she socks him one and he falls. This wasn’t in the book, but it was a great moment in the movie.
A lot of their conversations do come straight from the book and Eileen in the movie is just falling more and more in love. It’s funny, because in the book when she is getting ready to meet Rebecca for drinks, she tells us the effort she put into her appearance, but then says, “Let me be clear about this: I was not a lesbian. But I was attracted to Rebecca, yearned for her attention and approval, and I admired her. You could call it a crush. Rebecca might as well have been Marlon Brando, James Dean. Elvis. Marilyn Monroe. In such company, any normal person would want to look right, smell good.” I think this is another example of her lying to herself and us though. Later on there is a part when Rebecca is talking to her closely, and Eileen tells us that if Rebecca had gone in for a kiss Eileen would have gone with it.
Anyway, in the movie Rebecca does give Eileen a peck on the lips that night before heading out.
In the book, before they leave work for Christmas break, Rebecca asks Eileen if she has Christmas plans, and if not, she should come over to Rebecca’s place. Eileen writes her number on Rebecca’s arm, and the next day during Christmas she anxiously awaits Rebecca’s call.
In the movie, Rebecca isn’t in the next day but already has Eileen’s number anyway and calls Eileen unexpectedly and invites her over.
There is a boy in the prison named Lee Polk who is there because he killed his father while he was in bed. The father had been a cop and Eileen’s father is a former cop as well and had known him. Lee has not spoken at all, and his mother never visits. Prior to Christmas break, Eileen had seen Lee in solitary and then was looking at his file. Rebecca then comes by and decides to take the Polk file home.
The next day, Mrs. Polk shows up to see Lee which Eileen thinks if strange since she has never before come in and speculates that Rebecca called her. In the movie, Rebecca straight up says that she called to have her come in.
After the visit with Mrs. Polk, Rebecca meets with Lee alone in her office.
So back to Christmas, Rebecca invites Eileen over and when she gets there, Rebecca who is usually so classy and refined, is kind of a mess. She also opens the door holding an angry cat which she tosses out the door. The house is also a mess, and in the book we learn that it is in a bad part of town. Eileen is surprised that this is where Rebecca lives and feels very uncomfortable with how on edge Rebecca is and the fact that Eileen got dressed up for the occasion, but Rebecca is wearing blah clothing under a raggedy sweater/robe. In both she makes something for Eileen to eat, in the book is it ham sandwiches but the bread is stale and the ham is gummy. In the movie she gives her pickles and cheese. But it seems the pickles are bad because Eileen puts it back in the jar.
In the movie, Eileen seems to not think too much about the situation and is blinded from the red flags due to her excitement and adoration of Rebecca. In the book, she sees something is off right away and even gets up to leave at one point, but Rebecca asks her to stay a bit longer.
While they are sitting in the kitchen Rebecca brings up Lee and his file. She tells him that Lee told her why he killed his father and Rebecca hasn’t been able to stop thinking about it. She then says, “This is not my house. This is the Polk house. And I have Mrs. Polk tied up in the basement.”
When I saw this in theaters, there was literally only five people in there (two of which left soon after Eileen gets to Rebecca’s “house” which seemed like a weird time to get up and leave. Anna Hathaway is acting all unhinged and now is the time you leave??) There was a person a few seats down from me though and when she says this line in the movie the person audibly gasped!
When I read this part in the book, I was pretty shocked.
In the movie, Eileen gets up to leave, but Rebecca convinces her to stay and that she needs her. We read Eileen’s thoughts in the book about how she felt betrayed. She realized Rebecca was manipulating her and didn’t actually like her. In the movie she says this to Rebecca and Rebecca is like no, I do like you. I just really ended your help.
In the book, adult Eileen is thinking back and says of Rebecca, “Did she honestly think she had the power to atone for someone else’s sins, that she could exact justice with her wit, her superior thinking? People born of privilege are sometimes thus confused.”
Eileen has her father’s gun at this point, because the cops forced him to hand it over to her. She shows this to Rebecca and they go in the basement with the gun to force Mrs. Polk into confessing that she was not only aware that her husband was sexually abusing their son, but that she would also help the process by making Lee clean and ready before bed.
In both, Eileen says some mean things to Mrs. Polk which surprised and impressed Rebecca. In the book Eileen says how she’d had years to learn to talk to a person in this way due to living with her father.
In both, Mrs. Polk eventually does break down and tell the whole story. However, in the movie Rebecca is standing right there, whereas in the book before Mrs. Polk started talking, Rebecca had gone upstairs to get pen and paper so they could get a signed confession.
In the book, as Mrs. Polk ends her confession she says, “’You wouldn’t understand,’ she said, looking up at me. ‘You’re young. You haven’t had your heart broken.’ But I understood her perfectly. Of course I did. Who wouldn’t? She began to cry again, solemnly this time. ‘There, there,’ I said, the first time in my life I had ever sincerely tried to comfort anyone.”
After this, Rebecca comes back downstairs and she tells her that Mrs. Polk confessed. Rebecca wants her to write it all down and Rebecca asks for the gun and she ends up dropping it, shooting Mrs. Polk in like the arm. In the book she begins telling us about the gun going off by saying, “what happened next is still unclear”, again making us wonder how much of what she is saying is true.
They then give her pills to knock her out. Eileen had the pills as well; they had belonged to her mother I think for when she had been dying.
In the movie, Rebecca is there as Mrs. Polk confesses and after she says the line about how Eileen wouldn’t understand, Eileen is like in a daze and shoots Mrs. Polk. They again give her pills, but they are pills Rebecca had. She either dies at this point, or is knocked out, not sure which. When Rebecca asks why she shot her, Eileen just says, “I was upset.”
In both, she tells Rebecca they can take Mrs. Polk to her house. Her father will be passed out drunk, they can shoot Mrs. Polk again to kill her but make it seem like her father did it and then leave together for New York City. In the movie she also tells Rebecca that she loves her. During this in the movie, you can see Eileen’s eyes shining and how exited she seems to be. In the book there are multiple times she says she tries to hide her jubilance as they are going about this business.
They put Mrs. Polk in the car and Rebecca tells her she will meets her at the house after she cleans up the mess in the Polk house. In the movie, she goes home and grabs her money and waits for Rebecca. She basically waits all night, before realizing she isn’t coming and drives the car out in a wooded area, turns it on with the windows up, and hitchhikes to New York. As she is in the truck that picked her up, we see her smiling.
In the book, she goes home and gets her money, but doesn’t wait for Rebecca. She knows she won’t show. “I could have sat and waited for hours for Rebecca to show up. But there was no point. I knew she was not coming. I knew she was long gone. In the end, she was a coward. Idealism without consequences is the pathetic dream of every spoiled brat, I suppose.”
In the book, Mrs. Polk is simply passed out, but Eileen drives to the car to a secluded area, turns in on with the windows up so that Mrs. Polk will die in her sleep from the fumes. Eileen hitchhikes to New York City and we hear bits of her life after all of this throughout the book.
At one point she tells us that she has been married twice (maybe three times?) but now realizes it is best to be single. We read, “Here is how I spend my days now. I live in a beautiful place. I sleep in a beautiful bed. I eat beautiful food. I go for walks through beautiful places. I care for people deeply. At night my bed is full of love, because I alone am in it. I cry easily, from pain and pleasure, and I don’t apologize for that. In the mornings I step outside and I’m thankful for another day.”
It seems like she lives a good life, but again, she comes across as an unreliable narrator so I wonder how true this even is.
In the movie we don’t know if she had been planning on leaving her dad at some point or not, the way we saw in the book. But in the book, she is grateful in a way for Rebecca because that whole thing spurred her to finally take action. In the movie, as she is smiling on the way to the city, she is happy to be leaving that life behind, even if Rebecca didn’t join her. This is also a coming of age story, and she is smiling because of this new self she has discovered and this new, empowered version of herself she can now be.
In the movie I think it makes sense to have Eileen like instinctively shoot Mrs. Polk because she had been going on about what it was like to live with this man and be stuck in this toxic situation and the shame of having a husband who is a molester and her not having anyone to talk to. Eileen does know though to some extent due to the toxic relationship she has with her father and feeling trapped, and in the movie, she had that recent revelation that her father was a molester.
Rebecca is an interesting character too and I think the book gives more insight into her actions. I was watching Fish Jelly reviews and Nick was speculating that Rebecca may have been hot stuff at one point in her field, but due to her slightly neurotic ways she has probably burned a number of bridges and is heading downhill in her career and in life. Hence, why she is here working at a boy’s prison. In both book and movie, she tells Eileen she never stays with anyone, or stays any place for long.
I also think it is an intentional nod to Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca to have the character given that name. Eileen is similar in some ways to the new Mrs. De Winter as well. This book also gave me Carol by Patricia Highsmith vibes at times. Carol is not a slow burn thriller the way Rebecca and Eileen are, but it is a romance between a striking, confident blonde and a shy, reserved brunette which also takes place in the past. Carol I think is in the ‘50’s and Eileen is in 1964. Even though Carol is a romance drama, I think Highsmith would have liked the book Eileen because Highsmith was an odd person in her own way and I think she would have liked this weird story.
Book vs movie
I did like the way the way the book was framed, as Eileen being an old woman who has had this huge secret she has never revealed and now is finally telling it. She is also contemplating what it was about Rebecca that made Eileen so drawn to her and why she fell for the phony way Rebecca got Eileen to trust her, and why she was willing to help Rebecca in this situation. While also telling us here and there about what her life is like now.
I also said she is an unreliable narrator, and the movie is similar in that we get a number of scenes where we see something happen, but then turns out it had been in Eileen’s imagination.
When it comes to which I like best, first of all I would say these go great together. The book gives you the details you may feel the movie lacks. While the movie gets to the point quicker than the book does. Both are a slow burn, but I think the book moved a bit too slow at times.
I had also expected to movie to water down Mrs. Polk’s confession because movies tend to sanitize details like that, but I was surprised when Mrs. Polk’s confession is like verbatim from the book.
It is tough to say which I like better. I gave them each three stars, so while I liked each of them, I didn’t love them. I do want to read more from this author though so this book inspired me to go on a binge of Otessa (just waiting for my wait in line at the library to come up!)
The movie is really well done, is looks great, the performances are wonderful, and I liked the old font style for the title which was a great touch.
I actually might say the movie wins, in large part because I loved the performances, especially Anne Hathaway. But McKenzie was great as well. I love the movies McKenzie is in, like if I were an actor, I think I would be picking the same types of movies she has been choosing.
If you liked the movie, you should definitely read the book to get the bigger picture, but I will say that the movie wins today. Fans of Moshfegh may be upset I am not choosing the book, but I will say that it was a close call.