Gin in a tin: how does an alcoholic switcheroo alter the story of The Girl on The Train?

The film version of Paula Hawkins’ hit novel has moved settings from London to New York – and the protagonist’s drink of choice has changed as a result. Does that impact the wider story?

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The pre-mixed gin and tonic fizzes up over the lip of the can as I bring it to my mouth and sip. Tangy and cold, the taste of my first ever holiday with Tom, a fishing village on the Basque coast in 2005. In the mornings we’d swim the half-mile to the little island in the bay, make love on secret hidden beaches; in the afternoons we’d sit at a bar drinking strong, bitter gin and tonics, watching swarms of beach footballers playing chaotic 25-a-side games on the low-tide sands.

I take another sip, and another; the can’s already half empty but it’s OK, I have three more in the plastic bag at my feet. It’s Friday, so I don’t have to feel guilty about drinking on the train. TGIF. The fun starts here.

These paragraphs are from early on in Paula Hawkins hit novel, The Girl on the Train. In fact, they’re only from the second page of the book. Almost as soon as we meet Hawkins’ protagonist, Rachel, she’s lifting a gin in a tin to her lips.

The film adaptation of the novel hits UK cinemas this week – and there’s a key difference between Hawkins’ book and the blockbuster movie. The film is set in the States, and Rachel’s Ashbury to Euston commute has been replaced with a train journey from upstate New York to the city, in order to appeal to a wider, more international audience.

For British audiences, it will be a shame to lose the relatable texture of Rachel’s everyday life via Hawkins’ references to JD Sports, Tesco and the NHS. Stylist reports that Hawkins’ agent even sent a gin in a tin to American publishers, because they hadn’t heard of it, and adds that, in the new film, the G&T is replaced “with vodka in a sports water bottle: a contrasting image that works even better”.

What’s in a drink? Surely, a sip of any other spirit would taste as sweet? Well, maybe I’m biased. Maybe too many Friday nights on the tube with a tinnie of 3-for-£4 pre-mixed G&T firmly in hand have left me over-invested in these little cans. But to me, a glug of vodka in the bottom of a water bottle seems an odd replacement.

Doesn’t the switch rather dramatically change the way we view Rachel? If we readjust those early lines from the book to accommodate the swap, a different scenario emerges. “The straight vodka tastes vaguely of plastic as I suck at my sports bottle, and burns the back of my throat.” Immediately, we’re in the company of someone who almost certainly has a drinking problem, and knows it. Rachel’s self-denial disappears, and so does our slow, creeping sense that something is not quite right in Rachel’s personal life; that she is very unhappy. It’s OK. I don’t have to feel guilty.

There’s nothing aspirational about a straight spirit disguised as water. A can of gin and tonic – overpriced, diet-friendly, and available in any number of bougie flavour combinations –  seems more middle-class than a lager or a straight spirit, and somehow more “acceptable” on a train as a result (just search the #gininatin hashtag on Instagram for proof).

Rachel is brimming with class anxieties – she stares out of the train window into the sumptuous Victorian houses of strangers, and longs for the middle-class lifestyle she glimpses. Embarrassed of her flatshare and her loneliness, part of the appeal of drinking a G&T on the train is that it reminds her of a glossier former life. In drinking one, she can convince herself and her fellow commuters that, she, too, is leaving a bustling, high-paid City job to spend a warm weekend drenched with sun and booze with a handsome husband. TGIF! The fun starts here.

I’ll have to reserve judgment on the change of settings until I’ve seen the new film – but in the meantime, I, for one, will mourn the loss of Rachel’s gin in a tin. At the going down of the sun and in the morning, on the 08:04 slow train and the 17:56 return, I will remember it.

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Now listen to a review of The Girl on the Train on the NS pop culture podcast, SRSLY:

Anna Leszkiewicz is deputy culture editor of the New Statesman.