Warning: Spoilers ahead for the AppleTV+ series Shining Girls
After reading Lauren Beukes’s 2013 psychological thriller Shining Girls, Silka Luisa knew she had to try and turn it into a TV show. “[The book is] a wholly unique take on the serial killer genre,” Luisa told TIME. “For the first time, I was seeing a balance between serial killer and female survivor. That felt really special.” It took five years, but Luisa’s small screen adaptation of Shining Girls finally premieres on AppleTV+ April 29—and it’s doing so with a few changes to its source material.
The eight-episode limited series is a metaphysical thriller about an aspiring journalist named Kirby (Elisabeth Moss) who now finds herself in a constantly shifting reality after surviving a nearly fatal assault years earlier. After a young woman is found murdered with wounds similar to hers, Kirby embarks on a journey to find the killer, who was also her attacker. Luisa made tweaks to Beukes’ tale of a time-traveling serial killer that might surprise fans of the bestseller, including turning Kirby into the show’s protagonist while the novel focused on multiple female victims, including Kirby, who had been hurt by the same man. However, the most important elements of the story she left intact. “You can never change the intention of the book,” the creator, writer, and producer of Shining Girls said. “I think Lauren [Beukes] has a very specific worldview on grief and trauma that she presents and carrying that forward was really important.” (Beukes, who is an executive producer on the project, gave Luisa her blessing when it came to making adjustments to her story.)
Shining Girls is an unsettling look at how the effects of a traumatic experience can ripple throughout someone’s life, but Luisa hopes viewers will find hope in Kirby’s journey of resilience. “I always think of Kirby as having a rabbit heart,” she said. “You can be small, and these forces can seem so much bigger than you, but she keeps confronting the thing that scares her. She just keeps moving forward.”
Below, Luisa discusses what she kept from the novel, what she changed and why she wanted viewers to be a little confused while watching Shining Girls.
Making the series more Kirby-centric
Beukes’ novel Shining Girls centers on Harper, a time-traveling Depression-era drifter who murders “shining girls,” women who burn bright with potential, in order to survive. Each chapter is told from a different character’s point of view, whether it be Harper, a brutal serial killer that has been stalking women over the course of multiple decades in Chicago, one of his female victims or his lone survivor, Kirby. Before Luisa even started writing the Shining Girls pilot five years ago, she knew she wanted to filter the story through Kirby. “She was the character I connected with the most,” Luisa said.
By allowing the viewer to focus on one character’s POV, Luisa felt it made the mystery stronger. “With one character you see all the puzzle pieces,” she said. “You’re sort of going through this maze with Kirby and discovering the mystery along with her.” The series shares a bit of DNA with Christopher Nolan’s 2000 movie Memento, in which a man with short-term memory loss (played by Guy Pearce) tries to track down his wife’s killer. Kirby’s confusion about when it happened and where his wife is is all part of solving the show’s biggest mystery. Viewers might find themselves feeling just as disoriented as Kirby does—and that was intentional. “You have to be with Kirby in this sort of fog of recovery,” Luisa said. “You have to understand how hard it is to keep moving forward when you’re constantly blown back.”
Revealing the killer up front
The opening scene of the premiere, which was taken straight from the book, introduces Harper (Jamie Bell) as a charismatic, but devious presence that is undoubtedly the villain of this story. It’s an interesting twist to the conventional murder mystery, in which the goal is usually to find the killer, but Luisa argues that Shining Girls “is not a whodunnit, it’s a how-they-dunnit.” The real mystery of the show is steeped in the sci-fi details: why does Kirby’s reality keep shifting and what does that have to do with this man?
What Luisa loved most about Beukes’ book was how it didn’t glorify Harper, but focused on the women whose lives he destroyed. “It’s never easy to write a psychopath [character] because they are hopefully very foreign to you,” she joked. She needed Harper to be interesting enough that viewers would be intrigued by him, but “we’re not trying to do a sexy serial killer show that makes him the most interesting character.” She credits Bell with bringing nuance to the unhinged character. “He brought a kind of easy charm,” Luisa said, which could help viewers understand why someone could be attracted to him. “But he’s also very vulnerable and played the insecurity really well,” she added. “That really helped in fleshing Harper out. His humanness made him almost more unsettling.”
Read More: There’s an Ingenious Method in Shining Girls’ Mind-Bending Madness
Making sense of time
Understanding how time works on Shining Girls isn’t always easy, especially since the mechanics of it differ slightly from the book. But Luisa came up with a handy way of thinking about it. “The only way I could understand time is a string,” she said. “If Harper’s over near the tip of the string, his violence ripples forward and impacts Kirby wherever she is.” The series shows how survivors of abuse are forever tethered to their perpetrator. “Even if you don’t know where they are, even if you don’t know when they are, you’re connected to them by this invisible string,” she said. “The show is about cutting that string.”
To help keep track of all the jumps in time, Luisa and her writing team put together a board which mapped out every character’s trajectory. “Our approach was just to always keep it subjective and think about it from one character’s point of view: What does this person know? What was their minute before? What was their minute after?” she said. “Once we did that it became much easier to write the story.”
Shooting the script out of order was “the biggest production challenge,” she said. “The show is so detail focused and so every single person had to be so on their toes because Kirby’s world changes from one moment to the next.”
Luckily, the show’s star didn’t seem to have any trouble keeping up with all the time-hopping. “I think it was fun for Elisabeth Moss to have that as a performance challenge,” Luisa said. “It’s almost like having Alzheimer’s, you are experiencing something that is so all-encompassing and so isolating. She had to be able to show the slightest of changes and how Kirby would navigate them. It was a real pleasure to watch her figure that out.”