The serial killer thriller has always been a sketchy genre, hovering in the disreputable margin between murder mystery and horror. Real-life serial killers are sordid figures, typically social isolates with low IQs, but in the fantasyland of fiction, they’re freaky, sadistic geniuses like Hannibal Lecter, suitable opponents for the improbably clever detectives who chase them. A long-standing complaint about the cultural obsession with these murderers is that the attention they attract overshadows their victims—often women—who serve as anonymous props for the killer’s terrifying satanic glamour. The more average and “relatable” the victims are, the scarier the killer is, because the audience can easily imagine falling victim themselves—but the more, also, the murderer becomes the star of the show.
Lauren Beukes’ 2013 novel The Shining Girls found an ingenious solution to this conundrum, even if that solution doesn’t figure in the high-concept pitch for the book or the new miniseries based on it: a time-traveling serial killer. In Beukes’ novel, the murderer is a seedy nonentity named Harper Curtis, originally a Depression-era drifter with a violent past but no particular talent for bloodshed. Harper stumbles upon an evil row house in Chicago. Inside he finds your classic murder board with the names of young women on it, written, mystifyingly, in his own hand. Soon he learns that the house will allow him to travel within a set range of decades, provided he feeds its malevolent spirit with killings. Kirby, the novel’s heroine, becomes one of Harper’s victims in 1989, but she survives the attack and thereafter devotes her life to hunting him down.
The Apple TV+ adaptation, created and written by producer Silka Luisa, doubles down on the high-concept aspect, nearly jettisoning what made the novel truly brilliant and innovative. Elizabeth Moss’ Kirby is a woman barely holding herself together because at any moment her entire life could change. Sometimes she lives by herself and has a cat named Grendel; then suddenly she’s living with her aging rock ’n’ roller mom (Amy Brenneman) in the same apartment building but a different unit and Grendel is a dog. Sometimes she’s married to a protective photographer (Chris Chalk). Sometimes she has short, frumpy hair, a shapeless wardrobe, and works as a researcher for a newspaper. (The main action is set in the early 1990s, when papers kept clipping files in a department called the morgue.) Sometimes she’s a reporter with a stylish haircut, makeup, and low-cut blouses that reveal the top of the scar Harper (Jamie Bell) left on her abdomen. In every version of her life, Kirby keeps a notebook filled with the basic information about herself that she needs to function, but the unpredictable shifts leave her backfooted much of the time. Her only constant is her desire to catch Harper, whose face she has never even seen.
The viewer will quickly catch on that Harper is constantly traveling into the past, changing big or little things that alter the timeline in major and minor ways. Much of the eight episodes of the miniseries is taken up with Kirby’s search for him, aided by Dan (Wagner Moura) an alcoholic reporter whom she convinces that a serial killer is at work. But Kirby mostly keeps the bizarre changes in her life to herself, and what she makes of them isn’t always clear. Perhaps Kirby thinks she’s mentally ill or emotionally disturbed, which is certainly what her husband assumes when she tries to confide in him. Eventually she figures it out, but this adaptation is enigmatic about when and how. The anachronistic items Harper leaves behind with each corpse are a major tipoff. The dizzying timeline switches aren’t an element of the novel, and they turn the adaptation into the sort of complicated puzzle series that inspires dozens of YouTube videos titled “Shining Girls Ending Explained.”
Beukes was up to something different, and you can still detect her deeper concept for this story in the miniseries. There’s a scene where Harper tricks a young woman into entering the backroom of a convenience store and seems about to harm her, when he suddenly desists and lets her go. “Why would I follow you any further?” he says scornfully. “You can’t even find a door.” And then there’s the title itself, which suggests that there’s something special about Harper’s victims, even if the miniseries never gets around to explaining what. As Beukes’ novel conceived them, his victims are “shining girls,” women of unusual potential. One is a Black Rosie the Riveter integrating a steelworks in World War II. Another is part of the Jane Collective, an underground feminist movement during the late ’60s and early ’70s that helped women obtain abortions when they were illegal. Another is a gifted transgender architect. The mini-portraits Beukes creates of these women really do shine, each character a person as interesting and three-dimensional as Harper is banal and flattened. The Shining Girls is that rare serial killer thriller in which the victims out-glow the killer, but none of these rich stories makes it into the miniseries.
Instead, the adaptation transforms Beukes’ tribute to female talent into a grim portrait of trauma. Harper’s assault literally unmakes Kirby, turning her into a woman who doesn’t, who can’t, know herself. Moss’ performance is both fierce and fragile, but it’s basically two notes: glowering rage and wide-eyed obsession teetering on the verge of unhinged. Occasional flashbacks to Kirby’s life before the attack give some sense of who she might have become, but there seems no way for her to get back a shred of that former self. (The miniseries also ends on a much bleaker note than the novel did.)
I suppose a case could be made for this approach if you see The Shining Girls as being Kirby’s story alone, but the novel is more than that. In a scene from the miniseries, Kirby and Dan pore over police records and crime photos, looking for other victims of Harper. The screen is given over to a lightning-fast sequence of dozens of still images, each featuring a broken, lifeless female body. It’s a bitter testament to the losses caused by male violence over the decades, but these corpses remain largely anonymous, and the miniseries doesn’t devote much time to Harper’s other victims, apart from an astronomer in Kirby’s own era who talks a lot of nonsense about entangled particles by way of a metaphysical explanation of what’s going on. This makes for a serviceable supernatural thriller, but this reader, for one, can’t help mourning the loss of all those shining girls.