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Ottessa Moshfegh creates a noir ‘New England universe’ in her film adaptation of ‘Eileen’

Starring Thomasin McKenzie and Anne Hathaway, “Eileen” is in theaters on Dec. 8.

Ottessa Moshfegh, author of the award-winning 2015 novel "Eileen."Jake Belcher

It’s Christmas time in Ottessa Moshfegh’s 2015 novel, “Eileen,” but in its fictional Massachusetts town setting of 1964 X-Ville, things are dark and bleak.

The story follows Eileen Dunlop, a young secretary at a boys’ prison who returns to her dilapidated home each evening only to be greeted by her alcoholic father. She spends her free time in her attic bedroom, reading National Geographic or chewing up chocolates and spitting them out. But when she meets Rebecca, a shining Harvard graduate and alluring new addition to the prison’s counseling team, she starts to imagine a different life for herself. Eileen is bewitched by her new friend, bewildered when Rebecca’s actions take a darker turn, and pulled in despite herself.

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Adapted into a screenplay by Moshfegh and her husband, writer Luke Goebel, Eileen can be seen on the silver screen on Dec. 8, driving her father’s old Dodge through wintry New England streets with the windows rolled down.

Directed by William Oldroyd and starring Thomasin McKenzie as Eileen and Anne Hathaway as Rebecca, “Eileen” depicts what Moshfegh, a Newton native, calls “a New England universe … the land of a past that feels like a prison bound by its own secrets.”

The Globe spoke to Moshfegh via Zoom about translating her award-winning debut novel into a screenplay, a grim portrayal of Massachusetts, and more.

Thomasin McKenzie in "Eileen."Jeong Park

Q. What about Massachusetts made it feel like the right choice for the setting of such a dark story?

A. The stories we see most commonly that take place in Massachusetts are [either about] this scholarly zone of sophisticated thinking or this working class, tough community heart story. I love both of those aspects of what Massachusetts conjures for us. That’s why I wanted to write a story about someone from working class New England, the daughter of a retired cop, coming into a relationship with an intellectual from one of the first graduating classes of women from Harvard. A meeting of these minds in a world where they both feel they don’t quite fit. They are characters moving into the future, and X-Ville is the land of a past that feels like a prison bound by its own secrets. So, to me, it really felt like a New England universe.

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I grew up in Newton. I had family in Cohasset, and I just remember these very long drives through Hingham and places like that. You know, when you’re a kid, it just feels like an infinite car ride? This is the rest of your life, you’re just driving in the backseat. I’d just be asking myself: Who are these people? What is happening here? It felt so strange, and it felt so close at the same time. And so Eileen’s story felt really close to me even though Eileen and I have very different lives, very different backgrounds.

Q. There were a lot of characters in the novel that didn’t have as large of a role in the film. Why did you choose to leave them out?

A. What I could do in a novel I could not do in a script. We knew that we needed to sort of boil the story down to its essence, and the essence was really: Who is Eileen? Who is Rebecca? And how do they use each other in the way that they do?

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Q. While the novel is told from Eileen’s point of view, the film captures her story without narration. Why did you choose to keep Eileen’s inner thoughts from the viewer?

Whenever you adapt a novel for film and the novel is in first person, you always ask yourself: Does this have a narration? I think we all just immediately said no. We wanted there to be this sense of danger, and we wanted the viewer to be worried for Eileen, to feel the anxiety of not knowing what would happen. So voice-over was just not going to cut it.

But around this question that you’re focusing on, the unreliability — that was really important. Is she telling us the truth? Is she fantasizing? And we decided that we wanted to use some of that perspective and the slippage between what might be real and what might be her fantasy. I think viewers will see that it’s actually really exciting in these moments when we’re not quite sure. … We were always asking ourselves: What is the most exciting way to tell this story?

Q. In a 2016 interview you did with the Guardian, you said you wrote the novel as a “joke.” Do you still feel the same way about the story now?

A. Not really. I mean, I can’t go back and change the way I felt 12 years ago, and I think I’m also someone who’s matured in the last 12 years. I don’t need to flip the bird at someone that I want to impress. I totally stand by everything I said in that moment. It was honest, and I wish in some ways that I felt like that big of a punk now. But I also feel like I’ve moved into new territory and my ambitions have shifted, so not as riled up.

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It’s also a totally different world. Even in the last three years, the presidency shifted dramatically, there was a pandemic, there was Black Lives Matter, #MeToo — all these incredible social movements that changed the way we see and communicate. So I think the book was born into a different world, and I’m excited that the film is coming out at the end of 2023. It’s a new world, and I think that the conversations about Eileen’s story are going to be deep and awesome.



Elena Giardina can be reached at elena.giardina@globe.com.