Another time travel fiction review with SPOILERS for the TV show (and to some extent the book as well)
I very much enjoyed the Apple TV series Shining Girls, an adaptation of Lauren Beukes’ 2013 novel The Shining Girls. I thought it was well acted, well shot, mostly well written and had a satisfying ending, albeit a problematic one since the killer is left alive and Kirby might now be forever bound to the house like he was. However, I was confused and somewhat annoyed by the time-travel aspects; the way the house worked as a time machine mostly made sense, but the way that Kirby’s present (and later that of Harper and Jin-Sook) was shown to change moment to moment really makes zero sense. It made me very curious to find out if it was part of the book, and I soon found out that it wasn’t. I decided to read the book as much preferred the idea of a straightforward time travel version of the same story. As much as I enjoyed the book, it made me all the more annoyed that the TV version had made such a dramatic and nonsensical change. It wasn’t the only questionable change either. The focus upon Kirby and her ever-shifting reality resulted in a great deal being changed or removed, including most of the titular ‘shining girls’ including, surprisingly for 2022, the black, trans, and pro-abortion characters. The ones that are retained are significantly changed and a whole new character – Leo Jenkins – is added for no clear reason.
Time travel in the novel is straightforward; you simply can’t change the past. It’s a clever twist on a closed loop like The Terminator or Twelve Monkeys. So nothing changes. In the TV show it’s more like Terminator 2 or Back to the Future – you can change the past and save the girls. This is a change that the 12 Monkeys TV show also made to the movie’s story, and I could have lived with the same here. Most people don’t share my love of closed loops and it’s fun to see a seemingly foregone conclusion averted/subverted (which is why James Cameron contradicted his own first movie with his sequel – it made for an emotionally satisfying ending at the expense of pure logic. No, what got me annoyed in Shining Girls (2022) was not the malleable timeline but the introduction of a second, wholly nonsensical mechanism for changing it. This is both more confusing than it need be and a direct contradiction because in theory changes made by one mechanism should impact those made by the other. Dark and Avengers: Endgame (see my review here) both introduced branching realities, to varying degrees of success – I would have been OK with this show doing something similar since under that system of time travel cause and effect is pretty much intact. Shining Girls makes the same mistake as Endgame, but whereas that logic only broke in the final scenes and can be ‘fixed’ with some off-screen assumptions, Shining Girls is fundamentally broken as a time travel story since its second mechanism is nothing to do with ‘many worlds’ and is, well, random. Drinking vessels, desks, haircuts, clothes, characters and locations all change, for absolutely no reason. No multiverse shenanigans are ever mentioned or even implied. The characters speculate at one point that the changes are somehow echoes of events that might yet happen; a laundromat changes into a bar for which Kirby already has a matchbook, and Kirby goes from single to married to a coworker.
Dan: When things change for you, do you recognize it?
Kirby: Sometimes. Other times, they’re just random.
Dan: Maybe they’re what’s to come.
But then it’s shown that she doesn’t marry her coworker at all in the ‘final’ timeline, at least as far as we see. Is she still destined to do so at some point? If so then there’s no chance that she stays in the house and becomes some sort of time-travelling vigilante or whatever. They’ve shown that it’s possible to change reality, seemingly permanently, so surely the timeline where she marries him is no longer viable? When should the laundromat have been a bar and what are the consequences of it changing at the ‘wrong’ time? Kirby has the matchbook – why? Jin-Sook’s career is destroyed in the present because she isn’t killed…also in the present. At the same time Kirby’s present also shifts because Dan is stabbed, again, in the present. Why? The answer to all of this and the other seemingly random changes is deeply unsatisfying and illogical. The cause of these changes is not meddling in the past but rather (sigh) strong emotions experienced by someone who is ‘entangled’ (a clear if nonsensical attempt to reference quantum mechanics) with another person who is somehow detached from time – namely Harper (with Kirby’s fellow victim Jin-Sook joining the entangled mess later on). In Luisa’s own words:
“I always thought of time just there’s one string of time, and so wherever Harper is he’s still connected to Kirby so his emotions, his violence against other women it ripples forward kind of like a butterfly effect and changes her world, changes her, you know, her hair, her apartment depending on on what he’s done, and so if he kills Jin-Sook in April 26 it doesn’t matter that Kirby is, you know, at the same time, it basically ripples backwards and still impacts her life.”
This (and another attempt to explain it here) makes absolutely no sense. The conceit of ‘mutable’ timeline time travel and much of our fascination with it is that when you change something, you’re creating a cause that has an effect. It doesn’t matter which way around – you can have something exist out of time in the past that is caused in the future; logically speaking there’s no problem with that. But two unconnected events are, well, unconnected. There IS no cause, there can be no effect. How the hell does Harper killing a woman that has nothing to do with Kirby’s past change Kirby’s present? How does him attacking her in the present change the past of the building that they happen to be in? Or where her desk is? How is Harper ‘entangled’ with Kirby in the first place? He’s affected by the house’s time travel magic – is this somehow contagious? There is no satisfactory answer to any of these questions. What Harper is doing in the present cannot logically affect events in the past. He can take an object from the present back or otherwise change the past IN the past, but he can’t just throw a spacetime tantrum and change Kirby’s past from the present. What Luisa is describing is some sort of psychic warfare – which might have been an interesting premise for a TV series, but not this one. The changes are not even consistent in their frequency or magnitude. At one point near the end reality shifts again but Kirby’s hair, clothes and makeup don’t. This was apparently because they “ran out of hairstyles” and liked her cool punky confident look so they just kept it.
Of course it’s possible to (as some fans have) invoke ‘many worlds’ and say that every change we see is actually the universe branching, but that’s not shown or told to us. Instead, everything is shown to happen in a single mutable timeline in which trips to the past absolutely do change the present/future. Further, only causal events that take place in the subjective present (like the fight with the changing building) could create a branch in reality and even then, this branch would occur then and there, not arbitrarily in the past (indeed, according to the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, that’s exactly what IS happening all the time). If you’re going to make up rules that aren’t logical, OK, do that, but you need to spell them out, if not in the show then somewhere (famously, Donnie Darko did this on its website).
I don’t think I’m just being a time travel obsessive here. It isn’t just the fun nerdy logic puzzle aspect that this affects, it’s the narrative as well (unless you miss the fact or choose to overlook it). Although it feels like the stakes and tension are being raised by the changes becoming more frequent and disruptive, they aren’t really – it’s unearned and artificial-feeling, like overly dramatic loud music playing over an otherwise ordinary scene (looking at you, modern Doctor Who). If anything can happen at any moment to three of the main characters, nothing really matters. It’s also needlessly confusing for the viewer, since it’s hard enough for people to follow cause-and-effect changes – hence the contrived photos and fax in Back to the Future – never mind completely random ones taking place in parallel yet not, apparently, conflicting with or modifying the logical changes. Two totally separate mechanisms for change happening at the same time. It’s a bizarre narrative choice, especially since it isn’t taken from the book, and detracts from the otherwise excellent acting, staging, dialogue etc. However, having read many reviews, not many seem to agree with me. They seem to fall into several camps on the time travel aspects. First, people like this SyFy reviewer who seem to think that this multiverse travel, which I’ve explained isn’t the case. Second, some people misunderstand what’s shown and think that the changes ARE due to Harper changing the past, like this Slate reviewer who, by the way, I otherwise agree with. Even Beukes seems to rue the changes to an extent, although she seems mostly happy with the adaptation, perhaps because she’s less attached to her own coherent time travel than I or simply because adaptations are inevitably a compromise between producers, showrunner, writers and studio. Then there are the people who just don’t care or even (looking at you, Redditors) protest that anyone trying to analyse the time travel is ‘missing the point’ and should stop fussing over it. Finally, and not too far removed from the last group, are people who accept that Harper, Kirby or Jin-Sook’s emotions are somehow enough to change the timeline, which as noted is what the showrunner and writers actually intended. As is often the case with fan explanations, none is very satisfactory.
It seems to me that the creators understood that unexpected timeline changes are interesting and fun from movies like Primer or The Butterfly Effect (or perhaps series like 12 Monkeys) and would fit their intent for the adaptation, but weren’t able (or didn’t care) put in the work to make the changes work in terms of cause and effect. Instead they came up with this handwavy version in which things might feel like they might ultimately make sense but logic is in fact out of the window. It’s very much the J.J. Abrams empty ‘mystery box’ approach – set up the intriguing mystery, then reveal that stuff just happens because the writers say so rather than because (say) Harper killing the coroner/medical examiner in the past prevents Kirby getting access to the body she needs to investigate and suddenly a key piece of evidence is lost to her (other than her memory of it) in the present. I chose this example because they do a similar reality shift with the medical examiner in the show (changing from a woman to a man and back again), but it happens (twice) for no reason other than to throw off the audience.
The idea here was that Kirby’s ever-shifting present would be a metaphor for her trauma and “born of a desire to keep the series subjective to Kirby’s experience”, but there’s no reason why subjectively unexplained shifts (i.e. we the viewer sees the cause, Kirby doesn’t) wouldn’t do just as well – better, in fact, since Harper would be actively changing her past to affect her present and future, rather than being clueless as to how or why he was having these effects. Happily, like the other stories I referenced, The Shining Girls novel follows a self-consistent narrative – Harper was always going to lose, he (and Kirby) just didn’t know it yet. No-one is saved by changing the past. Even the hard date limit on Harper’s time travel, hand-waved in the show, is originally due to the fact that the timeline is (as the author’s time-travel consultant Sam Wilson confirmed) self-consistent – he can’t go past 1993 because that’s when the house is, essentially, fated to burn. He is living a loop – he dies in the burning house and then, it’s strongly implied, becomes the house, reaching back to lure a series of owners, including himself, to try to makes things right. But it’s a closed loop – he is merely setting the story in motion from its end. He has no free will, something that people tend to dislike about predestination stories, but I find them satisfying. The creators of the show claimed that they didn’t want the house to be the driving force for Harper’s murders because it took away from his agency – they wanted him bad in the first place. Seemingly, Luisa and co have misunderstood the ending – the house is not just some supernatural entity driving Harper to kill, it’s his ghost. Harper himself is the supernatural cause of the time travel in this story. There was no need to change the story to make Harper solely responsible for his evil – he already was. Like all serial killers he thinks that he has some higher reason for killing but in reality it’s pointless and circular. This also destroys the origin of the time travel house – in the show it’s just…there, and remains unexplained. Kirby inherits it as a “totem of power” according to Luisa, which seems anathema to the original ending (to be fair to her she does acknowledge that this isn’t necessarily a good thing).
Author Lauren Beukes had fellow writer Sam Wilson ‘doctor’ the timeline for her to make it work, and he did a great job. Beukes also gives her vision for her novel:
“I wanted to use time travel as a way of exploring how much has changed (or, depressingly stayed the same) over the course of the 20th Century, especially for women, and subvert the serial killer genre by keeping the focus much more on the victims and examining what real violence is and what it does to us. The killer has a type, but it’s not a physical thing – he goes for women with fire in their guts, who kick back against the conventions of their time.”
This aspect, unlike the closed time loop, somewhat carries over to the TV series, albeit lacking the same variety in terms of the titular girls. However, she also stated that she;
“…wanted to play with loops and paradoxes and obsessions which meant the model I settled on was a fatalistic one. Think of it is as Greek tragedy time travel – the more you resist your destiny, the more you put in to play all the events that will bring it about, like Oedipus or MacBeth or King Herrod but also, in the way it loops back on itself, echoing the legends of Sisyphus and the punishment of Prometheus.”
This is thrown out along with the time travel logic and, for me, somewhat undermines its own narrative. As Beukes correctly tried to show, trauma cannot be magically undone and the dead certainly cannot be brought back. You can only try to address it and, hopefully, stop others from suffering in future. As I said, I did enjoy the show as a supernatural mystery series with time travel elements. The time periods were all nicely depicted and the excitement of travelling through time was there. But it didn’t scratch that timey-wimey itch for me, unfortunately. The recent adaptation of The Time Traveller’s Wife was much better in that regard. In conclusion, if you’re a time travel nut like me, check out the show if you like, but the main thing is to read or listen to the book. Not only is the time travel much better but the way the interior of the house works, its origins and connection to the killer, and even the title all make much more sense.