Although Kristen Roupenian’s New Yorker short story Cat Person was widely read and referenced in 2017, it did not seem like a natural choice for adaptation due to its controversial and self-contained nature. The story follows a 20-year-old female student who has a short-lived relationship with a difficult-to-read man in his mid-30s (who may or may not own cats), a relatable and uncomfortable experience for many readers. Overall, the story captured the messiness and uneasiness that can often accompany brief relationships.
The success of Cat Person led to demands for more, even to the point of insistence. The author received a book deal (a collection of short stories that received mixed reception) and sold a screenplay (for the Gen Z murder mystery Bodies Bodies Bodies, which underwent significant changes). Despite not being a perfect fit, Cat Person was still bought for adaptation into a film. Nearly six years after its initial online release, it is now being featured at Sundance as a curiosity, serving as a reminder of a specific moment in online culture. The question of “Do you remember Cat Person?” is quickly replaced with “How did they adapt Cat Person into a movie?” and then morphs into “Why did they turn Cat Person into a thriller?”
The topic is a constant worry and seems to be a result of both financial concerns and the recent success of two Sundance films, Promising Young Woman and Fresh, which both incorporated controversial issues of gender dynamics in romantic relationships. The balance may not be as equal in this case, but the main idea remains the same and is effective: dating is a frightening experience. Who am I messaging? Who am I drinking with? Who am I being intimate with? It’s strange that despite how many of us ask ourselves or our trusted friends these important questions, there aren’t more thrillers exploring the terrifying uncertainty of dating. It’s inherently suspenseful, the excitement of getting to know someone quickly overshadowed by genuine fears of safety.
Margot, played by Emilia Jones from Coda, doesn’t think much of giving her number to Robert, portrayed by Nicholas Braun from Succession, a shy regular at the movie theater where she works. Despite being younger and more attractive, Margot lacks the confidence that Robert seems to possess. However, there is something alluring and mysterious about him that is evident in their text conversations. While her friends advise her to only maintain a digital relationship with him, they eventually start meeting in person and Margot begins to uncover his true identity.
The adaptation from a 7,000-word story to a two-hour film is a difficult process. While the movie adds some content, such as filling in gaps and expanding characters, it also loses some elements. The original subtleties in Roupenian’s text are now explicitly shown on screen, which can be frustrating at times. This is demonstrated by the use of Margaret Atwood’s quote about men and women’s fears in the opening scene, which feels heavy-handed and lacking in context. The script by Michelle Ashford also includes other awkward additions as it tries too hard to address every current social issue, leading to a forced and predictable ending.
Ashford and Susanna Fogel, who co-wrote Booksmart, manage to skillfully adapt their material. They make stylish visual choices, ensuring the film always looks fantastic. The internal monologue is incorporated without the use of heavy-handed voiceovers, instead using clever montages of Margot’s fantasies about Robert’s life. The standout scene is a convincingly uncomfortable sex scene between the two, which raises questions about our actions and thoughts in the moment. These difficult and complex moments show the potential for a successful adaptation. Jones does a good job portraying fear, vulnerability, and strength, while Braun’s miscasting is evident due to his appearance and awkwardness not aligning with the character’s needs.
Despite its flaws, I enjoyed the film until the ending of the short story, which if it had ended there, it could have earned an additional star. However, the film takes a sudden turn into ridiculous and intense horror, completely abandoning the suspenseful tone of the story. This decision is nonsensical and replaces the previously scary unease with overt violence. The uncertainty, which many of us can relate to, is what truly lingers in our minds. Where did he go? What did I do? What did I not do? Will I ever know the truth? The unanswered questions in the story are given obvious and unsatisfying answers, disregarding relatability and disregarding logic and investment.
The secret has been revealed, but perhaps it would have been better kept hidden.
The film Cat Person was shown at the Sundance festival and will be available in UK theaters on October 27th.