Content warning: This article discusses sexual assault.

Book adaptations are so hot right now. In fact, it sometimes feels like every film and streaming show that’s been released in 2022 has been borne from popular fiction or non fiction pages, to the point where I’m honestly wondering if there’s anyone out there with original content ideas.

Still, if a book enthrals the masses, it would be remiss not to try and flip it into something we can watch, too. Luckiest Girl Alive, a character-driven thriller, was ripe for the picking.

A lengthy mystery that unravels slowly, sometimes painfully so, Luckiest Girl Alive follows Ani FaNelli (Mila Kunis), a hard-to-love and at times completely unlikeable woman living in New York City with the perfect everything – body, boyfriend, job, and wardrobe. But doesn’t she know it. Ani has one laser focus – success, and everything in her life ties to it. Seems like an awful story to read, right? Except that over the course of the novel, we learn about harrowing events that formed this abrasive, self-motivated woman, and it all makes complete, devastating sense.

luckiest girl alive
Kunis shines as adult Ani FaNelli, living a tightly controlled life to cope with past trauma. Image: Netflix.

I was interested to see how a film adaptation would handle the complex themes in this book, because it tackles two deeply traumatising human experiences. This is your spoiler warning if you’re yet to see the film or read the book, by the way.

How we depict sexual assault on screen has been up for debate over the past few years. I would say the conversation shifted after the controversial rape scene in Game Of Thrones, when Sansa Stark was abused by her husband, Ramsay Bolton. We don’t see Sansa but we hear her, instead observing the scene through Theon, who is forced to watch.

The online conflict was around whether the scene was necessary or simply gratuitous. Was Game Of Thrones just using rape for shock value? Or did this experience shape Sansa and therefore was necessary to show? We also argued over whether watching Theon through the abuse, not Sansa, made it about his pain and not hers. 

Since then, we’ve seen similar discussions around sexual assault depictions in other films and tv shows – Netflix’s Blonde being a recent example. Seemingly learning from Game Of Thrones mistakes, Blonde focuses on Marilyn Monroe as she’s raped by a producer, with a prolonged close-up of her expressions through shock, pain and dissociation. While the film itself garnered criticism for fetishising female trauma, the scene itself was praised for being about Monroe and the impact of assault.

The gang rape scene in Luckiest Girl Alive is certainly shocking. But I would argue that, in this case, the shock factor is both pivotal to the story and delivers the reality of rape, not a glossed over, easily digestible version. 

The difficulty of reporting sexual assault is highlighted in Luckiest Girl Alive. Image: Netflix.

Author and screenplay writer Jessica Knoll penned an essay for online newsletter Lenny Letter in 2016 about her own experience of gang rape, explaining that Ani’s assault in the novel reflects her own. This is not a scene written by someone removed from an experience. Knoll also enlisted the assistance of anti-sexual violence organisation RAINN in depicting the scene on film, and told Today that even now, she will “normalise” what happened to her in an attempt to live with it, but that watching back the rape scene hammered home the atrocities that were committed. “When you see it, you’re like, ‘Oh, there’s no rationalising here. I don’t need to minimise this. This was really bad.”

Rape is horrific, and it’s only just being depicted that way in film. Like I May Destroy You, the award-winning British series of 2020, Luckiest Girl Alive does not shy away from the brutality and life-changing impact of rape. It is ugly. It is abhorrent. Of course it should be hard to watch.

We need these ugly depictions of rape in film because we still can’t get our minds around the reality of sexual assault. It does not always occur in a dark alley, perpetrated by a stranger. It happens at high school parties. In marriage beds. At the hands of people we love and trust. When rape occurs in a setting we associate with safety, we envision it as a safe experience  that the survivor has twisted. The depiction in Luckiest Girl Alive is the reality.

With this being said, I think Netflix has done a disservice to sexual assault survivors with Luckiest Girl Alive. This film desperately needs a content warning. It actually surprises me that Netflix didn’t think to warn viewers. It’s important that as we further understand the ongoing impact of trauma, we seek to protect those who have experienced it. Severance for example, featured a content warning for depictions of suicide. The scenes were brief, but would no doubt trigger some survivors who deserved the heads up.

Yes, it’s good to see film taking the gloss off violence, especially violence against women. It’s just crucial that as we move toward these raw depictions, we prepare viewers who may have experienced them.

If you need mental health support, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or visit online. If you or someone you know needs support after sexual assault, call 1800RESPECT or view resources online.