If you want to start a pop culture war, just say the words Fatal Attraction; sides will be picked, lines will be drawn in the sand, and the discourse of misogyny, feminism, and sex in ’80s cinema will resurrect itself like Alex Forrest from the bathtub. The original film dominated the box office for two solid months back in the fall of 1987 and the minds of many long after. Everyone was talking about it: analysts, critics and everyone with a platform weighed in on the film, its impact, and what it was trying to say. Did it set back feminism? Did Alex get what she deserved? Were men afraid of the independent woman?
How would the story, one that shifted the zeitgeist, translate today? As we now grapple with clever, if not always accurate, alliterative language like cancel culture and consequence culture, a reimagining of the love triangle between Alex Forrest and Beth and Dan Gallagher seems like a good idea. We can take an existing property and bend it, distort it, update it. But is it always the best idea? If something is dated, does that mean that it should just be replaced? Does it still carry value?
Right from the opening scene in Alexandra Cunningham and Kevin J. Hynes’ recent attempt, the eight-episode limited series streaming on Paramount+, the hindsight is clear: Dan Gallagher is finally going to be forced to take responsibility for his actions. We see how he pays for his horrible treatment of Alex, as well as the betrayal of his wife Beth and daughter Ellen: a fifteen year prison sentence.
He still has a great head of hair, somehow, but it certainly isn’t stylish, much like his life in the wake of his decisions. Alex has met the same fate as in the film (see: dead), Beth is now happily remarried, and his now-grown daughter is in therapy. The story we already know is told instead through extensive flashbacks. In this version, however, Alex is struggling with a traumatic past and a single parent with an implied history of mental illness.
Glenn Close was restricted from opening Alex’s story in the original film so that her character received more sympathy on the surface. Despite this, the power of her performance convinced 1987 audiences that this was a woman traumatized, a woman who deserved respect but was exploited. With that portrayal by Glenn Close, what does the new Fatal Attraction add? Over time, the sympathy for Alex Forrest has grown, and Dan Gallagher’s support has already fallen from its rabid 1987 levels. Now that the average person can recognize his gaslighting, we already revisit it from a progressed point of view.
With women being the primary consumers of erotic thrillers even before 1987, it’s hard to see who this version of Fatal Attraction is even for. It plays as a commentary on mental illness combined with a calculated femme fatale story, which simultaneously gives Alex agency and takes it away. It’s also a police procedural, a political drama, a family drama, a courtroom drama, and finally, least of all, an erotic thriller, which is what we signed up for and what it was sold as. If you love the erotic thriller genre, they can certainly be all of those things — but all at once? Regardless of the time allotted to the creators to retell this classic, is throwing in everything but the kitchen sink the best way to communicate the message?
In fact, let’s talk about the kitchen sink. The first time Dan and Alex have sex in the film is on the kitchen sink: wild, desperate and quick. The show attempts to show frenzy, but the choreography lacks rawness. Each time the show attempts to be erotic, it is far cleaner than the original film, which has literal dirty dishes in the sink and water splashing all over. Director Adrian Lyne loves to have the elements push lovers together; in Unfaithful (2002), it’s the wind, and in the original Fatal Attraction, it’s the rain. In the new series, the original rainstorm comes in the form of a contrived sprinkler malfunction after Alex sets a fire. They’re “pushed” to spend more time together, which sparks their affair in a more sanitized fashion.
Many people believe that the erotic thriller, as we understood it in the ’80s and ’90s (and even earlier, in the ’40s), is dead. Some believe it should be dead, because the films were politically incorrect, exploitive, misogynistic and hypersexualized. However, the desire for that type of storytelling didn’t go away, and the consumption was just transferred to something more visceral: true crime.
The interest driving the consumption of fictionalized sex and violence is still being satisfied, in the form of podcasts (My Favorite Murder), documentary series (Unsolved Mysteries) and historical drama (Dahmer), accompanied by a nostalgic revisiting of the classics like Body Heat, Call Me, Single White Female, and Fear. Some of these are being covered by the likes of Karina Longworth in her Hollywood podcast You Must Remember This, where she focused two seasons on the Erotic ’80s and Erotic ’90s and looks at the disappearance of sexuality from mainstream American cinema.
As we speak more freely than ever before about abuse, harassment, and the nuances surrounding sex overall, it seems we’ve taken a step back from sex in fiction. Sexual violence still has its place (see Game of Thrones), but erotic-centric storytelling has taken a back seat, and not in the enjoyable way. However, it seems the tide may be turning, particularly on Prime Video. Films like The Voyeurs, Lyne’s own Deep Water, and shows like Swimming with Sharks and Dead Ringers – both gender swapped film to TV adaptations – are unapologetic about licentious sexuality beyond hetero norms and combine both sex and violence in a way that is true to the erotic thriller genre. These other reboots know what genre they want to be. Despite the risk, they trust the audience to take a journey and make their own conclusions without unnecessary exposition.
In the original Fatal Attraction, there is a scene where Beth and Dan have their closest friends over. They smoke cigars, flirt, and say inappropriate things. They drink, they laugh. Then, there is a phone call. Beth answers it, and Dan looks panicked. As Beth continually repeats “hello,” her frustration growing as the caller remains silent, Dan looks even more concerned for himself. In the 2023 version, there is an homage to that scene, except it’s not fun, exciting, or indulgent. It is sweet and awkward, which is very realistic, but is absent of thrills. Yes, our society continues to evolve, and our tastes change, but erotic thrillers can still be a fantasy and sinful storytelling is still very much desired.
Yes, Dan deserved to be met with consequences. Beth, and Ellen deserved better, and Alex did not deserve to be ignored. But we already knew that.
All episodes of Fatal Attraction are now streaming on Paramount+.