owning the narrative

Jessica Knoll Wrote Her Own Trauma Into Luckiest Girl Alive—Twice

The best-selling author talks about adapting her dark psychological thriller for the new Netflix movie, and how the production handled recreating her past trauma.
Jessica Knoll Wrote Her Own Trauma Into ‘Luckiest Girl Alive—Twice
Photo by Monica Schipper/Getty Images.

Let’s set the scene: It’s May 2015, and the must-have book peeking out of every other beach bag is the psychological thriller Luckiest Girl Alive, written by Jessica Knoll, a former editor at Self and Cosmopolitan. Riding a wave of high critical praise and “you’ve got to read this” word-of-mouth, the book is about to spend 17 consecutive weeks on The New York Times bestseller list, its film rights are promptly scooped up by Lionsgate, with Reese Witherspoon attached to coproduce, before Hello Sunshine or Witherspoon’s book club even officially exist, and, perhaps, most surprising, first-time novelist Knoll has convinced decision-makers that she should also adapt the book herself, though she’d never done that before either. It was important to her, and not just because she’d written the story. Not many people knew it, but in many ways, Luckiest Girl Alive was also her story.

Seven years later, the film adaptation, starring Mila Kunis and Chiara Aurelia, is set to premiere on Netflix on October 7. Sure, there were many changes and some personnel switch-ups—Witherspoon and Lionsgate are no longer attached, for one—but one thing stayed the same through every iteration: Knoll as screenwriter.

The story follows successful yet prickly magazine editor TifAni (“Ani”) FaNelli, played by Kunis, as she’s about to marry the perfect Waspy man who can give her everything she’s dreamed of: Wealth, status, class, and, as a bonus, a new name, one unrelated to a tragedy that befell her in high school. When a filmmaker wants to make a documentary about that traumatic event, her facade begins to crumble.

The book captivated audiences when it first debuted, but Knoll revealed her personal connection to the material in 2016 when she wrote an essay for Lena Dunham’s now defunct publication Lenny Letter, explaining that the sexual assault described in the book, perpetuated by three popular boys in Ani’s class, was based on an experience from Knoll’s own life. This was part of Knoll’s “fierce protection” over writing the film adaptation. “Nobody’s gonna care about certain things the way you do,” she tells Vanity Fair.

The film deals not only with sexual assault, but also gun violence in schools and how trauma, left untreated, can threaten everything in your life. Despite the dark plot elements, Knoll says that filming the movie in 2021 was “one of the most joyful summers of my life.”

Ahead of Luckiest Girl Alive’s release, Knoll shares how she took care of herself and those around her while making the movie, and what she’s reaching for next.

By Sabrina Lantos/Netflix.

Vanity Fair: You have been so vocal about wanting to adapt your own work, but not all writers are successful in doing that.

The big thing is that I really, really, really wanted this. I always assumed all authors want to adapt their things. Once I started talking to other people, I learned some have no interest in doing that. The big influence was Gillian Flynn. The fact that she had come from magazines and then wrote these blockbuster books and was going to adapt Gone Girl, I really held her up as this guiding light.

It was a combination of that and this incredibly fierce protection over Ani and the story. That was because at that point, a lot of people who were coming into the project as a producer or a potential executive at a studio—even my team at Simon and Schuster in 2014—didn’t know that there were parts of my own assault in this story. I felt like if you just give me the chance to write the screenplay, I know I can figure it out. I can prove it to you.

Since the book came out, so much has changed in terms of the way our culture thinks and talks about gun violence and sexual assault, but also not that much has changed regarding legislation. How did those evolving conversations influence your adaptation?

For the first couple of years that I was going through various revisions of the script, it was always set in contemporary times. But I remember at the end of 2020 or early 2021, I emailed our group of amazing producers and I was like, what do you guys think of setting this in 2015? It simplified the story since so many of the conversations around these issues have changed so much over the years. #MeToo would have to be acknowledged—like if Ani is going to come out with her story, it's almost like the stakes are somewhat lower because the world has shown that they're ready to embrace women who tell their truth.

By Sabrina Lantos/Netflix.

Like you mentioned, parts of this book are based on experiences you've had, specifically the sexual assault. Watching those scenes on-screen is very different from reading those scenes in the book. What was the experience like of taking what you had written and then adapting it for the film knowing that it was based, in part, on your life?

The act of actually adapting it, like sitting at my computer and writing it, was no different than writing it in the book. But I did not go to set that day when they filmed those scenes. I was really concerned for the young men who were playing [the perpetrators]. I was always worried about Chiara, but I was also trying to be careful not to overwhelm her with comments like, are you sure you're okay? Because she had made a comment to the intimacy coordinator that those were almost making her anxiety worse. So I knew this was going to be difficult for everyone to film and I decided, why would I be there and add another layer of them feeling like, okay, the woman who this actually happened to is sitting watching this? They want to do their jobs and I don't need to make it more difficult. I went shopping that day instead. I took myself out to lunch. I had a nice little time.

Watching it on screen, though, it's one of those things where you normalize what has happened to you in your head: It was rape, but like, they were also drunk. It was probably a misunderstanding. It's not as bad as it was. But seeing it, you're just like, oh my god, what the fuck is wrong with you guys? Like, that's what you did to me? No, this is cut and dry. You knew what you were doing was wrong. I almost feel like it was good for me to see it in that sense, because I still have moments of self-doubt. Like, do I really deserve to feel the way I feel about this? Seeing it, I’m like, yeah, I do.

You brought up having an intimacy coordinator on set. What other kinds of folks did you bring in to support handling this difficult material?

RAINN and Sandy Hook Promise read all the versions of the script and they would give us feedback. The other thing was that our director Mike Barker would first meet the actor, talk to them about the difficult scenes they were going to do, and go over everything the person would be comfortable with and what could not be done. Then he would write them a letter, summarizing what they talked about and it was this contract: This is what we’re filming. This is what will be asked of you. This is what we will never do, and I promise we will not deviate from this on the day that we film. And then he stuck to it. That’s how you build trust with actors.

By Sabrina Lantos/Netflix.

One of the things that I am so drawn to in your writing is the way that you talk about ambition—wanting to be rich and striving for success, which, we know, are traditionally not things that women are encouraged to say out loud. But as you advance in your career, I assume the goalposts keep moving. How do you deal with those changing expectations of yourself?

The goalposts keep moving in my career, but also in my own interior world and personal life. I went through a time where I felt like the only things that brought me joy were wins in my career and I knew this was a problem. I knew I needed a little bit more balance and to have a life that I also enjoyed—good friends and potentially a family one day. For me, the goalposts have almost shifted more in that area. I’ve done a lot of work figuring out what it is that makes me happy in my regular life where I'm not writing and trying to get my next book deal or adaptation deal. I also think that the goalposts shift in terms of what makes me the happiest.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.