Fatal Attraction is an iconic part of cinema. Adrian Lyne’s thriller starring Michael Douglas and Glenn Close topped the box office charts after it was released in 1987 to become the second-highest-grossing film of the year. It earned six Oscar nominations, inspired decades of stalker movies and, in recent years, has been revisited in think pieces around the retooled ending, sparked by Close speaking out about ways the film didn’t do right by her character, Alex Forrest.
“When they asked me to do it, obviously I was like, ‘I’m not going to do that. That sounds absolutely terrifying,’” Alexandra Cuningham tells The Hollywood Reporter of adapting the movie for TV. “I was thinking, I’ll just watch the movie again so that I’m being a good citizen when I send the email saying I’m not gonna do it. Then, you get sucked in.”
What sucked Cuningham in was rewatching the film with a modern-day eye and imagining what she could do if she had multiple episodes to dive back in. “I’d love to see that scene again from another point of view. I’d like to write my own version of that scene,” she says. “And one of the things that really got to me this time around, probably because I knew it was a possibility to think about, is the daughter. I’ve always watched Ellen going through all of this emotional trauma and wondering, ‘How is she processing all of this?’”
She was also motivated by the idea of showing the perspective of the villain. Close in recent years has spoken out about the intense preparation she did for Alex, a character who she believed had an undiagnosed mental illness. The movie never addresses her mental health, however, and instead treats her as a “murdering psychopath” who deserved to die.
“Reading all the interviews with Glenn Close where she would talk about all the psychological preparation and the work she did to give such a holistic portrayal of a real person, who is struggling in pain and isolation, which is what I see when I watch the movie, and to see how that was turned into this audience feeling of ‘we need to terminate the bitch with extreme prejudice‘ — everyone in Hollywood knows that quote from the head of Paramount [Sherry Lansing’s biography], it felt like there were a lot of opportunities for me to say things that I’m interested in, and ask those questions and see whether anyone wanted to ask them with me,” says Cunningham of why she signed on as showrunner.
Cunningham says the adaptation pitch originally came from Steven Spielberg telling Paramount Studios, “You guys should do a limited series anthology of Fatal Attraction.” And her experience as showrunner on the long-running soapy drama Desperate Housewives and, more recently, with the Dirty John anthology, made the idea an appealing one. So she pitched an arc for a limited series that would, similar to the film years ago, have an “oh, shit!” ending. (Spoiler alert? After retooling the film’s original ending — instead of Alex slitting her own throat — she’s shot dead by Beth as she emerges with a knife from the bathtub after a struggle with Dan.)
Flash-forward to now and Fatal Attraction, the seven-part limited series, has launched its first three episodes on Paramount+, and it sets out to answer those questions raised by Cunningham by both jumping into the film’s future with Dan Gallagher, Michael Douglas’ character who is played by Joshua Jackson, and flipping back to the past to revisit the events in the film and expand perspectives, including that of Alex, played here by Lizzy Caplan.
The series opens up in the present-day as Dan is paroled for Alex’s murder and reaches back out to his grown-up daughter Ellen (played by Alyssa Jirrels) to begin a complicated path of redemption, which is laser-focused on clearing his name by proving that he did not commit the murder. “Who is the Dan she’s encountering? What has he learned or not learned, as a person who has his own issues going on — he’s clearly a narcissist, maybe not diagnosable — and so that was where all that scaffolding started to go up with the two timelines,” says Cunningham.
The series then sets up a murder mystery, as if both Dan and the audience don’t already know who killed Alex. So, are viewers meant to go into the series wiping that slate clean?
“There obviously are a lot of Easter eggs in the show from the original movie — there’s a rabbit, there’s an elevator, there’s rain. In terms of people going on that journey, we would like people to think the homage is that complete. But, is it? I can’t say,” she says whether their ending will reveal the same killer.
The third episode presents Alex’s perspective for the first time ever, but Cunningham wants viewers to understand that more will be revealed as the series drops weekly from here on out. She knows eyes are fixated on how they will tackle Alex’s story.
“Delving into the motives and intentions is going to take longer than one episode. Clearly, there’s a lot to unpack there,” she says. “And the storytelling is so heightened that a lot of things are going to happen along the way that I think you’ll be sympathetic one moment and angry another moment and confused, and there will be an explanation. If it makes you ask more questions, I can live with that.”
The original, Cunningham says, was an icon of its time. “I feel like I have a spotlight on me in a good way because you should do what scares you,” she says, anticipating the response both from the audience and from Close herself, who was not involved in the retelling. “In terms of achieving what it was supposed to, it more than did that. Since then, we’ve all moved onto a place where we require different things from narratives. We want to know about emotions and intentions and psychology and neurology; what people were thinking and the narrative they’re constructing for themselves.”
Fatal Attraction‘s first three episodes are now streaming on Paramount+, with the remaining five episodes released weekly on Sundays.