‘Fatal Attraction’ Hits the Small Screen

Joshua Jackson and Lizzy Caplan star in 'Fatal Attraction', a more nuanced, thoughtful take on the classic Michael Douglas-Glenn Close romantic thriller

Crime of passion

As iconic as the 1987 film version of Fatal Attraction remains to this day, something about the way the extramarital affair-gone-wrong between Manhattan lawyer Dan Gallagher (Michael Douglas) and editor Alex Forrest (Glenn Close) was depicted on the silver screen did not sit right with Dirty John scribe Alexandra Cunningham. The creator of that true crime anthology series and its follow-up, Dirty John: The Betty Broderick Story, recalls the way screenwriter James Dearden once described the lead character of the original movie. “He said that, to him, the character of Alex Forrest is not a study in madness, but rather a sad, tragic, lonely woman under pressure from a really hard job,” says Cunningham. “As a frequently sad, not at all tragic, not as lonely as I sometimes wish I was, woman under pressure from a really hard job, I wanted us to go in a slightly different direction.” 

In her new eight-episode series, Cunningham reimagines the infamous affair between Dan and Alex, offering the viewer a more nuanced look into their personal and professional lives, the people closest to them and the reasoning behind some truly terrible decision-making. “It shares a lot with the iconic original film, but it is also about entitlement and midlife crisis, Cluster B personality disorders, isolation, fathers and daughters, and murder,” says the showrunner. “It’s about self-image and what we’ll do to protect it, and also what happens when someone doesn’t have one.” All while being a nerve-fraying rollercoaster, of course.  

The show stars Vancouver-native Joshua Jackson as Los Angeles prosecutor-on-the-rise Dan Gallagher, and Lizzy Caplan as Alexandra Forrest, a victim services official who ends up working with Dan on one of his cases. Despite his happy-enough marriage to Beth (Betty Broderick‘s Amanda Peet), Dan and Alex start a passionate affair that, when Dan tries to end things, has dire consequences. But this is where things start to veer off the 1980s version. “He makes a sequence of very stupid decisions and because he is unwilling to ever stop the train of stupid decisions and say, ‘My bad, I did this and I have to take the hit,’ it just continues to snowball,” explains Jackson. “He’s willing to destroy his marriage, to deeply damage his daughter, to be unspeakably cruel to his mistress. There’s a pathology to his ego that I think is explored inside of this that we don’t really get into in the film, partially because there’s just not enough time for it and partially because, in 1987, you are just like, ‘Oh, this poor guy—[he made] one little mistake.’ ”  

One of the biggest deviations is a present-day storyline that focuses on Dan’s daughter Ellen, who not only tragically and memorably lost her bunny in the movie but bore witness to a lot of disturbing behaviour. “In the film, it was interesting to me how many times you saw the most adorable actress crying in the periphery and no one checking in with her,” says Cunningham. “No one’s going, ‘Ellen, do you need to see a child psychiatrist?’ ”  

This serialized format allowed the screenwriter to look at the repercussions of trauma and how it has manifested itself a decade-and-a-half later. “How did she take all that in and how did she process it? That was just fascinating to explore,” Cunningham muses. College-age Ellen is portrayed by Alyssa Jirrels, who consulted a clinical psychologist to better understand her character, a psych major. “We talked a lot about compartmentalization and intellectualization,” says Jirrels. “That led me to studying Carl Jung’s work as well, which is a huge part of Ellen’s character.”   

Straight off her turn on Fleishman Is in Trouble, Caplan was equally eager to delve into the more complex motivations of Alex Forrest. “I find it very difficult to watch the film in the way that I originally watched it, which is a very binary, black-and-white, villain-vs.-hero story,” she says. “I find it difficult to not ask yourself the question, ‘What’s going on with her? And also, what about consequences for him?’ ” Caplan points out that the lens through which we view things more than three decades later has been beneficial for this type of storytelling. “It’s almost inherent now—we are poised to ask more questions about characters. And in this case, we’ve got lots of time to really dig more deeply into Alex’s backstory, her childhood, where she’s coming from and seeing things through her eyes.” 

The irony, according to Caplan, is that while making director Adrian Lyne’s original version, Glenn Close did ask all of these questions about Alex’s mental health. “The work that Glenn Close did is so exacting. She saw Alex as somebody who is struggling with mental illness, and she did all of that work,” the actress reflects. “If you rewatch it knowing all of that work has been put into it, you see just how layered the performance is. She was the one fighting for anything other than, ‘This really nice guy did one bad thing, and this horrible woman tried to mess up his life, and now she needs to die.’ It’s absurd. So, getting to do this and roll up our sleeves has been endlessly satisfying.”  

Fatal Attraction premieres Sunday, April 30 on Paramount+