Author Jessica Knoll on Adapting ‘Luckiest Girl Alive’ for Netflix

In an exclusive interview with HelloGiggles, the author/screenwriter reflects on her connection to protagonist, Ani FaNelli.

Content Warning: This article contains descriptions of sexual violence and can be triggering for some. If you have experienced sexual violence and are in need of crisis support, please call the RAINN Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).

When Jessica Knoll’s debut novel “Luckiest Girl Alive” was published in 2015, it immediately struck a chord among sexual violence survivors. The story of a teenager’s gang rape and the devastating aftermath provided a raw, unflinching depiction of PTSD and the many ways it can manifest — often impacting victims for the rest of their lives.

Readers soon learned that the protagonist Ani FaNelli’s story was painfully realistic for a reason: A year after the release, Knoll published an essay in Lenny Letter in which she described being gang raped by several classmates when she was just 15 years old. 

Now, Knoll has put pen to paper again to adapt her best-selling read into the new Netflix film, “Luckiest Girl Alive,” which stars Mila Kunis as Ani FaNelli and premieres tomorrow, Oct. 7.

To mark the occasion, HelloGiggles spoke with Knoll about the truths that inspired her novel, what it was like writing and executive producing the movie, coming forward as a survivor herself and the state of rape culture today. 

Drawing From Personal Experience

Jessica Knoll
Taylor Hill / Getty Images

A prominent theme in “Luckiest Girl Alive” is Ani’s reinvention of herself in her 20s — something which Knoll drew from personal experience. Like Ani, she came from a lower-income and “less respectable background” than her classmates at a prestigious private school, which made her experience that much harder.

“It’s not just that I was blamed for the rape and slut-shamed, but I was trashed because I wasn’t cut from the same cloth as my peers,” she explains.

As a result, Knoll says that, for years, she prioritized creating the appearance of success over her own happiness and mental health. “Success is different for different people, but where I came from, and the people who made me feel small, my idea of success was having money, living in a big expensive city, having a great job and being married by a certain age to someone who comes from money, went to all the right schools and summered in the right places.”

Knoll believed that if she could amass all the things on her success “checklist,” the classmates who bullied her would have to believe her when she came forward because she was finally “one of them.”

A “Dramatized Version of Real Life”

Luckiest Girl Alive Young Ani
Sabrina Lantos / Netflix

Another truism touched on in both Knoll’s book and movie adaptation is the pain many survivors experience as they watch their perpetrators thrive and become respected members of the community. One of Ani’s rapists is a lauded gun control activist and an admired public figure, which Knoll describes as a “dramatized version of real life.”

“The fact that a rapist becomes someone who is widely respected in the community is meant to represent what most women hear when they attempt to report and name their perpetrator,” says Knoll.

“They’re discouraged from reporting and told to consider how it will affect the assailant’s families and college and job opportunities.”

Because this is what women hear almost every time they talk about coming forward to name the person who hurt them, Knoll wanted to give Ani’s rapist clout.

She explains it’s also a commentary on the “impossible tightrope that women walk,” referring to the double-edged sword of victims being shamed for not coming forward — it’s “their fault” if the perpetrator strikes again.

In the book, Ani’s friend accuses her of “letting them get away with it” and a documentary filmmaker pressures her to participate because it could help other women. “It’s damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” says Knoll. 

Seeing The Story On-Screen

Knoll enjoyed rising to the challenge of writing her first screenplay and was on set throughout the filming of the Netflix movie. She’s especially proud of the final scene, which is different from the book’s and has already generated a strong reaction among viewers.

However, Knoll admits that she chose to skip the days the rape scenes were filmed. She explains that her initial reasoning was that people would be worried about her given that the content was based on her own experience. In reality, her final decision came as a surprise even to Knoll herself.

“When I got to set, I felt empathy for the actors playing the boys because they’re between 19 and 22 in real life,” she explains. “I’m 38, and when I was that age and I met a person in a position of power, it was intimidating. On top of it, they’re playing the character of someone who hurt you in real life. That’s a really uncomfortable power dynamic.” 

How Our Culture Is Shifting

Luckiest Girl Alive Still
Sabrina Lantos/Netflix

In the seven years since “Luckiest Girl Alive” was published, discussions of sexual violence have slowly become more normalized — largely due to Tarana Burke’s “Me Too” campaign going viral over a decade after she spearheaded the movement.

During her book tour in 2015, Knoll recalls the audiences being almost exclusively comprised of women. Today, she feels hopeful about the response to the Netflix film.

“Looking at the breakdown of the audience in test screenings, we’ve actually had an equal number of men see it and rate it very highly — sometimes higher than women,” says Knoll. “I don’t need it to be educational; I want people to enjoy it and be moved by it. It does feel like there’s been progress if we have men tuning in because they’re interested in this female character as a human being.”

Bringing Survivors Together

Luckiest Girl Alive Movie
Sabrina Lantos/Netflix

Knoll says both the book and film have given her an invaluable opportunity to speak with survivors of all ages and bring them together.

For example, last winter, the film was screened for a focus group and she vividly remembers the young woman who was the first to offer feedback.

“Her voice was shaking and she said the moments of PTSD were so well-captured,” Knoll recalls. It wasn’t easy for her to speak up, so another young woman jumped in and said that she, too, has PTSD.

“It was really powerful because it was like seeing a ‘Me Too’ moment,” she says. “The first woman spoke up and you could see she was really uncomfortable and nervous, and then the second stepped up and had her back.”

These days, Knoll has personally tossed out her “success checklist” in favor of finding her own path to true healing and peace. “You abandon yourself in situations like this, so I’m figuring out who my authentic self is, what makes me happy and what I want in life,” she says.

“It sounds so basic, but it’s been years of my life figuring that out. And because of that, I don’t care as much about how I appear to [my former classmates]. I’ve been able to let go of that a little bit.”

Caitlin Flynn
Caitlin Flynn is an award-winning writer and reporter who experienced early age corporate burnout in 2015 and traded New York City for the misty air and superior coffee of Seattle. Read more
Filed Under
 •  •  •