October 7, 2022 8:43 PM EDT

Ani FaNelli (Mila Kunis) sits in front of stained glass windows in her former high school, the private and prestigious Bradley School in suburban Philadelphia. She’s on edge, talking with an independent documentary filmmaker about a school shooting that unfolded here two decades ago—and the accusations surrounding it.

“You’re lucky you have a mother who got you a lawyer and supported you,” the filmmaker tells her. “Not everyone has that.”

Ani is silent, recalling a memory of her mother failing to believe her version of events. “You disgust me,” her mother hisses. “You are not the daughter that I raised.”

She flashes back to the present. “Hmm. Yes. Very lucky,” she responds, barely containing her pain and anger. “Luckiest girl alive right here.”

Luckiest Girl Alive, an adaptation of a 2015 book by the same name, releases on Netflix on Friday. Its ending has changed, but the powerful core of the story persists.

What to know about the novel

Author Jessica Knoll’s mystery novel Luckiest Girl Alive found resounding success upon its publication in 2015, spending four months on the best-seller lists and selling more than 450,000 copies. Written in the first person, the book itself is predominantly fictional. It tells the story of Ani Fanelli, formerly known as TifAni, and her phoenix-like rise and reinvention from the traumatic ashes of her teenage years.

“The knee-jerk reaction is to dismiss Ani as vain and vapid,” Knoll told the New York Times. “But when we reward women for showing their full range of humanity, warts and all, when we give their struggles weight, we allow for the possibility that their flaws and stories can endear, inspire and move us, just like those of men.”

The novel worried less about the likeability of its protagonist than her truth, drawing comparisons to Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, which came out three years prior. Like Gone Girl, Luckiest Girl Alive dissects crime, gender, and class, reassembling femininity through a contemporary lens.

“One woman’s carefully orchestrated, perfect life slowly cracks to reveal a dark underbelly in Knoll’s knockout debut novel,” read the review in Publishers Weekly. “What sets this novel apart is the author’s ability to snare the reader from page one, setting the tone for a completely enthralling read as the secrets are revealed.”

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Who is Jessica Knoll?

Although the book is fiction, it was also partially based on author Jessica Knoll’s personal experience—a fact that the public didn’t learn until a year after the book’s release.

In the lead-up to the shooting in Luckiest Girl Alive, Ani experiences rape by three separate classmates consecutively, which all three boys deny. (Later, her mother also rejects this reality, making it nearly impossible for Ani to report the crimes.)

In March 2016, Knoll wrote an essay for the online feminist newsletter Lenny Letter, titled What I Know, about the fact that Ani’s gang rape was based on her own traumatic experience at age 15.

“My anger is carbon monoxide, binding to pain, humiliation, and hurt, rendering them powerless,” Knoll wrote. “You would never know when you met me how angry I am. Like Ani, I sometimes feel like a wind-up doll. Turn my key and I will tell you what you want to hear. I will smile on cue. My anger is odorless, colorless, and tasteless. It’s completely toxic.”

In the film, Ani recites these lines almost word for word, spitting them out as she finally confronts one of her rapists. “Do you know the difference between me and someone like you, Dean?” she asks, seething. “My anger is like carbon monoxide. It’s odorless, tasteless, colorless, and completely toxic. But only to me. See, I don’t take my anger out on anyone other than my f–cking self.”

After the essay, readers flooded social media with messages of support and thanks to Knoll for coming forward. While the author did not experience a school shooting firsthand, the damning details of the rape scene came from personal pain.

“I was so conditioned to not talk about it that it didn’t even occur to me to be forthcoming,” Knoll told the New York Times. “I want to make people feel like they can talk about it, like they don’t have to be ashamed of it.”

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How the ending Luckiest Girl Alive departs from the novel

The liberation of sharing her story encouraged Knoll to adapt the novel into a movie herself—not always typical for authors when their work is optioned. But the film diverges from the novel in one key place: the ending.

After Ani ultimately leaves her fiancé—a symbol of the posh upper crust she worked so hard to assimilate into—she goes on to take a job at the New York Times Magazine, publish an essay à la the one in Lenny Letter (although this time in the magazine), and take the subway—a mode of transportation that formerly gave her PTSD.

On the subway, she is enveloped by the voices of women’s comments on her essay, seemingly coming from the everyday people around her on the train. “I was also assaulted by a guy I thought was a friend,” says one. “Hearing your story gives me hope that one day I can tell mine too.”

The 28-year-old brings her account to Good Morning America, where she’s interviewed about the essay. “I’m hearing from women who have never shared their stories, from women who have carried this horrible thing with them alone for 38 years, and I just hope that no one has to ever do that again,” Ani says. “I hope that people feel compelled to share their stories, to talk about what happened to them, and to know that you have nothing to be ashamed of.”

“It’s very meta that it’s a fictional story, a fictional character, but there are even more elements that are inspired by my real life,” Knoll told Entertainment Weekly of the changes to the adaptation. “I like that we looked at the year that followed me writing the book and writing my essay and the reaction to it and going on a TV show to talk about it.”

While Knoll did change the ending of the film to make it more true to her own life, she was aided in doing so by Mila Kunis, who plays Ani with a haunted tenacity. The actor and the author worked together to shape the ending into something that felt communal.

“I know the ending is polarizing, which is what I think makes this movie so interesting. It’s not cookie cutter, and not everybody experiences this movie the same way,” Kunis told Entertainment Weekly. “A lot of people didn’t like it, but I fought so hard for it to stay in. I’m really glad that we won this fight because it’s so powerful.”

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