With GONE GIRL hitting the screen this weekend, two Fellowship writers discuss the choices director David Fincher and writer Gillian Flynn made in adapting the source novel for the screen.
Gillian Flynn’s suspense thriller Gone Girl was a critical and commercial success when it was published in 2012. Fans and critics alike praised the novel’s twisty narrative about Nick and Amy Dunne, a couple on the verge of marital collapse when the wife, Amy, disappears without a trace. Probing the emotional and psychological depths of its characters, the novel examines the central mystery of Nick’s involvement in his wife’s disappearance. With David Fincher’s film adaptation of the novel opening this weekend, Rachel Gibson Shepherd (who, conveniently, has a film degree) and Chase Branch (who, equally conveniently, has an English degree) got together to discuss Gone Girl as both a book and a movie, and some of the challenges facing any popular novel when it’s adapted for the screen.
NOTE: FULL SPOILERS FOR BOTH THE NOVEL AND THE FILM GONE GIRL APPEAR IN THIS ARTICLE
Chase Branch: Ok, Rachel. So you and I have both seen David Fincher’s new, excellent adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl starring Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike, and we also both had the pleasure of reading the novel beforehand. I think it’s safe to say you loved the film?
Rachel Gibson Shepherd: I did, yes.
Chase: Film adaptations of popular novels are a tricky thing. It’s almost a given to anticipate a lot of “The book was better” comments, but David Fincher is a very well-respected director.
Rachel: It’s always a minefield. For every Lord of the Rings or Hunger Games, you have a The Mist or an overly long Hobbit film.
Chase: I enjoyed the book, plot-wise. I loved all the twists and turns, but I have to say that I don’t love Gillian Flynn’s writing style. It’s probably the English Major part of me. As such, I saw the opportunity for Fincher to take that firecracker plot and make it into an excellent film. Thoughts?
Rachel: I’m going to disagree, slightly. Though I did not always find the things she wrote from Nick’s perspective to be completely true to the character, I did enjoy diving into Amy’s head. It was easier to access a character like that getting both her sociopathic emulations of real emotions in the diary and true sociopathic ideas in the first-person “real” Amy.
Chase: And that brings us to some important questions: How much use is it to compare the film and the book? What is David Fincher’s responsibility? Is it to make a faithful adaptation? Or is it to use that plot to define his own vision?
Rachel: First of all, Gillian Flynn wrote the screenplay, but she allowed so much of the film to breathe in the action that the dialogue seems very intentional and every line important. And as long as Fincher was willing to keep the characters true to their original form, the plot could be more free. If these characters still made decisions that made sense, it was always going to work. It is one of the best character studies I’ve ever seen on film. Truly remarkable. That, and keeping the ending relatively the same.
Chase: Thankfully, the early reports of the entire third act being scrapped and re-done were completely exaggerated.
Rachel: I was worried. Changing that ending to mitigate audience reactions is ridiculous. The ending needs to be there; it’s the only conclusion that works. And leaving it mildly open-ended, like the novel, is perfectly torturous – in the best way. We have such a need to punish the guilty in this society, when the truth is, people sometimes get away with being evil. Especially if they’re married to someone equally (though on a different level) crazy.
Chase: Obviously, some changes were necessary. The novel presents Amy’s side of the story in an epistolary (letter) format. We learn about her by reading diary entries that reveal her inner thoughts about Nick. Now, some of that is maintained through voiceovers and brief shots of her writing, but that specific format is inherently un-filmable.
Rachel: It would have been all exposition. I think Rosamund Pike’s performance and her facial expressions are a master class in acting. The way she reacts to cutting Desi’s throat, where she almost lets out a cry, is like she is practicing the way she SHOULD feel. It’s a subtle nod to her obvious research into sociopaths.
Chase: And how about that voice!? I loved her deep, sultry voice. We live in an age of blonde haired, high-voiced female characters. What a wonderful, old school throwback! It was like a Laurel Bacall-voiced femme fatale. Just brilliant.
Rachel: I was JUST about to say that! The cast, for the most part, is excellent. There are some career-defining performances in there.
Chase: Now, we had both read the book beforehand. It wasn’t a secret to either of us that Ben Affleck’s Nick Dunne is innocent. The whole “murder mystery” is a set-up by Amy to frame Nick. In the book, that comes as a HUGE shock. You’ve spent 100+ pages reading this diary about Amy’s fears for her safety and their dissolving “idyllic” marriage. Then you start the novel’s second section and I was COMPLETELY blown away by the revelation that it’s all a crafty set-up. Now, we both knew what was coming in the film, but did you feel like the film carried the mystery the same way? I ask because, personally, I never completely trusted Amy in the film.
Rachel: I’m going to be quite honest here, but in the book I never completely trusted her, either. Because we JUST had the diary. We lived with Nick, and read the events in real time with him. We knew we couldn’t trust him because he told us so. He let us know when he was lying. Amy was never relatable or sympathetic to me, based on others’ views of her.
In the movie, she presents herself, through her own words, as weak and fragile. She’s like a fairytale version of a person; someone who could not possibly be real. When the reveal happens, I think it has been one possibility in the back of the viewer’s mind – but that she is escaping not crafting the whole thing. Until she tells you otherwise, that is.
It’s a different kind of mystery, sure, but the film centers on the visceral evil she eventually perpetrates, and just how brutal she can be. It’s a very tangible kind of terror she inflicts. I think she is scarier in the film because we get to see it. Reading it allows for more separation. She is more Amazing Amy [the fictional character that Amy’s parents have written a series of books about] in the movie than in the book.
Chase: Interesting. I think the film makes some very sly early references to Nick’s (presumed) guilt. The first time we see him, he’s carrying a “Mastermind” board game. “Don’t Fear the Reaper” is playing on his car radio. He even drinks Bulleit brand bourbon and plays first person shooter videogames. That’s not by accident.
Rachel: Yeah, I definitely noticed those things, too, in addition to his obvious aging in the short five years of marriage. Everything points to his guilt, but it also points to the fact that he couldn’t possibly be that stupid.
Chase: The visual nature of film offers some options that the novel can’t. One is with the incredibly visceral scene of Amy murdering Desi that you mentioned earlier. It’s MUCH more graphic than in the novel, but I also think it’s one of the things that really worked in the film’s favor. I had enjoyed the film up to that point, but that’s when it really became great to me. It puts a face on the lengths of Amy’s depravity and cunning that can’t be ignored or otherwise accounted for. The murder scene is a lot like the Red Wedding from Game of Thrones. You can flip through pages pretty quickly if you’re upset or squeamish, but film and television don’t offer that escape valve.
Rachel: And much more frightening! In addition, when she stands in that shower near the end of the film, the blood washing over her, it’s very telling of her lack of empathy. She lives in her own dusty rose-colored world. Although the act is more frightening on screen, I think Desi, in general, was creepier in the novel: the lake house being furnished FOR Amy, his relationship with his mother, his quiet sweetness. And the fact that Amy feels what she is doing is the right thing. She is not KILLING Desi, she is SAVING Nick’s life. In her own warped view.
Chase: Absolutely. Novel Desi is almost timid. Amy pushes herself on him. But film Desi doesn’t hide that he wants sex in exchange for what he’s providing her.
Rachel: She does describe the way he makes love in the novel, and it sickens her, but yes, he’s more attracted to her actual body in the film. There is something to that throat slashing that begs to be seen. Ha.
Chase: Casting actors also puts a permanent face on characters. Who can read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and NOT see Jack Nicholson? Who can read Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption and NOT see Morgan Freeman as Red, despite the character being a redheaded while male in the novella? That said, I think we both agree that the film’s casting is pretty excellent. Affleck and Pike both do great work.
Rachel: Yeah. I couldn’t have imagined Reese Witherspoon in the role of Amy. She produced the film and was originally attached, but I don’t think it would have quite worked. There’s something more statuesque about Pike. I definitely think Witherspoon would have added another dimension, but I think ultimately, it was the right decision.
Chase: Completely agree. Oscar winner [Walk the Line] or no, I can’t see Witherspoon having the hard edge to make the sinister parts of Amy work.
Rachel: If you read my review, you know that I think Carrie Coon steals the film, which is difficult because Affleck and Pike’s work might have been more challenging, but Margo gets to traverse the spectrum of emotion, and she is NOT a sociopath, so you have to believe she feels everything.
And Kim Dickens as Boney — though different from the novel because Dickens is such a beautiful woman — takes great care to make sure you always see the wheels turning in her mind. It comes across her face, and you know she is contemplating and sizing up the situation.
Chase: Again, agree and agree. The one casting you didn’t love was Neil Patrick Harris as Desi. You even went as far as to say that he seems to be acting in a completely different film than everybody else. Is he just overmatched? Or was it an attempt at casting against type that just didn’t work?
Rachel: Yeah, I don’t think it was the right choice on anyone’s part. I am a huge admirer of NPH; his talent in television and stage roles is completely unmatched, but he kind of over-did it here, in my opinion. Instead of using his movements to make Desi creepy, his body language and the like, he relied on the dialogue and his emoting. It was an overstated performance while everyone else was very subdued and understated. It’s like LOOK AT ME ! LOOK AT ME!
Chase: I love NPH as much as anyone, but he can’t carry the combination of weird and sympathetic that Desi needs. Honestly, as weird as he is, we need to feel some sympathy for Desi. Amy MURDERS him while he’s trying to (for whatever motive) help her out.
Rachel: I do think it will work for some audiences, that kind of alternate “bad guy,” but I saw it as a lazy way to misdirect in the beginning and to almost sympathize with Amy toward to end…before she slashes his throat, anyway.
Chase: Desi’s mom is a character that gets completely cut out of the film, but in the novel it’s a nice parallel. We’re supposed to feel as bad for her, the mother of a murdered son, as we do for Amy’s parents when we’re lead to believe that Amy is dead.
Rachel: Absolutely. And he exists in this world created by Flynn where EVERYONE is flawed. EVERYONE has a bad side. Yes, Desi is a borderline stalker, but it is very clear Amy leads him on in the novel, and it is alluded to in the movie. It’s almost as if NPH wants to you think he’s a bad guy.
And as for Desi’s mom: Yes! 1) Amy LOOKS like her. She is prim and proper and has a weird relationship with her son. 2) When she breaks down at the end of the book, it’s one thing that helps Boney decide that Amy is not on the up and up. She’s integral to seeing the scars left in Amy’s wake. Like Hilary Hand [another character from Amy’s past that reveals the lengths Amy is willing to go to for vengeance – cut from the film].
Chase: It’s inevitable that some characters, plotlines, etc will get cut in the process of adapting a story from the page to the screen. To include EVERYTHING would make the film impossibly long and expensive. What does it cost to add more to a novel but time? Extra scenes, plotlines and characters are additional time and money on a film shoot. Also, films are MEANT to be seen in one, uninterrupted viewing. You can come and go with a novel, reading it over days or weeks. You don’t have the same luxury with a film. I mean, there’s a 15 1/2 hour adaptation of Berlin Alexanderplatz, but no one ever watches it. Cutting, trimming, and tightening HAVE to be done. Hilary Hand, Desi’s mom, and Nick’s father get that treatment in the film. It’s a necessary evil. You have to trim the fat while keeping the crux of the story the same.
Nick’s marriage proposal to Amy at the “Amazing Amy” book release party is a very condensed reworking of Nick and Amy’s early relationship, but I think it works really well.
Rachel: That’s true, but eliminating those key elements, makes Amy a different person in the film. In the movie, her motivations could be explained by the men in her life. She manipulates them, punishes them, and ignores women she believes to be insipid. By eliminating the way she feels about her parents, what she does to Hilary Hand, dropping the charges against Tommy, she becomes a praying mantis. You can even argue the only reason she punishes Margo in the movie is to hit Nick where it hurts the most.
And yes, I agree that the proposal and the “buying the same anniversary gift” scenes add to the fairytale of Nick and Amy Dunne perfectly.
Chase: I think that’s fair, but are the film and the novel working towards the same endpoint? Fincher seems much more concerned with the idea of this relationship and marriage as a very dark, emotional labyrinth. It’s almost a hostage negotiation.
One of the criticisms of the book is that it wraps up VERY quickly. From Amy’s return to the book’s final page is something like 40 pages. The film spends a lot more time looking at the emotional baggage that exists in the wake of these events and how that effects their relationship after the revelation that they’ll stay together to raise a child even after everything that Amy put Nick through. It’s essentially an emotional stalemate.
Rachel: The film critic Chase Whale described the end as “upgraded.” I think that is perfect; to know that things are NOT wrapped up, and Amy is NOT getting everything she wants. That film’s last image is of her looking up at him, and it is so haunting. At any moment they either could kill each other, which is a strong overall metaphor for marriage, [however bleak].
Chase: Yes! The narrative frame of Amy lying in Nick’s lap and looking up at him, saying the exact same lines of dialogue is perfect. That same image and dialogue both begins and ends the film. We hear those same lines twice; once from her, and, at the end with an entirely different perspective, from him.
So, when all is said and done…would you take the film or the novel?
Rachel: I think each works in different ways. I was definitely more FRIGHTENED of the film, but I don’t think it is better or worse. Both SHOULD exist. The novel will continue to live on my shelf, and I’ll return to it every now and again, and I can’t wait to see the film again tonight with my husband! David Fincher is effing brilliant. I still think Richard Linklater should win the Directing Oscar for Boyhood, but Fincher is on my short list now. As always.
Chase: It’s a surprisingly effective date movie, right?
Rachel: Absolutely. I mentioned at the end of my review to go get drinks afterward with your significant other. I think people will be surprised as who their lovers think the villains are in the film.
Chase: Me, I’ll take the film, personally. It’s shorter, tighter, but in the end I think it’s emotionally richer. Novel adaptations can be tricky. Especially with a novel that’s popular. Sometimes you get stuck with James Franco’s awful version of The Sound and the Fury or anything that Uwe Boll craps on, but sometimes you get Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather. David Fincher is definitely up to the task here.
THE VERDICT: Whether you read the novel or see the film, you’ll have a great time with Gone Girl. But, if you do both, you’ll get a great comparative experience and the chance to see the choices a director and his team make when adapting a popular story for the screen. And if you go to see the film, TAKE A DATE! SERIOUSLY!