Comparing a film adaptation to its novel source material is like comparing apples and oranges; the two are so completely different in the way they tell stories and convey ideas, either through visuals or through text, that it’s pointless to say one is better.
In the case of the upcoming Gone Girl however, the film adaptation of which premieres this week at the New York Film Festival, the book is such a meticulously crafted, Hitchcock-grade level of psychological thriller nuance, that carelessness with the adaptation could be more than just a let down for fans of the novel.
Gone Girl doesn’t necessarily earn the “unfilmable novel” label that Lord of the Rings, Life of Pi or several other classics once did, but given its structure, its themes and its presentation of ideas, a lot has to be taken into consideration.
David Fincher can make any movie he damn well pleases, even if Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn wrote the screenplay and has a baby to protect, but here are just a few things fans can keep in mind when watching the film.
Proceed with caution, as certain sections of this article contain serious spoilers for the novel and film.
Dual Perspective Structure
Part of the originality and creativity in Gone Girl comes from its alternating perspectives throughout the book, with chapters switching from Nick Dunne’s perspective in the aftermath of his wife’s disappearance and Amy Dunne’s diary, which starts during her courtship with Nick to mere days and hours before her disappearance. Tension builds wonderfully as Amy’s diary rapidly catches up to Nick’s present. But what’s more, Flynn uses the storytelling technique as a way to suggest just how in sync both Amy and Nick are, despite how they’ve grown apart. Chapters end with Amy declaring Nick an idiot, and Nick immediately opens the next page with a confession that she’s right. It gives us insight into both sides of a grizzly story and marriage, nuance that neither party is entirely right or wrong, and a realization that the two truly understand each other even as their marriage has gone cold.
Fincher first faces a challenge in editing and clarity, to allow us to jump around in time and perspectives without growing lost or weary of the constant shifts. The Social Network and Zodiac were built on their crisp editing, so that shouldn’t be a worry. But more importantly, an inability to make both perspectives equally prominent could lose some of the suspense and character-building elements Flynn’s novel thrives on.
“Here is this guy who may have killed his wife, but also I would love to grab a cheeseburger with him,” said Flynn in an interview with the New York Times on the casting of Ben Affleck for the role of Nick Dunne. “There are very few actors who have that aloofness, that little bit of arrogance, and that inherent likability.”
Nick struggles throughout the book with his public perception, causing him to smile when he should look depressed and act cold when he should look concerned. Amy falls in love with him for his no BS charm but ends up hating him for that same reason (among many other things). Affleck is the sort of guy who exudes perfect movie star looks and appeal but runs the gamut on the public’s patience. The New York Times piece had a similar realization in his connection to Nick: “For as different as he may be from the character of Nick, they share the ignominious distinction of being alternately media darlings and targets of public scorn.”
In that regard, Affleck may be perfect casting, and that leaves Rosamund Pike as Amy. Initial trailers have been gun-shy about showing Pike as Amy, implying the film is about her disappearance and lessening her role. But as mentioned with the alternate perspectives, she has a major role in the film and undergoes an even greater character transformation. Pike is not an unknown actress, but does she have the star power and chops necessary to flip the switch? Both Pike and Affleck are poised to deliver career roles if all pans out well.
Gone Girl is broken up into three very distinct sections: “Boy Loses Girl,” “Boy Meets Girl,” and “Boy Gets Girl Back (or Vice Versa)”. The first section is about the deterioration of a marriage, and how two people who know each other very well can still drift apart. The second section delves deep into how the media can twist a story, and how timing in an age of 24/7 news can shift public perception massively. The third section concerns why two people who are wrong for one another often stay together anyway. And running through the whole book are ideas of feminism, masculinity, and how those dynamics play into relationships.
Most films, if not books, would be lucky to get across one strong theme in the telling of their story. Gone Girl covers a lot of ground in a swift 400 pages, and Fincher will have to tread delicately to make sure his adaptation doesn’t feel overstuffed. He may choose to focus in on just one aspect like the media criticism, similar to how The Social Network became a film about modern communication. At the same rate, it’s what could make Gone Girl feel as clever, but as lacking as Fincher’s last major novel adaptation, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.
Thematic Nuance – Major Spoilers Follow
In the same way that Gone Girl is not about one thing, Flynn’s novel doesn’t draw a firm line in the sand on any topic. It’s as considerate and understanding of men as it is of women. And although something like the “Cool Girl” diatribe was right to strike a chord with modern feminists, it’s important to remember that it’s a line delivered by a sociopath. Amy’s diary may be fake, but Nick’s distant attitude during their marriage is not made up. Nick’s affair with a student may be scummy, but we sympathize with him that his new relationship was giving him something his marriage no longer could. Amy’s actions are appalling, but she’s scarily convincing that this was just punishment for her husband to endure.
Flynn walks a delicate tight rope between our allegiances, likes and dislikes of these characters, showing us sides to them that we both admire and despise, and all of that could be in jeopardy thanks to the magic of cinematic editing and performance. Editing that leans heavily on Amy’s good side could take us for an unbelievable ride when her big twist comes, and an overzealous performance from Affleck could make him repulsive enough no matter the kindness in the screenplay.
Plot Twists and Execution
Above all, the trick to telling or adapting a great story boils down to the director’s craft and style. Flynn takes readers through several whirlwind, WTF moments that are only believable because the book is so sharply, wittily written and because every detail seems so finely placed.
You get the idea someone like Hitchcock could’ve handled material like this, a guy who placed so many glaring McGuffins and visual cues and yet never once made them seem like an excruciatingly obvious eye roll. He kept the tension high and the actions believable even when the on-paper story often veered into ridiculous territory.
That’s a tough act to follow, but can you genuinely think of anyone who would be more poised to handle a twisty thriller narrative than Fincher, the guy who successfully got us through the late bombshells in Se7en, Fight Club and The Game? Maybe I would defer to Roman Polanski, but this story has Fincher written all over it, and he’s got the author in his back pocket. If anyone is poised to handle all of the above, it’s him.