Gone Girl is a powerful bullet-train of a novel that takes a little while to get you settled in to your seat, but once you’re in and buckled up, brace yourself, because it doesn’t let you go until the final gripping page, and you’ll be hitting a lot of mountains and hairpin turns along the way.
It is, in some ways, an odd choice to be adapted as a film, however. Firstly, it’s a strange hybrid of a novel: most fully a thriller, it also includes an absolutely incisive take on societal interaction, particularly human hypocrisy and the way certain personality types see truth and reality. It hovers right on that ephemeral, yet existing line between genre fiction and “literary” fiction, and has been included on many “to read” lists from literary sources, though in my opinion it did not ultimately land on the latter side of that line. What it reminds me of most is the heady, atmospheric family dramas that have mostly been set in the South and relied on that geographic setting as a major plot point, in particular Pat Conroy’s The Prince of Tides, which explores in painful, brilliant detail just all the ways in which a family can hurt each other.
But the most interesting thing about Gone Girl, and adapting it as a film, is not the plot – though that delivers plenty of twists – but the two main characters. For almost exactly half the novel, you’re convinced things are one way – that Nick is essentially a good guy, if a slightly selfish deadbeat, and that his wife Amy is an insecure socialite who vacillates between being overly giving and very high-maintenance, but who is, fundamentally, a victim; we’re not sure, though, if that’s at the hands of her husband or of someone else.
This narrative is carefully constructed for us by both Nick and Amy: Nick as narrator and Amy in journal entries. We believe it – it’s layered deftly and subtly by Gillian Flynn, building up on itself – until, halfway through the novel, it begins to unravel, and never stops. It’s not that there were truths we weren’t told, or that one character turns out to be a saint and the other a monster. Not even that one is a victim and the other a perpetrator, or that the story has been a half-truth. The truth is a wildly fickle thing in Flynn’s story, and as we walk the journey with Nick, we’re on a hunt not just to find his wife, or to find out what happened, but also, as we slowly, chillingly begin to realize, what reality is.
The reality is there is no hero in this story, and nearly everything we have blindly accepted about these characters due to Flynn’s deft, sophisticated language – everything about their background, character, and more – is not really true. There’s a specific point in the book at which you realize you hate both of the main characters. What makes Gone Girl so interesting to adapt is that it has the type of fundamentally bleak view of human nature that is generally more reserved for dystopian science fiction; the challenge will be: how do you create a film with two ruthless, anti-hero protagonists?
It’s not that this has never been done before, but it is rare. The Coen brothers’ films often spend a great deal of time with characters who are at best morally questionable, at worst vicious killers with perhaps one redeeming quality. But their films also tend to be set against harsh social and environmental backdrops – Oklahoma in the 70’s, Texas back-country in the 80’s, and so on. Outside of the horror genre, it’s rare for films set in modern times to have protagonists who are so morally ambiguous, so potentially despicable. I think they’ve made a great choice with casting – Ben Affleck is a perfect choice to portray an out-of-work-writer-now-bar-owner who is simultaneously charming and perhaps a little off-kilter, someone with an aura of intelligence and success who is also something of a deadbeat. And Rosamund Pike was an inspired choice to play Amy – I’ve found her in nearly every film role to come off as icy, regardless of her character. That odd emotional reserve paired with surface beauty and warmth is exactly how Amy should be portrayed.
Gillian Flynn has decided to change the ending of the book for the film, and this is apt – the ending is hard to grapple with in the novel even with all the explanation you are given; it wouldn’t suit the movie at all.
So the question is just this: Gone Girl as a novel was neither a thriller nor a murder mystery: it was a gripping, bleak psychological drama. I think it likely, and necessary, that they will skew more toward the thriller elements in the movie, but what will be really fascinating to see, what might lift this film above your average high-budget domestic drama just as it lifted the book beyond well-written thriller, is how much of the psychological elements and characterization they’re able to weave in, and whether you’re left, at the end of the film, as gripped, and perturbed, as the novel is able to leave you. Will this be standard fare, or something a little more edgy?