comparing films to their literary counterparts

~ by marcus pinn ~

Welcome to The Movie Shelf, a series that compares the films on our dvd shelves to the novels on our bookcases. We at the 'smoke have always been fascinated by screenplay adaptation: what a script writer takes from the original source material, what he changes, how the two different works vary from each other and what the existence of the movie itself says about the book and vice versa. All this and more will be examined in this ongoing line of articles.

david fincher, 2014.

based on the novel

gillian flynn, 2012.

TThe whole time I read Gone Girl (which was mostly on the subway or at the gym), I was overcome with a ridiculous amount of insecurity. I'm totally the asshole on the train who judges other people for reading books with movie adaptations that are currently playing in the theater and now I'd become one of those people. I almost felt the need to make a book cover out of a paper bag so people wouldn't know what I was reading. Had my fiancée not purchased this novel for a book club a while back, I can almost guarantee I would have never read it. I read. I read plenty. But I read about film, filmmaking and filmmakers almost exclusively. In fact, the few fiction books that I've read in the last couple of years are all stories that were adapted for the screen (The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, Drive, The Central Park Five and The Road) like Gone Girl.

Gillian Flynn's latest novel is well written but it felt more like a vehicle to catapult her into movie and television writing. I'm not calling her an opportunist, but it is what it is. Besides being an author, Flynn is/was also a television critic. On some level, criticism of any artform is rooted in a love for that particular artform. At a certain point you can become a fan of something so much that you want to stop being a fan (or critic) and you want to participate. I feel like that was the case with Flynn. After years of writing about television (which is basically a "cousin" of film) I imagine she thought she could write for television or the big screen. It should be noted that besides adapting the screenplay for Gone Girl, she's also set to write an upcoming television series for HBO that's produced by David Fincher.

The whole Gone Girl process seemed to happen rather quickly. Less than a year after the book's release in 2012, it was announced that it would be adapted in to a film with David Fincher set to direct.

The movie adaptation of Gone Girl really had no business being as entertaining as it turned out to be. In fact, the main reason I went to see this was just so I could give my opinion on the movie when it came up in discussion. When I first caught wind of Gone Girl and what it was about, I thought to myself, "Didn't they make this already?" I’m being genuine when I say this too. I'm not being a dick. Turns out, I had Gone Girl confused with State of Play, another icy cold vibe neo-noir thriller starring Ben Affleck that has to do with adultery and the shady mysterious death of a young attractive woman. The source material that is Gone Girl the novel is pretty ridiculous, but it's still an entertaining and fun story. Even if some of you dislike the movie, which is understandable, you'll certainly laugh, gasp or express some type of genuine (non-dismissive) emotion while watching it. On some level that's a success if you ask me. In the same way that Only God Forgives was a mixture of trashy late night action movies combined with "artsy" filmmaking, Gone Girl is like a mixture of those trashy late night erotic thrillers combined with certain elements of a surprisingly enjoyable Lifetime movie. You remember those really bad skin flicks that used to come on Showtime and Cinemax at night during the late 80's through the mid 90's that featured folks like Shannon Tweed, Angie Everhart, Jeff Fahey and/or C. Thomas Howell? That's essentially what Gone Girl is, except this time around the movie had a pretty good director behind it instead of some nameless hack.

I'm not one of these mindless David Fincher fans that gets fooled by the "cool looking" moody grey-ish tone in half of his movies. He's a good director, but he's still part of that group of modern filmmakers (Darren Aronofsky, Christopher Nolan, etc.) that people give way too much credit to. I'm certainly a fan of The Game, which Gone Girl is closest to in terms of "look" and execution, and I guess I like Se7en, but otherwise I've never been super impressed with his work like everyone else (don't get me started on how overrated Fight Club is). I say all this to show that my praise of Gone Girl isn't coming from some sudden fly-by-night Criterion/Lincoln Center David Fincher fan. I'm someone who actually stops and questions his work beyond just Benjamin Button (seriously - is it me or did David Fincher suddenly become this super serious auteur around the time of Benjamin Button, in the same way Guillermo Del Torro was suddenly deemed this important voice in modern film out of nowhere?)

The best way to enjoy Gone Girl is to look at it like a new age, slightly more serious War of the Roses. Although it's getting a good amount of praise from everyone, there's still a nice handful of folks that are giving Gone Girl way too much credit and taking it a little too seriously like it's some realistic relationship drama in the same vein as other modern relationship drama like Blue Valentine or even Take This Waltz. If anything, Gone Girl is the anti-Blue Valentine. At best, it plays off of the very real momentary fantasies that I imagine some partners have when they're in a failing relationship and want to hurt their significant other, but would never actually go through with it.

Some folks are even calling Gone Girl misogynistic due to the representation of some of the female characters. But I honestly don't know about that. To me, this movie is pure entertainment. Even before you find out what the twist is or who you think the "good guy" might be, you should already know early on in the movie that Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) Amy Elliot-Dunne (Rosamund Pike) are essentially caricatures. They both carry realistic traits - stereotypes that come along with their respective genders - but the problem is that they're made up of almost every stereotype that's associated with both men and women, something conveyed in both the book and the movie. Nick is the "dumb" bro-ish husband who hangs out on the couch playing video games and has trouble expressing certain emotions. Amy is the judgy, nit-picky, scorned, sultry yet slightly broken and insecure femme fatale. Nick and Amy are also both unlikeable, somewhat frustrating human beings, which is what makes the Gone Girl viewing experience so much fun. They both suck. There's really no good guy in Gone Girl. It's just fun to watch two shitty people essentially torture each other for two and a half hours.

Gone Girl is tough to talk about without giving away too many spoilers, but it's ultimately a neo-noir/cat & mouse story about a man who eventually becomes the prime suspect after his wife suddenly goes missing. In the middle of everything, we learn that things aren't as they seem and Nick might have been set up. This was everything that Side Effects tried to be, but Fincher did a better job than Soderbergh in my opinion. There's even a few subconscious shades of To the Wonder in Fincher's latest film in that Affleck's performances in both movies are fairly similar and both stories focus on moody female characters in the midst of a failed marriage who feel out of place living in the middle of an unfamiliar Midwestern town.

The biggest difference between the book and the film is that the (questionable) narration in the book is split almost 50/50 between the two lead characters. The book is formatted in a way where each chapter alternates between Amy and Nick telling their side of the story. In the film version, the narration is almost exclusively done by Amy with a few voice-over parts from Nick. From the formatting of the novel to the subject matter (murder, mystery, sex, infidelity, etc), it's quite clear that Gone Girl was written with the possibility of it becoming a movie or even a television show. Between the return of Twin Peaks and The Killing (which is obviously influenced by Twin Peaks), Gone Girl could have easily been stretched into a television mini-series with the right changes. I could even picture the tagline in all the fictitious advertisements: "Who Killed Amy?" or "Where's Amy?"

One thing the book has over the movie is that the book delves way more into the upbringing of both Nick and Amy and we see why/how they turned out the way they did. Nick's parents were dysfunctional in the traditional sense, a mean alcoholic father who had a hard time expressing emotion with a wife who quietly hated him, while Amy’s parents were/are quietly dysfunctional in that they messed her up without even realizing it. Besides being incredibly self-centered, her parents put more effort into their careers as authors than they did in raising their daughter. In fact, we learn in the book that not only was Amy essentially an accident, but her mother had a number of miscarriages before she came along, and even after Amy was born, her mother still mourned the loss of her previous children. David Fincher tries to implicate some of these things in the film, but I feel it could have been pulled off a little better. Amy is way more sinister in the book. Instead of just one instance in the film, we get multiple detailed examples into the kind of manipulative person that Amy was. But at the end of the day, Gillian Flynn cut out what was necessary (smaller supporting characters, additional scenes and certain "flashbacks") in order to make her story flow a little better as a movie.

Again, you could spend your time calling this film misogynistic if you want. There are scenes that are definitely overly sexualized in a way that could only possibly appeal to men, like the climactic scene towards the end where we see Amy half naked in sexy underwear pretty much rolling around in someone else's blood (reminiscent of a particular scene in Claire Denis' Trouble Every Day) and lot of the women in the film are pretty one-note (the bored gossipy housewives, the dumb childlike mistress, etc), but I honestly don't see the male characters painted in any kind of a positive light either. The men in Gone Girl are liars, self-centered, creepy or pretty slimy. I don't see how anyone could be for either "Team Amy" or "Team Nick" (which is how some audiences have divided themselves). Plus Carrie Coon's performance as Nick's sister and Kim Dickens' role as the lead detective on the case, probably the only two redeemable people, balance out all the simplistic female characters.

I don't want to overstep my bounds and speak for women, but I feel like a lot of women who have an issue with the Amy character (and there are plenty) are just like a lot of African Americans (a demographic I can speak on) who have issues with certain portrayals of black people on film & TV that they perceive as offensive or unrealistic, when in reality that's not the case. It's safe to say that most black audiences will mindlessly support a silly Kevin Hart "comedy" or Tyler Perry (who, funny enough, co-stars in Gone Girl), but will immediately turn their noses up at or dismiss something like Mother of George or the new television show Black-Ish. That's not to say I even like Black-ish (because I don't), but that show faced a serious backlash from the same black community that had no criticisms whatsoever of all the Tyler Perry silliness that was on TV. Last year, CB4 co-writer Nelson George wrote a rather frustrating piece on the simplistic portrayal of African Americans in film being either "too good" or "too evil" with nothing in between (focusing primarily on Django Unchained, Lincoln and Beasts of the Southern Wild). While he was dead on in certain aspects of his article, George completely ignored certain modern films like Half Nelson, Ghost Dog, Pariah, George Washington, Ballast and many more semi-recent films that all feature black characters who are rather complex and can't be categorized as either good or bad.

Personally, I think women should embrace the Amy character rather than all the ridiculous "badass butt-kicking chick" characters played by Angelina Jolie or Zoe Saldana. Apparently Reese Witherspoon, who served as a producer on Gone Girl, bought the rights to the book because she was so drawn to the Amy character. Thank god she didn't love the character so much that she wanted to play her in the movie because Rosamund Pike did a great job. In fact, the only actress I could even picture playing Amy is Fincher alum Deborah Kara Unger, who clearly rubbed off on Pike’s performance.

NOTE: SPOILER PARAGRAPH. I don't understand all the hate on the Amy character. Not only did Nick cheat on her, but he used up a lot her own money to open up a bar that wasn't even making any money. Fuck that guy. If someone cheats on you and bleeds money from you, they have to pay on some level. Instead of crying in her pillow and falling into a deep depression like so many other women characters would do in Amy's situation, she set out a (rather ambitious) plot to screw him over and it pretty much worked. I know he's essentially "trapped" into staying with her by the end of the movie, but he isn’t some innocent victim. I feel like both the book and the film make it easy for one to forget Nick's wrongdoings.

I wouldn't be surprised if one of Gillian Flynn's motivations in writing Gone Girl was to turn the whole Lifetime movie/victimized woman genre on its head...

Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike definitely play their parts in the movie. Pike, who channels Deborah Kara Unger in her prime, is pretty exceptional in her chameleon-like performance, and I don't know if Affleck has ever been cast in a more fitting role. While reading the book, I honestly couldn't picture any other actor in the Nick and Amy roles. But it's the supporting cast (Neil Patrick Harris, Tyler Perry, Carrie Coon and Kim Dickens) that really make the movie work for me. Tyler Perry is surprisingly tolerable (actually he's pretty good in this, but given my history with Perry I can't give him his full due), Dickens pays her respect to both Jodie Foster and Holly Hunter with her performance as the straight-laced lead detective investigating Amy's disappearance and Neil Patrick Harris as Desi (Amy's ex-boyfriend) is the perfect combination of creepy and funny (although I don't think we’re supposed to find his performance as comedic as it turned out to be, but it's Neil Patrick Harris - I don't think he'll ever shake the residue that How I Met Your Mother and Harold & Kumar left behind). I think the omission of Desi's mother from the film might have been the biggest ball drop on the part of Flynn and Fincher. For those of you that have seen the movie, you know that NPH's Desi is quite creepy, but the book gives a little insight into where that creepiness comes from, which is essentially due to his mother. She only shows up in the book twice, but it's heavily implied that she's partially the source of his creepiness (she's even described as looking like an older version of Amy in the book).

All in all, this is one case where I can say that the movie was actually better than the book. I can't stress enough the perfect casting of Affleck, given the Nick character is very much an adult bro-ish frat boy/typical "dude" (doesn't that description just scream Ben Affleck?) I doubt Gone Girl will be in my top 10 at the end of the year, but it will more than likely be in the top tier of my honorable mention list.

Although who knows? I plan on seeing it at least one more time this year. 2014 has been a pretty weak year and even the remaining anticipated films don't look all that great to me so maybe Gone Girl will creep up in my top 10...

~ 2014 ~