lost in adaptation

Spoiler Alert: If you haven’t read Gone Girl or watched the movie, you should probably do that before reading  this article

When Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl came out in 2012, I, like millions of other readers, fell in love with it. It is a gloriously clever, twisted mystery-thriller that fully deserved the #1 spot it held on top of both bestseller lists and critics’ best-of-the-year lists. So, when it was announced that Gone Girl was being adapted into a movie (directed by David Fincher and written by Gillian Flynn herself), I was excited; 500 or so pages wasn’t enough Gone Girl for me, and I gladly welcomed more of it. However, I was also apprehensive about the film because Gone Girl is a uniquely challenging novel to adapt. I was afraid that the very qualities that make it such an ingenious novel—its genre-defying depth and structural complexity—would be lost in its translation to film.

I watched the film last week, and unfortunately, my suspicions were confirmed. Don’t get me wrong: Gone Girl is an excellent film with masterful direction and performances, and it deserves all the accolades coming its way. Nevertheless, the film fails to do complete justice to the novel, constrained not by any fault of the filmmakers, but by the nature of film itself.

Film is, in many ways, a much more two-dimensional medium than the novel, inhibited by the very attributes that make it so accessible: visual storytelling and limitations of time. The novel can compensate for its lack of visuals with vivid description, but it is often challenging for film to visually represent the more text-based literary devices, like the epistolary or diary format, without resorting to clunky exposition. Moreover, having limited time at its disposal, film often struggles with layered narrative arcs that require gradual development. The problems with adapting Gone Girl for the big screen arise from these fundamental differences between the two media: Gillian Flynn’s novel is a multi-headed beast that the film is unable to cage within its restraints.

Gone Girl is the story of Nick and Amy Dunne, a couple whose life turns upside down when Amy goes missing on the morning of their fifth wedding anniversary, and Nick is accused for her possible murder. As we dig deeper into their fairytale past and its devolution into a troubled marital present, inconsistencies start revealing themselves, and we find ourselves in the midst of an intricate guessing game. However, the novel is much more than just a whodunit. It is a bleak portrait of life in post-recession America, and, in Flynn’s own words, of the “the sense of bankruptcy that both individuals and communities feel when the economy spirals.” It articulates the existential crises of living in a world saturated with media-created expectations that blur the line between who you are and who you are supposed to be—a crisis Amy evokes in her famous Cool Girl passage, where she accuses “movies written by socially awkward men” of pressuring women into being “cool girls… who let their men do whatever they want” and fooling men into believing that such girls actually exist. The novel is also a critique of the fickle and dangerously powerful media: as the case against Nick grows stronger, he must contend not only with the law, but also with tabloid-TV journalists eager to brand him a sociopathic wife-killer.

Above all, though, Gone Girl is a psychological novel that probes into the human relationships that shape its characters. Nick and his twin sister Go share a symbiotic sibling relationship that is severely tested as Nick’s secrets unspool. Nick is tormented by his strained relationship with his abusive, misogynistic father and his perpetual fear of turning into the man he hates. Amy is damaged by her relationship with her opportunistic parents, who use their Amazing Amy children’s book series to remind her constantly of the ways in which she falls short. Flynn intertwines these multiple themes and relationships, creating a poisonous web with Amy and Nick at the center.

Limited by its 140 minute run-time, the movie whittles down the novel’s thematic labyrinth into a neat cause-and-effect chain, retaining only the nuggets that are required to advance the plot. Unlike the novel, in which a web of factors influence the actions of Amy and Nick, the movie gives them simple, clear-cut motives: Amy and Nick start drifting apart because they lose their jobs and move to Missouri. Nick cheats on Amy because Amy is a psychopath. Amy fakes her own death and tries to implicate Nick because Nick cheated on her. The nuances that make up the narrative of the novel are referenced, often in voiceover lines lifted verbatim from the book, but never with enough depth to truly add to either character. The novel rises above genre labels, blending social satire and psychological critique into its missing-person-thriller plot. The movie is an extraordinarily well-crafted thriller, but it isn’t much more than that.

The film struggles with adapting not just the multiple thematic layers of the novel, but also its complex structure. Gone Girl owes its greatest strength—its ability to play with reader expectations—to structural devices that do not lend themselves easily to the screen. Nick and Amy narrate the novel in alternating chapters; both are unreliable first-person narrators who present inconsistent and contradictory accounts of events. It is this narrative structure that keeps the reader guessing and the novel moving. The film tries to lift the format almost directly from the book. However, it is easier for characters to lie to us on the page, because they literally tell us what to see. We access the events being described only through their minds and our perception is subtly manipulated by the tone and voice of their narration. It is much harder for a character to mislead us in film, because our visual perception of the events depicted on-screen is unfiltered by the words or tone of the character. We watch the events in question not through their eyes, but as third-person observers.

The first half of Amy’s narration consists of diary entries in which she describes in giddy detail the trajectory of her relationship with Nick: the meet-cute, the whirlwind romance, the perfect marriage, the layoffs and subsequent shift to Missouri, and the gradual disintegration of their marriage. Throughout these vicissitudes, Amy suffers in silence while Nick transforms into an indifferent, abusive husband who, Amy writes in her final entry, she fears might kill her. And then, halfway through the novel, comes the massive mid-plot twist that has become Gone Girl’s biggest selling point: Amy is not who we think she is. She has faked her own death as part of a terrifyingly detailed scheme to punish her husband for his failures and infidelity. The entries we have been reading from are from a carefully fabricated diary that Amy leaves behind as part of her plan to incriminate Nick for her murder.

In the novel, this twist works exceedingly well because Amy’s tone and voice in her diary entries paint an extremely convincing picture of her as the doting, sentimental wife being screwed over by the douchebag of a husband. The difference in the tone of her diary entries and her present-day narration, in which she reveals herself to be a cold, calculating psychopath, is jarring and unexpected. But onscreen, without her words influencing how we perceive her, the Amy we see in the diary scenes is the same Amy we see slitting a man’s throat. Rosamund Pike, who plays Amy in the movie, is a splendid actress, but in order to faithfully portray Amy’s complexity and make the shift in her character believable, Rosamund Pike is forced to play both layers of her character simultaneously. Even as she narrates from her diary, there is a cold, rehearsed quality to her on-screen persona that hints that there is something more to her than meets the eye. She is not entirely convincing as the victim, and that dilutes the impact of the revelation that follows.

In the film, Nick is no longer a first-person narrator: we view his side of the story from a third person point-of-view. The book neatly balances Nick’s voice against Amy’s by allowing us into both their minds, but the film doesn’t allow the viewer to access Nick’s innermost thoughts. Instead, he serves largely as a counterpoint to Amy’s character. Ironically, making Nick more inaccessible has the effect of making him less unlikable than in the book. Without Nick lying blatantly to us like he does in the book, or letting us in on his latent misogyny (he struggles with the urge to violently abuse women who disagree with him) that manifests itself now and again in his thoughts, it is much easier in the film to forgive him for his transgressions and sympathize with him as the poor victim of Amy’s madness.

This is perhaps why the conclusion of the movie feels slightly dissatisfying, even though it stays true to the book. When Nick discovers at the end of the book that Amy is pregnant, he decides to stay with her, despite the knowledge that she is a psychopathic murderer. The reason the conclusion is truly chilling is because it is insinuated that deep down, Nick wants to stay with her. “Amy is toxic, yet I can’t imagine a world without her entirely,” he admits in the last few pages of the book. “Who would I be without Amy to react to?” The ending polarized readers when the book came out; I personally thought it was a discomfiting yet brilliantly fitting end to the novel. I could believe that Nick and Amy, two of the most unlikable protagonists I’ve come across in literature, are truly made for each other. However, in the movie, we do not know Nick intimately enough to understand why Amy brings out the best in him. We do not dislike him enough to see how he is the perfect match for Amy—and that makes the conclusion feel a little flat and unconvincing.

‘Unconvincing’ probably sums up my reservations about the film. The story of Gone Girl was never supposed to feel real; it is a contrived and wholly preposterous tale. Nevertheless, the novel gives us characters that are complex and developed enough to make all their decisions, from Amy’s ridiculously meticulous revenge to Nick’s decision to stay with her, feel convincing, if not realistic. By simplifying the structure and psychology of the book, the movie makes their actions seem implausible even within its fictional little universe.

“The book was better” is a common and rather unfair criticism of film adaptations of novels, and I do not intend to blindly endorse that sweeping generalization. The two media are too different to be judged by the same standards; to compare them is to compare apples and oranges. However, film has a much wider reach than literature, and it disappoints me that the Gone Girl most people will know and remember is a movie adaptation that fails to capture the uniqueness of the novel.

First published in Post- Magazine, October 23, 2014. Illustrated by Amanda Googe. 

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