There is always apprehension attached to book-to-film adaptations, a wary uneasiness that only increases when the source material is such a well-written, genuinely thrilling, and viciously brilliant novel like Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. It doesn’t matter that the directing duties are placed in the very capable hands of David Fincher or that the screenplay was written by Flynn herself. Adaptations still go wrong when everything seems to be in place. Gone Girl is the rare exception. The film pulls off an impressive, double-duty feat: Gone Girl is not only a strong, faithful adaptation of the novel, but it also makes the story feel wholly original again, even if you’ve already read it. (This post is very spoiler-heavy, so proceed with caution.)
Gone Girl‘s success is mostly credited to the duo of Fincher and Flynn, two intensely creative artists who are each familiar with dark stories and psychological thrillers, both skilled in the art of withholding details until just the right moment, before deftly springing them on the audience. Throughout Gone Girl, Flynn and Fincher simultaneously balance one another while also amplifying each other’s skills, making you almost angry that they’ve never collaborated before. (Fortunately, they will collaborate again, and this time on television!)
It’s an extremely detailed and careful adaptation, right down to the casting. Ben Affleck is perfectly cast as Nick Dunne, described in the novel as “the rich-boy villain in an ’80s teen movie.” He conveys all the emotion — or lack thereof — that drives his character in the novel. Rosamund Pike brings a necessary nuance to Amy Dunne with a meticulous performance that makes Amy’s violence, sociopathy, and unforgivable acts more complex on screen than in the novel. Flynn and Fincher manage to update Amy’s character without really changing her, while Pike pretends to be Amy who is also pretending to be Amy, building layers upon layers.
Adapting your own novel into a screenplay must be frustratingly hard work. You have to pick apart your own words, choose which scenes and characters to trash and which to expand on. You have to figure out how to convey wordy internal conflicts through on-screen visuals. You have to decide whether or not to factor in outside responses to the novel and whether to change the ending to fully surprise readers. Flynn does an exceptional job with adapting her own work, and is clearly able to remove herself enough from the source material to give it an objective look.
Flynn smartly removes unnecessary characters (like Amy’s possible-stalker high-school classmate) and tones down Nick’s father (one of the novel’s weakest characters, who only briefly appears in the film). There are small but important moments that survive the jump from page to screen without losing a beat; a memorable bit involves the detectives constantly referencing Nick’s “baby of the family habits” and there’s a sadly humorous beat when Nick sheepishly hands over the phone to Detective Boney, hanging his head like a child in trouble, allowing the two adults to converse with each other. Then there’s one of the novel’s greatest scenes: Nick’s grin at the press conference. Ben Affleck nails it, as brief as it is, in a moment that is just as haunting as I hoped it would be.
Margo and Nick’s relationship is even better on screen, Amy and Desi’s even more vivid and disgusting. Both are devastating. Flynn keeps these relationships the same at the core but adds little twists and details that keep us interested. But Flynn also knows when to steer clear of fan service. I was expecting a long, spiraling version of the infamous “Cool Girl” monologue that sometimes receives more attention than the actual novel, but Flynn smartly shortens this and relegates it to a brief (but well-done) scene, one that adds to Amy’s character but doesn’t over-explain or overpower Amy’s crimes.
Still, the most impressive feat is how Gone Girl remains suspenseful even to those who are familiar with the book. I’d reread it the night before the screening and was still enthralled for the entire film (149 minutes! Without caffeine!), still feeling surprise and relief at the right moments, even while knowing the general story. Mystery adaptations are especially tricky because the ending is already out there in the world. However, as this one proves, Gone Girl isn’t so much a whodunnit as a story about the mysteries of marriage, performance art, and how much is enough.
The big twist in the novel — that Amy faked her death to seek revenge on her cheating husband — isn’t treated as the movie’s gasp-inducing, pivotal scene, because the diary entry voice-overs hint at this from the very beginning. (It’s also worth mentioning that Fincher does a damn good job with the voice-over and flashback devices, two things that can really bring down a movie if done incorrectly.) The twist works just as well as a basic plot detour, in that it continues to ramp up the character suspense and the ever-present suspicion that everyone is lying to you.
Because both the novel and film versions of Gone Girl are masterful in their own right, experiencing one doesn’t cheapen the other. They tell the same story in two unique ways, hitting the same nail with two different hammers, but ultimately leaving you both satisfied and unsettled by the ending. That’s the most stunning aspect of Gone Girl: Even though you know what’s coming, it still hits just as hard.