David Fincher’s Gone Girl – Preserving Your Story When Adapting a Novel to the Screen [Spoilers late in the article] by Brad Windhauser
I’m a fan of Flynn’s novel, Gone Girl, and I have been eagerly awaiting David Fincher’s adaptation (as I am huge fan of the director’s work). Like most fans, though, I was unsure how this particular book would work on the screen. Given Fincher’s track record of faithfully adapting books (see Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Fight Club), I had high hopes for the film, and not just because Flynn was tapped to adapt her novel.
Yet, some books don’t make good films, in part because the screenplay tends to make a number of mistakes. Although a lot of these are in the service of story—trimming extraneous sub-plots and characters, “fixing” an ending, or developing ways to turn all the interior monologues into images—these choices usually hamstring an adaptation. What people love most about a book tends to not work in different mediums, such as a narrator with a distinctive voice whose head we get to roam around in or those supposedly extraneous subplots that add so much color to the story. Unlike a book, most films can only be so long and still hold the audience’s attention. So it’s understandable that some elements have to go. Deciding which is the burden any writer adapting a book faces. Usually, it’s a thankless task.
Flynn’s screenplay, however, does what a number of films haven’t been able to: she knew her core story and shaped the screenplay to reflect (and maintain) what’s at stake. Along the way, we see a number of creative uses of film in order to translate what also worked so well on the page.
Gone Girl opens on the fifth wedding anniversary of Nick and Amy Dunne, who have recently relocated to Missouri after both of them (writers) have been laid off from their Manhattan jobs and so Nick can return home to his ailing mother. Then Amy disappears under suspect circumstances. We soon learn that their marriage was far from picture-perfect. Did Nick kill her? Where’s the body? And what is with this planned (annual) scavenger hunt Amy planned for Nick? The film explores the intense media coverage this case attracts and how Nick unravels under the scrutiny. Will he ever figure out what happened to his estranged wife? The fourth act (yes the film has four) adds an interesting twist to this type of story (and one I won’t spoil).
Through the film and screenplay (and novel) Flynn—and by extension Fincher—comment on the present state of marriage in the US. Are Nick and Amy your typical American couple? The screenplay will make you feel rather uncomfortable if you think so. And discomfort is the point. The choices Flynn makes in the screenplay often enhance this feeling throughout. But just how much of the book is in the film?
The first half of the book alternates every other chapter between Nick, narrating in the present tense, and Amy, speaking through past diary entries, which will eventually reach the present half-way through the novel. These entries (which provide useful background info about the couple and, more specifically, about her) really annoyed me, in part because I hated the character they painted. I mean, she’s real annoying. Annoying, like, I-want-to-stop-reading, annoying.
And then the first major twist arrives, recasting everything you’ve read in her entries in a different light. Suddenly, the annoying parts (her voice) reflect genius on the writer’s part, but this payoff is the result of a very tricky gamble. Had Flynn walked this line too long? She asks a lot of the audience to care for someone this unlikeable—if you don’t like her, do you care about her disappearance enough?
The screenplay’s first hurdle was how to handle this. [If you would like to avoid spoilers, skip this paragraph.] It does, and its approach improves upon the use of the diary—in part because it compresses what’s used. The other hurdles included how to address the few areas where the story lags a bit—namely (spoiler alert) when Amy is hiding out in that sleazy motel (the screenplay establishes that environment, provides shorthand for the two minor characters relevant to this sub-plot, then makes its move, pushing the story into the third act). Again, the screenplay wisely compresses this without losing what’s important or interesting. Thankfully, the interaction with Desi is also downsized (cutting his mother, for example). Likewise, the interaction with Amy’s parents, and the built-up resentment she has towards them over hijacking her life through their books. (Cleverly, this is turned into a side note recast into a useful scene early.)
Making these changes keeps our focus on the main story—this marriage—while cleverly splitting our attention between Nick and Amy through a good narrative rhythm. Minor characters (such as annoying neighbor, thinks-she’s Amy’s-best-friend Noelle) are kept, but by reducing their presence, the screenplay trims their characters to their essential elements and function in the plot. This is most apparent with a slightly-more-than-minor lead detective, who, in the book, becomes super annoying, given every time she surfaces she attempts humor and/or witty comment. Kept to a minimum, this character is less irritating and even engaging.
For some, the movie (and screenplay) run long. It does lag every once in a while; however, its greatest achievement is how it successfully adapts this engaging (and widely-popular) novel to the screen while still maintaining what people love about the book: the story and its principle characters. It’s not easy to accomplish this, especially with making few changes to the scenes that comprise the spine of the book’s story. Few screenplays are so adept at isolating the core story of a book and maintaining the way of telling it the book presents. You can tell the writer thought about what was important, what was necessary, and what was extraneous. Her answer to these questions populate this tight screenplay. For those who want a master’s class in how to pull this off, check out Fincher’s Gone Girl. And then read the book.