By Wesley Sharer
When I think of my wife I always think of her head. I picture cracking her lovely skull, unspooling her brains, trying to get answers. The primal questions of any marriage. What are you thinking? How are you feeling? What have we done to each other? ~Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl
Gone Girl is a film that works perfectly well on its own, but familiarity with Gillian Flynn’s novel before watching it does change your viewing experience — a more rare occurrence than some assume.
Films ought to be weighed on their own terms to avoid the common complaint that “it was worse than the book,” but often filmmakers don’t take enough risks to justify distancing analysis from this type of book-to-film comparison. In the case of Gone Girl, however, cries for a return to the source material are slightly more justified because of the complicated and controversial nature of the characters and subject matter.
Gone Girl is not a bad adaptation, but it is problematic. David Fincher is one of the few truly great American directors working today (he’s been nominated for two Oscars), and his filmography is filled with modern classics (Se7en, Fight Club). Most importantly, he likes working with preexisting material, and 6 of his 10 feature films are based on novels or short stories. He even worked directly with Gillian Flynn to adapt her novel into a screenplay, and the page-to-screen transformation is faithful and entertaining. So what’s the problem, you may ask.
The problem is this: with characters as complicated as Gone Girl‘s central couple, the added length of a book can be invaluable. Each in their own way, both Nick and Amy Dunne are problematic portrayals of their respective genders. Nick is careless; Amy is calculating. Nick is lazy; Amy is violent.
These types of naturally controversial characters are easier to accept in the longer form of the novel. Part of the benefit of books is that you simply get more time and space to digest these characters. On top of this, the author is afforded a greater opportunity to develop the internal lives of characters in intricate ways that are often hard to accomplish in the transition to the big screen.
After the release of Fincher’s Gone Girl, the internet became a wasteland of answers to the questions raised by the film’s sexual politics. Is Amy a misogynist portrayal of women? Admittedly, Gillian Flynn did receive some flack for her book when it first came out, but it was never enough to stop her from making the New York Times Best Seller list. The book has the opportunity to preemptively answer questions about the characters that the movie simply doesn’t have time to address.
In the movie, it feels like Nick is the protagonist and Amy is the antagonist, but in the book their relationship is much more complex. Neither one is really the type of person you’d feel comfortable leaving your kids with for the weekend.
The movie attempts to recreate the most important aspects of each character, but some of the intricacies don’t play out as thoroughly on celluloid as they did on paper. Nick’s not a great guy, but he’s not nearly as problematic in the film as he was in the book. These subtle differences make cinematic Nick and Amy slightly more ambiguous than their literary counterparts.
This doesn’t mean one presentation of the characters is more valid than the other—sometimes the more ambiguous nature of film can even spark more interesting conversations. What’s certain is that the book and the movie are different entities, and whether you like one or the other more, they both work individually, as well as together. Coming into the film with knowledge of the characters from the novel will give you a different experience than someone who hasn’t met them yet. However, whether met on page or screen, Nick and Amy captivate us by taking on a complex and disturbingly provocative life of their own.