Audiences of the New York Film Festival -- which on Friday were given their first public glimpse of "Gone Girl" -- have been treated to their share of less-than-joyful opening-night movies. Björk, memorably, was hanged in 2000's "Dancer in the Dark." Social pleasantries were coldbloodedly murdered in Roman Polanski's "Carnage" (2011). Everybody -- spoiler alert! -- died in "Hamlet" (1964).
In "Gone Girl," something else takes it in the neck: intimacy. How well do we know the people we share our lives with? Who are they? How did they get that way? In the case of "Gone Girl," what shallow grave might they be buried in?
"It's the date movie to end all dates," laughed Gillian Flynn, upon whose bestselling novel the film is based, and who wrote the screenplay. She acknowledged the uneasy state a lot of couples will be in at the end of David Fincher's film, for which she had to convert a book that -- much more than most -- depends very much for its impact on the writing itself.
"No, it was not the type of book you look at and think you can just slap it onto the movie screen," Flynn said. "It's very internalized, it relies a lot on internal narratives and first-person writing. My first challenge was to externalize what needed to be shown on screen. My concern was once I did that it would be all engine and lose those more specific, character-driven moments. I wanted to make sure I maintained the meat of the relationship."
The relationship in question is between Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) and Amy Elliott (Rosamund Pike), two writers in New York with divergent backgrounds: He's a transplanted Missourian who's about to lose his job at a men's magazine; she's a writer, too, and grew up as the model for her parents' wildly successful series of children's books ("Amazing Amy"). When her parents fall on hard times, and take back most of her trust fund, and Nick's mother develops terminal cancer, they move back to Nick's hometown of North Carthage, Missouri, an economically enfeebled town on the Mississippi where bad things can happen. The bad thing that drives the plot is Amy's mysterious disappearance.
Those who've read the book -- the hardcover version alone went to 40 printings and sold 6 million copies -- know the intricacies of the story line, which won't be revealed here. But Flynn, a Midwest native and a former writer for Entertainment Weekly, does target a few ancillary social evils en route to telling Nick and Amy's story, including the excesses of the media among which she once worked. When Amy disappears, and foul play is indicated, Nick is the obvious suspect for the investigating officers (Kim Dickens, Patrick Fugit) and raw meat for the tabloid TV piranha like Nanci Grace-clone Ellen Abbott (Missi Pyle), or polished bottom feeder Susan Scheiber (Sela Ward), a combo Diane Sawyer-Barbara Walters. What's particularly biting is the weather-vane nature of the Nick Dunne coverage, and the way people exposed to too much media learn, and employ, its vocabulary.
Media as monitor
"It's a story about storytelling," Flynn said of "Gone Girl," "and in the 24-hour media world, no matter what the content, the media has a disproportionate voice in all our lives. I wanted it to be a third character in a way -- Nick, Amy, but also the media. We all weigh in on everybody's life no matter what. And there seems to be a constant audience monitoring our lives."
Fincher is a moviemaker who brings a combination of visual elegance and muscle to whatever project he undertakes -- "Se7en," "Zodiac," "Fight Club," "Panic Room" and, of course, "The Social Network." You can see where Fincher's film diverged from Flynn's novel, and the cinematic reasons it did.
"He gives the most excellent notes," Flynn said, adding that they swapped script pages during the process of her adapting her book, and that his suggestions were all about "those visual moments, the visual impact."
One place where she wandered off the page -- and this isn't giving away anything essential -- is when Det. Boney (Dickens) expresses disbelief that Nick doesn't know his missing wife's blood type. What kind of non-homicidal husband doesn't know his wife's blood type? "Should I know my wife's blood type?" her partner (Fugit) asks, somewhat guiltily, after Nick has left the room. The answer, essentially, is of course not.
It's one of the few moments where Flynn goes beyond the Nick-Amy view of the world. She also thought it was funny.
"I knew men would be squirming uncomfortably, not knowing their wives' blood type," she laughed. "How many people know it? I liked that idea, of voicing what every guy in the audience was going to be thinking."
Other epistolary novels
The epistolary novel -- one told through documents such as, say, a diary -- has a mixed history at the movies: "Dracula" may be the most successful (and frequently adapted) of the genre, told as it was through ships' logs, news stories and diary entries. Others -- "Cloud Atlas," for instance -- never managed to capture what made the book a hit. It is one thing to include narration in a film, and quite another to maintain the allegiance in a movie to the first-person voice that made the original epistolary. Usually, something gets lost in the translation to the screen. As it did, mostly, in the following:
Carrie (1976) Brian De Palma's film, the first movie made from a work by Stephen King, was adapted from a book that used letters, news clippings and magazine articles to tell the tale of Carrietta White's horrific revenge on her high school and its inhabitants. The movie, as fans well know, mostly went another way entirely.
The Color Purple (1985) Letters gave the Alice Walker novel its essential character -- Celie, for instance, even writes to God. In his film adaptation, Steven Spielberg makes some effort to maintain the formal nature of Walker's storytelling; characters narrate some of the letters contained in the book. Whether it's essential to what Spielberg was up to, though, is another story.
Red River (1948) One of the great American Westerns, with what may be John Wayne's best performance, this Howard Hawks film was based on the Borden Chase story serialized in The Saturday Evening Post and even today exists in two versions: the one narrated by Walter Brennan, and the one with entries that appear to be out of an Old West diary, and which Hawks apparently never intended to be seen.
We Need to Talk About Kevin (2012) The 2003 novel by Lionel Shriver was written from the perspective of Kevin's mother, via letters to her husband. The film by Lynne Ramsay, which features a remarkable performance by Tilda Swinton, takes a different tack, one that is courageous and thrilling, even if the story ultimately doesn't make a lot of emotional sense.