Caveat: How a movie ends is important, and important to talk about. This is especially the case for discussions of how David Fincher’s film of Gone Girl works with its source material, Gillian Flynn’s bestselling novel of the same name. So!
So the movie version of Gone Girl came out this weekend, got great reviews (mostly), and did strong business at the ol’ box office. I rarely read books before they’re turned into movies and I even more rarely read bestsellers before or after they’re turned into movies, and I don’t say that to brag: I just see a ton of movies and am far less comprehensive about books; movies often become a shortcut for mass-appeal stuff so I can focus more on short story collections, and comic books that will languish in development hell (stay a comic book, Sex Criminals; it will be better this way). But I did indeed read Gone Girl, during a business trip a couple of years ago that quickly blurred into sustained desire to return to my hotel room and continue reading it. Putting it down every day and night to do things like eat, sleep, and my job all felt like cruel defeats.
The book alternates a third-person narration from the point of view of Nick, whose wife has mysteriously disappeared on the morning of their anniversary, and the diary of Amy, the wife in question. Amy’s disappearance is the main mystery, but others unfold within it, like whether Nick (Ben Affleck in the movie) is responsible, and even if he’s not, what else he might be hiding, and what secrets Amy (Rosamund Pike) will reveal in her backstory-filling history of her marriage to Nick. It’s perfect material for David Fincher, who can ratchet up tension and suspense just by precise back-and-forth cuts; recall how eventful and significant the dual story threads of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo felt as Fincher sent Rooney Mara and Daniel Craig cruising toward an eventual intersection. Dragon Tattoo was a more typical bestseller in that I never read it, and while I could sense the trashiness underneath the immaculate surfaces of the film, Fincher’s much vaunted cause-and-effect filmmaking style did a hell of a job shining it up. Watching the movie, slight as it is from a thematic perspective, felt like a visceral recreation of reading a trashy airport novel on one succinct flight.
In 2014, knowing the book of Gone Girl puts me in the odd position of knowing the Big Twist of the movie before it happens, and tilting, I think, my evaluation of the screen version along a strange but not unfamiliar (given the book’s runaway popularity) axis. In Fincher’s movie, adapted by original novelist Gillian Flynn, the big reveal feels like it happens earlier than in the book, even though in terms of page count versus running time, percentages, and so on, it probably happens at about the same point (I can’t consult my household’s copy of the book, because we lent it out. This is the main reason you buy a copy of Gone Girl: so you may lend it to friends who are going on trips). Seriously, guys, I’m going to spoil the fuck out of this thing in just a second.
It’s probably the most bottom-dropping twist in a Fincher movie since Fight Club; like that one, it’s both surprising and foreshadowed enough to be kind of inevitable (or maybe it just seems that way if you know it’s coming). With his attention to information and revelations, Fincher is aces at the unveiling of a plot twist, and it’s telling that the big scene in Gone Girl is immensely satisfying even with prior knowledge. In the movie, the revelation that Amy is not only alive and well, but has engineered her exit to frame her husband for her murder, is dominated by what has become a famous passage of narration from the book about the idea of Cool Girls. It’s necessarily shortened from the book, and I’ll reprint the original version here:
“Men always say that as the defining compliment, don’t they? She’s a cool girl. Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. Go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the Cool Girl.
Men actually think this girl exists. Maybe they’re fooled because so many women are willing to pretend to be this girl. For a long time Cool Girls offended me. I used to see men – friends, coworkers, strangers – giddy over these awful pretender women, and I’d want to sit these men down and calmly say: You are not dating a woman, you are dating a woman who has watched too many movies written by socially awkward men who’d like to believe that this kind of woman exists and might kiss them. I’d want to grab the poor guy by his lapels or messenger bag and say: The bitch doesn’t really love chili dogs that much – no one loves chili dogs that much! And the Cool Girls are even more pathetic: They’re not even pretending to be the woman they want to be, they’re pretending to be the woman a man wants them to be. Oh, and if you’re not a Cool Girl, I beg you not to believe that your man doesn’t want the Cool Girl. It may be a slightly different version – maybe he’s a vegetarian, so Cool Girl loves seitan and is great with dogs; or maybe he’s a hipster artist, so Cool Girl is a tattooed, bespectacled nerd who loves comics. There are variations to the window dressing, but believe me, he wants Cool Girl, who is basically the girl who likes every fucking thing he likes and doesn’t ever complain. (How do you know you’re not Cool Girl? Because he says things like: “I like strong women.” If he says that to you, he will at some point fuck someone else. Because “I like strong women” is code for “I hate strong women.”)”
In the book, this feels a bit like Flynn stepping into Amy for a moment to work in a pet peeve, especially if you’re familiar with her background as a pop culture critic (she reviewed TV for Entertainment Weekly for years). But it also works within the context of the book’s themes and Amy’s general state of mind, and raises provocative questions about the way women try to mold themselves to become male fantasies more insidious than the softcore Playboy stereotypes of yore. Understandably, it resonated with a lot of readers, which is how it became a bizarre sort of pseudo-feminist rallying cry, taken at face value. And taken as a face-value rallying cry, this passage is actually, to me, sort of disturbing—a reinforcement of gender norms masquerading as honesty. It’s certainly true that plenty of popular culture and plenty of actual behavior exists to reinforce male fantasies, and Flynn’s calling out of that process is razor-sharp. But the implication (less in the book and more in the appropriation that followed) that “real” women would never like certain foods or hobbies or sex stuff is dangerously close to othering—not so dissimilar to the misogyny of the nerds who rail against the “Fake Geek Girl,” the girl who doesn’t really love comics or video games or Star Wars, but fakes it and enjoys the attention. It’s strange, how often awareness of tropes and supposed phoniness can circle back around into a kind of social conservatism, yelling at people for enjoying whatever they’re not expected to enjoy. I understand that it’s more the collection of these elements (and the mimicking of whatever Male Tastes) that forms the Cool Girl, but I still get uncomfortable when so many people wholeheartedly embrace the idea that women who claim to like this or that are just liars.
Anyway, this is all to say that the movie-shortened version truncates the rant, focusing less on calling out women who claim to like football or nachos or comic books or anal sex or seitan as phonies, instead juxtaposing the idea with Amy’s shedding of her Perfect Wife image as she speeds away from Nick, leaving him to rot or possibly die for her fake murder. Throughout the film, Fincher and Flynn turn well-written passages from the novel into concise, telling sequences or sometimes even just shots. The book’s dark humor, especially, comes through more clearly in the film: maybe because sometimes crazy or ridiculous shit is easier to accept in a film than on the page, but also because the movie benefits from winnowing away some of the more cutesy attempts at sardonic or quasi-relatable wit on the page, getting dark laughs from line readings (particularly from Pike and her shifting personas) or reaction shots.
Strangely, as well-honed and entertaining as Gone Girl is—generally, it distills the book into something that feels fleeter, sharper, sometimes nastier—Fincher and Flynn don’t entirely avoid the major bestseller-adaptation pitfall of the past decade: the edict that nothing major shall change, that fans of the books know better (it seems most prevalent in YA adaptations but happens elsewhere, too). There were early rumblings, dismissals of which later seemed to fall on deaf ears, that Fincher and Flynn toyed with the movie’s ending. It’s been a couple of years at this point, but if I recall correctly, if anything the ending to the movie is too faithful to the novel. When Amy first returns home in the film, it seems to be cutting its way toward a concise, pitch-black conclusion. But the movie adapts too much of the novel’s falling action, diluting the power of its first real reunion scene, where Nick, and Amy (and in a special guest appearance, Ben Affleck’s cock) stand in the shower as Amy washes off a ton of blood.
It’s a striking image—after which we still need to get through Amy’s announcement of her pregnancy; Nick talking to his sister, his lawyer, and a cop, making it clear that he’s shared the specifics of Amy’s return and that they’ve all considered if it might be possible to punish her; Nick talking to his sister alone, hearing her objections to him staying with her; plus Nick and Amy prepping for their big TV interview. It all makes sense from a pure plot perspective, but feels knife-cut instead of scalpel-sliced. The ending is begging to arrive a little earlier, with a little more of a puncture.
This faithfulness also, weirdly, highlights a subtle departure from the book that I’m not sure was even intentional: on the page, Nick is equally empathic but not quite so likable. He’s never as cunning or, well, I hesitate to say “evil,” so let’s go with “ruthless,” as Amy, but his failings in their marriage—his emotional shutdowns when things get difficult, his affair with a much younger woman, his bristling when Amy becomes less accommodating than she originally seemed—are offered in greater detail, both because we’re privy to more of Amy’s diary (which appears in selected voiceovers in the film) and because the rest of the book is from Nick’s perspective. That’s basically true of his sections of the film, but it’s not as close, and the clear implication from the book that guilty or not, Nick is hiding something (it turns out to be the affair), feels less prevalent on screen, from Fincher’s more quasi-objective vantage. Affleck and Pike are both wonderful in the movie, and Affleck in particular seems well-cast as the once-golden boy who makes all the wrong moves in the eyes of the press, cops, and his family (a more irritable Patrick Wilson, basically). But the movie, consciously or not, uses post-prestige Affleck: a little humbler, a little less smarmy, a little more likable. Nick’s failings are more clear, but he seems a bit more like a victim of Amy’s machinations. He is, of course (infidelity doesn’t really justify framing for murder, and Amy does, after all, actually murder someone, turned into a gloriously bonkers set piece in the film), but this makes the protracted ending of the movie seem like a man accepting a sad fate as much as being forced to ride out his fucked marriage in public. It’s a subtextual difference more than a textual one, faithful to the book more than the movie’s wicked distillation. By most standards, Fincher’s Gone Girl is a poisonous portrait of how men and women assign themselves roles—loving wife, supportive husband, Cool Girl, Good Guy—they can’t always escape. By Fincher’s standards, I almost wish it had been a little more twisted.