GONE GIRL by Gillian Flynn

Flynn_Gone-Girl_pbFirst published in 2012, this “he said, she said” novel of marital suspense by Gillian Flynn – about a man accused of killing his wife when she goes missing – quickly became a bestseller in the US. Flynn has now turned it into a movie in collaboration with tyro director David Fincher and a cast headed by Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Neil Patrick Harris and Tyler Perry. So I thought it might be a good time to have a look at how they compare and see what makes them tick. The book begins on Nick and Amy Dunne’s fifth anniversary, but all is not well with their marriage …

The following review is offered for Katie’s Book to Movie Challenge at Doing Dewey (for review links, click here).

Nick: “It was my fifth lie to the police. I was just starting”

The story is told by two contrasting and alternating narrators – we begin with Nick describing what is happening in the here and now, from the day he came home from work to discover his wife gone and his house in disarray. He calls the police and then finds the clues to a treasure hunt that Amy created (she did one for each of their anniversaries). As he finds each new message he seems to feel more and more guilty – but about what? And who is calling him on the cellphone he keeps not answering? Then the police turn up many inconsistencies at the crime scene, deciding it was clearly staged. It then emerges that Amy had tried to buy a gun, and confided in people about problems with their marriage, people who Nick says didn’t even know her. Then trace evidence of fresh blood mopped up from their kitchen floor is identified as being his wife’s. Just how reliable a narrator is he?

At regular intervals we switch to entries from Amy’s diary, which go back seven years to 2005, when she and Nick first met. Ultimately the two narratives more or less catch up with each other, and what she says ultimately paints a very different picture from the one Nick presents. At the most prosaic and superficial level, what the two narratives describe is the sad story of two people who start off in love and then after a couple of good years hit one too many bumps in the road. Then things get very weird indeed …

Amy: “I am something to be tossed into a junkyard, thrown into the river if necessary. I don’t feel real anymore. I feel like I could disappear.”

Amy and Nick used to live in New York – she wrote personality questionnaires for magazines, he wrote pop culture articles. Both lived well, thanks in part to a big trust fund from her parents, two sociologists who struck it rich with a series of children’s books based on their daughter’s life. But when the recession hits the couple find themselves jobless – then after Nick’s mother gets ill he insists they move back to Missouri, something she only does for love of her husband. But, as we realise, there are many, many things he is not being honest about, Indeed, he is almost a pathological liar – even his twin sister Margo, the only person who seems to really understand him, starts to have her doubts. Did he really kill his wife, or was it an accomplice? (it turns out he has been leading a double life). Or was it someone who has nothing to do with Nick, like a man who once stalked Amy?

Nick: “Now is the part where I have to tell you I have  [deleted] and you stop liking me”

Flynn_Gone-Girl_tieinAt the halfway mark Flynn’s pulls the big switcheroo, the major twist that should have pleased its many mainstream readers but which didn’t really didn’t fool this hardened mystery fan (and if you’re a dedicated reader of Nicholas Blake and Patrick Quentin, you won’t be that surprised either – I’ll say no more …). At this point we know that Amy and Nick’s marriage is well and truly gone, so now it’s a more a thriller to see what will happen to him as evidence of guilty behaviour mounts ever higher and the police close in. He gets himself a savvy celebrity lawyer named (really?) Tanner Bolt to help him play the media game and get the public on his side after Amy’s parents desert him. Will he get away with it – and, more to the point, should he?

To make the big twist in the second part of the story work, Flynn uses that tired cliché of having a hitherto sane and sympathetic character suddenly start to cackle and blather, in effect having a psychotic break and revealing themselves to actually be (or rather, think themselves to be) a criminal mastermind. It is handled rather poorly, with dozens of pages devoted to tedious explanations on how the wool was pulled over everybody’s eyes and literally asks the reader to excuse the titanic lack of credibility on the basis that the character, it turns out, is actually very crazy … So no, not very convincing, which is a shame because the basic plot is actually perfectly solid and some of the character stuff and the suspense scenes showing the police slowly but surely getting their man is very well handled. What it does do though is reinforce just how misanthropic a novel this is, and just how unpleasant the main cast turns out to be. There is also some genuine black humour and perspicacity about the way people create a version, or vision, of themselves for others to see and admire but which can backfire horribly (there is a wonderfully funny sequence in Amy’s diary about the male fantasy of ‘cool women’ that really stands out here). But the plot, while full of fun twists and reversals, is at heart a melodramatic potboiler that is smart enough to engage the chattering classes by pushing gender buttons, and yet is perhaps just a little too knowing to be truly convincing at a human level – is the film any better?

The first thing one has to say is that Ben Affleck is such perfect casting as Nick that it’s hard not to believe Flynn didn’t have him in mind when she wrote the book – it suits his slightly detached, emotionally reticent onscreen persona and traditional leading man good looks down to the ground (even when he covers up the cleft in his chin as a sign of honesty). As the eponymous missing person, Rosamund Pike has in many ways the more interesting role, presented of course primarily in flashback, reading out her diary entries on the soundtrack. Neil Patrick Harris does very well as a creepy ex-boyfriend of Amy’s who has an agenda of his own and Tyler Perry is a very surprising choice as Tanner Bolt, making the lawyer much more amusing and likeable than he is in the novel, while Kim Dickens probably walks away with the movie as Detective Boney. David Fincher, who with Seven, Fight Club and Zodiac made some terrific and very eerie thrillers, brings his usual gloss and attention to detail to bear, though it’s only in the nasty final act that he gets to really turns the screws on the audience, which he gleefully does to great effect. While the structure has necessarily been simplified, with various minor characters expunged and others reduced to mere walk-ons, this is a very, very faithful adaptation – perhaps too much so, as at two and a half hours it is a good 15 minutes too long, over-extending the ending especially. Readers of the book won’t get much in the way of any new surprises, not even at the very end despite early reports that the movie would be changing it.

Like the source novel, this is a very slick entertainment that will be even more fun if you don’t see the big twist coming (and which, oddly, in the film is slightly soft-peddaled, which I am not entirely sure was intentional – it’s certainly a bit flat and not presented as a major reveal). It kept reminding me of the film adaptation of Presumed Innocent – and it has to be said, in that comparison, the book and film do come off as hokier and undeniably second best.

Gone Girl (2014)
Director: David Fincher
Producer: Joshua Donen, Arnon Milchan, Reese Witherspoon, Ceán Chaffin
Screenplay: Gillian Flynn
Cinematography: Jeff Cronenweth
Art Direction: Donald Graham Burt
Music: Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross
Cast: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Neil Patrick Harris, Tyler Perry, Carrie Coon, Kim Dickens, Lisa Banes,  Patrick Fugit, David Clennon

***** (3 fedora tips out of 5)

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38 Responses to GONE GIRL by Gillian Flynn

  1. Colin says:

    I had a chance to see this a few weeks back and decided not to in the end. Frankly, I’m not a fan of Affleck and that colored my decision. A mistake? Maybe…

  2. robert says:

    It’s strange but I feel like I have seen many films with more or less the same story or read books with pretty similar storyline. Even tv films. Is this a remake?

  3. “But the plot, while full of fun twists and reversals, is at heart a melodramatic potboiler that is smart enough to engage the chattering classes by pushing gender buttons, and yet is perhaps just a little knowingly to be truly convincing at a human level”

    Wow, that is a perfect description of this book, in my view.

    Agree with you about Big Ben (ahem!), it was like he was made for the role, or the role was made for him!

  4. Sergio – Yes, that’s about the best summing-up for the book/film I’ve read. I’m impressed as ever with your thoughtful and careful discussion of the novel, though, and I think you make very strong points.

  5. tracybham says:

    I was afraid to read too much of your post because I may see the movie. If we decide not to, or once we do, I will come back to your post. I do like Ben Affleck and Rosamunde Pike. Just not sure I will like the experience, but if I do watch I want to come in knowing as little as possible. I had no intention of reading the book, although the more I hear about it I do consider changing my mind. A quandary.

    • I have been scrupulously spoiler-free, I promise TracyK, but I think that is the best way going on – with as little info as possible. Let me know what you make of it 🙂

  6. Ela says:

    Thanks for the contrast between book and film. They both sound as I expected, and reinforces my decision not to read or see either – though I like Affleck and Pike – since I like the characters in a thriller (in any novel, really) to be slightly sympathetic! It’s odd, isn’t it, how books can be suddenly read everywhere (like the Stieg Larsson ones) and yet not be good or original, when there is excellent stuff languishing…

    • Fair point Ela – in my case, I really wanted to know what the fuss was all about. If you catch it on an inexpensive DVD sometime you find it’s worth 149 minutes of your time. You do, I think, end up having more sympathy for one of the characters, but it would be too much of a spoiler to say more.

  7. Still not sure whether to read the book or see the film (or neither). Recently reading Before I Go To Sleep convinced me not to bother with that film… If you had to pickone version, which would it be?

  8. Jose Ignacio says:

    Agree with Margot and Curtis, Sergio. It’s the best description of the book I’ve read.

  9. Conor says:

    I enjoyed the book from start to finish, while worrying about how it strains credulity and leaves you with so much to think about at the end. But then this novel has a hugely ambitious plot in the manner of ‘Lolita’ or ‘Emma’, with overtones of ‘Frankenstein’ and ‘Revolutionary Road’, is written in a sophisticated and witty style far better than most mysteries, and seeks to say something important about parenthood, marriage and a USA scarily manipulated and distorted by a clamorous media. So you have to forgive some over-reaching when so much is being attempted.

    I’m puzzled by your point about the shock of a character being revealed as very different, or even psychotic. Surely this is the stuff of crime novels. It’s not as if it’s not prepared for. We are dealing with highly intelligent and successful people here, four of whom are themselves writers, and they are specifically practised in contriving complex games. The story follows an archetypal American plot, in which brilliant hopes turn into nightmarish disasters, and quests for fine ends yield unwished-for knowledge.

    The film is a blissful experience after the novel, but the changes at the end present more challenges. Is washing all that blood off meant to make you think of a re-birth, a denial of responsibility or what? Has the film brought out the novel’s central interest using an excessive visual symbolism? Or is it worth it, when there is something so beautiful to see being uncovered?
    Don’t miss this novel and this film. They make you reach for comparison with the very best, like Scott Turow’s ‘Presumed Innocent’ and Ross Macdonald’s ‘The Chill’.

    • Thanks Conor for all that detailed feedback. It clearly didn’t make as great an impression on me as it did you but I certainly agree that The Chill and Presumed Innocent are exceptional as crime novels and character studies. The reveal of one of the character’s ‘true’ nature (shall we say), was to me me very unconvincing. I saw it coming, but found that strained credulity to breaking point – ultimately this seems to be a book with something to say, but buried it in a (to me) unconvincing mystery plot – sounds like you got a lot more out of it than I did though, which is definitely a good thing after investing all that reading and viewing time 🙂

  10. I’m going to agree with the others and say this is the best summing-up I’ve read. I haven’t seen the film yet, but wouldn’t rule it out. BTW, the lawyer being called Tanner Bolt – did you know that Gillian Flynn’s husband is a lawyer called Brett Nolan…..? That was the added value I produced in my blogpost on the book last year.

    • I think I must have slightly skim-read your post Moira for fear of spoilers (though I know you are not that kind of lady) – I really hadn’t cottoned on to the fact that the name was basically an anagram – that is really super – thanks chum!

  11. Great review Sergio. I haven’t read the book but I did see the film, and your review is the most accurate one I’ve seen so far. I have to agree that the character’s true nature reveal was unconvincing; there’d been so much work building sympathy and support that it felt manipulative. I understand that was the point, using point-of-view and character perspective to manipulate the audience’s expectations. It’s effective, but also not quite convincing.

    Though that “true nature” makes the ending downright chilling to me, alone and trapped in that situation with a psycho… and it makes the movie’s first lines come back to haunt you. And while I’m not a fan of Affleck, he’s the perfect choice for Nick.

  12. I liked this novel a lot. I guessed the big twist early on, but I still found it compelling and full of surprises. I am looking forward to the movie. I have never been a fan of Affleck as an actor, but he does seem like a good fit for this role.

    • Thanks Irene – I did like a lot of the observations in the story, especially those from Amy, but ultimately was unconvinced – so many readers seemed to have really liked this and I hate to feel that I’m missing out – but I felt pretty much the same about the film as I did the book, so I suspect that it may have to remain my loss.

  13. Sergio, as Robert says, the basic plot of the missing wife is familiar, although the story is different. It has a distant resemblance to HOSTAGE FOR A HOOD by Lionel White, which I am currently reading, and quite remotely, in fact, to THE FUGITIVE. Yet, each of these hooks and films maintain their originality and I think it’s going to be done a few more times given the possibilities. Thanks for an excellent book-to-movie review, Sergio. We almost went to the theatre to see it last Sunday.

    • Thanks Prashant – look forward to seeing what you make of it – and very curiosu to hear about the Lionel White as I have not read anythign by him yet (but have Clean Slate on the shelf)

  14. Yvette says:

    It’s funny, Sergio – while I do not mind Victorian melodramatic potboilers, I do mind them when they are modern day ‘thrillers’. I think I began this book at one point and after a while just lost interest. I know I won’t see the film – it sounds like the sort of thing conceived for non-mystery, non-crime, non-thriller readers and viewers, at least from what I’ve read about it. I mean – blah.

    But thanks for your review, as always. How else would I know what was going on? 🙂

    • You’re a caution Yvette 🙂 If one thinks of it as a sort of update of Les Diaboliques or the various 1960s imitations of that type of story (husband / wife being threatened, but who is really behind it) then it’s quite fun – but it does take itself awfully seriously …

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  17. neeru says:

    Sergio, I have just posted about this novel. I must agree with Conor that the reveal about the true nature of a character wasn’t unconvincing because there were hints in the narrative. I found the book to be okay. Not something that makes me want to eagerly read more of the author but on the other hand it hasn’t put me off her either (as I have been put off by some other bestselling authors)

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