Gone Girl

I don't read many mysteries, but when both hosts of one of my favorite podcasts agreed that Gone Girl was a really fun book with a cool plot twist smack dab in the middle I decided to give it a try. It went well for the first third - I thought the book was pulpy fun. As I edged closer to the halfway mark, I started getting a sinking feeling that it was about to get very dumb. And sure enough, once the twist was revealed I started to hate the book, and as the implications of that twist became more clear, I started to hate myself for continuing to read it. To me, Gone Girl was a book that made you decide whether you wanted to be a masochist or a quitter, and in that circumstance I generally choose masochist.

There were a lot of reasons why I wasn't looking forward to the Gone Girl movie: I wasn't a fan of the source material; the movie's screenplay was written by the book's author Gillian Flynn, so it was probably going to be pretty faithful to the book; I like most of David Fincher's movies but he drives me up the wall when he relies on overly gimmicky scripts and Gone Girl is a really gimmicky story... But there were also a bunch of factors that could balance out the scales: the movie got rave reviews; it seemed to hit a nerve culturally, because it became a huge conversation piece when it came out; and David Fincher has made some great movies from unpromising source material. (The founding of Facebook, I'm looking at you.)

Fortunately, Gone Girl turns out to be one of the rare movies that is better than the book. There are several reasons for this. One is that good actors can make situations that seem unbelievable on paper seem... if not realistic, at least plausible. Gone Girl is dual narrative about a terrible marriage, and you get completely different portraits of each character depending on who is narrating. On the page, this creates a schizophrenic tone, because you're jumping back and forth between hyperbolic portraits. Some of the more extreme circumstances in the book seem completely ungrounded because the characters make so little sense because you've only seen them through the eyes of two unreliable narrators. In the movie, however, the actor's ability to convey their motivations through subtle gestures instead of rambling monologues makes their characters seem more human and less like domestic supervillains. Even if the movie hadn't made any other smart decisions, the decision to abandon the first person tone of the book and thus avoid giving the audience a constant whiplash feeling would have endeared it to me.

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Fortunately, the list of improvements doesn't stop there. One of the book's problems came from it's pacing: the book emphasizes it's central mystery hard enough in the first half that much of what happens after that plot twist in the middle is anti-climactic, and that leaves the back half dragging. In contrast, the movie drags in the first half when it's setting up all of the necessary exposition, but once the scene has been set and the cat-and-mouse game between the spouses can be played out it comes alive. I suspect that David Fincher was interested in the story because he likes battle between the sexes stories, and so the first part of the movie (where the battle is a little one sided) is filmed a little perfunctorily, but once the oblivious husband starts to play catch up more excitement and humor comes into the frame. The book created such unlikeable people that I didn't care who won at the end; the movie does such a good job of emphasizing the game that I wanted a winner, regardless of who it was.

Finally - and perhaps most importantly - the movie's best improvement might be it's run time. Reading a book takes so long that it's stressful to lose momentum in a story - now you have to decide how much time are you really going to commit to this thing that you no longer like. Dragging yourself through an unpleasant book for hours and hours out of a sense of duty is the worst.  In contrast, even though Gone Girl is long for a movie (it is nearly two and a half hours) the movie is over much more quickly. That means that even though the beginning of the movie felt a bit rocky, I wasn't that worried - after all, I was going to be able to bail before too long. The ripping-off-a-band-aid-and-just-getting-it-over-with feeling that movies offer makes it easier to ride out some of the story's more incredible convolutions, which meant that I was in a more forgiving mood by the time I actually hit the meat of the mystery.

Watching Gone Girl actually made me understand the appeal of it's story a bit more. I thought the appeal of the book was it's central gimmick, which is admittedly kind of compelling, but it also felt, well, gimmicky to me. However, the movie brings to the fore themes that I had overlooked in the book because my general feeling of frustration was keeping me from being charitable. Both the book and the movie were very successful because they tap into our current economic fears, our sexual hang ups, hell - it even taps into our lust for conspiracy theories. The dual perspective of the story naturally frames both sides of the debate for each issue, so naturally people who interact with Gone Girl are going to want to have a conversation about it. Hell, I was totally burned out on Gone Girl the book a year ago, but when the movie's credits started rolling I thought about calling my mom and starting a conversation about what I'd just seen. That's a helluva mark of engagement, one that most movies don't provide.

That said: I still hate the book.

Winner: Me

Gone Girl on IMDB