I had such high hopes. Too high, maybe, but that wasn’t the real problem. Gone Girl was technically wonderful, as are most things under David Fincher’s ever vigilant eye. But a big mistake was made in its creation.
Adapting for film is a tricky business. Novels are the most recognised form of adaptation (I’ve heard around a third of all films are estimated to be somehow derived from books), but there are other sources – plays, games, historical figures/situations, websites, and the latest, childhood board games. There’s certainly plenty of inspiration for studios and filmmakers who want the safety net of a pre-existing audience.
The key word here is inspiration.
There’s a reason video games are yet to have a breakthrough film that shows the potential for good RPG to DVD adaptation. The mediums are much too similar! You play a game, you like the game, and you think ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to see this as a movie?’ You mean on a screen? With people moving and talking and stuff? Haven’t you already seen that?
On the other end we have Battleship, Lego and Tetris. These have no story (okay, an argument could be made for Lego), so the narrative creation here is left to the writers. These films have the benefit of being able to take the story anywhere, so they can surprise us. But with too much freedom comes unpredictability.
And then in the somewhat happy middle, we have novels and short stories. Most have a solid narrative in place as well as fully formed characters. Overall, they have many similarities to their film counterparts. But books rely on imagination in a way no other medium does. This is why they can turn into incredible movies, because with the right person’s imagination filling in the gaps, we get Psycho, we get Apocalypse Now, we get freaking Die Hard. And here’s the thing. The best book to movie adaptations, at least in my opinion, are the ones that find those gaps, and broaden them. Films and books are made of different stuff, and this should absolutely be exploited. If you’re in charge of bring a book to life, then you should give us a movie, not a scene by scene presentation of what we’ve already read.
Fans wish Harry Potter hadn’t left out specific moments from the series. But I find this to be a misguided longing. Let me tell you, if we had seven five-hour, literally ‘by the book’ movies, Harry Potter would have been horrible. Instead, an almost perfect balance was found between translation (ie. the scenario plays out basically how it did in the novel) and inspiration (ie. not being a slave to the text, but letting it guide the way).
There are always exceptions.
Drive by James Sallis was a short novel, around 200 pages. It wasn’t entirely riveting, but it was alright. Theoretically, every scene of that book could have been filmed, and it would have been pretty bad. Instead, someone (most likely director Nicolas Winding Refn) looked past the story and saw an interesting character, who did interesting things. A character who inspired him. He put this guy in a situation that resembled, but didn’t perfectly mirror the novel, and made a hell of a movie.
Similarly David Fincher has helmed some incredible adaptations in his career. Fight Club and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo are two of my favourites, because they work perfectly well on their own. They acknowledge the existence of their sources, but they don’t strive to translate every moment from their respective books. Fight Club in particular was an impressive adaptation, and I know this because when someone brings up the movie, it’s rare someone asks ‘Have you read the book?’ The film has become its own entity.
It doesn’t have to be…
But Gone Girl was another story. Basically, if you’ve read it, you don’t really need to see the movie. I didn’t feel anything new, or see anything I didn’t expect. Fincher did an amazing job translating a novel, probably the best translation I’ve ever seen. But he was completely lacking inspiration. The funny thing is, this is one of those rare cases where the author, Gillian Flynn, also penned the screenplay. So my first thought was to throw blame her way for basically lifting scenes from her novel and plopping them into the script. But no! It turns out, Flynn’s first instinct was in fact to rip out everything she didn’t think right for screen, to find an angle on her story that would work visually. It was Fincher himself who asked her to put all those book things back in.
I think the problem may have stemmed from the novel itself. Reading it, it does feel quite filmic. The imagery is very strong, the scene transitions work in a similar way to Hollywood films, and the narration lends itself well to voiceover. So maybe this tricked Fincher into thinking it would be a simple cut and paste job. And hey, as I said, the film was technically great. I was just surprised to see a director slip on a surface on which he’d always showed such sure footing. Hell, this is the guy who found an interesting angle on Facebook.
As a whole, I’ll always love book to film adaptations (and always hate the phrase ‘the book was better). There’s nothing quite like seeing the characters in your mind come to life. And as a writer, it’s great knowing that people still read, even if it is on an iPhone. It’s just important to remember that books are books, and they can do things nothing else can do. So don’t try to make movies read us the words we’ve already read. Use the characters, use the feelings, use the world, but find your own words, dammit.