Battle of the Mediums: Gone Girl

So, once again, I am behind on the hype, but sometimes I actually prefer it that way. I considered making this a Valentine’s Day post, but seeing as this couple is the furthest you can get from a healthy relationship worth celebrating, I held off. I read Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn over the Christmas break and finally got around to watching the movie. This one is an interesting comparison because of the nature of the story, and the pros an cons to different mediums of storytelling. It isn’t often I get to compare the movie version with the book version, because it is the norm that one is often far better than the other, so I was excited that this opportunity came along.

Generally speaking, and I think most bookworms agree with me, the book is always better than the movie. Movies do not have the luxury of pages and pages to explain important plot elements and background information so they are forced to condense, often at the cost of audience comprehension. This results in the filmmakers having to “sneak” exposition wherever they can so that the audience can follow along. I put that in quotations because more often than not, it’s painfully obvious. For a hilarious example, check out the “Everything Wrong With Divergent” video on youtube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9QOn064kKDI)

Despite this, I absolutely love it when movies rise to the challenge of storytelling, and succeed. Movies have the potential to have more impact to their stories because they have the advantage of visual cues. The old “a picture is worth a thousand words” comes in very handy here because being able to communicate a lot of information in simply a glance gives this medium the advantage of subtlety. Subtlety, I’ve learned, is a key ingredient to any good story.

It’s amazing how much my literary tastes, and consequently my own writing, have changed since I took a creative writing seminar last year. I came across the quintessential writing advice, “show, don’t tell,” for the first time. Before this class I tended towards stories that spelled everything out for me – I didn’t have to work very hard to figure out the story. After learning about this principle and why it’s important, I’ve gone the other way completely. The reason is simple: showing versus telling creates subtlety.

I’ll give you an example. I’ve recently gotten into this little known, but very good series called Longmire. It’s a modern western that follows the Absaroka (Wyoming) county sheriff, Walt Longmire, as he works to solve the murder of his wife. One of the show’s many strengths is the way it doesn’t spell anything out for the viewer. For example, in one episode the audience finds out that the owl is the Cheyenne symbol for death – an omen. In this particular episode it figures prominently in a string of murders, which are the focus of that episode. Later, in the season three finale, the last few scenes hint at the death of an important character. You hear a gunshot and see a casing fall to the ground, but not what actually happens. The camera then cuts to Walt, who is about to get in his truck when he hears the gunshot. He looks around, startled, and then sees a beautiful owl perched by his porch. If you’ve paid careful attention throughout the show, you know that the owl has appeared to Walt before, and you know it means nothing good. This is the kind of subtlety great stories are made of.

For this reason, I liked the movie adaptation of Gone Girl much more than the book. And here, I will once again warn you all – SPOILER ALERT. This time I WILL go into detail, so reader discretion is advised.

The book is a great thriller – it has careful pacing, meticulously planned reveals, and a wonderfully psychotic character that should make you reluctant to fall asleep once you finish the book. The problem is that it loses a certain punch once it starts revealing how Amy managed to weave a web so complicated and so foolproof, that it is sure to land her husband in prison. Once we get into Amy’s head the story loses a certain bit of mystery. For the most part it makes up for that because it leaves you with a cold certainty that she is a stone cold psychopath who will do anything to get what she wants, but if you ask me, thrillers hinge precisely on uncertainty.

This is where the movie exceeds its print counterpart. There is some narration included in the film, but it’s very minimal and once it establishes Amy’s true character, it lets the unfolding events speak for themselves. What I found to be by far the book’s greatest weakness is that Amy comes back to Nick. I can see why the author wanted her to come back – to screw with him for their rest of their lives – but she had already set up Amy as remorseless and undyingly devoted to her revenge on her husband. Falling for Nick’s charade of the loving husband who wants her back – which he performs precisely to trick Amy into coming home – struck me as a rookie mistake she would not make. Admittedly, she is a psychopath and the point is that her motivations shouldn’t make sense to anyone but her, but still.

The movie, in not giving the audience so much of Amy’s reasons for coming back, pulls off this crucial part of the story much better. The audience is never sure what to expect from Amy, and they are less able to understand her because of it. It heightens the suspense and, ultimately, the final twist.

Visual storytelling is also a much better vehicle for thrillers because, in my opinion, it can provide a much more heightened suspense than a book can. Our sight is our primary sense, so we will react much more strongly to something we see, than something we read. No matter how active and vivid an imagination you have, a horror book will not provide you with the same kind of fear or suspense that a movie will, unless it is very, very good.

All that being said, however, the book is still a good read. I was most impressed with how Gillian Flynn was able to time all the important plot revelations so as to keep the reader in the dark for as long as possible. And I have to credit her – by the time she revealed Amy’s end game it was carefully calculated for maximum impact. Another thing she did very well was navigating not one, but two unreliable narrators, which is tricky and not a sure fire way to keep a reader interested.

Overall, I thought the story was original and definitely impactful, all the more for being so very disturbing.

Want to know more about unreliable narrators? Check out the wonderful Writer’s Write blogpost about them: http://writerswrite.co.za/the-nine-types-of-unreliable-narrator

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