Looking comparatively and respectively at the two recent iterations of Gone Girl – Gillian Flynn’s 2012 novel, and the David Fincher-directed film from 2014 – this essay focuses on the texts’ specific concerns with cultural use, within a mass-media and post-recessional landscape that has only further called into question the meaning and value of “Culture” itself. Looking specifically at the commercial contexts and processes of cinematic adaptation, and some of the discourses around Fincher’s film version, the essay considers the extent to which such contemporary “event” adaptations reinforce the redundancies and commodification latent within such production; while arguing, nevertheless, that the film’s ambivalent engagement with the practices of mass media positions it within the reconfigured terms of film noir, in a post-Cultural context.
Introduction: Gone Girl and post-Culture
In Bring on the Books for Everybody, Jim Collins explores what he calls the “post-literary” contexts of narrative fiction at the turn of the new millennium. Citing novels such as Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary (1996), Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus’s The Nanny Diaries (2002) and Nick Hornby’s A Long Way Down (2005), Collins identifies the way ideas around reading, and the evaluations of prose fiction, are no longer the preserve of the academy or the critical taste-makers of a quality press. Rather, “literary experience” and “quality reading” have been reconfigured, in part by these novels themselves, for and by “those readers who hang out at superstores, make lists at Amazon, [or] watch Oprah’s book club” (Books 185).
This post-literary is not necessarily the rejection of high- or canonical literary texts, but it does suggest the cultural repositioning of the high-literary canon. Novels such as the above “make elaborate use of canonical literary fiction” while at the same time “distance themselves from contemporary Serious Fiction” (Books 187-188). They rely on, and to some extent celebrate, a literary heritage typically upheld by the discourses of literary study and the evaluations of capital-C Culture – Matthew Arnold’s “pursuit of our total perfection” via “the best which has been thought and said in the world” (Books 6) – while rejecting many of the protocols and values of “literary” writing upon which such discourses, at least for the most part, have insisted.
Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl (2012) occupies a similar position to these recent novels, in the way its reception confuses traditional barriers between the “popular” and the “literary.” Much critical and reader fascination around the book focuses on its intricately constructed narration, oscillating between the two respective voices in a marriage, and the impact of the wife’s disappearance – which she herself has engineered – on the husband arrested for her murder. Yet the novel’s broader association with genre fiction (my UK paperback edition from 2013 contains twenty-five promotional quotes, seven of which describe the book as a “thriller”) and its commercial status as a multi-million copy seller, alongside this formal complexity (which hardly seems to have worked against it), make it a key text in the discussion around literary value and status.
The 2014 film of Gone Girl, meanwhile, for which Flynn wrote the screenplay, brings into play its own set of discursive ambiguities. As Peter Bradshaw’s Guardian review begins, “The spirits of Highsmith and Hitchcock hover over this outrageous pulp suspense-thriller from [director] David Fincher”: an introduction that places the film in a specific auteur tradition yet also acknowledges the film’s excesses and – it would seem – “low” cultural associations as a “pulp suspense-thriller.” While Gone Girl is perhaps the most obvious example of this particular tension, Fincher’s wider work, while establishing him since films like Se7en (1995) and Fight Club (1999) as a globally name-checked director, has also called into question the grounds upon which contemporary film authorship is founded, especially in light of his recent turn to best-selling fiction adaptations/remakes such as Gone Girl and 2011’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The politique des auteurs emerging out of Cahiers du cinéma in the 1950s stressed the idea that the filmic author was one who could define a space within the generic, industrial frameworks of the Hollywood studio system. Within these terms, Fincher’s work appears emblematic. And yet, Fincher’s position as superstar director within the contexts of a post-studio Hollywood raises the question of agency and choice, where helming a “pulp suspense-thriller” is in fact a specific career move or statement of creative intent: a statement of authorship, in fact, less freely available to the directors at work within the classical studio system.
In this article, I will consider the way the combined novel-film text of Gone Girl brings into focus contemporary configurations of Culture itself; not only in terms of how we understand it, but more so with regard to the uses of it, in and through narrative fictions. Central to Collins’ argument is that the literary experience, especially as it finds itself increasingly mediated, can no longer be contained by the notionally disinterested and specialist practices of criticism and connoisseurship. What is consequently mapped out through this post-literary turn is the commodification of Culture itself by and as the market, as critical evaluation shifts to the idea of Culture as use value: hence the collapsing of categorical boundaries between “Serious Fiction” and “Self Help books” in any number of recent first-person/diary novels (Books 198-203). Or where, in the case of a metropolitan quasi-Bildungsroman like Lauren Weisberger’s The Devil Wears Prada (2003), a satire of the New York fashion scene is ultimately subordinate to the protagonist’s ability to survive in, and master, this brand-filled world.
In light of this, what interests me with relation both to Flynn’s novel and Fincher’s film is the particular kinds of cultural knowledge they espouse, relating to their specific media. Both Gone Girls are exceptionally focused on the use, and uses, of culture in ways that are central to the instrumental concerns of their protagonists, and also our ability to situate both texts within contemporary cultures of media consumption. As I will go on to discuss, the process and reception of contemporary novel-film adaptation itself, of which Gone Girl is emblematic, cannot be separated from the post-Cultural context to which it alludes but also, in fact, participates in and propagates. Its own status as a synergistic novel-film “event” raises pertinent issues concerning the consumption of adapted narrative fiction in the mass-media context.
Literature and the Post-Literary: Gone Girl as Novel
Flynn’s Gone Girl acknowledges the assumed Cultural cachet of “literature,” while at the same time – through its specific deployment of the literary in the plot – calling into question its uses. The narrative persona of Amy, one of the book’s two narrators, and her husband Nick’s narrative depiction of her, insist upon her associations with “serious” prose and an Ivy-League graduate’s understanding of what it means to “read.” A girl’s summary of Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes as simply “good” meets with Amy’s sniffy disapproval: “It’s good or bad. I liked it or I didn’t. No discussions of the writing, the themes, the nuances, the structure. Just good or bad. Like a hot dog” (316). At one point Nick notes how, as Amy’s husband, he “became a student of arcana so [he] could keep her interested: the Lake Poets, the code duello, the French Revolution” (241); while also informing us that Amy spent her honeymoon in Fiji “battling through a million mystical pages of [Haruki Murakami’s] The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, casting pissy glances at me as I devoured thriller after thriller” (35). Nick’s comment highlights at an early point a tension between the literary high-brow he references, and the “pulp” status of the very novel – widely described, as we have seen, as such a “thriller” – of which he is a narrator. As Erik Dussere has recently noted in his study of American noir, this tension between the ideals of literary modernism and the “authenticity” of popular fiction is a key part of that genre’s dynamic. Raymond Chandler’s Marlow, for example, is at once aware of the high-literary critical arsenal at his disposal, yet is free to drop it when faced by its “empty aestheticism” (Dussere 95). The type of shifting movement between cultural registers we see above is most pronounced in Gone Girl in the way Amy’s project – to become “Dead Amy,” a fact only revealed at the mid-point of the book, when Amy’s “diary” gives way to her post-disappearance voice – relies alternately on a deft play of narrative voice and structure, and on references to the types of cultural “crap”, as narrator-Amy goes on to describe them (Flynn 290), that otherwise offend her Harvard-educated New Yorker sensibilities.
Significantly, the books Collins discusses were all published before the recession following the US mortgage and banking crises of 2007 and 2008. Gone Girl's' topicality as a post-recession novel is in making the impact of severe economic downturn a key part of its plot, as Amy and Nick, both having lost their New York journalist jobs and obliged to return Amy’s trust fund to her badly-investing parents, move to Nick’s now impoverished Missouri home town, gutted by shopping-mall bankruptcy and house repossessions. The tensions Dussere sees in twentieth-century noir, emerging during the Depression, are here encapsulated in the tension between Gone Girl’s foregrounded sophistication and the failure (at the narrative level at least) not so much of a modernist cultural project, but the literary more broadly, to actually achieve anything in “real” –economic, cultural, political – terms. Amy’s reflexive and doubled narrative voice, and her strategic use of reference points, reveal her overall as an internal author of no little skill and wit. “Diary Amy” is deftly constructed as an effusive, coyly libidinous and sensitive literature graduate, amalgamating the first-person female narrative voices of the postfeminist metropolitan novel:
I am fat with love! Husky with ardour! Morbidly obese with devotion!... I have become a wife, I have become a bore, I have been asked to forfeit my Independent Young Feminist card. I don’t care. I balance his checkbook, I trim his hair…It doesn’t matter, because I have found my match. It’s Nick…Untortured, happy. Nice. Big penis (Flynn 43-44).
I can’t even look behind me as we leave New York, because the truck has no back window. In the side mirror, I track the skyline (the receding skyline – isn’t that what they write in Victorian novels where the doomed heroine is forced to leave her ancestral home?), but none of the good buildings…appear in that little shining rectangle (Flynn 114).
“Real” Amy, meanwhile, as previously noted, evinces a capacity for sniffy critical evaluation, especially towards the types of commodified “lifestyle” culture Collins describes:
The Midwest is full of these types of people: the nice-enoughs. Nice enough but with a soul made of plastic – easy to mold, easy to wipe down. The woman’s entire music collection is formed from Pottery Barn compilations. Her bookshelves are stocked with coffee-table crap: The Irish in America. Mizzou Football: A History in Pictures. We Remember 9/11. Something Dumb with Kittens (Flynn 290).
Nor can this narrator conceal her sense of cultural savvy at the expense of her Midwest enemies, such as Nick’s young mistress, Andie: “I thought she’d last exactly three days. Then she wouldn’t be able to resist sharing. I know she likes to share because I’m one of her friends on Facebook – my profile name is invented (Madeleine Elster, ha!)” (Flynn 278). The catch-it-if-you-can reference here to the enigmatic female character in Vertigo (1958) – itself a two-half narrative of invented personae, disappearance and murder – is as much a cultural test of the novel’s implied ideal reader, as it is an assumed put-down of the culturally illiterate Andie, with her pretentious fondness for “Greek yoghurt and pinot grigio” (ibid.).
Underpinning Flynn’s novel, however, is the irony that this Cultural critical position is of no real use to Amy at all. Her resourceful exploitation of the “cheesy true-crime books” Nick mistakenly identifies as Amy’s “guilty pleasure” (Flynn 382); the luridly damning Google entries (“body float Mississippi River”) left in the search history of Nick’s computer (Flynn 276); as well as her reliance on the journalistic short-hands, sensationalism and prejudice of “cable crime-shows” (Flynn 274-75) to seal her husband’s fate in the public’s eye: these, not the gleanings of a Harvard degree, is the knowledge- and skill-set enabling Amy’s plan. Indeed, Amy’s skilful “authorship,” used in the promotion of her self-disappearing project, is simultaneously predicated on its failure to produce any real work. Even in her job for a print magazine, Amy’s work is to “merely… write personality quizzes using the knowledge gleaned from [a] master’s degree in psychology” (Flynn 12, emphasis in the original): work for which “diary Amy” at least professes herself proud, but which becomes quickly redundant through ubiquity in the era of the internet.
Given that Flynn’s own professional redundancy comes up in any number of interviews with or profiles on the author, it is inevitable to see Amy’s story in light of a broader context and malaise. This is especially pointed in the case of Flynn, whose work as a cultural critic – she was laid off after a ten-year stint as a film and TV writer at Entertainment Weekly – makes her representative not just of the post-recessional contexts of industrial downsizing, but the post-industrial contexts of the information-technology boom, the demise of print media, and the crisis of traditional criticism. As Richard Lanham perceptively wrote in the earliest days of the internet, online networks “have built a new expressive genre for the intellectual life of people whom intellectuals would not think to call intellectuals” (199); a fact that, for Lanham, suggested the democratic potential of the new media and, if not necessarily a threat to traditional humanities, then at least a challenge to its canons and assumptions. Exactly what is the value in instrumental terms, and in a competitive digital economy, of a humanities “training” is precisely the concern of critics like Collins, charting the progressive conflations of consumer- and cultural tastes. Networks and search engines such as Facebook and Google, after all, while facilitating the type of non-intellectual intellectual life discussed by Lanham, has also helped shape a cultural model of criticism by statistical weight of use, in which the cultural meaning of a piece of media could be determined simply by its amount of hits or “likes.”
Insofar as the two sides are not equal, then, Paul Harris’s remark that “Entertainment Weekly’s loss turned into being everyone else’s gain” only tells half the story. Whether or not the loss of one TV critic for one Gone Girl is a good exchange, of concern to the cultural analyst trying to stake a claim in a digital world is what such novels, and their almost inevitable film adaptations, are actually doing. To take the paradigm to its absurd conclusion, if every new novel appears at the expense of a critic, what kind of critical framework, beyond the statistical logic of the marketplace or internet hits, can we work from? Or more particularly, in the case of Gone Girl, how can the novel distance itself from the contexts it appears – at least at a level of narrative voice – to resist? And what light – if, as I will now consider, film adaptations are mostly another stage in this process of commodification – does the film of Gone Girl shine on this?
Complexity and Redundancy: Gone Girl on Film
Because the truth of Amy’s disappearance is disclosed halfway through the novel, Gone Girl’s gambit is to have the supposed criminal perform the role of the detective: the figure that, in classical crime-narrative structure, is required both to elucidate the pre-committed crime and identify its perpetrator. Amy’s second narrative intricately explains events or references initially left enigmatic within Nick’s earlier narration; while in Nick’s continuing parallel story, he is slowly but inexorably implicated in the illusory crime. Amy’s primary narration, the diary, is revealed as unreliable, while also having its motivations retrospectively explained. Unreliability in Nick’s narration, meanwhile, focuses on his failure to disclose key events that motivate or relate to Amy’s self-disappearing act – his affair, for instance, with his student – though again, the process of Nick’s implication closes up the fissures in this initial narrative line. Gone Girl hence plays a narrative game of inviting us to retrace narration; to treat it as a work moving in two directions at once, in which the meaning and value of particular incidents are re-charged through the forward direction of our reading.
If this has become a familiar trope, it is partly because it has assumed an increasing importance in mainstream film production, in terms of what has come to be known variously as the “mind-game film” or (as per the titles of two recent volumes on the subject) the “puzzle film,” works ranging from The Sixth Sense (1999) and Memento (2000)to Inception (2010)and Source Code (2011). Puzzle films, according to Warren Buckland’s rather enigmatic definition, are “not just complex, but complicated and perplexing; the events are not simply interwoven, but entangled” (“Puzzle Plots” 3); they in turn constitute “a post-classical mode of filmic representation and experience not delimited by mimesis” (5). Buckland, in this way, contests David Bordwell’s view (Hollywood 79-80) that the complex inverted plot of a film such as Memento can be reordered chronologically to “fit…the classical [Hollywood] paradigm;” a view that in Buckland’s terms “downplays its narration and the spectator’s experience” (5).
The solving of a puzzle, nevertheless, produces retrospective order and clarity, and the reassembled plots of the puzzle film (as in all the above examples) are rarely an exception. In terms of its eventual deployment of narrative, Gone Girl’s complex narration is counterweighed by its redundancy: as per Bordwell’s description of the detective film, in both novel and film “information about the motive, agent, and circumstances of the crime [are] distributed and finally summed up clearly…no gap [is] left permanent” (Narration 64). The novel of Gone Girl is sold (literally, in terms of the tagline on my own copy) on its “two sides to the story” narrative structure, but, in the novel’s cumulative omniscience, we ourselves are never left in the dark, as every narrative “gap” is filled up. Structured in a way that mirrors the book’s narration, Fincher’s film is initially teasing in its appeal to uncertainty, starting with an unusually-framed close-up of the top of a woman’s head, coated in sleek blonde hair. As the head turns around to reveal the face of Rosamund Pike as Amy, Ben Affleck’s voiceover – the words drawn from the first paragraph of Flynn’s novel – ponders what is inside her beautiful skull. While this hints towards the type of “unreliable” and “indeterminate” narration Bordwell notes as being rare in Hollywood cinema (Hollywood 82), Gone Girl paradoxically shows us pretty much all we might want to know, telling us through flashback and voiceover narration nearly everything hidden within Amy’s head.The second half of the film is as assiduous in visualizing the preparation and execution of Amy’s vanishing act, as Amy herself is in carrying it off. When Amy is revealed as being alive and well, reinventing herself as an abused woman hiding out in an Ozarks motel, the film offers us a montage of her methods: the perusal of true-crime books and television shows, the courting of pregnant neighbour Noelle as the secret confidante, but also unwitting source – via an ingenious method for obtaining urine samples – of Amy’s surprise pregnancy, and the preparation of a suspicious crime scene, replete with badly cleaned-up blood and too-orderly disarray. In a swift and economical way, the film at its mid-way turning point fills in most of the narrative gaps left unconfirmed during its opening half. Gone Girl in this functionally explanatory way underscores Bordwell’s point that in Hollywood’s puzzle plots, “the more complex the devices, the more redundant the storytelling needs to be” (Hollywood 78, emphasis in the original).
Amelie Hastie’s ambivalent fascination with the film is that its categorization as a thriller involves a delimiting of both its and our freedom, its calculated nature being intrinsic to the genre. Beyond its redundancies, Fincher’s Gone Girl is inevitably determined and shaped by its formal and temporal imperatives as a feature film. Hastie’s emphasis on the “rhythmic” quality of Fincher’s style may be impressionistic, but it certainly conveys the director’s affinity for narration less in the form of developed scenes, building up to points of emotional or dramatic climax, than (in Daniel Kasman’s words) “a montage-based cinema of this happened and then this happened and then this.” Gone Girl amply displays Fincher’s fondness for unresolved moments and abrupt but arresting scene transitions (a kiss between Nick and Amy, for instance, which cuts to a near-graphic match of Nick getting a saliva swab in the police station), as well as his prodigious gifts for montage. The sequence that concludes the film’s first half, culminating in the police finding Amy’s diary, as well as Nick’s discovery of the planted evidence in his tool shed, is a bravura piece of three-way parallel editing. Moving economically between the police discovering the basement stove (in which Amy’s partly-incinerated diary will be found), Nick working out Amy’s clues, and “Diary Amy” herself recounting her fear of her husband, the two-minute sequence deftly cues respective action simultaneously, eliding protagonist and camera movement across time and space. At one point, as illustrated below, an increasingly anxious Nick looks to the right, off-screen: the ensuing shot gives us in effect the narrative “reverse shot,” as a frightened Amy “appears” to respond to Nick’s look (as Amy, in voiceover, says “When he looks at me…”). As Amy cowers in bed, we then have a top-lit, slightly hulking image of Nick in front of the woodshed: a kind of big bad wolf getting ready, within the figurative logic of the sequence, to blow Amy’s house down. Matched (as is now usual in Fincher’s films) with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s percussive score, along with its bleeps and bursts of electronic white noise, the sequence builds up a cumulative dramatic force, the temporal and causal connections effectively forced onto the text through its uses of space and editing rhythm. This is underscored by the sequence’s conclusion, in which Amy’s final “clue” to Nick – and also the final incriminating piece of evidence against him – is framed in a perfectly symmetrical composition, bringing into balance, at the exact mid-point of the film, the narration’s various trajectories.
As this suggests, the sequence’s impact is less to do with mimesis or psychological realism: verisimilitude is here surrendered to the formal and figurative effects of montage, as the film deftly plays around its motifs of uncertainty and suspicion. But it is very much a formal game, ironic even, in its forcing of interpretation by manipulating the logic of classical continuity. In other ways than this, in fact, the film plays up to an idea of excessively “post-classical” filmmaking. Fincher’s Gone Girl, like Flynn’s book in fact, is quite jokey about its own structure. Towards its end, in which Amy, after being effectively imprisoned by her old boyfriend Desi, finds herself re-engineering the story of her disappearance, Flynn’s novel lays bare its own mechanics. Quizzed by the police over the question of the diary, which implicates Nick, despite Desi (who Amy, fabricating her own rape, has murdered) now being the alleged kidnapper, the narrator/author literally hesitates before deciding how to get out of an awkward plotting point, before then accounting for Amy’s own prose style in the novel’s first half:
A[my]: Did you read the diary? It’s awful. I’m sure Nick did want to get rid of it – I don’t blame him, considering you guys zeroed in on him so quickly.
B: I wonder why he would go to his father’s to burn it.
A: You should ask him. (Pause.) Nick went there a lot, to be alone […]
B: The diary is very, very concerning. The diary alleges abuse and your fears that Nick didn’t want the baby, that he might want to kill you.
A: I really do wish that diary had burned. (Pause). Let me be honest: […] I never wrote in that diary unless I was super-happy, or I was really, really unhappy and wanted to vent and then… I can get a little dramatic (Flynn 422-423).
The novel eventually becomes quite flippant even about the demands of forensic accuracy. When Nick asks a young police officer how Amy, supposedly kept tied up by Desi in his lakeside home, managed to wield the knife on him to cut his throat, he receives the reply: “I don’t know, Mr Dunne. I’m sure they’re getting the details right now. The point is your wife is safe.” To which Nick’s narrative voice laconically responds, “Hurray. Kid stole my line” (Flynn 428). Fincher’s film shows a similar approach, when Nick asks how Amy got hold of the box cutter she uses in the film to kill Desi: a rhetorical question answered by the police officer’s tired response, “Can’t you just be happy your wife is home?” The fact that neither novel nor film is concerned with these finer points indicates the extent to which it is the narrative game, and not the realist logic of procedural narrative, that takes prominence.
The film, if anything, takes delight in deliberately not appealing to notions of verisimilitude, even before the deus (or angelus) ex machina of Amy’s return from the dead. As with Amy’s treasure-hunt clues, the film of Gone Girl sprinkles its mise-en-scène with visual motifs of excessive or parodic readability; the ubiquitous and huge coffee cup affixed to Detective Boney’s (Kim Dickens) hand, the pink feathered pen we see impersonally writing Amy’s diary emblematizing its initial “girly” tone, or, indeed, the performed gesture with which a returned and blood-smeared Amy, staggering up the household drive, melodramatically swoons into her husband’s arms. Even the contexts of Midwestern recession, which as we have seen play a significant role in the novel, are treated with an economy bordering on flippancy. In the opening credit sequence, most notably, we see a sequence of “establishing” shots of the Missouri contexts: foreclosed houses, hollowed store fronts, broken signs, a deer (a beautiful touch, actually) standing in an empty swimming pool. Yet the more sustained, contemplative possibilities of the traditional establishing shot are rejected here in favour of a more rapid and cursory – and again, very specifically rhythmic – movement from one emblematic “scene” to the next, each of the sixteen shots pulsing in and out every two seconds. Joshua Rothman’s article in the New Yorker identifies the way these “perfunctory” settings and the film’s “stylized” aesthetic extends to the way its characters are “ciphers” instead of actual people. As I have discussed elsewhere, Fincher’s fondness for cutting into and out of more developed sequences, and hence his “resistance to sequential closure or heightened moments” (Archer 10), means that the possibility for more sustained performance is consistently undercut; an aspect of Fincher’s style that Gone Girl’s temporal and spatial mobility only reinforces, to the extent that the schematics of the plotting bear heavily on whatever relationship we might have to the characters. That the characters in the film are more instrumental to its purposes than fully convincing is also underscored by a strategic use of casting: in particular, the multi-millionaire media star Tyler Perry as celebrity lawyer Tanner Bolt, and more intriguingly – if not questionable in its potentially homophobic appropriation of the actor’s public persona – the former child star and openly gay Neil Patrick Harris as the effete and controlling Desi, longing to carry Amy off to a Greek island life replete with “octopus and Scrabble.”
To borrow Rothman’s title, then, we may find ourselves wondering “what Gone Girl is really about,” given its apparent disregard for credibility, and its excessively readable, self-parodic play between cultural personae and diegetic character. From one perspective, the film’s resorting to forms of borrowed character typology and self-conscious plot contortions is to acknowledge its continuity with a cinematic narrative tradition: the icy femme fatales and framed wrong-man stories in noirs and neo-noirs such as Double Indemnity (1944) and The Last Seduction (1994) (an idea supported by the casting of the coolly blonde Pike, and the more garrulous and twitchy Affleck, as Amy and Nick), or the ambiguities and machinations of a film like Basic Instinct (1992), the violent coital killing at the beginning of which most closely resembles the actual murder toward the end of Fincher’s film. The self-conscious and ironic inflections in the film consequently work to acknowledge genre structure and motif, while at the same time ensuring the film cannot fully disavow its own generic nature through the suspension of disbelief. In this case, such an approach seems to be part of the film’s point, insofar as verisimilitude, and the viable representation of a diegetic world and action, are key problems pertinent to the film and the workings of its narrative.
At this point, our discussion must finally broach the subject of film as adaptation; and more specifically, the fact that we have potentially not just seen it all before (in terms of generic motifs and points of reference): we have also read it before. We also need to take into consideration both the temporal proximity of the film adaptation to Flynn’s novel, and also the institutional proximity between these two literary and cinematic “events.” The pre-existing literary blockbuster status of Flynn’s book helps amalgamate novel and film here in what Collins calls a “hybrid cultural entertainment,” in which each respective text, from novel through film version and back to repackaged novel, “elevat[es] the other” (Books 119). This is not to discount the statistical reality that many, or even the majority, of Gone Girl’s viewers had not read the novel previously. Yet we should nevertheless recall – as the more materialist critiques of Collins or Simone Murray have reminded us – that film adaptations like Gone Girl hardly operate in disinterested creative isolation, and only exist at all because of the cultural impact of their literary precedents, which give pre-emptive weight to the film’s publicity drives. It is striking, for instance, how the UK’s Empire magazine interrupted its now familiar fetishizing of the sci-fi or fantasy blockbuster/franchise by making Gone Girl its cover movie of October 2014 (sandwiched between September’s The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies  and November’s Interstellar ), along with the heading: ‘DID HE? OR DIDN’T HE? GONE GIRL. FINCHER! AFFLECK! PIKE! THAT BOOK! THE ONLY MAGAZINE ON SET!’ (Empire 1).
Hastie, who saw the film’s premiere at the 2014 New York Film Festival, recounts Fincher’s quirky insistence on blurting out “spoiler alert!” at the post-screening Q&A (52); an anecdote that may reveal less about the director’s grasp of temporality, and more about his ironic relationship to fictional content already ubiquitous in the public mass-media domain. Equally, the Empire cover highlights some of the redundancies inherent to such blockbuster novel adaptations. The initial question is dramatically posed, but by alluding so forcibly to “that book” on which the film is based, we can only presume the magazine knows the answer already. The question is consequently of less significance than the process or transmedia event of bringing this book to the screen. Albeit within the over-determined, mutually-informing and front-loading commercial frameworks of Empire and the film industry that advertises its product within its pages, such discourses of promotion collapse the production and reception of novel and film into an almost coterminous and pre-packaged whole.
This is a broader condition of the literary adaptation boom since the end of the 1990s, but in the case of Gone Girl,we need to take into account the tension between its complex narrative form and the potential redundancies inherent to such synergistic transmedia texts. If we are to believe that Fincher’s film orchestrates its mystery so rhythmically, and at the same time so coercively and redundantly, what is it all for? Hastie relates her unease with Gone Girl to its very suspicious qualities, as a thriller about uncertainty itself and suspicion: “To turn that suspicion back onto the film – to ask, for instance, how does it make me feel, what exactly is it doing to me, or, perhaps, what has it done – is inevitably also to fight for control” (52). Does the film of Gone Girl actually tell us what to think? Obviously, it leaves its first half sufficiently unresolved to allow potential for ambiguity, but at what cost? Hastie is right to point out that Amy and Nick’s “Diary” scenes seem “too crafted….too perky…too staged,” leaving her to ask “have these two seen a lot of movies? What roles are they playing exactly?” (53). Even beyond the literally sugar cloud-coated, wise-cracking, bookshop-tryst erotica of the film’s early scenes, Nick’s recounted descent into indifference and violence flirts with the boundaries of generic excess: at one point he glides predator-like past the foreground of Amy’s gaze while she bathes, before a reverse shot shows his silent, watchful passage out of the background; consequently, we see another silent Nick stalk stealthily in the unfocused background as Amy, suspicious of sleeping with the enemy (another movie title) uneasily feigns sleep in the foreground (see below). If in the course of the film these happen almost too quickly to assess their viability – the action, following Fincher’s quick rhythm, has already moved on – in retrospect they seem awkward, gauche even. Are we supposed to take this seriously?
Such stylistic, generic excess resonates with a wider sense that, beyond perhaps its structural game, there is nothing inherently new in Gone Girl. Rothman’s conclusion (by way of Ted Gioia’s terminology) is that Fincher’s “‘postmodern mystery’…lets us luxuriate in the ‘reassuring heritage’ of the traditional mystery,” with the attendant pleasure of not having to take it too seriously. Acknowledging what Collins elsewhere describes as “high pop,” Deborah Cartmell and Imelda Whelehan highlight the way such an aesthetic both embraces and disavows the specifically consumerist aspect of contemporary culture (54); while also suggesting that its flattening of value “can take us dangerously close to “trash,” in a heady whirl of high-pop cultural ambiguity” (52). Such contexts are important to the understanding of Gone Girl, though it is much too easy and misleading simply to position it within the vague terms of postmodern “pastiche” and depthless textual recycling. This is because both novel and film of Gone Girl are concerned with this “trash,” and what we do with it. As I have argued with regard to Flynn’s novel, the uses of cultural literacy have no narrative connection to Culture, to the Arnoldian “great traditions.” It makes ample use of trash and crap, but rather than simply collapse into the “heady whirl” of a pop-cultural free-for-all, the novel is in turn antagonistically split between its uses of trash and its own implicit acknowledgements of, or even its aspirations towards, a (High-)Cultural landmark beyond its reach, rendered culturally useless. In a similar way – though importantly, from the point of view of adaptation studies, distinct in its specific concerns for the medium of film, and the business of film adaptation in the era of synergy – Fincher’s Gone Girl betrays its own concern with the same modes of media production of which it is a part. Its distinctiveness as a film lies in its efforts to work within the constricting parameters of its own form, while in the process establishing its own critical and aesthetic response.
At the level of mise-en-scène, for instance, Gone Girl is very specific in distinguishing its compositional and (digital) photographic qualities with those of news television: an approach that consistently situates the television screen within the frame, but as a smaller, perceptually degraded and inferior version of the film’s crisp widescreen image. Contrasted with Fincher’s preferred long- and medium-shot staging, and cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth’s familiar use of muted colors and diffused light, the television images we see, as shown below, are garish and close, filled by talking heads under the glare of studio lights, and sometimes distorted by interference or strobing. In an era when the quality of televisual images is often seen to be encroaching on the terrain of cinema, Gone Girl’s specifically cinematic rhetoric suggests that television, in contrast to the film’s image, is crap: an idea that the film, and also the novel, further emphasize in associating television with the consumption of junk food: Flynn’s book, for instance, refers to the way Amy, watching Nick’s television interview with Desi, eats “the chili-cheese Fritos [she] got hooked on” during her time in the Ozarks cabin (389-390). Fincher and Cronenweth’s measured framings, meanwhile, and characteristically still camera (something of an anomaly, in fact, in the era of so-called “intensified continuity” and its restless, twitchy camera [see Bordwell, Hollywood 134-137]) are as cool and classy as the chilled Sancerre Desi serves Amy, wrinkling his nose at her bottom-range comfort food. Yet it is notable that the film’s penultimate sequence conflates the two, when a shot from the Ellen Abbot show – the loudest initial voice of Nick’s guilt, and the eventual mass-media judge of Desi Collings –subsumes the dimensions and textures of the cinematic image, framing the reunited Nick and Amy’s public, and totally inauthentic, expression of newfound togetherness.
This shot is of a piece with the film’s broader effort to complicate the structures of feeling and judgment inherent to media images, in which narrative film is itself included. This is shaped through the way the film places an emphasis on scrutiny and interpretation, but in such a way that the very constrictions of its form and pacing become the source of the film’s uneasy tension. Editing rhythm is again both the driver of narrative and its own problem, as it limits the possibility of proper scrutiny and judgment in the same narrative gesture. The novel, in this respect, focuses mainly on the paranoia of self-presentation through interior narration: “Boney watched me, waiting for my reaction…So I told myself, Act correctly, don’t blow it, act the way a man acts when he hears this news. I ducked my head into my hands and muttered, Oh God, oh God” (Flynn 228). A corresponding moment in the film – leading up to the news of Amy’s pregnancy – is constructed around a dialogue between Boney and Nick, but with the vital presence of the laconic Gilpin, Boney’s uniformed assistant, whose role during the various interactions is to observe and scrutinize via occasional cutaway shots. In the first police interview, Gilpin’s role is limited to either silent or blank reactions, vaguely dismissive responses to Nick’s suggestions (“We’ll look into it”), or somewhat sarcastic comments (“You sure y’all are married?”). In these later contexts of the investigation, though, with further evidence building up against Nick, Gilpin’s presence in Nick’s house is more pointed. Boney plies Nick with questions regarding the credit-card charges in Amy’s name, the dialogue scored visually in shot-reverse shot fashion, Gilpin a slightly blurred presence in the periphery of the screen. The cutting is again swift (an average shot length of two seconds) as the conversation gains in intensity and volume (with Gilpin chipping in briefly to express his amusement at the purchase of a “robot dog”). Boney then pushes Nick over the bumping-up of Amy’s life insurance, the increasingly accusatory tone underscored by a move to close-up, as illustrated below. “You filed the paperwork!”, Boney states; to which Nick, in reverse close-up, shouts in response “Because Amy told me to!”. At this point a fleeting cutaway back to Gilpin, also now in close-up, has the officer utter a terse and aggressively cautionary “Woah”. Gilpin’s threat is logical, but also substantially over-determined. Nick’s outburst is a perfectly reasonable response to the detective’s accusatory tone, but it is also inevitable within the terms of the film’s rapid and encroaching editing pattern. In these terms, Gilpin’s caution is doubly antagonistic, taking in effect not just Nick to task, but the organic impact of film form itself, for not keeping cool under unreasonable pressure.
If Gilpin’s presence up to this point is to provide an ambivalent viewpoint from the periphery of the main action, his role here is to draw attention to the manipulation of film form more broadly, as without his intervention the sequence would play simply as a dramatic confrontation between Nick and Boney. Indeed, given his mostly reactive quality, the story hardly “needs” Gilpin at all; yet without him there would be less reason to call into question the narrative tactics employed by the film. Narrative “logic” and verisimilitude, questions of generic “realism,” as we see here, are to a large extent the film’s overriding conceit and problem. The scenes involving Affleck’s Nick, veering from one awkward revelation and botched media presentation to another, are the source of an almost forensic scrutiny from within the diegesis itself, in its relay of actions, responses and looks. But it is also, after all, the capacity to buy into verisimilar regimes of representation, and degrees of “appropriate” behavior, that punishes Nick to the benefit of Amy – whose diary persona, if we have not worked it out before the film’s second half, has fooled us all. And it is in this respect that Fincher’s familiar lack of regard for the more traditionally sustained tendencies of film performance, and the emotional dynamics of scene construction, play to the film’s advantage, as it resists conforming to any straightforward or assumed conventions of verisimilitude within the terms of the film’s narrative.
The significance of this approach is that judgment, and especially judgment of individual action and response, is central both to the film’s narrative and the mass-media contexts of its setting. The issue of generic verisimilitude elides in this respect into something more disturbing. Steve Neale, drawing on Tsvetan Todorov’s work, has identified the distinction between a verisimilitude corresponding to the rules of genre, and a more discursive, cultural realism that is less to do with generic representation and more to do with “public opinion” (Neale 28). In Gone Girl, though, because the film deals with the role of the mass media in constructing notions of supposedly “authentic” behavior and action, and hence “public opinion” itself, this idea of cultural verisimilitude is conflated with the generic. As we have seen, Gone Girl is significantly reliant on its appropriation and use of generic film texts and motifs. Yet Nick also lives or dies by his ability or otherwise to conform to entirely generic frameworks of action and performance. And equally, inasmuch as the film manipulates these generic paradigms to unreliable or even deceptive effect, Gone Girl extends this “problem” of verisimilitude to the reading and interpretation – indeed, our potential judgment – of the film itself.
Returning to our initial points of focus, though, the question of what Gone Girl is actually for still remains pressing. In this particular instance, some of the more traditional questions of textual evaluation feel relevant, given the authorial and qualitative frameworks within which, as we have seen, both novel and film have been discussed: frameworks, however, which are complicated by both texts’ recourse to the uses of cultural “crap,” as well as their combined performance as a form of synergistic trans-media event. As Hastie points out, neither Flynn’s novel, as a “very meta” book “‘destined’ [by its author] to become a film”, nor Fincher’s “calculated blockbuster”, can properly separate themselves from the “contemporary mainstream media” they apparently revile; leading her to ask whether the movie adaptation is “cannier than most, or…just a better looking form of hypocrisy” (55-56). My UK DVD of Gone Girl, in fact, a Twentieth Century Fox film,takes these layers of irony to Simpsons-esque lengths, incorporating the graphics of a Fox News rolling bulletin on its cover. Product-placement of the studio itself is hardly without precedent either in classical or post-classical Hollywood (as J.D. Connor has recently outlined, studios have consistently used their own logos in films as internal advertising for themselves), yet this is typically within the celebratory remit of Hollywood’s economy of entertainment and spectacle. There are few more telling recent examples than Gone Girl of mass media’s incapacity to extricate itself from the corporate and commercial synergies it appears to critique. Is the adaptation, in this respect, symptomatic of what Jim McGuigan calls “cool capitalism”; the capacity, on the part of contemporary cultural purveyors, to ‘incorporat[e] disaffection into capitalism itself” (1)?
In the film’s case, even its recourse to a “puzzle” narrative structure, following the novel’s example, figures less obviously within the approving evaluative terms often located around such approaches, not only in terms of its redundancy (most obviously as an adaptation, but also within the narration itself), but also insofar as narrative unreliability, as the film exemplifies, is if anything over-determined. Rather than working to the interpretive benefit of a viewer unshackled from the constraints of “mimesis,”, to return to Buckland’s argument, its use here works in the service of misreading and misjudgment, of interpretive deception as much as enigma. As I have suggested, whether or not Nick “did it” or “didn’t,” especially in the contexts of event adaptation, is hardly relevant. Nor, I have argued, does Fincher’s Gone Girl offer the particularly elaborate reflection on the workings of the mind, and a marriage, that its opening sequences suggest. In the same way that Flynn’s ingenious whodunit novel draws on a veritable formal tradition of multiple- and unreliable narrations, Fincher’s film, as the earlier-cited review suggests, seems straddled between the auteur-cinema, enigmatic contortions of a Rashomon (1950) or a Last Year at Marienbad (1960), with their deliberately opaque narrative ploys, and the very type of pulp crime movie to which auteur cinema is notionally contrasted. As I have suggested, such cinematic puzzle-plots may just be high-minded ways to reconfigure old stories, their labyrinthine structural games masking an inherent conservatism (a view we might also take of Flynn’s book). Such repackaging of genre through the prism of art cinema is to some degree emblematic of a post-classical and postmodern Hollywood, part and parcel of its efforts to regenerate genre via the attribution of style. But when (High-) Culture is used in this way, what distinguishes it from any other form of cultural appropriation? Just as the novel of Gone Girl is ironically steeped in the cut-price cultural mire its narrative voice frequently affects to despise, Fincher’s film is similarly immersed in the pulpy generic morass its own formal elegance resists.
This, though, may precisely be the point. If Flynn and Fincher’s respective and collaborative narrative strategies ultimately betray a cynicism as to what they actually offer, they do so to problematize representation more broadly, especially in an era of ubiquitous media and instantaneity: an era to which Flynn’s novel can refer, and for which Fincher’s film is in fact most aptly suited. That both Fincher and Flynn should bother with complex narration at all, though, relates to Gone Girl’s more specific interest in the ontology of mediation itself, wherein art cinema’s elusive questioning of “truth” – the question of culpability in Rashomon, the fugitive nature of memory in Marienbad – gives way to the problem of mass media’s hyperreality, its instantaneity and absorption of judgment and interpretation. Within these terms, as I have argued in this essay, complexity becomes a means of respectively implicating its potential readers/viewers in, and critically confronting, the problem of mediatized representation, a problem that, as I have shown, extends to the generic limitations and determinations of both the novel and (especially) the film’s own forms.
Is this all, then, to which the novel or film in these post-Cultural contexts can aspire? Maybe not, but this possibility is central to Gone Girl’s underlying cynicism and coldness. Beyond its form of qualified reflexivity and critique, both novel and film offer us the empty yet spectacular achievement of narration itself. The formal elegance and intricacies of both texts, in fact, and their skillful manipulation of voice and perspective, ironically represent and elucidate Amy’s own “masterpiece” as a “writer:” the fashioning of a great crime, the creation of her selfhood as an enigma, and (both novel and film intimate) professional success in the form of a true-crime confessional book about the experience, to be written later. As the film’s penultimate televisual image suggests, Nick and Amy are now deep in the mire, consigned to the shitty world that is their own devising. In the spirit of noir on which Gone Girl draws, we find aesthetic desire running up against its redundancy: the result, to borrow Dussere’s aforementioned term, is a kind of “empty aestheticism,” (95) both wrestling with, and born out of, its contemporary moment. In Flynn and Fincher’s case, storytelling and style persist as something of a Cultural trace; a vantage point from which the reader and viewer may peruse the post-Cultural remains. Consistent with Gone Girl’s post-Cultural despondency, however, such aesthetic remainders can never be truly separated from the contexts that both produce and absorb them. Loss and gain, in the novel and film’s final analysis, are impossible to call apart.
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