Authors have a way of disappearing from the praise that surrounds a successful film adaptation. Sure, they’re the ones who drafted the blueprint, but then a whole team of cinematic architects turns it into Fallingwater, and catches all the acclaim that follows. There are exceptions–authors like William Peter Blatty or Joan Didion adapted their novels The Exorcist and Play It As It Lays, respectively–but, like those writers, they are often vets of the Hollywood system when they get the opportunity. Considering she’d never written a screenplay before, Gillian Flynn might’ve easily become a Gone Girl from her novel’s high-profile film adaptation, but instead she stood her ground and remained front and center throughout production.
By any measure, Flynn’s deeply unsettling thriller was a publishing phenomenon. Gone Girl stayed astride the New York Times bestseller list for 11 weeks, selling over 6 million copies before even coming out in paperback. It was the kind of book you could count on seeing in every subway car and airplane cabin, and by the time you recommended it to your mom, she already had a copy. The story of Nick and Amy Dunne unfolds with a narrative verve that keeps readers uncertain who to trust at any moment, a feeling bound to follow them beyond the page. All the circumstances surrounding Amy’s abduction become less certain the more voices we hear from, a sensation that should ring true to relationships far less dramatic than the Dunnes.’ There was no easy method for transferring Gone Girl‘s masterful momentum or fog of unreliability onto the big screen, but Flynn managed to find one that not only stays faithful to the hard-edged book, but resulted in a critical hit.
Recently, the author talked to Co.Create about cutting down her unwieldy novel, collaborating with director David Fincher, and using visual tools for the first time to make her words jump off the page.
When she sold the film option for her book, Flynn made certain to build into her deal that she would have a chance to write the first draft of the screenplay. Not every author gets such a chance, and fewer still end up getting more than a “story by” credit.
“Normally what happens is the author write the first draft, and then they quickly get rid of the author and the author is never seen or heard from again,” she says. “Then they bring in the big guns to take over. I was lucky that David Fincher came aboard. He read my first draft, and within days I was flying out to L.A. to meet him. It’s a very gracious thing for him to have kept me on because even though I think my first draft was solid, it still would have been easier for him to say, “You know what? I’m actually going to have someone who’s written a fucking screenplay before write this one.” But he responded to the first draft and we have kind of similar sensibilities. We liked the same things about the book, and we wanted the same thing out of the movie.”
From an early age, Flynn had always studied screenplays. Before the Internet, she was the kid who sent away for mail-order screenplays and read them while watching movies. In order to apply her film lover’s point-of-view to what she wanted to see onscreen, though, she had to do her homework.
“I read through screenplay books and studied movies,” she says. “Then when David came aboard, I re-watched every David Fincher movie and read the screenplays and tried to see how they were translated. I also did a lot of studying of adaptations that I really liked, you know, everything from A Simple Plan, which I think is a great book and a great adaptation, and The Talented Mr. Ripley to less obvious ones, like Steve Kloves’s adaptations of the Harry Potter books. I talked to him about taking a very dense source of material and turning it into the movie it needed to be.”
Every page of a script usually equals a single minute of screen time. If you’re adapting a book with some heft to it, no matter what, you’re probably never going to have enough screen time.
“It was a fun, masochistic challenge to look at this 500-page book, and say, ‘Well, I’m going to have to lose about two-thirds of this,'” Flynn says. “I did a first draft of what I really wanted to include, and it would have been the length of a mini-series, basically. You really have to be extremely disciplined in a way that no novelist ever, ever has to be. You have to make every scene not just do one thing but do about eight different things.
I was trying to get the plot down first. It’s a very intricate plot. And there’s only so much you can get rid of because it’s so entwined. Take out one piece and another part’s not going to function down the road. So it was figuring out hot to get the most streamlined plot and still have room for the flashbacks from Nick and Amy’s New York days, all while introducing supporting characters, and layering in the mood and the tone. There were certain characters that killed me to lose, like [Neil Patrick Harris’ character] Desi Collings’ mother. Having been a writer at a weekly magazine for 10 years, though, I wasn’t ever precious about cutting. So I thought, ‘I’m sorry Mrs. Collings, but there’s no room for you.'”
In the movie, unlike the book, we’re never really inside Nick’s head; we just see what he sees. It was up to Flynn to decide whether the character could be as unreliable in the movie without actually hearing his thoughts.
“For me, it’s a difference between a book and a movie. I didn’t want it to be two people talking to the camera,” she says. “I thought Amy’s voiceover coming through the diaries was kind of enough talking. Otherwise, I really wanted the action. The first part of the book forces the audience member to project their feelings onto Nick, just the way the media does later on. Gone Girl is a lot about what story we create in the absence of actual fact or truth. It’s all about image and persona. And so I wanted to put the audience in that place where they’re in charge of bringing their various viewpoints and prejudices and past experiences and aiming it all at Nick before the media starts doing that too.”
One of the most striking aspects of Flynn’s novels is her powerful characterization. Working in the cinematic world for the first time, though, allowed her to use visuals to reveal information. She also had some help from a director known for his meticulous attention to detail.
“David Fincher creates fully functional sets,” the author says. “If you’re in the kitchen of the set of [Nick and Amy’s] home, and you need a butter knife, you kind of know where to look. As the writer of the screenplay, you can say a lot that way. When Nick reaches his office on the treasure hunt, almost everything that’s in that office, I wrote in the screenplay. It goes by very quickly, but even down to what books are on his bookshelf. There’s a little in/out folder that says ‘Book Ideas,’ and it’s empty. Rather than him telling you, ‘I had once wanted to be a writer,’ you can put in quick things like that for the audience to pick up on.”
The ending of the book is a point of controversy among readers, and rumors of the film version’s faithfulness to that ending have been rampant throughout the production. Consider this a spoiler-free article.
“Once we got to the ending, I wanted it to wrap up quickly. I didn’t want 8 million more loop-de-loops,” says Flynn. “I felt like we’d had enough loop-de-loops and what people really wanted to see was [the final frame]. It was just a matter of winnowing it down. The one thing I knew I wanted was the media element to remain. I knew that it was very much the media as the third player in the Nick and Amy story. After all the stories we’ve seen these people telling themselves and each other, the media is this overarching voice. So that had to stay in there, but I played around with a lot of iterations. I had no problem tossing stuff out and trying to figure out the best way to get there.”