John Truby Breaks Down Gone Girl (2014)

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Spoiler Alert: DO NOT READ this breakdown if you haven’t seen the film. It is impossible to say anything useful about the writing without discussing the critical plot twists.

With the tidal wave of superhero movies coming out of Hollywood, I get very excited when a serious crime story like Gone Girl comes along. Which is also why I was so disappointed when Gone Girl turned out to be a lot less than its hype suggested.

This isn’t a bad film or a bad script by novelist Gillian Flynn. But it has serious problems. Some were embedded in the original story. Some came from adapting the novel to film.

I have a particular pet peeve about reviewers who give the director all the credit when the film is good, and give the writer all the blame when the film is bad. So let me be consistent: it’s always in the script. Except for those instances when the director forces the writer to do something (not uncommon in Hollywood), credit, and blame, for the film rests with the writer. The biggest flaw in this script, and the source of all the other flaws, has to do with the main characters of the original story. The convoluted story structure of Gone Girl is designed to hide the plot twists until the most dramatic moment. But it’s also designed to make these two main characters, Nick and Amy, appear to be complex. Neither is what they first seem to be.

Normally that is one of the signs of good writing. But not here, because these characters are not complex at all. About half way through, when the convoluted structure becomes clear, we, the audience, are struck by a horrifying revelation: this story is a battle between an idiot and a psychopath. As the story progresses, Nick becomes even more stupid, while Amy becomes even more insane. This sort of character opposition allows the writer to create plot (although much of it is fake), but it completely shuts down any character exploration. Three traits you never want to give your characters if you want the audience to understand the whys of human behavior is to make them stupid, insane or evil, and this story has all three. When that happens, it’s move along people, no character insights to be gained here.

And that leads us to plot. All the talk has been about the big surprises in this movie, and how they must not be divulged. Forgive me for saying so, but the crime plot in Gone Girl is no better than the average TV detective show. In fact, the Detective/Police Procedural, the most popular TV genre in the world, is done much better on the top shows than it is here.

Crime and Detective stories are the most plot heavy of all genres. Which means that they push the bounds of believability in order to get their effects. The trick to the best stories in these forms is to be able to surprise the audience fairly. In other words, make the characters do things that fool the audience while at the same time remaining true to what these characters, and human beings in general, would actually do.

As this movie went on, the plot twists weren’t surprising. They were ridiculous. Some have argued that this is really an absurdist Black Comedy that pushes its plot to the edge on purpose. If it had any Black Comedy elements at all, I would be happy to give it the benefit of the doubt. It doesn’t. And even the most extreme Black Comedy (like Dr. Strangelove) only works when its plot beats are grounded in the way real human beings act.

The best argument I’ve heard for what made the original novel special is how it uses crime elements to highlight a modern marriage gone bad. But Flynn has stated that she had great difficulty condensing the novel down to screenplay form without sacrificing any of the crime plot. When the story is leaned out to this level – making sure all the crime beats are present – the crucial details about the marriage are just not there. So we’re left with a couple of highly unlikeable people whose marriage is just another version of the War of the Roses. And that doesn’t tell me anything about a modern marriage.

What’s missing in the shift from novel to film? Flynn can’t include all the things Nick did, big and small, that made Amy come to hate him and justify taking her revenge in such an extreme way. But that is the one essential requirement to making this story work. So what’s Flynn’s shorthand solution: Amy’s a psychopath. No other justification is needed. But as soon as that becomes clear, about halfway through, the movie is effectively over.

Finally, the ending. This was much discussed when Gone Girl first came out as a novel. Given the set up of the story, I can’t say I was surprised by it. But I was still disappointed. I hoped that somehow Flynn would come up with a plot twist that really did surprise me, that made me understand that these were real people after all. And that this was a tragedy of a great love gone bad.

Alas, that was not to be. Flynn doubled down on her character portrayals. Amy got even nuttier. Nick became a moron who deserved to be put out of his misery. And everyone else in this universe seemed to have become hopelessly stupid as well.

No doubt people will argue that this movie is a hit at the box office. But I would caution screenwriters out there not to learn the wrong lesson. If you’ve written a novel that has sold over two million copies in one of the most popular genres in worldwide storytelling, you’ve got as good a shot at a hit film as there is in Hollywood. But that doesn’t mean the film is good. And if you haven’t written a best-selling novel, you won’t get away with this stuff.

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