The recent announcement that Gillian Flynn, author of the smash-hit thriller Gone Girl, was drastically revising the book’s ending in her screenplay version for David Fincher brought with it intrigue, outrage and an instant wealth of publicity.1 The final act of the novel is most certainly divisive, a dark and fairly unexpected ending that manages to merge the overarching cliches of romance narratives and a tone of nihilism. The change for celluloid (well, digital) shouldn’t be such a shock, considering the way in which Fincher and his screenwriters have approached existing literary works for film before.2 Readers of Fight Club would notice a completely different ending, one which author Chuck Palahniuk has commented on favourably, whilst some fans of Steig Larsson would have been frustrated by the decision to alter a reveal at the end of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.3
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button would seem the most likely candidate for a discussion about Fincher and adaptation but it is perhaps the least indicative of his relationship with narrative. A passion project of producer Ray Stark, who bought the rights to the Fitzgerald short story in the 1980s, the concept was kicked around between various writers and directors until Eric Roth wrote a script for Gary Ross (Pleasantville, The Hunger Games) that ended up in David Fincher’s lap. Once more it’s a visuals over narrative affair, not bad at all but lacking a spark that connects most of Fincher’s other films. If only we’d gotten the rumoured Charlie Kaufman draft.4
Let’s go back to the (relative) start – Se7en and The Game. Mike D’Angelo’s defence of The Game at the A.V. Club is a fascinating read, not only because I too find myself defending that film, but because where I tend to heap praise on the structure of its opening third, D’Angelo focuses solely on its ending. Although not strictly an adaptation, despite the uncredited rewrites of Se7en scribe Andrew Kevin Walker, the twisted end of this film reflects a trend in the work of Fincher – moving towards what appears to be a closed and finite end that is actually riddled with ambiguity and a continuation of dread. While Se7en packages itself up with a Hemingway quote and a figure walking down a road, it leaves haunting questions as to the future of the Brad Pitt character and the pervasiveness of evil in human action. The Game, whilst perhaps not as lofty in its philosophical ambition (there’s no Dante in this one), appears to end bluntly on a reveal, yet as D’Angelo argues, it contains an underlying message that “every horrible thing that befalls you is actually part of somebody’s elaborate plan for your salvation”, forcing questions not of characters on screen per se, but forcing the audience into a re-evaluation of the self, that is, if you can get beyond the gimmicky gotcha factor of the film’s end.
In Fight Club, the average ‘Joe’ of the novel is transformed into narrator ‘Jack’, a simple linguistic transformation that signals a different approach to the source matter, both in (arguable) satirical intention and in capturing a frightening persona in the lead character of another non-faithful adaptation, Kubrick’s The Shining. In line with Gone Girl‘s literary denouement, the now iconic last sequence of Fight Club merges romance and nihilism, discarding the cold and abrupt ending of the novel for an original, open-ended and destructive one. It has garnered a heap of praise and a fair amount of derision, particularly in regards to the satirical intention of the film being marred by its ending.5 Regardless of its tonal importance, which is great, the end of Fight Club signals some kind of rejection of normality in favour of ambiguity and the manipulation of audience expectations. Screenwriter Jim Uhls, along with a once again uncredited Andrew Kevin Walker, are able to successfully move away from the existing literary text in terms of structure and fidelity, whilst enhancing the remaining elements.
Arguably Fincher’s most accomplished work is Zodiac, his ‘newspaper film’ that follows the decades-long investigation into the case of the serial killer who terrorized San Francisco in the late 1960s and early 1970s by both police and, most notably, the cartoonist at the San Francisco Chronicle. There’s a great conversation piece on Indiewire’s Press Play blog about the ambiguity in Zodiac‘s ending, raising the point that the film does make some clear statement as to the killer’s identity at the end, yet that the accusation is well-tempered in contrast to the certainty of the books upon which the film is based.6 In that round table Matt Zoller Seitz quotes Robert Graysmith’s Zodiac, “Nobody knows who Zodiac is, but based on the evidence I have seen, Starr is the best choice by far” and then delivers quite a nice piece of analysis, “I think that last sentence sums up the film’s approach for me. The part before the first comma is Fincher. The rest of the sentence is the film’s hero, Graysmith.” There’s a clear argument to be made that Fincher and screenwriter James Vanderbilt have crafted a meaningful and significant gap between film and character in their adaptation. Rather than seeing Graysmith’s arguments plainly laid out of screen, they allow the character of Graysmith to go deeper and deeper into some sense of certainty, only to reveal that DNA sampling did not corroborate Graysmith’s suspicion at the end of the film. Admittedly, though, Zodiac is as much a retelling of Graysmith’s book as it is a historical analysis, a duality Fincher would traverse again in The Social Network.
Unlike Fight Club or Se7en, where Fincher brought into multiplexes a seedy and unknown world, Fincher’s latest three works have all directly tapped into the mainstream consciousness. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl are adaptations of two of the most popular books of the last ten years and The Social Network is a somewhat journalistic adaptation of the story of the invention of Facebook. As such, his films now come burdened with a narrative expectation drawn from the success of the film’s source material.
The Social Network shattered the public hesitation in regards to the ‘Facebook movie’ by imbuing the film with the dark and winding narrative unfurling of Zodiac, as well as a Rashomon-esque relationship with the truth. Based in part on the treatment for Ben Mezrich’s book The Accidental Billionaires, the film manages to toy with facts in a way that is potentially a complete misrepresentation of the truth in favour of telling an engaging and universal tale of hubris and greed. The Social Network, like The Game and Zodiac before it, is a gently devastating character study, yet it is also the study of a fictional protagonist. The film does not set out to state that Mark Zuckerberg is the person he appears to be on screen, Fincher admitting in a TIME Magazine roundtable that the character is “not Mark Zuckerberg…but it was the perfect representation of that character”. This idea of representation concedes that the characters in the film are mounted on a fictional base, tapping into the process of reinvention of the self on Facebook.7 Sorkin goes even further with this idea in, in discussion with Mark Harris he claims that “art isn’t about what happened” and Fincher’s historical films reflect this. The point carries across to literary adaptations, in that both screenwriter and director play with public awareness and knowledge of the original subject.
In a recent interview with Entertainment Weekly, Fincher said that he and his production team on Dragon Tattoo may have been “too beholden to the source material”, perhaps to account for any perceived structural stiltedness and its 158-minute runtime. Like Gone Girl, there too was controversy as to Steven Zaillan’s alteration of the ending of Larsson’s book. Speculation abounded as to which twist would be changed or removed, with Slashfilm’s Germain Lussier practically begging for the surprise secondary mystery to be removed (it was not).8 The removal of a romantic sub-plot was effective at speeding up the film’s second act, yet the shift in the final reveal was ultimately disappointing, it felt lazy to remove an international element from the book. In regards to this change, Zaillan has asked “Why are we going so far afield for this mystery to be resolved? Might it be a little more interesting if it’s solved a little closer to home?”. Whilst it may have been easier for the shooting schedule, it perhaps saw an overeagerness to compromise on what was a pleasant and unusual narrative quirk in the novel.9 Perhaps that is the major fear for the Gone Girl alterations, a mundane rewritten end, rather than an exciting Fight Club one.
This fear may be unfounded, however, as with Gone Girl Flynn herself will oversee the script’s twists and turns – an unusual approach to modern adaptation. Yet, where another author would hold their novel dear, Flynn relishes the opportunity to wreak havoc, with the pull-quote in every article being that “there was something thrilling about taking this piece of work that I’d spent about two years painstakingly putting together with all its eight million LEGO pieces and take a hammer to it and bash it apart and reassemble it into a movie”.10 With this kind of attitude, coupled with Fincher’s ability to handle narrative deviation before, I’d say the changes to Gone Girl are something to be welcomed. If anything, an altered ending in adaptation reclaims any tension lost on avid readers. Fincher and Flynn will be placing us all – those in-the-know and those approaching the work with fresh eyes – in an unfamiliar narrative place as the film rounds the final turn, which is exactly what a novel like Gone Girl intended to do in the first place.
The collage at the top of the page was designed by Conor Bateman from the Gone Girl teaser poster and a still from the film (c/o New Regency Pictures), the Entertainment Weekly cover (c/o David Fincher and Entertainment Weekly) and the original book jacket design (c/o Crown Publishing Group).