Are We Seeing the Twilight of the Novel?
Note: If you have yet to read Gone Girl (a novel) or see Gone Girl (a Film), read on with complete safety. There are no spoilers here. I wouldn’t want to do that to you. It’s too good.
Can you ever fully know someone, even if you are bonded to that person in holy and eternal matrimony? It’s a basic question posed in Gone Girl, the bestselling novel turned blockbuster movie. Do you ever fully know what a person is capable of, even if you share a bed together each and every night?
Earlier this month one of this fall’s most anticipated films, Gone Girl was released to critical acclaim and financial triumph. The movie not only grossed around $38 million dollars at the US box office its opening weekend, but also helped to create a sudden deficit in the demand for ring bearers, tuxedo rentals, caterers, florists, DJ’s, ornate cake makers, high-priced photographers and Vegas Elvis impersonators. It is a great date movie, if you and your significant other are regulars on The Jerry Springer Show.
The movie offers a dynamite performance from Ben Affleck and an absolutely stunning turn from former Bond girl Rosamund Pike. The story follows Nick and Amy Dunne who have a seemingly idyllic relationship that begins to slowly unravel. We follow the Dunnes through their adorable courtship in New York City. Yet the honeymoon fades when Nick is laid off from his job as a men’s magazine writer and then the couple is forced to relocate to Nick’s hometown in Missouri. Ultimately, Amy’s sudden and strange disappearance casts a suspicious light on Nick.
The movie has been hailed by critics and movie-goers alike despite its two and a half hour running time. This is in part because of its shockingly relatable perversion. We all have been blindsided from someone we care about. Most not to the extent of the Dunne clan, yet all of us have been caught vulnerable to a person we hold dear. It’s also a taut, edgy thriller. Few movies live up to the standards set in the books they represent on film, but Gone Girl has done this admirably. David Fincher, the king of dark and sadistic thrillers (see Fight Club, Se7en, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and a few of the best House of Cards episodes) is the perfect choice to direct such a pitch-black story. And who better to turn in the screenplay, then the woman who originally spun this spider-web of a yarn: novelist Gillian Flynn.
Gone Girl is Flynn’s third novel and her most recognizable. In it Flynn, a former journalist at Entertainment Weekly (she was let-go after ten years at the magazine) lands some well-timed jabs at the current state of print journalism and the Nancy Grace-ification of today’s television news media (You go, girl!).
After Flynn was approached about having her novel adapted for the screen, she insisted that she be allowed to write the first draft. For Flynn, switching from a manuscript to a movie script was not an effortless process. “I did not have the radar that I have with novels where I have a real strong sense whether something’s working really well or not. I certainly felt at sea a lot of times, kind of finding my way through,” she told the Los Angeles Times.
When David Fincher, who was Flynn’s choice to direct the movie, agreed to jump on board, the former film journalist was well-aware that her story could very easily be ripped from her hands. “Being someone who covered movies for a lot of years, I know how the story goes, which is the author gets to do a first draft and then the author is immediately fired and someone else is brought in,“ Flynn said. “It would have been the easiest thing in the world for him to say, ‘Good job, kid, but I just want one of my people in here for the sheer sense of comfort.'”
Yet Fincher was impressed with Flynn’s first draft and the two began a collaborative relationship. “I’d send David big swaths, and we’d get on the phone and discuss and I’d go back to work,” Flynn said. “It was a very fluid sort of writing all through those months. There were some scenes that didn’t change much from the earliest drafts, and some scenes I wrote and rewrote a dozen times.”
Flynn is credited as the lone scriptwriter of Gone Girl. She very well could earn an Oscar statute for her adaptation. If there was an award for a movie following the spirit of a book, Gone Girl would be a slam dunk. I wonder if that is a direct result of Fincher’s decision to allow Flynn to see her first draft to on-screen fruition. The novel has a unique dual character narration, an intense duel of accounts between Nick and Amy, one that could be challenging to bring to the screen. Flynn even admits the trials of turning her novel into a blockbuster movie. “It’s a big, dense book,” Flynn told the LA Times. “You think you can drop a certain scene and then you realize three scenes later you’ve just missed an important setup. And my big fear was having it turn into this kind of an engine and losing what I thought was special about it, the smaller nuances and the humor of it.”
Flynn is only one of many first-class novelists who have recently turned their word processors, typewriters and snub-nosed pencils towards the glitz of Tinseltown. Several decades after lamenting about Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of his novel The Shining, the King of Suspense Stephen King worked alongside Stephen Spielberg to bring an adaptation of Under the Dome (a novel) to CBS. Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Cormac McCarthy took a turn as screenwriter for The Counselor. Acclaimed crime novelist Dennis Lehane recently turned his short story “Animal Rescue” into the film The Drop. He is also slated to write two more screenplays. George RR Martin is an executive producer of HBO’s wildly popular Game of Thrones, which is based on his series of novels, and even pens an episode from time to time. The series’ conclusion, quite literally, rests inside of his brain. Nic Pizzolatto was a novelist and college literature professor before becoming executive producer, show runner and sole writer for the first season of HBO’s hit series True Detective. Law and Order creator Dick Wolf has even tried his hand at novel-ling. All of this isn’t new. In 1994, the late Michael Crichton achieved the unique distinction of having a blockbuster movie (Jurassic Park) a hit TV show (ER), and an acclaimed novel (Disclosure) all making various rounds.
This all does get me thinking, though. I have a sense that we are seeing the twilight of the written word in storytelling. Before you label me a heretic or a novelist (yes, I did string enough words together to attempt to call myself one) who is out of touch and mournful for a bygone era, hear me out.
Let’s be honest, a novel is a very inefficient way to tell a story. It requires immense time, patience and effort by an audience to ingest. We now live in an efficiency-driven society. Everything is compelled to this aim. It’s much easier to connect with all of your friends on Facebook and Twitter than it is to spend an evening with only one of them. Every time we send a text instead of dial a phone, we sacrifice intimacy for ease and necessity. To find love we went from bar-hopping to blind dating to speed dating to Online dating and yet now, thanks to Tinder, with a few right finger swipes we can find our soul mate (or at least something to do on a Saturday night). Don’t get me wrong, I am not lamenting only trying to speak realities. Technology has improved our lives, yet also made them much more rushed. The Autobahn is great because there’s no traffic, but if you’re driving 35 kilometers an hour on it, you definitely aren’t using it properly. We have the world at our fingertips, with no more time to explore it.
The death of the novel was probably argued at the advent of television, the VCR, and cable. Yet none of these even compare to the power of the internet as well as social and mobile technologies and their impact on our daily lives. To narrow it to storytelling, we are now capable of having every story (and the mediums that deliver them) brought straight to our living rooms. We can quite literally pull up any piece of literature, television or film and beam it straight into the various devices we own. The choices are boundless. Video is becoming (or has been for a period of time) way more influential in storytelling than the written word. That goes for journalists and bloggers as well. The Google robots tirelessly crawling cyberspace award more brownie points to video than text. That is not to mention that it is much easier to multitask watching your favorite television show than it is while imbibing a lengthy novel. It’s much more convenient to Facebook and Twitter while binge-watching Breaking Bad than it is while reading 50 Shades of Grey (although that might make for some interesting tweets or Tinder texts).
Journalism schools around the country are ending specialized training based on print, radio, video and the internet. A journalism student needs to be trained in all of these skills. A successful journalist will blog, tweet, host a podcast, and regularly appear on network or cable television, at least one who wants to find a job or maintain a career. So creative writing majors, before you begin hurling yourselves off the roofs of Harvard dorm rooms, let me remind you: you are still relevant. Humanity’s first use of communication was storytelling, and it will be the last. Whether stories are painted on cave walls or beamed to us in ingestible increments by Netflix, great storytellers will always have a place. It is the great storytellers who learn to adapt and thrive in this rapidly changing world who will be remembered. It’s Gone Girl, not Gone Novel. Continue to write, produce great stories and be fully prepared to defend your story when Hollywood comes calling.