When Hollywood first came calling with offers to adapt her bestselling thriller “Gone Girl,” author Gillian Flynn wanted to ensure that her tale of manipulation and murder would retain its sharp corners and unconventional rhythms.
So she insisted that she be allowed to write the first draft of the screenplay for the new Fox film, which arrives in theaters Oct. 3 as one of the season’s most anticipated releases. But disassembling the tightly plotted mystery proved more challenging than she had initially imagined.
“It’s a big, dense book,” Flynn said recently, speaking by phone from her Chicago home. “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.”
With its page-turning marriage of procedural elements and subversive social commentary, “Gone Girl” became one of the most-talked-about novels of 2012, reaching No. 1 on the New York Times’ bestseller list just six weeks after its June release.
The story opens when Nick Dunne (played by Ben Affleck) arrives home on his fifth wedding anniversary to find his wife, Amy (Rosamund Pike), missing; signs of a struggle suggest foul play. Various clues surface implicating Nick in Amy’s murder, and while he steadfastly insists he’s innocent of any crime, he soon falls under increasing scrutiny as the case begins to garner national attention.
What sets “Gone Girl” apart from a typical thriller, however, is the way Flynn layers the novel with absorbing insights about how everyday resentments in a marriage can boil over to become something poisonous — neither Nick nor Amy are exactly as they initially appear.
It also contains small autobiographical touches. The drama primarily unfolds in North Carthage, Mo., a fictional Mississippi River town — the community where Nick was raised and where he and Amy move after they lose their writing jobs at New York magazines.
Flynn, 43, grew up in Kansas City, Mo., the daughter of community college professors, and she studied journalism at the University of Kansas and Northwestern University before ultimately landing at Entertainment Weekly, where she wrote about movies and television for 10 years.
By the time she was laid off from the magazine in 2008, she’d already moved back to Chicago, published her first novel, “Sharp Objects” and completed a second, “Dark Places,” released in May 2009. Both were unsettling tales set in the Midwest and told from the perspective of a woman haunted by her past.
She wrote “Gone Girl” in the same drafty basement as the other books, but the reaction was different and immediate.
“When it took off, it took off so quickly,” Flynn said. “It became a book that people wanted to talk about, which I think is a key thing. Someone would finish reading it and make someone else read it. It was very much a word-of-mouth sort of thing.”
Within two months of its debut, Fox optioned the book, and roughly two months after that, Flynn was writing her draft of the screenplay at the same time she was touring to promote the novel.
Flynn said she studied literary adaptations that she’d admired, including “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” and took notes while listening to the “Gone Girl” audio book to spark new ideas, but at a certain point, she would not allow herself to refer back to the text to let the screenplay take shape organically.
“It didn’t feel entirely alien to me,” Flynn said of screenwriting. “That said, 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.”
By the time she delivered the draft to Fox on Dec. 15, 2012, Oscar-nominated filmmaker David Fincher, who had most recently brought another wildly popular book to the screen with his English-language version of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” had expressed interest in adapting “Gone Girl.”
Weeks later, Flynn flew to L.A. to meet with Fincher — the writer said he was her first choice to direct the film — but she didn’t necessarily assume that she would continue with the adaptation.
“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.’”
Fincher said he did have trepidation about working with a first-time screenwriter adapting her own novel, but he said the two quickly found a rapport.
“She took to it really deftly,” said Fincher, now collaborating with Flynn on a TV series for HBO titled “Utopia.” “She’s a big movie buff — she watches more movies than I do — and she’s extremely articulate about what she wants as that popcorn-munching girl in the second row craning her neck to see the whole screen at Cinerama Dome. It was an easy transition.”
Flynn and Fincher forged a solid creative back-and-forth as she fine-tuned the screenplay — she compared the filmmaker to a “really good editor.”
“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.”
Watching an early version of the completed film was thrilling for Flynn, who admitted she found it difficult to contain her excitement while seated next to Fincher and seeing her story play out on screen.
“I had to keep checking myself that I wouldn’t have a Beatles moment and start screaming in awe and collapse suddenly,” Flynn said with a laugh. “It was really that exciting.... For me, it’s perfect. It’s a David Fincher version of ‘Gone Girl,’ which is exactly what I had hoped for.”