Opinion writer

Spoiler alert: This post discusses the plot of “Gone Girl” in detail.

In adapting Gillian Flynn’s novel “Gone Girl,” about a woman who appears to have vanished but turns out to be framing her husband for murder, director David Fincher and Flynn, who wrote the script made what to my mind are two major changes to the book.

(Credit: Twentieth Century Fox)

First, they de-emphasized the families of the two main characters, toning down Amy Elliot Dunne’s (Rosamund Pike) rage at her parasitic, greedy parents and virtually eliminating her husband Nick’s (Ben Affleck) terror that he will turn into his hateful, uncaring father. They also change what we learn about Amy’s previous career of faking injuries to herself from others. Fincher’s film eliminates Amy’s faked attacks by women and focuses on a rape allegation Amy makes against an ex-boyfriend who precedes Nick and another one Amy makes later in the story, to create cover for herself when she decides she wants to return home to Nick rather than see him be executed.

The false rape allegations in “Gone Girl” have long been controversial. But I think in paring back the other elements of the story and focusing attention more clearly on them, Fincher has achieved something interesting and important, finding a way for his movie to talk about why certain narratives of sexual violence against are appealing to the media.

Talking about false rape allegations is a difficult thing to do. They exist, of course. But in an environment where people seeking to report sexual assault are often treated as fundamentally dishonest, advocates often worry that an intense focus on women who make false reports exaggerates the prominence of this phenomenon, in turn throwing up more hurdles that the much larger number of truthful people must surmount to be treated by the police and in court.

“Gone Girl” at its best manages to break down this deadlock. Because Amy is such a highly specific personality, with a uniquely distorted sense of what she is owed and how it ought to be delivered, it would be an outrageous stretch for anyone to imply that her behavior reflects on other women in any way at all. We can talk about what Amy does in “Gone Girl” without needing to defend other women from the slanderous charge of being anything like her.

As a result, Fincher is free to examine why Amy’s lies resonate, first with the New York Police Department, to whom she made her first allegation years before the movie takes place, and then to the national media, particularly a rancid, Nancy Grace-like commentator named Ellen Abbot (Missi Pyle).

With her New York ex Tommy (Scoot McNairy), a nebbishy comedy writer, Amy plays on the cops’ sexual suspicion of a man who is not hyper-masculine, encouraging the impression that a gorgeous blonde like her would not have sex with a man like Tommy voluntarily. In a counterfeit diary Amy mocks up to cast suspicion on Nick once she disappears, she implies that Nick brutalized her sexually to push the detectives to suspect him: “Nick uses me for sex when he wants,” she writes in one entry.

When she vanishes, Amy designs for it to be discovered both that Nick had a mistress and that Amy had tested positive for a pregnancy, details designed to make her disappearance look as painful as possible, and to provide rocket fuel for Ellen Abbot, who begins covering the story non-stop. “Amy would have loved you and all you do for women,” Amy’s friend Noelle (Casey Wilson) tells Abbot, but Amy understands the TV star better. If women stopped being in pain, Ellen Abbot would be out of a job.

In a cover story for New York Magazine, Vanessa Grigoriadis wrote of anti-rape activists on college campuses and how “shattering silence, in 2014, means not just coming out with an atrocity tale about your assault but offering what Danielle Dirks, a sociologist at Occidental, calls ‘an atrocity tale about how poorly you were treated by the people you pay $62,500 a year to protect you.'”

Amy creates a great atrocity tale, particularly when she comes home, having murdered her college ex-boyfriend Desi (Neil Patrick Harris) and telling a horrible story about how he kidnapped her and held her captive so she can remove suspicion from Nick. In telling the cops her story of what Desi did to her, Amy picks lots of fabulous, scandalous words beginning with the letter “s.” Desi would “Starve me. Shave me. Sodomize me,” Amy tells them.

If the local police officer, Det. Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens), is suspicious of Amy, the media and their audiences are utterly enraptured, addicted to the delicious prospect of horror. And with the world invested in Amy and her story, Boney and Nick are stuck, unable to contradict it.

“Gone Girl” does not imply that people lie about having been raped on any sort of large scale. But it does suggest that our addiction to female pain has conditioned us to demand that women suffer on command and on a sufficient scale for us to believe them. Our fascination with such atrocity narratives might make us susceptible to false claims. It also trains us to demand terrible things from women who are telling the truth.