Gillian Flynn Reflects on 'Gone Girl' Legacy and the Growing Appetite for Anti-Heroines in Books

Gone Girl_Gillian Flynn_inset - Photofest - H 2019
Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation/Photofest; Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images

In the last decade, each of the author's novels has been adapted for the screen, with her lead characters challenging stereotypical gender tropes: "It really felt like women were being kept in these particular types of pretty boxes. I really didn't appreciate that."

It's said that "hell hath no fury like a woman scorned," but when it comes to Gone Girl protagonist Amy Dunne, she'll make sure her rage lives on. Gillian Flynn introduced readers to the character, and highly unreliable narrator, in her 2012 novel.

Though Gone Girl was a domestic thriller that kept readers on the edge of their seats, it was Amy who immediately struck critics and readers alike and who remains the most memorable aspect of the book. Celebrated and reviled in equal measure for her intelligence and presumed sociopathic ways, Amy's infamous "cool girl" monologue would still be celebrated years later by women who had read the critically acclaimed book or seen the movie. Through Amy, Flynn upended stereotypical gender tropes in literature and sparked a conversation about female characters, particularly anti-heroines, in books that echo to today, especially amid the #MeToo and Time's Up movements. 

Flynn — who landed on The Hollywood Reporter's inaugural list of the 25 most powerful authors in Hollywood in 2015 — is one of the most influential authors of the last decade, with each of her three best-selling works adapted for the big screen. But it was Gone Girl, her third novel, that would become a pop-culture phenomenon and one of the most memorable books of the decade. 

After its 2012 release, the book spent eight weeks atop the New York Times hardcover fiction bestseller list and 52 weeks on the Washington Post bestsellers list. The book was selected as one of Time’s picks for the 10 best fiction books of the 2010s. Meanwhile the 2014 film adaptation starring Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike as Amy, for which Flynn wrote the screenplay, grossed $370 million, becoming helmer David Fincher's highest-grossing film in North America at the time. Pike also received an Oscar nomination for best actress in 2015.

What made Gone Girl so memorable and influential can vary among readers and audiences, but most recognized was that Flynn's Amy was a fresh, if unnerving, take on the anti-heroine. In Gone Girl, Amy projected the idea of a female villain who wasn't just a nemesis to be jeered but also a mastermind to be cheered. Throughout the novel, the character transitions through identities (e.g., the cool girl, happy wife, unloved wife and scorned wife) all the while tackling the tropes of female victimhood. "A wonderful, good-hearted woman — whole life ahead of her, everything going for her, whatever else they say about women who die — chooses the wrong mate and pays the ultimate price," Flynn writes. Throughout the book, Amy attempts to project an image of perfection with her husband but as readers continue the story, they soon learn the dark identity she hides. 

Though Gone Girl didn't create the idea of an anti-heroine — readers can find similar complex female characters in works such as The Scarlet Letter, Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo — the novel sparked a discussion on a non-conforming lead character for a modern time. Amy's deceptive ways allowed Flynn to fashion her own version of the anti-heroine — one who strays from abiding by damsel in distress tropes and embodies who she is, darkly unvarnished and unyielding. 

Reflecting on Gone Girl, Flynn tells The Hollywood Reporter that though she didn't go into writing the book with an intent on making a purposeful statement, she knew she wanted to "play with how far can you push a female antihero," all the while tackling gender roles within a marriage.

"What made me happiest about Gone Girl is when I was writing the Amy part, it was coming from my belly. Like I felt that character very strongly," Flynn said. "What I'm thrilled about is that it reminded people that, yes, there is a goddamn appetite for women who are not saints; who are bad, but deliciously so — but [also] you still can kind of believe in. People say, 'Amy goes so far beyond that.' It's like, yes, ultimately. Sure. The fact that people have adapted the cool girl thing shows that there's enough there that we actually do relate to a fair amount of what she was saying. Would we go to the extent she does? No, we would not. But she's a relatable, not as soapy, bitchy sort of villainess. You can't write her off."

The "cool girl thing" Flynn refers to is a monologue recited by Amy in her diary entry, in which she dissects the contradictions existing among men and women on how to behave. "Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. Go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the Cool Girl. Men actually think this girl exists. Maybe they’re fooled because so many women are willing to pretend to be this girl," Flynn writes. 

The rage burning inside Amy about societal expectations for women made her somewhat reflective of the frustrations Flynn found herself having after acknowledging the existence of inequality between male and female characters. 

"What I was finding was a lot of books that I didn't necessarily always want to read. I thought, you know, in a way there's an inequality here that men are allowed to be all these things. Male characters can be good. They can be nasty. They're interesting [in] both ways and it really pissed me off. It really felt like women were being kept in these particular types of pretty boxes. I really didn't appreciate that."

Though Amy continues to be Flynn's most memorable character, it was not her first foray in exploring an unreliable narrator. Flynn also puts an unreliable female narrator front and center in her 2006 novel Sharp Objects, which was adapted for television in a 2019 HBO miniseries starring Amy Adams. The novel centers on Camille Preaker, a reporter who returns to her hometown in Missouri to investigate the murders of two young girls. Though determined to solve the mystery, Camille must also confront her personal demons, as readers learn that she is an alcoholic and inflicts pain on herself through self-harm. Unlike Amy, who hides her damaged soul by projecting a perfect exterior, Camille doesn't fully mask her issues. Readers and audiences of the series adaptation see the reporter drink excessively and sleep with another detective and 18-year-old murder suspect, while still inflicting pain on herself. Camille represents a flawed character that depicts realistic issues. 

"A lot of us are very wounded, and women have a different way of taking on pain and trauma and a different relationship with it, and they can be very internal. So even though she’s a very extreme case, there’s something about her depression and the way she wounds herself that I think is very relatable. I do think that’s a very common experience for women," Adams told THR of Camille's complex relatability in Sharp Objects.

Meanwhile, in Flynn's 2007 novel Dark Places, the story centers on Libby Day (played by Charlize Theron in the 2015 film adaptation), who was seven years old when her mother and two sisters were murdered. She survived and famously testified that her fifteen-year-old brother was the killer. Twenty-five years later, the Kill Club — a secret society obsessed with notorious crimes — locates Libby in hopes of finding proof Ben may be innocent. As Libby searches for the truth of what really happened, she finds herself once again in danger. 

Though both thrillers were released prior to Gone Girl, neither seemed to have the same powerful impact as the 2012 novel. 

"When we were shopping Sharp Objects, it was my first book and people weren't that interested in buying. Men don't like books about women and women don't like books about characters that you can't root for, aren't heroic or that aren't like them and likable. I was always kind of like, 'I completely disagree with that,'" Flynn said. 

However, Flynn noticed a drastic difference in Gone Girl, which proved that there would be appetite brewing years later. "My favorite thing about Gone Girl is that it absolutely blew the doors off that old-fashioned, completely antiquated theory that was probably never there to begin with: That there's no appetite."

With a best-selling book and a film adaptation to follow, Flynn's exploration of an anti-heroine and unreliable narrator proved to be successful, making it seem that Flynn was able to power walk so other authors could run. 

"You always have to have that one in any genre, in any type of character in a book or a piece of fiction. Once you get the one that proves your theory incorrect, then it opens the doors for so much more," Flynn explained. "There've been so many interesting books since then that I think maybe got a chance to be sold and to be properly marketed because people were thinking, 'Well, Gone Girl'... It's about giving other writers a chance."

Now that that Pandora's box has been opened, Flynn is hopeful for that next story that "blows the doors off some other outdated theory about what type of character [there should be] or who can write what about what."

It seems that in the last decade other authors have taken on that challenge by tackling stories with their own take on the female antiheroine. 

In Darcey Bell's 2017 novel A Simple Favor — the book was adapted for film by Paul Feig with Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively starring — the story centered on two female leads that represent two different women: the "perfect" mother and a hardworking businesswoman with no time for family. The character of Emily (played by Lively) is married with a son, yet throughout the film is portrayed as a foul-mouthed, ambivalent mother who seemingly has a distant relationship with her husband. Though embodying elements of an anti-female heroine, the character satirically plays on the idea that a working woman is not loving or a devoted mother and wife, as gender norms think she should be. 

"Over the years, women went from being strong, smart characters in these movies to being victims, but then going through the experience [in which] they would not become victims," Feig told THR about the revamp of female characters in the thriller genre. 

Other works from the past decade such as A.J. Finn's 2018 novel The Woman in the Window and 2015's Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins also examine unreliable female narrators. Finn's Woman in the Window will be adapted for a May 15, 2020 release and stars Adams. Meanwhile, Hawkins' thriller Girl on the Train achieved success after selling 6 million copies in the U.S. and 15 million worldwide at the time. After its 2015 release, the book spent 88 consecutive weeks on The New York Times best-seller list — debuting at No. 1 in all formats, from hardcover to ebook to movie tie-in paperback. The book was also adapted by Universal for a $45 million film starring Emily Blunt as lead character Rachel. 

In her 2016 THR cover alongside Hawkins, Blunt also acknowledged the existence of a pattern in films where "women are held to what a man considers a feminine ideal." "You have to be pretty. You have to be 'likable,' which is my least favorite bloody word in the industry. Rachel isn't 'likable.' What does that mean? To be witty and pretty and hold it together and be there for the guy? And he can just be a total drip?," she said. 

Where things changed in order to grant Gone Girl the ability to make such a strong impact was due to the book arriving during a time, that Flynn notes, when the women's movement was evolving. "We were feeling more comfortable societally with women expressing anger or women expressing outrage at certain things." 

Though nearly eight years have passed since Gone Girl's publication, Flynn notes that it's conspicuous that the legacy of Amy and her rage against societal standards still lives on among women. 

"I wanted to create a female villain that you cannot write off and that feels in some way that she walks this world," Flynn said. "I cannot tell you the number of people who've come up to me after large book events and said, 'I know Amy.' 'Amy was my roommate in college.' 'Amy was my girlfriend.' 'Amy was my best friend.'" 

Despite women resonating with Amy in some regards, the character's ending, however, is something still up for debate. "I have people wait in line at a book event, come up and slam the book down and say 'God, I hated this book' and we talk about it. And that to me is the greatest thing in the world. I would much rather have people have that strong reaction to it than consume pleasant, well-crafted books that don't stick with you." 

As to how the book would've differed had it been published amid the #MeToo and Time's Up movements, Flynn isn't sure. But the echo of Amy's "unadorned female rage" still remains — just possibly even louder. "I certainly think that the acknowledgement of female anger as a viable emotion, as something that should be dealt with and acknowledged and appreciated and women feeling that way was one of the reasons that so many people connected to Gone Girl. I certainly think if it had come too much earlier, it would not have actually done as well."

As a new decade begins, with more stories to tell, Flynn quips that Amy's mentality that we won't "put up with this shit" can still prosper. And now with much of the written works by authors in the last 10 years more free to explore strong yet unlikable female leads, it's safe to say that long gone are the relatable Carrie Bradshaws and Bridget Joneses to make way for leading antiheroines like Flynn's "cool girl" Amy.