I can probably count the book-to-movie adaptations that really worked for me on one hand – Carrie, American Psycho, Stand By Me, Jaws. There might be a few more, but for the most part, those are all examples of movies I loved, adapted from books that I just sort of liked, and I’m guessing that’s why those films worked so well for me. When it comes to books that I love being adapted into movies, though, I can almost assume the movie version will be a disappointment on some level, right? Because how can anything compare to what I've imagined and idealized in my own head?
Even so, I try to go into adaptations with an open mind. I’m not one to gripe that a movie “ruined my childhood” by not turning out exactly the way I had imagined it (frankly, I can’t imagine anything sillier), and it’s not as if a movie can erase a mental image of a character. So when I heard that they were turning Gillian Flynn’s (writer of Gone Girl – the book and the movie) Dark Places into a movie, I was excited. Dark Places is one of my favorite mysteries (treading that lovely line between thrilling and genuinely moving), and I couldn’t wait to see it brought to life on screen. When I heard that they’d cast Charlize Theron as the main character, Libby Day, I was a bit skeptical – Theron is just nothing like I’d imagined the character, physically or otherwise – but Theron is unquestionably a great actor, so I figured I’d wait and see how it all turned out.
For those of you that don't know, Dark Places is about Libby Day, who is the sole survivor of her family's brutal massacre, save for her brother Ben, who she herself accused of the murders. As an adult, she is bitter, selfish, and alone, and only agrees to dig a little deeper into her childhood memories when an organization of serial killer fanatics, aptly named "The Kill Club," offers to pay her for her troubles.
Overall, Dark Places, the film, is a solid companion piece to Dark Places, the book. The film is a good little thriller on its own, but I think you need to have read the book to fully appreciate a lot of the things that the film glosses over or speeds through. It’s a common affliction among adaptations; a piece of art that was originally 400 or 500 pages long has to be condensed into less than two hours onscreen, so something is generally lost in the translation. In this case, a lot of the heart – in the form of characterization – was lost in favor of keeping the plot moving along as swiftly as possible.
The character of Ben Day is the most glaring example. Although I think the casting was spot-on (Tye Sheridan does a remarkable job of conveying the teenaged Ben’s many complex emotions with very little dialogue), the subplot of Ben being accused of crimes against young girls happened so quickly, and was explained away a little too handily, so that the audience barely had time to register what had really happened, or why. Ben is a character full of self-loathing, shyness, sensitivity, and false bravado, but those emotions were only hinted at in the movie, making Ben's storyline far less cohesive by the end.
Another major problem was that Charlize Theron was crucially miscast. There’s no denying that she’s an amazing actor, but regardless of how she was described in the book (diminutive, for one), Theron just didn’t work for the part. Libby is a survivor, but not the kind that spouts motivational quotes. She’s meant to be an angry, angsty little pistol who only made it out alive by being the tiniest, quietest, most resilient little mouse in the house (even enduring the loss of a few body parts to frostbite, a fact that's completely ignored in the film). She’s far tougher than she looks, and that is vital to her character. Try as she might, Theron just doesn’t fit that description.
Take for example the scene where Libby meets Lyle Wirth, treasurer of the “Kill Club," in a quiet Laundromat. Lyle, played by an unassuming Nicholas Hoult, takes a step towards Libby, who holds out a hand and exclaims, “Just take a fucking step back, man! What is it with you and personal space?” Maybe it’s because I recently watched Theron overwhelm literal hordes of crazed men in Mad Max, but it was difficult for me to believe that she – looking rather formidable in thick black combat boots, her broad shoulders draped in a leather jacket – felt even remotely threatened by Lyle. It’s a problem throughout the movie, as the adult Libby never truly seems to be in much danger (her opponents later on are only slightly less bumbling than Lyle). Theron still does a good job, of course, but a different casting choice could have taken this movie from thrilling to terrifying.
For every good casting choice, there is another misstep. Chloe Grace Moretz positively shines as Ben’s narcissistic, drama-loving girlfriend, Diondra. She practically glimmers with manic energy every time she’s onscreen, and you can absolutely see why a lonely teen boy would fall head over heels for her. It’s a bit of a disappointment, then, when we meet the adult version of Diondra (Andrea Roth), who doesn’t possess even a dimmed version of that off-kilter flare.
But none of that makes for a bad movie. If you’re looking for a good way to spend a Friday night in, this certainly could be it. Dark Places is a solid mystery-thriller and I don’t mind that I spent a few dollars to see it. If you’re looking for a great mystery that unfolds organically and with more than a sprinkling of human drama, however, I strongly urge you to read the book first. Finally, if you're too lazy to read, I recommend the film version of Gone Girl which, ironically, I liked much better than the book.