On October 3, 2014, the film adaptation of the best-selling novel Gone Girl was released. Almost two years to the day, another film adaptation of a similarly successful novel, The Girl on the Train, was released. The rise of the latter brought out many references to the former, though these comparisons are based on primarily structural, not thematic elements. Both books employ an “unreliable narrator” and showcase a husband suspected of killing his wife - though this element plays a significantly smaller role in The Girl on the Train. The conflation of the two stories as the same reveals a bias against the expanding diversity of women’s stories.
For two stories that are about substantially different things, Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train have been mentioned in the same breath quite a bit. These comparisons rarely draw any sort of concrete comparison. In fact, the two stories have very little in common, and the elements that are in common are employed in different ways. For example, both stories feature a man who is suspected of murdering his wife. Gone Girl uses this as a central motivator for the story’s plot, whereas, The Girl on the Train uses it as little more than a red herring.
The most significant characteristic they share is that both showcase an unreliable narrator. While this may appear to give them similar narrative elements, the fact is that the stories use an unreliable narrator in different ways. Gone Girl uses Amy’s diary entries that chronicle her relationship with Nick as a way of providing background information to the reader while also manipulating their understanding of the events that lead to her disappearance. They are a tool for Amy to intentionally deceive the reader and the characters within the story. Unlike Amy who exhibits a manipulative control over her unreliability, Rachel’s is uncontrollable; she is an alcoholic who blacks out several times, missing important moments that would help her understand the web of lies and confusion she’s trapped in.
It’s important to note the different ways the two stories use an unreliable narrator because it helps to understand how the two stories are so different. Gone Girl uses its unreliable narrator as a means of giving all the power and knowledge to its titular “girl” whereas The Girl on the Train uses the narrator’s unreliability as a method for building suspense for the reader while simultaneously weakening the story’s protagonist. In this way, Gone Girl is a much stronger, more striking portrait of 21st century feminism, while The Girl on the Train feels steeped in a far more traditional narrative that depends on weakening and unhinging the protagonist for the sake of drama.
Given the lack of similarity between these two works of fiction, why have they been lumped together so often? There are a few explanations. First, their titles both employ a faceless and nameless “girl.” Both titles strip the novel’s protagonist of her identity, allowing audiences to project themselves, people they know, or experiences they are familiar with onto the story. By removing any sort of originality from the title and reducing the identity of the protagonist to “girl”, it’s easier to understand how these two have been conflated within popular culture.
More seriously, however, the trend of looking at these two pieces of fiction as similar and thereby dismissing their individual importance reflects the continued bias against the diversity of women’s stories. There is a paradigm that exists within pop culture that seeks to relegate women’s stories to specific genres - particularly romance. Since both Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train depict relationships in peril from a female perspective, they overlap within this paradigm, satisfying the desire to push both stories into the same genre box.
The truth is that stories like these, ones that prioritize the female voice and perspective, are not allowed the freedom to exist independently from one another. By sharing even minor characteristics or structural similarities, they are forced to compete against one another for a place in pop culture. Unsurprisingly, we are treating art about women in the same way we treat women themselves. It’s a continuous competition for respect and adoration, credibility and popularity.
All of this is to say that we must create a more level playing field for women’s stories in popular culture. There is and should be room for both Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train to exist as separate stories. They should be judged independently from one another in the way that love stories, thrillers, and horror films based on men are. As long as we continue to force these films to compete against one another for significance, we are shrinking the field for future stories of this kind. The Girl on the Train should be able to suck because it sucks, not because it pales in comparison to Gone Girl. The critical failure of The Girl on the Train should not mean that other films of its kind shouldn’t get made. We must actively confront the bias against women’s stories and work to correct it.