I first watched Gone, Baby, Gone in 2012, at the height of my enthusiasm for Ben Affleck. At that time I hadn’t read the novel upon which it was based, or any of Dennis Lehane’s work, and Ben hadn’t tainted his career renaissance with the scandal surrounding his separation from Jennifer Garner. In short, it was a simpler time. Becoming familiar with the source material, as well as two articles by Anne Helen Petersen , affected my second viewing in unexpected ways. Back in March, Petersen wrote a pair of articles about the evolution of Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner‘s public images. But what do Jen and Angie have in common?
Since reading and loving Mystic River last summer, I’ve read three more Dennis Lehane novels. Two of them are part of a series that follows Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro, private investigators in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston. Gone, Baby, Gone is actually the fourth installment, although it’s not essential to read the books in order. Normally I don’t condone such things, but I got impatient in this particular instance. And of course, reading the book required a revisiting of the movie. In doing so, I was alerted to a great injustice in film adaptation: the erasure of Angie Gennaro.
Lehane’s novels are narrated by Patrick, but Angie is his partner in every way. To put it bluntly, she’s a total badass. She knows how to defend herself, both physically and verbally, and is a better shot than Patrick. Their partnership is one of the best things about the books. So imagine my distress at seeing her role diminished to a typical Hollywood female supporting character. Michelle Monaghan would certainly not be my go-to actress for this role, but she’s also not given much to work with. In general Affleck follows the trend begun by Clint Eastwood of going wildly off-book when casting a Lehane adaptation. Changing a character’s appearance is one thing, but Affleck’s casting choices actually make some of the characters less interesting. For instance, the detectives who work closely with Patrick and Angie have very distinctive personalities in the novel, while the film turns them into generic cop characters.
Since she should be the other lead role, the flattening of Angie’s character is the most egregious. The film cuts her out of one key action sequence entirely. Even when she is present, she serves as a passive observer who needs Patrick to protect her from unsavory characters. In fact, she’s usually so peripheral to the action that it’s a bit confusing when she does speaks. While Casey Affleck waves a gun around, she watches the scene in mild distress. Angie of the novels would be right there with him, verbally sparring and saving his neck if necessary. Affleck’s screenplay turns her into a stock female character whose only role is to provide support for the male hero and give a “sensitive” perspective about the missing child. Angie of the book continues to obsessively review the case, and Angie of the film cries when she thinks Patrick isn’t home.
The erasure of Angie gave me surprising flashbacks to Anne Helen Petersen’s article about Jennifer Garner. The article is a great read, but to summarize: Garner was an action star on Alias and poised to become a romantic comedy star with the success of 13 Going on 30. After she married Ben Affleck, her public image was mainly used to make him more likable. Obviously Affleck isn’t to blame for the existence of Hollywood character tropes, but he and co-writer Aaron Stockard did nothing to combat them either. Art imitated life in a way that was only recognizable years later. The greatest irony of all is that the Jennifer Garner of yore could have played Angie Gennaro with ease, but instead she’s starring in movies about cats and children miraculously recovering from diseases.