Brad Pitt and a squadron of up-and-coming actors held off “Gone Girl” at the multiplexes this weekend as “Fury” topped box office charts with a $23.5 million debut.

Despite surrendering first place after two weeks wearing the crown, “Gone Girl” showed some impressive stamina. David Fincher’s adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s best-selling mystery dropped just 32% to $17.8 million. Its total now stands at $107.1 million and is striking distance of surpassing “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” ($127.5 million) as Fincher’s highest-grossing domestic release. Water cooler effect achieved.

“It’s one of those movies that it’s so provocative that if you haven’t seen it yet, you have to in order to be part of the conversation,” said Chris Aronson, distribution chief at 20th Century Fox, the studio behind “Gone Girl.” “It’s as simple as that.”

In a sign that adults are returning to theaters after sitting out the summer popcorn season, “Fury’s” first place finish marks the fourth straight weekend that an R-rated film has been the highest grossing picture in the market. It’s the first time there’s been such a sustained period of R-rated dominance since 2012, when “The Grey,” “Underworld Awakening,” “Contraband” and “The Devil Inside” topped charts for four successive weeks.

“There’s finally some serious dramas after a summer full of blockbusters,” said Phil Contrino, vice president and chief analyst at BoxOffice.com. “This always happens in the fall. In the summer, adults over a certain age think all the movies are made for teenagers and then fall hits and they come out of hibernation.”

In third place, 20th Century Fox and Reel FX’s Day of the Dead themed animated fantasy “The Book of Life” took in $17 million across 3,071 theaters. The weekend’s other wide release, Relativity’s “The Best of Me,” racked up $10.2 million from 2,936 theaters, good enough for fifth place, but below such previous Nicholas Sparks’ pictures as “The Notebook” ($13.5 million debut) and “Dear John” ($30.5 million).

The animated picture cost $50 million to produce, while the romantic drama carries a $26 million price tag. Relativity says that foreign and ancillary pre-sales and tax credits limit its exposure on the film to $5 million.

“Book of Life” attracted an audience that was 57% female, 54% under the age of 25, and 30% Hispanic.

“It’s such a vibrant celebration of life couched in an animated film,” said Aronson. “It’s completely unique.”

“Fury” relied on Pitt’s star power and strong critical notices to attract crowds to a story that deals with a dark subject matter. The bloody action film is set in the waning days of World War II and follows a gruff Sherman tank commander (Pitt), an idealistic newbie (Logan Lerman) and his crew (Michael Pena, Jon Bernthal, Shia LaBeouf) on an impossible mission. Sony Pictures released the $68 million production which was backed by QED and LStar Capital. It was written and directed by David Ayer (“End of Watch”).

The opening is slightly lower than projections, which predicted a debut of $25 million. But Sony said the film is stirring audiences, which could help it build word-of-mouth.

“As people leave the theater, it resonates with them and it takes them on a journey and provokes conversation,” said Rory Bruer, Sony Pictures president of worldwide distribution. “We’re seeing a lot of social media conversation going on, and I believe we’re going to get a terrific multiple and be around for a long time.”

“Fury” played to an opening crowd that was 60% male and 51% over 35 years old.

Among holdovers, “Dracula Untold” fell 58% to $9.9 million, bringing its domestic total to $40.7 million, and “The Judge” dropped 41% to $7.9 million, giving it $26.8 million after two weeks.

“Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day” showed more staying power despite the release of another family film, “The Book of Life.” The Disney live action comedy dipped a mere 34% to $12 million, enough to capture fourth place.

In limited release, Fox Searchlight’s “Birdman” achieved liftoff, riding a boatload of rave reviews to a $415,000 debut in just four theaters. That accounts for a dazzling per-screen average of $103,750. It’s the second best debut from a per-screen standpoint since “The Grand Budapest Hotel” bowed in March to a $202,792 average.

Another art house standout was “Dear White People,” which Roadside and Lionsgate launched on 11 screens in New York, Los Angeles, Washington D.C. and Atlanta. The race relations satire grossed $344,136, for a heady per-screen average of $31,285.

The Weinstein Company expanded “St. Vincent” from four theaters to 68, earning $685,000 and a per-screen average of $10,074. The Bill Murray comedy co-stars Melissa McCarthy and was backed by Chernin Entertainment. The film has been playing especially well with women over the age of 35. It goes wide next weekend in at least 2,000 theaters.

“All the stuff out there is pretty heavy, and this just makes people feel good and laugh,” said Erik Lomis, the Weinstein Company’s distribution chief. “It strikes a cord.”

Opera buffs turned out in force for the Metropolitan Opera’s live transmission of Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” on Saturday, with an estimated attendance of 90,000 in North America, which gave the special event a $2.1 million gross from 900 screens.

The mixture of family films, adult dramas and war yarns fueled the overall box office, pushing it more than 20% ahead of the year-ago period when “Gravity” dominated charts for the third week in a row. It also helped fill in the gap between this year’s box office and 2013’s record-breaking numbers after a horrific summer. Year-to-date the box office is down 3.9 percent, a vast improvement from the nearly 6% deficit the box office was suffering when the summer ended.