Some Stephen King adaptations are easier than others. 1922 writer-director Zak Hilditch had it comparatively easy: his film has to contend with a period setting and a horde of rats, but it’s a small, straightforward character piece, carried more by actors than effects.
The makers of Spike’s The Mist series had it more challenging, between the challenge of living up to an existing popular movie adaptation, and the expense of delivering a citywide supernatural mist full of monsters. (They compensated by keeping the monsters under wraps as much as possible.) The people behind the latest Dark Tower film had an even bigger burden: the challenge of introducing a whole series of mythology, sprawled throughout multiple worlds. (The muddled, conflicted results hint that they never did make up their mind about what was crucial to keep.)
But Stephen King adaptation difficulty settings don’t get much higher than they are on Gerald’s Game. King’s novel takes place originally in the head of a woman who’s talking to herself as she slowly loses her mind, and the actual action loosely consists of that woman lying in a bed. It isn’t a physically dynamic scenario, and it’s hard to see how to open up a story that’s so staid and limited. It’s arguably one of King’s worst novels to date, a novel that wholeheartedly devotes to his worst tendencies to have a main character’s magically knowledgeable inner voices decode the world and unveil information. Those voices in the book are quaint, weird characters that emerge from the main character’s psyche, and the whole story winds up feeling claustrophobic in a limiting way rather than a scary one.
That makes it all the more interesting that writer-director Mike Flanagan (Hush) and co-writer Jeff Howard have turned Gerald’s Game into one of the most astounding, eerie, remarkable Stephen King adaptations to existence.
WHAT’S THE GENRE?
Straight-up horror, mostly of the psychological variety, though there’s some out-and-out gore as well.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT?
Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) and his significantly younger spouse Jessie (Carla Gugino) are trying to make their dying 11-year marriage revitalized. Her timidity and uncertainty about their relationship is evident in everything she says or does around him: the way she responds uncomfortably to his touch, her faltering smile when he attempts to make sure that the vacation they’re about to have will be good for them, and the way she fakes positive reactions to him when she obviously isn’t enthused.
He tries to turn the situation around and books them time in a beautiful remote cottage, where he’s stocked the fridge with gourmet food and given the cleaners the weekend off. He’s also come up with an idea to try something new in their bedroom: a little light bondage. But once Gerald has Jessie handcuffed to the bed, he pulls out a rape fantasy that infuriates her. During the ensuing fight about their marriage, he has a heart attack and dies, leaving her far from help, handcuffed to a really solid bed, and facing a slow, painful death by dehydration — or some of the other, more instant threats that emerge, either from her mind or from the neighborhood.
WHAT’S IT REALLY ABOUT?
Metaphorical and emotional bondage topped with the physical and sexual side. As Jessie’s ordeal stretches out and she begins to hallucinate, she recalls all those buried memories from her past, and how a childhood betrayal led her into a tendency to escape from her problems, submerge her emotions, and look for other people’s protection. Chained up with no way to escape her current problem, she comes to understand the unhelpful ways she’s escaped her past problems, and she deals with both at once.
IS IT GOOD?
It’s a heightened, sometimes stagey take on a trashy exploitation movie, but it is captivating. Flanagan and Howard pull off something simple but brilliant: King has Jessie barraged by weirdly specific colorful internal characters, like her college friend Ruth and “Goody Burlingame,” a fairly literal representation of Jessie’s puritanical side. But the screenwriters decided to have Gerald and Jessie herself take on those inner-voice roles, conveying an internal conflict that appears logical rather than arbitrary and faintly comedic. Imaginary Gerald is to be seen as Jessie’s self-hatred, self-judgment, and fear. He’s an antagonistic force who mocks Jessie with her failures and repeatedly reminds her of the vulnerability of her situation and the ugliness of the death waiting for her. Imaginary Jessie, on the other hand, is a strong, beautiful, confident version of Jessie that has her back, but doesn’t have the power to just hand her solutions. She hints and nudges. She’s written as that bickering back-of-the-head voice that suggests something essential has been forgotten, or that it’s time to put two and two together.
The three-way conversations between these characters work phenomenally well. Setting up Jessie’s lifelong traumas as a true face-off between the external and internal aspects in her life is a clever, symbolic move that makes King’s internal voices shtick more resonant and convincing. And as a director, Flanagan uses the mobile characters’ physical interaction with Jessie and each other to give the staging an intensity and dynamism that’s hard to imagine in the book. He’s like a natural gifted theater director, figuring out how to make a talky one-set play visually captivating and energetic.
Gerald’s Game loosely bases on King’s novel, even though, for the twists and progressions that form the story’s shape, and for the kind of deeply unnerving, eerie moments that the author uses to fuse tension and anticipation into his stories. Flanagan and Howard approach King surprisingly close, straight to throwing in an oddball, self-indulgent crossover with King’s book Dolores Claiborne, a short Dark Tower reference that the poorly received film more or less stagey, and even added with a Cujo joke. While they scheme King’s formula to play better on-screen, they show respect to his story, which is a solid recipe for King-adapters in general. But the movie relies just as much on the actors. Greenwood is a joyful force of alternating solicitousness and spitefulness. His character is a despicable lawyer who’s used to charming people, but has a touch of palpable sneakiness up his sleeves, and Greenwood evokes both those levels of his personality without being obvious or showy about it. Similar to Imaginary Jessie, Gugino is vibrant and intense, and Flanagan has some powerful imagery out of the unceasingly remarkable gap between her and Real Jessie, who progressively gets more worn out and drained throughout the movie. But both versions of her are charming and sympathetic in different aspects.
All this said, Gerald’s Game does have its imperfections. Some, like the extended, voiceover-based endgame formula, come from King’s book. Others are built into the film, like the suspiciously theatrical lighting that makes Jessie’s prison/room seem like a stage setting, or the conscious artificiality of the entire story. The flashbacks to Jessie’s big secret are melodramatic and forced. Those sequences keep aggressively shoving the audience toward emotional responses that just don’t work with the content.
The film does the most crucial thing for a Gerald’s Game adaptation: it reflects the originality while bringing it precisely to the screen, and it provides audiences with both the character-rich, internal aspect of King’s work, and the startling, visceral respect. The movie never gets better than the low, malicious monologue Greenwood delivers about the approach of death. As much as Flanagan pushes to open up the Gerald’s Game outside the room where Jessie is trapped, the movie’s power comes from how well he pulls off what takes place in that room, and how the script and the actors come together to deliver the terrible inevitability in Jessie’s situation.