There’s never been a moment during my entire life when there wasn’t a glut of Stephen King adaptations out there. For decades now, we’ve seen hundreds of film, television, audio dramas, and more all based on what seems like his never-ending supply of short stories and novels. This year has been especially fruitful as high-profile adaptations of IT, The Mist, and Mr. Mercedes have led the charge, to varying success. It’s a shame the film version of King’s magnum opus, The Dark Tower, was such an ill-treated turd, but that’s nothing a good television series can’t fix.
That said, it’s remarkable to see people calling 2017 “the year of Stephen King”. We’ve heard that before, and probably will again. Considering the blockbuster response to IT, I’ve not sure we’ve even reached peak King yet. Gerald’s Game is the latest such adaptation, and one of the best in years.
His 1992 novel was once thought unfilmable, and perhaps at the time this was true. But given the more open (and far less restrictive) nature of streaming platforms like Netflix, director Mike Flanagan (Ouija: Origin of Evil) and co-writer Jeff Howard prove how effective King’s more notorious work can be when no longer shackled to the unrealistic expectations of mainstream appeal.
The film focuses on Jessie Burlingame (an outstanding Carla Gugino, who’s never been better) and Bruce Greenwood as the titular Gerald, a married couple whose intimacy has seen better days. All is not well in wonderland, and we join the couple as they decide to vacation at their isolated lake house deep in the backwoods of Maine, hoping to spice up their lagging sex life with that most reliable of aphrodisiacs: kink.
Gerald handcuffs his wife to the bedposts, popping a ‘little blue pill’ to help get their sexual adventure started. His advances soon turn a little too rough for Jessie, and she refuses, deciding violent bondage and Gerald’s “daddy” role aren’t working for her, pleading with him to stop. Protesting mid-sentence, Gerald suffers a massive heart attack and collapses onto Jessie, stone-cold dead. Alone and manacled to the bedposts, a stray dog that she’d been kind to earlier smells fresh meat, entering the cabin to dine on Gerald’s flesh.
Not only is Jessie left completely vulnerable, but facing a painful death by dehydration and malnutrition if not rescued. To make matters worse, her mind begins playing tricks on her as Gerald “awakens” only to taunt her mercilessly with insensitive rambles decrying her helplessness. It’s not long before Jessie’s own persona manifests itself as well, further blurring the lines between reality and possible insanity. Just what is real and what’s dissociative will play key roles as Jessie’s survival depends on them. But this deep in the woods, who could possibly hear her scream?
For a movie ostensibly about sex, Gerald’s Game is largely sexless, but King fans knew that already. Instead of a tawdry erotica about handcuffs and sexual proclivities we’re treated to a surprisingly effective psychological thriller that works on multiple levels. Fans of the novel may take issue with some of the slight alterations in this adaptation, such as less nudity and subtle changes to the sexual dynamics of Jessie and Gerald’s S&M fantasy play. I’ve read criticism that takes issue with the ‘lessening’ of Jessie’s involvement for Gerald’s demise, now caused by a bad reaction to Viagra, and the apparent “Mary Sueing” of her situation.
I disagree; King’s book was never about participation but acceptance and survival, and this is evident during Jessie’s current situation, as well as her unfortunate childhood trauma. That any change to her ‘involvement’ in Gerald’s sexual therapy – and outcome – might be read as devaluing is confuse its setup.
This re-purposing gives the film the texture of a character-driven stage play, and it works. Truth to be told, the best King adaptations are those that skillfully tinker and play with the original formula, tailoring the material for the medium and its audience. Mike Flanagan directs with unusual assuredness, using the most singular locale of the cabin’s claustrophobic bedroom to great effect. What he’s proving here is that format matters, especially when attempting to navigate the tricky waters of adult content.
Given the original book’s pedigree, it’s hardly surprising that Gerald’s Game is so evocative of a similar King masterpiece, Misery (both book and Rob Reiner’s film). Fair warning to the squeamish; the film’s signature gross-out scene involves an especially gruesome “degloving” escape maneuver that’s destined to rival Misery’s equally nauseating “clubbing” one.
It’s largely Carla Gugino’s show as she assumes multiple roles of Jessie’s persona as the bedridden survivor of intense childhood sexual abuse. Bruce Greenwood, looking impossibly fit for a man of his age, is equally effective as the alive/dead husband whose constant presence and dour monologues serving as both consternation and rallying point while Jessie is at her most vulnerable. Just what is his connection to her past, or to the ghoulish apparition he calls “The Moonlight Man” appearing with his grotesque bag of trinkets?
While Gerald’s Game is largely a two-person show between Gugino and Greenwood, credit must go to those characters appearing during flashbacks, including Chiara Aurelia as a young Jessie and an especially disturbing performance by Henry Thomas (yes, that Henry Thomas) as her psychologically and sexually abusive father.
Gerald’s Game is a film that understands the real attraction between sexual submission and dominance has less to do with self-gratification but surrendering to the moment, allowing uncontrollable events to overtake one’s inhibitions. To render oneself powerless is one way to progress; to overcome and thrive against them quite another. That it skillfully takes material that could have, superficially, been seen as misogynistic exploitation and instead offers viewers a deeply effective exercise in the dynamics of abuse and acceptance is a minor miracle in itself.