Warning: Mild SPOILERS for Gerald’s Game ahead
Stephen King’s novel, Gerald’s Game, is a gripping, intense thriller, told with a difference. For the majority of the story, Jessie is the only living character. The book starts with her and her husband, Gerald, arriving at their lake house for a weekend. The intentions are clear from the start, when Gerald handcuffs Jessie to the bed: this is a weekend intended to spice up their marriage. However, things quickly go awry, leaving Gerald dead on the floor and Jessie securely handcuffed and alone in the middle of nowhere. From there, the rest of the book revolves around Jessie listening to and talking with a variety of different voices as she works out a way to escape.
Given the narrative style of the book – which was widely deemed “unfilmable” – it was something of a surprise to learn that director Mike Flanagan (Oculus) was adapting Gerald’s Game for Netflix. Starring Carla Gugino as Jessie, opposite Bruce Greenwood as Gerald, the movie has made its debut on the streaming service and been met with positive reviews. While many would shy away from adapting something so tricky, Flanagan obviously saw the narrative as a challenge; he tackled it head on, and succeeded. Not only is Gerald’s Game a disturbingly good horror movie, it’s also an extremely faithful adaptation of the source material, so how did Flanagan do it?
Firstly, Flanagan made necessary changes. Perhaps the most major change is in the ‘voices’ that speak with Jessie. In the book, one is a young woman whom she nicknames Goody, one is her former therapist, and one is Jessie’s college roommate, Ruth. Jessie had cut off all contact with Ruth after she came close to telling her about the abuse she had suffered at the hands of her father. The near revelation scared her, so she stopped contact abruptly, though it becomes clear she still misses her. Occasionally we hear what Gerald would be saying in the situation. In the movie, however, Gerald is one of the main voices, while the other is Jessie herself – a more sane, rational, calm version than the woman who is handcuffed to the bed. Finally, the third voice belongs to young Jessie, the 12 year-old girl who suffered an awful incident of sexual abuse.
By reducing the number and variation of voices, Flanagan makes it much easier for the viewer to connect with Jessie and her thoughts. He also makes it clear that the conversations – particularly between adult Jessie and Gerald, are all taking place in her head. In the novel, though we don’t know Goody, Nora, or Ruth, it’s easy to distinguish that these are internal voices because of the italics. We don’t get that on screen, and so Flanagan made a wise choice in not introducing these extra characters and instead, using Jessie to assume all roles.
What is also touching, and exceptionally moving, is having the third voice be a young Jessie. The abuse scenario is relived in the movie exactly as it is in the book. It is disturbing, upsetting, and heartbreaking – perhaps even more so on screen. Having the young Jessie, who has had all of her innocence stolen, telling the older Jessie that she needs her to remember and confront her past in order to escape feels like a kick in the gut to the viewer. However, forcing herself to remember also makes Jessie realize exactly how to get out of the cuffs, and it’s a graphic, brutal moment that’s not for the faint of heart.
Almost all of the action takes place in the bedroom of the cabin. A bold, strong choice for Flanagan, since what works on paper won’t necessarily translate to screen. However, the strength of Gugino and Greenwood’s performances mean there is plenty of action to keep us all gripped. When not in the bedroom, we are at the lakeside house of Jessie’s childhood, awaiting a total solar eclipse. As the sky darkens, Flanagan uses color to emphasize the true horror of the scene unfolding before us, as Jessie’s dad (a strong performance from Henry Thomas) plays mind games with his young daughter and eventually gets his way. Oddly enough, despite it being a change of scenery, the flashbacks are far more claustrophobic than anything that takes place in the cabin.
It’s this touch of reality, of humanity, that makes Gerald’s Game so impactful. The horror Jessie experiences is both real, figurative, and imaginative – possibly. She’s not just escaping literal handcuffs; she’s escaping a whole life of entrapment. Flanagan has picked up on that in the novel, and made it a strong thread in his narrative. It works exceptionally well. Equally, he’s not scared of the more overt, jumpy horror aspects either. It’s sometimes hard to believe that Gerald’s Game is a work by King, but certain moments make you remember that it is so. Jessie’s escape is most certainly one, but so is the arrival of a nighttime visitor who may or may not be real. All of his appearances will give the viewer a shock, but one in particular uses a classic horror trope that frankly, could get tired. Since Flanagan only uses it once, and because Gerald’s Game is rooted in reality, it works.
Overall, Flanagan must be praised for accurately recreating most of King’s dialogue from the book, but scaling back the characters so that we can easily connect and feel for Jessie and her plight. The let down, however, comes in the ending, where being faithful to the book results in a long explanation of all that happened after that night. To be honest, it’s hard to see how Flanagan would have gotten around it; while King’s novel is a brilliant read the ending is drawn-out (52 pages long), and it’s not on a par with the rest of the book. The trouble is, readers, and now viewers, do want- and are owed- an explanation of many points. Flanagan has missed out what he could of this section, but even so, it’s clunky compared to the rest of the movie.
Gerald’s Game was never going to be an easy book to adapt into a movie. Most likely many have thought about it and dismissed the idea. Flanagan took it on, assembled a strong cast, did some necessary fine-tuning, and the result is to be applauded.
Gerald’s Game is streaming on Netflix now.
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