Stephen King is a writer who has a remarkable number of works that have been adapted for both the big and small screen. What’s less remarkable, unfortunately, is how many of them totally suck (See: Dreamcatcher, The Dark Tower (apparently, I haven’t seen it yet), the Under the Dome TV show, basically every TV miniseries, etc.), and also how many of them end up being good in their own right, but spectacularly flub a lot of the King in translation. The Shining is one of this writer’s all-time favorite films, but it’s hard to deny that Kubrick completely tore down King’s masterful, messy novel and rebuilt it in his own masterful, messy image. Misery gave us a sharp William Goldman screenplay and an iconic Kathy Bates performance, but it also unfortunately cut most of the meta-narrative element from the novel and thus sapped out a lot of its greater meaning. Something like 1408 was a serviceable time-waster, but it completely abandoned the Lovecraftian horror of the short story for something a lot more blandly pedestrian.
And then It came out earlier this month, and suddenly I saw a King adaptation that retained a lot of his spirit, if not so much his language and prose. It wasn’t flawless, and it made some sacrifices in the name of telling a more accessible, crowd-pleasing story, but it’s hard as hell to deny it wasn’t effective. I thought that was probably as good as it would ever get.
And then I sat down to watch director Mike Flanagan’s adaptation of King’s psychologically inclined suspense novel Gerald’s Game and suddenly, that thesis was blown out the window. I’m here to tell you that no other King adaptation I’ve ever seen has come this close at replicating the story, themes, feel and even look of one of his stories, exactly as I had imagined it in my mind’s eye.
Gerald’s Game, on the surface, tells a story that seemed unfilmable to most. A woman, Jessie Burlingame (Carla Gugino, in a fearless, committed performance that may be the best thing she’s ever done), and her husband Gerald (a wonderfully skeevy Bruce Greenwood, spitting King dialogue like a motherf*cker) go to a retreat at her family’s remote lake house, in an attempt to add some new dimensions and spice to their somewhat staid and flailing marriage. Gerald’s idea to add a new dimension and energy to their sex life is to handcuff Jessie to the bed, so he can live out a somewhat… twisted fantasy of his. Jessie initially seems open to it, until she decides it’s not working and wants to stop. Gerald insists on continuing, and Jessie attempts to fight him off. The ensuing struggle, for a variety of reasons, ends with Gerald dead, and leaves Jessie alone, handcuffed to a bed and in the middle of nowhere. From here, she must find out how to survive while confronting demons, both inside and out.
The novel spends a lot of time inside Jessie’s headspace, giving us a window into her psyche as she comes to grips with her situation. This seemed to make a cinematic adaptation nigh-impossible to achieve, but Flanagan found a way. He turned the voices in Jessie’s head into physical manifestations of her subconscious, represented by Jessie herself and her husband. He makes so much with so little physical space, utilizing flashbacks, dream sequences and dialogue to bring us into Jessie’s unexpectedly complex psyche, much as the novel did. What initially seems to be a grisly, skeevy potboiler (although it still does eventually build to something quite grisly, for those of you in the audience who are on the squeamish side) eventually reveals much deeper intentions, and without giving too much away, Gerald’s Game slowly evolves from a story of a dissolving marriage ending in disaster to a story of a woman surviving and then overcoming trauma, of her taking back her agency from… well, that might be a spoiler.
I must admit, I’ve been a fan of the novel since I read it years ago. I stayed up all night turning its pages, getting drawn deeper and deeper into the complex psychological web King was weaving. Like many of his novels, it suffers from numerous problems — it has deeply problematic elements that are reflective of King’s particular worldview, it’s sort of the apotheosis of King disappearing up his own ass into his characters’ head space, it starts incredibly strong but eventually ends in an overlong and labored denouement. That said, there was one passage that hit me deep, deep down in my bones. It brought out a certain kind of existential, universal horror, the kind any person who remembers their childhood, turning over in their bed at night and staring at the darkness of the closet, searching its shadows for the monster inside, can understand. I must admit, it’s the most frightened I’ve ever been while reading a book, my eyes immediately scanning the room around me for signs of anything unknown.
And here’s the thing: everything I described in that last paragraph is in the film. The slow draw into the heroine’s head, the problematic POV, the long, labored ending 1, and most shockingly, that moment of pure existential horror. I felt that incredible feeling of terror reading the book years ago in my bed. I felt that same terror, like the pang of an old wound, surface once again. And on top of all that, the film is really just spectacularly well-made and often lovely to look at, and anchored by career-best performances from Gugino and Greenwood. I had hoped that Gerald’s Game would be a reasonable facsimile of the novel I really enjoyed all those years ago. Instead, I’m here telling you that I really think Gerald’s Game is the best and most complete Stephen King adaptation ever made.
PS: Netflix. Please. Get Flanagan to direct all the Stephen King movies. Pretty please?