Gerald’s Game was the best screen adaptation of a Stephen King novel I have seen in a long time.
King’s work is enjoying something of a renaissance right now, but with mixed results. I’ve spoken elsewhere about the problems with adapting IT, King’s cosmic horror doorstop. It was a great scary movie, anachronistically riding in on a wave of 80s nostalgia like Stranger Things, which IT helped to inspire. (Time is flat circle.) But it wasn’t a great adaptation. It fumbled some of the best things about the book, making itself a small and pale imitation of one of the scariest things most of us will ever read.
The Dark Tower failed in the same way, but where IT only fumbles, Dark Tower runs head-first into a goal post and cracks its skull open so that we can all confirm that the film does, indeed, have a bunch of dryer lint where its brains ought to be. IT and Dark Tower are attempts to adapt King at his weirdest: weaving a cosmology out of strangeness and epic fantasy to engender wonder and horror on a religious scale. The former wasn’t great, but the latter was inexcusable. The film adaptation of King’s greatest work (fight me) has no cohesion. Our hero, Roland Deschain (Idris Elba) is oblivious to the series’ titular grail-like goal: the Tower. Our villain, Flagg (Matthew McConaughey) makes various cameos while clearly in the midst of filming a men’s fragrance ad in some other timeline.
The movie was a fucking trainwreck. (I’ll probably yell more about this later.)
It was with these two things fresh in my mind that I came to watch Gerald’s Game on Netflix. I’ve been reading Stephen King my whole life, and suffering through adaptations ranging from the brilliant (Misery, Shawshank Redemption, Apt Pupil, Carrie) to the absurd (Maximum Overdrive, Children of the Corn, Thinner, Cell). Since Gerald’s Game was straight-to-streaming and my weary Wikipedia search told me with was written and directed by men, I kept my expectations low.
I needn’t have. Gerald’s Game is brilliant.
- It’s a faithful adaptation. It didn’t have to be; some of the best works based on King’s books have departed for the good of the fim (hello Stanley Kubrick!). But Gerald’s Game stays close to the source material, taking what is best in it and playing up the central visual oddity of the text: a total solar eclipse.
- It focuses on the relationships between the characters. Gerald’s Game is a very tight story: there are only two people in it. Most of the story takes place in Jessie Burlingame’s mind as she fights to free herself from a set of handcuffs holding her to a four-poster bed in the middle of nowhere. This limit makes it absolutely crucial that we know who she is, who put her here, and why she lets herself be put in danger. That’s all in the relationships. The script shows us Jessie’s hesitancy to advocate for herself, her husband’s insidious bullying, and his parallel in memories of Jessie’s father.
- Jessie’s experience is kept central to the plot. It would be easy to objectify her: she’s literally a woman who’s been bound to a bed for sex. However, the film stays remarkably free of the Male Gaze™, showing dehydration and cramps and struggling to get a drink of water as ugly and animalistic and unsexy. It gives a brilliant Carla Gugino the space to do an incredible, nuanced job as a person under terrible stress and in mortal danger.
- Gerald’s Game features a King-style monster; a late addition to Jessie’s already desperate plight. However, this villain is secondary or perhaps even tertiary to the protagonist’s experience, and the film doesn’t attempt to rearrange the order set by the book in the first place. Jessie is facing death primarily because her husband was a terrible person and her father conditioned her to accept terrible treatment. The (SPOILER ALERT) serial killer who creeps into her bedroom to menace her in her vulnerable state isn’t really the bad guy. It must have been tempting for the filmmakers to try to raise the stakes by altering the fundamental conflict of the story. They resisted.
- Similarly, it would have been easy and no doubt seductive to bring some kind of rescuer to Jessie’s aid. This has happened to so many female protagonists of late; removing them from power to Princess Peach them into danger so that they can be saved by a man. Jessie rescues herself, and it’s filmed unflinchingly despite the fact that she (SPOILER AGAIN) frees herself by partially degloving her right hand and using her own blood as lubricant to escape the cuffs.
- The resolution of the film puts the emphasis in the right place: within the protagonist’s mind. Jessie realizes fairly early that she’s trapped in a metaphor: the bonds that hold her in this bed are a symbol for the way her father’s sexual abuse limited and controlled her throughout her whole life. Escaping the bed is incidental; escaping the prison within is the real work. The climax of the film sees her overcome her fear and conditioning to reach freedom, rather than focusing on anything so petty as revenge.
In the end, Gerald’s Game is a powerful film about what it means to survive abuse and trauma and truly move on. Jessie reclaims herself, her truth, and her power.
So what’s the difference between the King adaptations that work and the ones that make us want to gouge out our own eyes with a grapefruit spoon? Here’s my theory: his tighter stories are just much easier to tell. It’s simple for a screenwriter and a director to discern what matters in a story where a woman is handcuffed to a bed; it’s a story of survival in more ways than one. Big, complicated universes like the ones in IT or The Dark Tower are difficult to translate.
They’re not impossible, however. The kind of storytelling they require involve the kind of efforts that are rarely lavished on works of horror, despite their effectiveness in other genres. Cosmic horror needs the same level of artistry in adaptation as works like Lord of the Rings or American Gods; efforts that undertake to create a whole universe at the same time as attempting to tell a story inside it. It can be done, but horror has an inextricable link in audience’s minds to schlock filmmaking and bad acting and poor production values. The recent failures in the King film renaissance are the casualties of that prejudice that says that horror films cannot be great.
Luckily, that tide is turning. Recent beautiful additions to the horror canon like The Witch and Get Out are helping to establish a new aesthetic within the genre: horror films with art-house looks and socially conscious, tight writing.
Gerald’s Game deserves a mention on that list, as well. If you haven’t seen it, it’s on Netflix now. It’s that rarest of things: an adaptation that is just as good as the book.