Stephen King film adaptations are all over the place lately, aren’t they? Things got off to a rough start this year with The Dark Tower but then Andy Muschietti’s It opened to positive reviews and became the highest grossing horror film of all time in just three weeks. Flying somewhat under the radar is Mike Flanagan’s (Absentia, Oculus, Hush, Ouija: Origin of Evil) adaptation of King’s 1992 novel Gerald’s Game, which turns out to be among the best of all Stephen King film adaptions. It’s a shame this won’t get to be seen in theaters, as a shared viewing experience makes Gerald’s Game even better, but the film should prove to be hugely successful for Netflix and earn some good word-of-mouth among its viewer base.
Gerald Burlingame (Bruce Greenwood) and his wife Jessie (Carla Gugino) travel to their remote cabin in the woods in a last-ditch effort to spice up their marriage. Gerald’s idea of spice is handcuffing her to the bed in order to fulfill a rape fantasy he has kept from her during their many years of marriage. Unfortunately for Jessie, Gerald has a heart attack and dies before the game can begin, leaving Jessie attached to the bed with no food or neighbors anywhere in sight. What follows is a journey into Jessie’s mind as she comes to terms with an unspeakable trauma from her past while trying to figure a way out of a rather unique situation.
Considered unfilmable by many a filmmaker, Gerald’s Game has been on Flanagan’s radar ever since he read the book when he was 19 years old. He is clearly passionate about the source material, and that passion translates on screen. The script, which was co-written by Flanagan and his longtime writing partner Jeff Howard (Oculus, Before I Wake), is surprisingly faithful to the source material and treats the more difficult subject matter with the appropriate amount of sensitivity without watering it down. The minor liberties taken by the script work in the film’s favor. For example, King’s novel takes place almost entirely within Jessie’s mind as she has conversations with the various voices in her head. Flanagan and Howard get rid of most of the voices from the novel, replacing them with Gerald and an alternate version of Jessie. It’s a smart move, as Greenwood would have little to do other than corpse around had they stuck to the novel.
Gugino delivers a career-defining performance as Jessie, exhibiting strength and vulnerability in a truly horrifying (and somewhat laughable) situation. Handcuffed to a bed for the majority of her screen time, she must convey a woman who has lost her mind while also coming to terms something from her past that she repressed long ago. It helps that Flanagan shot the film in sequence in order to make Jessie’s mental journey easier for Gugino (not that she needs any help, the woman is phenomenal). As mentioned above, Greenwood’s role gets beefed up from the novel, and the film is all the better for it. His Gerald (well, Jessie’s version of Gerald) is a compelling foil for Gugino and the two play off of each other well.
Viewers looking for a gritty horror film may find themselves disappointed with Gerald’s Game, which operates more as a psychological thriller (but let’s not get into a debate about what is and isn’t horror, shall we?). The horror present in the film comes in the form of Jessie’s trauma, both past and present, as well as a rabid dog and a nighttime visitor that may or may not be a figment of Jessie’s imagination. Gorehounds will find a lovely present for themselves during the film’s third act in a scene that rival’s the hobbling scene from Misery in terms of sheer grotesquerie. It is that scene that deserves to be seen with an audience, as the audible groans present in my screening were priceless. There are also a few macabre touches (Gerald licking a fly that has landed on his teeth) and references to King’s other works (they kept the Dolores Claiborne reference!) to reward attentive viewers.
While Gerald’s Game certainly ranks in the top tier of King adaptations, it is not perfect. What keeps the film from greatness is a lengthy exposition dump during its final minutes (readers of the book will know exactly what I’m referring to). This is where Flanagan’s and Howard’s faithfulness to King’s novel hinders the film, because it also suffers from the same flaw (the epilogue is a lengthy 50 pages of the 332-page novel).
There really is no way to adapt King’s ending of Gerald’s Game and make it feel natural unless you remove it entirely. Unfortunately doing so would rob Jessie (and viewers) of a key moment of catharsis that feels necessary after the harrowing events that came before. So, in the end, it becomes a matter of choosing the lesser of two evils: leave out the epilogue for the sake of quality but deprive audiences of a satisfying conclusion, or include the clunky epilogue and give your audience that sublime moment of catharsis? Flanagan and Howard choose the latter, and while it does hurt the film somewhat, it is ultimately the right decision.
Gerald’s Game is the best adaptation that could come from King’s seemingly unfilmable novel. Featuring a powerhouse performance from Gugino and solid directing from Flanagan, the film is not to be missed. With this and Hush, Flanagan has found a perfect home in Netflix, making the wait for his adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House all the more unbearable.
Gerald’s Game is currently available for streaming on Netflix.