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Gerald’s Game 2017

Gerald’s Game 2017

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Successfully adapting Stephen King is often a matter of knowing what to cut. It’s rare — perhaps unheard of — that the world’s most celebrated horror novelist gives a filmmaker too little to work with on the page. From the string of Universal Monster killings in It to, well, pretty much everything in the original adaptation of The Shining, so many King films work because the screenwriters are judicious about what to keep, what to scrap, and what to consolidate.

Given the premise of Gerald’s Game, screenwriters Jeff Howard and Mike Flanagan (who also directs) had a lot more room to expand if they wanted to when compared to the typical King novel. At a (relatively) slim 332 pages, the book takes place almost entirely in one setting: a lake-house bedroom where Jesse (Carla Gugino) is handcuffed to a bedpost. Her husband, Gerald (Bruce Greenwood), lies dead on the floor after a sex game gone horribly wrong.

 

Because of the simple location, small cast size, and short timeframe, the entire novel comes off like a bizarre chamber drama. The Tommyknockers this is not. As such, it poses a different set of challenges than usual to the filmmakers. Instead of figuring out how to portray some elaborate monster with a minimal budget (i.e. “How do we animate hedge animals?”), the questions focus more on story structure (i.e., “How do we stay in one room with one woman and make it interesting?”).

(Ranking: Every Stephen King Adaptation from Worst to Best)

As a director, Flanagan pulls off the narrative challenge by never forgetting that, for all its psychology, Gerald’s Game is still a visceral horror movie. So he wisely captures all of the outside forces tormenting Jesse — a hungry stray dog, a stranger in the house, her confinement and failed escape attempts — in gory detail. The terror of these elements comes from bluntness, rather than surrealism. The dog, for instance, simply strolls in and out of the bedroom, clicking its claws and making wet noises as it nonchalantly chows down on the dead Gerald’s arm. There’s no CGI leaping; no glowing eyes or overlong fangs.

The point of these tangible, more traditional horror movie elements (the wild animal, the serial killer, the tied-up protagonist) is that they reflect the more intangible demons inside Jesse’s head. Gerald’s Game is, by and large, a story about the shit women have to put up with when it comes to power dynamics involving men, whether in a job, marriage, father-daughter relationship, or anything involving sex. Gerald’s death is the result of Jesse protesting his bondage game — first growing uncomfortable with the handcuffs, then having to fight back against her husband when she realizes he’s actually trying to act out a rape fantasy. Their fight leads to a heated discussion about divorce, which leads to Gerald’s heart attack and him cracking open his head.