Gerald's Game (2017)

I have been a huge fan of Stephen King ever since I was a kid.  I can't remember what I read by him first; it might have been Pet Sematary or Skeleton Crew.  Whichever it was it had me hooked.  I remember staying up to the wee hours of the morning reading It, taking Misery with me when visiting the Soviet Union and even signing up for the Stephen King Library and sticking with them, despite their reluctance to join the 21st century, until they finally stopped sending out his new books.

While he has written what I would argue, from an academic rather than an emotional standpoint, a number of books the justify him being included in the pantheon of the greatest American writers, he has also written a lot of books that were released just because he is Stephen King.  At some point publishers and editors seemed to have forgotten that they can actually say "no" to him and the world will not come to a screeching halt.  One of those books that I thought should not have seen the light of day was Gerald's Game, which was always strange to me as the companion novel, Dolores Claiborne, was one of the best books he had ever written.

Many others agreed on Dolores Claiborne and it received the inevitable movie adaptation in 1995, directed by Taylor Hackford and starring Kathy Bates.  Despite having to work around some of the more difficult material in the novel the movie version turned out to be pretty good.  Like most adaptations of his work it stuck with the story, removing references to any other King novels and skipping over some of the stranger subplots.  One big reference was the only one that tied the books together - Jessie, from this story, and Dolores seeing each other through some strange wormhole connection during the eclipse, at a time when both their lives are changed.  It was left out, along with any Dark Tower references that might have been there; it's been 30 years since I read it, and I don't particularly remember any in either book, although the movie for Gerald's Game tosses one in.  

I realize more now why I didn't like Gerald's Game, beyond the fact that it's not the best written of his novels.  It's one of those plots that appears built from a single idea and twisted until it becomes a story.  Dolores Claiborne is an organic story, while Gerald's Game is a conceit.  Everything is contrived to put Jessie in the situation she is, and everything must work like clockwork for the plot to even work itself out.  She must be put in a situation where she is helpless, the titular Gerald must die at that time, and everything she needs to escape must somehow find its way to be in her reach.  Somewhere, in a story that involves largely one person, a dog, a corpse and a strange home invader, something interesting must occur.  To give the novel its due, there is a secondary narrative, largely in Jessie's mind, and I realized when watching the movie that this is where my memories of them come from.  It is just that Dolores Claiborne handled many of those scenes, many parallels to Jessie's life, better.

I have talked at length about the novel to really get around to the point about why, when this and 1922 came out, I was more interested in seeing the latter.  It was one his more recent novellas that I had enjoyed even if it owed a huge debt to "The Tell-Tale Heart", and the Netflix adaption did it justice.  I ignored Gerald's Game just simply because I didn't like the novel.  I finally decided to give it a watch and found out that I should have given it a chance much sooner.  I forgot that it was directed by Mike Flanagan, who two years later would adapt another King novel, Doctor Sleep, for film, and even manage to satisfactorily reconcile it with Stanley Kubrick's movie version of The Shining.  Even though I believe Flanagan has stated he doesn't really have any plans to continued adapting King novels, he is probably one of the most successful at it since Frank Darabont.  And, like Darabont, he's managed to do something that is quite difficult to do: make a movie of a Stephen King story that is better than the book.  Darabont did that with Needful Things, and Flanagan manages to do so with Gerald's Game. 

Part of the success lies in the casting.  I never found Jessie that memorable of a character, so any actress that could bring life to her has already improved the situation.  Carla Gugino does so, playing both Jessie and her stronger, survival-oriented alter-ego.  Since Gerald was supposed to be significantly older than Jessie, whoever was doing the casting decided to buck the usual Hollywood trend and actually cast someone who was older by more than a few months.  In this case, there is a 17-year gap between Gugino and Bruce Greenwood.  Carel Struycken plays the one major horror element (other than a stray dog) in the movie, as a sort of ghoul that may or may not be real, and the other key parts are Henry Thomas as Jessie's dad Tom in flashbacks and Chiara Aurelia playing Jessie at age 12.  Everyone does a great job in this, and there are two scenes in here that stay in line with the book, but are definitely hard to watch and probably would not have made it to the screen if this was a theatrical release.

Jessie and Gerald go to a remote lakeside house to spend some alone time and spice things up in their dwindling marriage.  Problem is Gerald wants things a bit too spicy and decides to spring a fantasy on her without warning which triggers memories from childhood.  In the middle of an argument in which it seems Gerald just try to make his fantasy reality he suffers from a heart attack and dies, leaving Jessie handcuffed to the bed.  Since they're not something purchased at an adult store, but rather actual shackles, she is suddenly stuck on the bed, without food and water, and seemingly without hope for escape.  Since the front door was left open, it gives ingress to a stray dog that sees an easy meal in Gerald's body.  There is also someone that Jessie names the Moonlight Man, whom she is not quite sure is real, but is sure may be quite dangerous.

A good portion of the movie is a strong version of Jessie and the a ghost version of Gerald arguing and giving advice and clues on how to survive, while Jessie also confronts unpleasant memories from her childhood.  The only real weakness in the movie is that, in attempt to try to do the film as close to the book as possible, Flanagan kept largely the same ending.  Stephen King is not great at ending his tales, and even more so on film it comes across as contrived.  The rest of the story, though, works better on film because the whole idea works better as a stage or screen play with a limited cast than it does as a novel.  Plot elements that seem unnatural often do not stand out as much in a visual medium, at least not for the general audience that views the movie for the story rather than as a project to pick apart.  Also, while the characters in the book rarely deviate from being puzzle pieces, in this case the cast, with the help of Flanagan, makes them more than two-dimensional caricatures.

One big surprise is that, in Flanagan's attempts to stay faithful (although compromises had to be made to set this in the 2010s instead of the 1990s), he includes parts that one would think he wouldn't.  He doesn't show the chance vision of Dolores during the eclipse, but Jessie describes it when talking to her mind's version of Gerald.  It's not blatant, but it's there, as are some other references that were and were not in the novel, but serve to connect this with King's universe instead of removing itself from it like most of the movies based on his work do.  

While I have no plans to ever revisit the novel, despite the fact it still remains gathering dust on one of my bookshelves, I have to say that Flanagan's version is probably more what King hoped his book would be.  It is not a comfortable watch, and Flanagan could have used some artistic license to slap on a better ending, but what we get is still an improvement as well as a nicely acted, paced and effectively made thriller.  

Gerald's Game (2017)
Time: 103 minutes
Starring: Carla Gugino, Bruce Greenwood, Henry Thomas, Chiara Aurelia, Carel Struycken
Director: Mike Flanagan



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