- A minor King work, yes, but an important and triumphant adaptation
by David Bain
5 out of 5 stars
Dennis and I are a bit late to the party on reviewing Mike Flanagan’s cinematic interpretation of Stephen King’s novel Gerald’s Game. But I’m going to use that to my advantage.
I’ll often stop people midsentence who try to sell me on a movie or book I haven’t seen or read. I feel a review should be my own interpretation, bereft of outside opinions. Just as I like to go into a novel knowing as little about it as possible about what to expect, I usually like to review a movie on its own terms, in a bubble, as if other reviews don’t exist.
Which makes adaptations from other media especially tricky, especially if I’ve read/listened to/watched/otherwise experienced the other version(s).
Do I follow Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic? Of course I do.
But I’ve far too often found that while the “general consensus” will sometimes attract me to a piece, too many presuppositions make one’s life stale.
Taking a deep, cleansing breath before the opening credits and entering a film with your mind receptive allows you a more full experience.
In the week or two before I actually watched Gerald’s Game on Netflix, I encountered countless reviews, mostly by fellow horror and dark fantastic writers on Facebook, which said either, “It sucked as a book and sucks as a movie,” or “Minor Stephen King novel equals minor Stephen King adaptation.”
Then I actually watched the movie for myself.
Here’s my main thought:
If the name “Stephen King” weren’t attached - and especially if the idea of “one of Stephen King’s lesser books” weren’t attached - this movie would be considered brave and ingenious.
As I was watching Gerald’s Game I found myself thinking, my God, this isn’t just a good movie, this is a great movie.
And this isn’t just a good Stephen King adaptation, this is a fucking great Stephen King adaptation!
And then I looked at Rotten tomatoes and saw 90 percent of critics liked it, while only seventy-some general viewers admired it.
Although it’s not unique, that’s still a fairly big disparity for RT.
I find myself wondering if the difference is there because the "professional" critics think more in the streamlined and episodic language of film, while the “audience” critics are more likely to have read the book or have the influence of literary circles and critics weighing over them.
King’s book is relatively slim, especially for the author of epics like The Stand, Under the Dome and the Dark Tower books. It’s basically a locked-room mystery with endless flashbacks and monologues. It’s definitely not King’s usual plot-heavy structure.
Here’s the thing. I really like the novel. I enjoy seeing novelists break out of their usual mode, and King is self-aware and well read enough that he can do so effectively. But there’s a lot of dislike, if not hate, out there for Gerald’s Game, the novel, and I think it’s not because it’s a bad novel, but because it’s totally off-brand for King.
All this is not necessarily to say I am The Great Open-minded Buddha of Film and Fictiondom, but I do think our expectations sometimes get the better of us.
I found this movie to be a good example of that.
Clear your mind.
Let’s talk about film stuff.
For starters, boy, that Mike Flanagan just keeps getting better.
I wasn’t much for Oculos or Ouija: Origin of Evil, but maybe that’s because I’ve become jaded with horror movies in general lately and my expectations are so low. (See my notes above.)
And then there was Hush, a great, stylistic closed-setting serial killer Netflix exclusive.
Moviemakers like small sets like this because it reduces production costs - but viewers like them because TENSION. Hush worked on both levels - and with practically no dialogue. No big casts or sweeping scenery to distract. It’s all (mad slasher) man vs. woman.
In contrast, Gerald’s Game is firmly in the woman vs. herself category. King has worked in this genre, and variations of it, ever since his first novel (and the first of his films to be adopted), Carrie. The Gerald’s Game novel is also something of a companion piece to King’s previously filmed Dolores Claiborne, and I was surprised Flanagan chose to keep the reference to a property he doesn't have film rights to.
It’s also to Flanagan’s credit that he’s championed a film which some would have considered mostly unfilmable - the premise, which I suddenly realize I haven’t even mentioned yet, is that Jessie, our protagonist, is chained to bedposts, having rather grimly played along as her husband tried to spice up and rekindle their marriage, when he suddenly had a heart attack and died.
Flanagan and Jeff Howard’s screenplay then has Jessie talk to her husband’s ghost and a dream version of herself to personify her inner monologue. This technique seems to have pulled a few critics out of the story, but I don’t see how. It’s good dialogue and utterly appropriate to to the situation. Did they really want just more shots of Jessie sitting there, chained to the bed, talking to herself? Did they want a voice over? I would love to have seen the excoriations of that movie!
Also, there are some complications involving dangerous intruders that stretch believability to a debatable margin - they worked for me because, hey, fiction. I’m all about dangerous intruders in fiction. My disbelief is fairly easy to suspend.
Although the novel was published way back in 1992, for me, the whole thing felt incredibly timely; the story can be seen as a metaphor for the way our society, and especially Hollywood, treats women - the power plays by dominant males, the way society tries to trap (handcuff) women into certain roles; the victim-blaming. And there’s also the matter of a certain childhood abuse Jessie suffered at the hands of her father. I’m glad Flanagan decided to pull no punches in this regard, as it serves to strengthen Jessie, the character - both in our eyes and in her own - and give her the idea for her eventual escape.
Another point: I’m not a big fan of the tinting of movies. The Lord of the Rings is forgiven because, hey, Fantasy. It’s another world. It’s different than ours. I get it. But superhero movies are set in our world. Our world on steroids, yes, but still our world. And yet the color tinting in Gerald’s Game works for me because of the eclipse which is central to Jessie’s childhood abuse story. You ever been in an eclipse, even a non-complete one? Colors get friggin’ weird, man! Plus the events of the eclipse “color” everything else in Jessie’s life. So yeah. Tint away, Flanagan!
And I’ll save the best for last. Carla friggin’ Gugino. Damn. We’d better start considering Netflix originals prominently at Oscar time is all I’m saying. For both roles she plays in this. Or, rather, for the many roles - the strong, the weak, the dominant, the submissive, the broken, the desperate victim, the fighter, the arisen champion.
Yes, Gerald’s Game is based on a minor work. But only if you consider the author in question’s overall oeuvre - and it’s a triumphant film, not only because of where it dares to go in terms of what it says about gender, but especially given its nominal genre, which it easily rises above.
I Can’t Sing This Movie’s Praises Enough
by C. Dennis Moore
I’d like to start by making a case for writer/director Mike Flanagan getting some friggin recognition as an amazing horror film maker. He’s been on a killer streak since his feature film debut a short SIX years ago with Absentia, which was creepy, original, and a total mindbender. Then there was Oculus in 2013, a movie about a HAUNTED MIRROR, and he made it work beyond my expectations. 2016 brought Hush in which a deaf woman battles a mysterious stranger deep in the woods, and he makes a movie with almost no spoken dialogue 100% engaging. I haven’t seen Before I Wake (also 2016), but that same year he made a THIRD movie, this time Ouija: Origin of Evil. I skipped this one in theaters because I thought the first movie was a total waste of time and money, but what a mistake that was. Flanagan took the idea of a sequel/prequel and completely eradicated the bad taste left by the first Ouija. The man is on a streak you rarely see in horror movies these days.
But when I heard someone was making a movie of Stephen King’s Gerald’s Game, I had a few first thoughts. WHY? That was one of my least favorite King novels. It’s about a woman handcuffed to a bed after her husband has a heart attack, the movie’ll be 25 minutes long. Amid all of those first thoughts, not a one of them was positive.
Maybe if I’d done the research and found out Mike Flanagan was writing and directing, because my God what a job he’s done on this story. King has long been considered the MASTER of modern horror, but this writer/director from Salem, MA has taken one of the “master’s” worst books and made it into one of the BEST King movie adaptations.
We follow Jessie (Carla Gugino) and Gerald Burlingame (Bruce Greenwood) on a getaway to their remote cabin where Gerald wants to engage in some sex games. He wants to start with the handcuffs. After shackling his wife to the bed, he’s ready to get down, but Jessie isn’t feeling the role play and she says no. After some heated back and forth, Gerald suffers a heart attack and dies on the bed. Jessie kicks him onto the floor, and then reality begins to set in.
She’s still handcuffed to the bed.
The next few days are a fight to survive a weekend without food or water, and no one will be by the house to check on them until after Jessie is dead, so she has to do something, and quick. Oh, and there’s also a stray dog that’s made its way into the house and begins to snack on Gerald. And thank God for that, because Jessie is in no position to fight it off herself.
And this was the movie I was expecting, 103 minutes of Carla Gugino handcuffed to a bed, talking to herself and trying to figure a way to get out of this situation. But Mike Flanagan is smarter than me and more capable of turning a less then impressive novel into a stunning piece of film. When Gerald gets up from the bed and when a healthy and bitter version of Jessie appears at the bedside, things get even more interesting than they already were.
And then the flashback comes with Henry Thomas as father to Chiara Aurelia’s Young Jessie and my God what an impressive movie.
The performances are incredible, especially Gugino who practically carries this movie by herself, but Greenwood’s portrayal of the older and jaded Gerald Burlingame was a master class is RE-acting.
And the script. What a friggin script! The dialogue exchanges between Jessie and herself, and Jessie and dead Gerald had me cracking up one minute and with chills down my spine the next.
Say what you will about King adaptations, and I know some horror fans are not Flanagan fans, but I don’t get that at all, because he took what had all the potential of being in the top three most pointless King movies in history and turned it into, hands down, one of the best ever. I was a fan after Absentia and Oculus, but if this is the direction he’s heading, I’m all in for whatever he wants to do next. Because Gerald’s Game isn’t just a great King adaptation (it’s not too hard to be great among such a hit and miss list), but it’s just a great movie period, well-made, beautifully-shot, and Gugino is not getting the credit she deserves as an actress, simple as that.
I went into this movie hoping for the best, but knowing I did not like the source material at all, and I came out a changed fan. Still don’t think the book is any big deal, but if THIS is what it’s possible to do with this story, hell yes, Mike Flanagan. Do LISEY’S STORY next; I struggled to get through that book in a month, but I’d love to see his take.
Gerald’s Game is currently streaming on Netflix.