Of all of Stephen King’s novels, GERALD’S GAME has to be at or near the top of the list in terms of difficulty to adapt. Not only does it double down on the (largely) single room location of MISERY, it has only one character for a majority of the film, existing entirely within her point of view and internal thoughts. When the film was first announced, I had trouble imagining how co-writer/director Mike Flanagan could possibly adapt it. But given Flanagan’s track record, I should have given him the benefit of the doubt because he has taken difficult source material and turned in one of the best King adaptations of recent years.
The set up is so simple, that it barely needs to be recounted. But for those who have not read the novel…
Jessie (Carla Gugino) and Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) are a wealthy, but unhappy couple who take a weekend trip to their lake house in an attempt to spice up their sex life, with the hope that it might save their marriage. When Gerald decides to do some role-playing that involves handcuffing Jessie’s hands to the bedposts, things start to go wrong. Jessie stops the game because it turns her off and Gerald—sexually frustrated and jacked up on Viagra—suffers a fatal heart attack, leaving Jessie handcuffed to the bed. With no reason for anyone to check on them for several days, Jessie realizes that she could realistically die of dehydration before being found.
Flanagan does two very smart things. The first is that he fractures Jessie’s sanity enough to allow her to have long conversations with her mind’s interpretation of Gerald (You didn’t think they cast Bruce Greenwood to only use him for ten minutes, did you?) and a pragmatic survivalist version of herself. Allowing Jessie other characters to interact with instead of resorting to voiceover or talking out loud to herself keeps the film moving at a quicker pace and avoids the possible cheesiness that could result from such a novel premise. The other smart thing is that Flanagan opens the film up with flashbacks to Jessie as a young girl, searching for clues in her subconscious that might help her get out of her current plight and deal with psychic wounds of her childhood at the same time.
While Flanagan does keep the pace of the film flowing nicely, this is largely Gugino’s show (with some nicely understated work from Greenwood), as she carries the proceedings with a tough, brave performance that swings from vulnerability to abject terror to steely resolve. Even more impressively, she pulls off what feels like a very physical performance while literally handcuffed to a bed. If nothing else, GERALD’S GAME deserves all the credit in the world for providing such a showcase for an actor like Gugino who has been consistently under-used throughout her career.
There are slight missteps as Flanagan tries to bring across a possible thief character from King’s novel that is largely unnecessary in the adaptation. That character leads to a longer than is needed epilogue that does resort to explanatory voiceover. But aside from that, Flanagan has turned in a tight film that delivers one of the most gruesome set pieces in a mainstream horror film in years.
The combination of high-concept suspense/horror and solid character building with a satisfying arc for Jessie makes GERALD’S GAME not only one of the best Stephen King adaptations, but also one of the best recent mainstream American horror movies. Flanagan and Gugino should take a bow.