Quite how or why a Stephen King novel of any renown can go 25 years unadapted perhaps warrants an inquest of sorts, something I do not intend to explore today. And for Gerald’s Game, the film, one need only consider the inherent challenges posed by the narrative mode in the source material, and that the Dark Tower series simply commanded expedient priority and bigger attention. It was also best for all involved that an adaptation should not fall in the wrong hands. Luckily for those that give a shit, in Oculus‘ Mike Flanagan, the novel found itself a safe pair of hands to realize King’s vision.
What lent the novel its notoriety was a kinky sex game gone awry before King wrestles with his creative mettle to fill the remaining pages. That was the challenge he set for himself at least and simply a pretext for him to write a character talking to herself for a few hundred pages. Jessie and her husband Gerald—middle-aged, childless and drifting apart—go on a weekend retreat but all that gets t-boned prematurely when Gerald croaks due to a combination of excitement and a misdirected kick in the groin. Given that he’s imagined as a disgusting rotund slob, on top of being a lawyer, while she, the trophy wife, should be firmly out of his league, it paints their matrimonial end in the bedroom in the reader’s mind as cathartic, shocking and comical all in equal measure, and, most of all, timely, except for one minor caveat. Their long overdue amorous rekindling is staged in a lakeside cabin in the fall and begins with Jessie handcuffed to the bedposts when Gerald suddenly dies.
Being caught in a race against time, knowing no one will drop by unless it’s to identify their bodies, is enough reason to panic. Having two visitors in, say, a stray dog that finds Gerald’s carcass appetizing, and a tall, humanoid figure leaning out of the shadows at Jessie, ratchets the urgency beyond reason. In between the bouts of fright and fatigue, Jessie is also occupied by a third distraction; the past. I suppose there is an interesting parallel for so much time to pass between the book’s release and its screen adaptation to go along with Jessie’s confrontation of past traumas while confined and left to her mental devices. The ruminations are stacked on top of each other for both the story’s protagonist and any viewers who’d read the novel and anticipated a possible adaptation at some point. For Jessie, that episode all points back to a bench at the family lake-house during a solar eclipse, when, while alone with her father as a blossoming specimen, daddy decided he couldn’t resist the temptation. King delves into that memory with far greater detail than tastefulness allows.
In Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia, the title sequence features blown-up shots of a blood-soaked fabric. The eventual insinuation being evidence tampering by one protagonist, a seasoned big city detective. The fabric changes color as blood is dropped from a vial, in extreme close-up. In King’s novel, the pivotal episode for Jessie happens while sitting on her father’s lap to view the eclipse. I don’t recall much of the preamble except that her father gets aroused, shifts in his seat then starts rubbing his shit on hers as she’s too engrossed with the eclipse to interrupt. It was either that or she was too afraid to. It is when her father’s spunk seeps through several layers of fabric that she realizes what had happened. It is described in grotesque detail, playing out as if in synch with the orbital movements. And if shots could substitute paragraphs, such dramatic imagery from Nolan could have gone some way for Flanagan.
Flanagan, however, is no slouch, and in spite of his admission of the novel’s incompatibility with the medium of his chosen profession, he compensates without compromising (more on what he got wrong shortly). In the novel, interior monologues are slathered liberally to beef up a lean setting, a logical narrative mode for a story unfolding in one place and around one person confronted with physical and mental confinement. Physical duress gives way to the mental, which yields to emotional and psychological duress playing out in the inner voices in Jessie’s head. Taunting, encouraging, inspiring. Different voices for the different people who touched her in life in ways appropriate to her current ordeal. Flanagan scales that cast of characters to just two; a confident, composed version of herself along with a cynical Gerald. In the case of the two internal characters, the script rolls off their mouths in the cadence of a well-rehearsed stage play. When the three spar verbally, shit gets verbose and expository in a cacophony of perfect delivery. But as they don’t exist on the same physical plane, they can help only so far as guiding her thoughts without bringing within reach a glass of water or the keys to the handcuffs, two crucial props in her survival and escape.
For King and Flanagan, Jessie never walked out of the shadow of her eclipse, and she might never could until she broke from, both, her past and present shackles. This is much easier to glean from a 100-minute feature than a several-hundred-page voluminous text read years ago. In fact, Flanagan may have turned a tedious slog into something serviceable cinematically, hitting enough balls out of the ballpark to deem the adaptation worthwhile. Yet consider that both would never escape the charge of “men writing women,” should their offense be detected. Judging by the plaudits, neither was taken to task for broaching the loaded topic at the heart of the story. Carla Gugini’s effort will not be denied. But are we expected to dismiss Jessie’s motive behind marrying, and staying with, a man as different as night and day from her in terms of looks, wealth, and ambition as nothing other than a meal ticket simply because it is the PC thing to brush off gold digging? Flanagan could have brought the curtains down a few scenes earlier without gifting Jessie a hollow redemption or public closure. As for King, he ought to know when his creative process ends and to keep a lid on it.
Sometimes rowdy, sometimes pouty.