He Got Gamey

A quarter-century after its first publication, Stephen King’s Gerald’s Game has finally streamed its way onto Netflix. The film adaptation is no small feat, considering the challenges presented by the source material (with its inciting moment of a bondage game gone awry): protagonist Jessie Burlingame spends the bulk of the novel mostly naked and left handcuffed to the bedpost after a mule kick to her jackass husband’s crotch leads to the titular Gerald’s death by heart attack. Director Mike Flanagan deftly sidesteps issues of nudity and related sordidness by working details of a new negligee and a little blue pill into the plot, but he arguably drops the ball when attempting to execute a similar modifying maneuver.

I can appreciate that King’s novel–where Jessie is not only chained to the bed but locked up inside her own head–is fundamentally unfilmable without certain liberties being taken. Nevertheless, the movie’s decision to personify the voices in Jessie’s head as hallucinations proves problematical on several fronts. The almost darkly-comic note struck by these figures as they move around the bedroom somehow mutes the horror of Jessie’s solitary confinement. Streamlining eliminates the “Goodwife Burlingame” and “Ruth Neary” inner voices so prevalent in the novel, and the assertive/acerbic Jessie alter ego visualized in the film ends up lacking rationale. Most troubling of all is the reanimation of Gerald as recurring hallucination. While I did like that this allowed him to toss a couple of verbal Easter eggs (alluding to other King works), I soon found myself wishing that Bruce Greenwood’s character would just shut up and play dead already. Gerald spends too much film time posthumously dictating to his wife (for better or for worse), which seems to short circuit many of the feminist impulses of King’s novel.

Gerald’s lingering presence also eclipses another masculine antagonist; the film’s so-called “Moonlight Man” is both underutilized and misused. This dreadful apparition is drawn out of the shadows way too soon, missing a tremendous opportunity to develop extended psychological suspense. The Moonlight Man then haunts the film via a few nightmarish yet fleeting images that fail to capture the tormenting effect he has on the book version of Jessie. Also, in the adapted concluding scene in which Jessie confronts her monstrous voyeur, the film eschews the visceral (she spits right in his face in the book), opting for an expression of defiance that comes off as more trite than empowering.

Make no mistake, Carla Gugino gives a strong and believable performance as Jessie. Perhaps inevitably, though, the film lacks the immediacy, the intensity, of King’s novel.  As a viewer, I felt distanced, and (excepting the excruciating handcuff-escape scene) struggled to be be drawn into the experience of Jessie’s physical and mental ordeal. Flanagan (Oculus, Hush) is a fine director, but ultimately appears shackled here by the circumstances of King’s narrative. While it provides a few hours of solid entertainment, this version of Gerald’s Game isn’t destined to be called a classic.

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