I’m just going to put this out there: Stephen King is a brave son-of-a-bitch for writing a novel where essentially everything takes place in the main character’s head. That takes guts, not to mention talent.
The novel I’m talking about is Gerald’s Game. It’s a story about Jessie Burlingame and her husband, Gerald, married for a long time and looking to spice things up in the bedroom. Well, Gerald is looking to spice things up, and let’s just say it ends up backfiring in a big way.
This New York Times review from the year the book came out took issue with the “heavy” themes of the book, namely sexual abuse and child molestation: “Did Stephen King take on these heavy themes to prove that he is a Real Writer, not just a horror writer? Was he trying to shift from writing good bad novels to writing good good novels, and ended up with a bad good novel? The two genres cancel each other out: the horror makes us distrust the serious theme, and the serious theme stops us from suspending our disbelief to savor the horror.”
Because the film version of Gerald’s Game is pretty similar to the novel, the same people who had a problem with the book will have a problem with the movie. In an interview with Thrillist, director Mike Flanagan revealed that he was obsessed with adapting Gerald’s Game, even though it’s pretty much “unfilmable”:
“…the crux of the story is her experience of trying to think her way out. And that’s so hard to convey cinematically. The book is arresting in that way. You are her, and it’s a very visceral and challenging experience to read. When I put it down I was breathless and I had goosebumps. I was like, “Goddamn, that’s one of the best, most immersive reading experiences I’ve ever had. And it’s unfilmable.”
As I mentioned, the two versions of Gerald’s Game are pretty similar. I did spot a couple of interesting differences though. In the book, Gerald is described as overweight, a heavy drinker, and a smoker. But in the movie, he is played by Bruce Greenwood who is definitely not overweight. In fact, I remember that when I first saw him half naked I thought, damn this guy looks good. Another difference is that in the book Jessie has more voices in her head, which means more characters to keep track of. The movie focuses on the most important ones and cuts out Ruth (college friend) and Nora (former psychiatrist), who both play a big part of the book.
Even with those minor differences, Flanagan’s film made Stephen King happy. In the same Thrillist interview as above he said:
“…this book in particular was always controversial. I know there are a lot of Stephen King fans who didn’t really know what to do with this book and I’m sure they won’t know what to do with the movie. But that’s fine. My goal with it was if I was happy with the movie, if Stephen was happy with the movie, and I felt like we honored the book, I expected the movie to be just as polarizing as the book was. I take that as a compliment.”
The main reason Gerald’s Game is polarizing is the ending. I think what bugs people about it is that it ties everything up in a neat little bow. It overexplains. It takes certain elements of Jessie’s struggle out of her head and into real life, which is never as interesting. Many would prefer that the story end when Jessie escapes, and some thought the creepy guy (who is the focus of the controversial ending) should have been cut out entirely.
That creepy guy is known as Space Cowboy in the book and Moonlight Man in the movie. When I read this passage introducing him in the book, I had to put the book down for a bit because I was so scared:
“Her eyes, which had been wandering aimlessly across the darkened room, locked on the far corner, where the wind-driven shadows of the pines danced wildly in the nacreous light falling through the skylight.
There was a man standing there.”
Both King and Flanagan could have left him as an unanswered question: Was he real or just in her head? I go back and forth on that one. In a way, I think the novel and movie are both more interesting when you know he was real. But on the other hand, how scary would it be if we never really found out for sure? I read one random review where someone called the last 10 minutes of the movie/50 pages of the book “lazy exposition”. Any Stephen King fan would laugh out loud at the term “lazy” to describe anything he’s ever done. I will say that the ending bothered me less in the book than it did in the movie. In the movie, Jessie doesn’t spit in the Moonlight Man’s face, as she does in the book. Instead, she says to him, “You’re so much smaller than I remember,” which seemed a little corny. After reading this post from Bloody Disgusting I can understand why Flanagan made the changes that he did, and why he ultimately decided to keep the ending pretty close to what King originally wrote:
“It was something when I read the book that I loved. I know it was polarizing with fans of the book, so the people that hated that epilogue in the book are going to hate it in the movie. I fully expect that [the epilogue is] going to be the lightning rod for people to be like ‘Oh I was so into it and then (groans) that ending.’ But that’s what happened in the book. There was never a time where it felt right to do the film without that ending, for better or worse.”
I preferred the book version of Gerald’s Game. Not just because Stephen King is an incredible writer, but because the torment that Jessie goes through in the novel becomes a really personal experience for the reader. Like Mike Flanagan said in the quote at the beginning of this post, you become Jessie while reading the book, far more so than when you’re watching everything play out in the film. But I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the movie version, seeing as Stephen King adaptations can be pretty hit and miss. If you can handle gore, the movie is fun to watch. The book will freak you out more, though. I mean, this is Stephen King, after all.