Ginger Nuts of Horror
Due to the recent cinema releases of The Dark Tower and IT, along with the BFI showing a season of King movies to celebrate his 70th birthday, I saw five movies based on King’s work at the cinema in the month of September. So, here’s a mini-series of trip reports - nothing so grand as reviews - based on my month of King Cinema. Severe spoilers for both the movies under discussion and the source books abound, so be warned. Enjoy.
So I’d planned to be done with this miniseries of reviews following my viewing of The Mist at the BFI. The whole point was about experiencing King movies at the cinema, after all, and the next time I’m likely to be doing that will be when chapter two of IT comes out sometime in 2019.
But those sneaky gits at Netflix had other ideas. Ideas involving a platform exclusive adaptation of King’s 1992 thriller Gerald’s Game.
Resistance proved futile. So here we are.
I want to start by recapping the premise of the story, because I still think it’s one of King's best and most batshit ideas ever: A married couple, to ‘rekindle the spark’, go to a holiday home in the middle of nowhere for some kinkyfuntimes. Specifically the use of handcuffs - not toy sex game handcuffs, but real, industrial ones. Gerald is waaaaaay into this, Mrs. Gerald (the POV character) increasingly not so much, especially once cuffed to the very sturdy bed.
At which point Gerald has a gigantic heart attack and drops dead. Leaving Jessie Burlingame (Mrs. Gerald) handcuffed very securely to a very solid double bed in the middle of nowhere with nobody coming.
I mention this because, as an amateur, aspiring storyteller, this is exactly the kid of idea I’d run a mile from. I mean, it’s obviously genius, but it’s equally obviously impossible. Perhaps not since The Long Walk has a premise for a novel struck me as being as simultaneously brilliant and preposterous as this. How on earth do you take that premise and make a remotely functional novel out of it?
And the inevitable answer is, of course, ‘be Stephen King good’.
I mention this because although I haven’t read Gerald’s Game since the 90’s, from memory this film is a pretty faithful adaptation of that book, albeit one that understands how to make the premise work as a movie. So where, in the book, Jessie has long conversations with herself and her dead husband in her head, in the movie those conversations are played out with the actors - Bruce Greenwood does an exceptional job playing Jessie’s mind-version of her husband, and Carla Gugino is amazing as both versions of Jessie - the one chained to the bed, and the projection of herself that is trying, desperately, to help her escape.
Large sections of the story also take place in the past, as Jessie’s suppressed memories of childhood abuse begin to surface. At first, this appears to be happening simply as a result of her trauma, but as the narrative unfolds, it becomes clear that fully remembering her past is the only way for her to escape her present predicament. It’s the kind of fluid storytelling that leaves me in despair, honestly; how is it possible that a writer who doesn’t plot in advance can tell a tale that hangs together this well, that feels meticulously constructed?
I realise I’m talking a lot about the book, here. That’s because the film captures the essence of the book so well; not by simple slavish devotion, but by understanding how to translate the book effectively to screen. It’s a masterful piece of work, from acting to camera work to effects (the eclipse sequence is stunning, and the big gore moment in the finale is grit-your-teeth visceral). There’s also a tie-in moment with Dolores Claiborne which I was surprised but pleased to see included, and a couple of other King references/easter eggs which will have been fun for hardcore fans but shouldn’t distract a casual viewer.
Gerald’s Game is a dark tale - in some ways, given the subject matter, one of King’s darkest, both in terms of Jessie’s immediate circumstances and her back story. The film doesn’t shy away from that darkness, which makes it uncomfortable to watch on a number of levels. The depictions of child abuse are sensitively handled, but no less skin crawling for that, so viewers especially affected by that kind of content should certainly go in forewarned.
That said, at the moment, reasonably fresh for a first viewing, I’d say this adaptation of Gerald’s Game ranks up there with the best of King screen adaptations, for me. And in a climate where Harvey Weinstein and the #metoo juggernaut are forcing a long overdue conversation about male sexual entitlement, predatory behaviour, and rape culture, a retelling of this (among other things) feminist story about coercion and consent, ‘blurred lines’ that are anything but, and the lasting damage abuse can cause to even apparently healthy and well adjusted survivors, feels incredibly relevant (and indeed eerily prescient, given the production schedule).
And then you remember it was based on an early 90’s novel, that itself built off conversations that have been raging ever since the 60’s (and whispered about long before that), and one is left with the uncomfortable understanding that many of us have always known this was how the world was, and were yelling loudly about it to anyone who would listen.
It’s terrible and enraging that it’s taken this long for the dam - maybe - to break. It’s also heartening to see it happen, finally. I hope that the many painful and necessary conversations that are happening right now do represent a step change in how we choose to treat each other, going forward.
And I’m grateful, too, that there is brilliant, uncomfortable art like Gerald’s Game that can help form part of the conversation.