‘GERALD’S GAME’ filmmakers advance Stephen King adaptation to next level
Preston Barta // Features Editor
Adapting Stephen King doesn’t always pan out. For every SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, STAND BY ME, and THE SHINING (though the renowned author would disagree), there’s a DREAMCATCHER or DARK TOWER that get in the way.
Fortunately, filmmakers this year have aimed small and missed small. While the poorly constructed DARK TOWER, starring Matthew McConaughey and Idris Elba, misread its fortune in King’s game of success, the new set of cards dealt with last month’s IT and this month’s Netflix original films should have fans in a frenzy.
Netflix premiered two films based on King’s works at Fantastic Fest this past week: 1922 and GERALD’S GAME. Both were well received at the Austin-based film festival, but audiences were most eager to play GERALD’S GAME.
Directed by Mike Flanagan (HUSH, OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL), GERALD’S GAME discovers the secret to unlocking King’s world by deepening the humanity within his narratives.
In the story, Jessie (Carla Gugino) is handcuffed to a bed by her husband Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) as a way to loosen their rather wooden marriage. It’s evident early on that Jessie is hiding some traumatic baggage in her closet. As horrifying as it is when her husband croaks mid-tryst, the act forces Jessie to fight off her demons in order to free herself from the cuffs that have her bound.
“A lot of the humanity in GERALD’S GAME is in the DNA of the book. [Screenwriter Jeff Howard and I] were fortunate in that so much amazing, very human material came out of the work King did,” Flanagan said during Fantastic Fest last week. “It’s not so much about how Jessie escapes her confined space and gets through a survival structure; it’s about how she lives her life beyond this point and moves forward when the past won’t let her go.”
Much of GERALD’S GAME hinges on the secret from Jessie’s past. Not to spoil too much of the mystery of the film, we discover that Jessie has repressed memories of her father (distressingly played by E.T.’s Henry Thomas) and how he violated her innocence and ability to grow. It’s a visceral element that’s difficult to get through, but is boldly portrayed and captured.
“[Thomas] has a daughter about the same age as Jessie during those flashback sequences. As you could imagine, it was emotional and incredibly intense for him,” Flanagan recalled. “As uncomfortable as that scene is, I hope it has an impact on people, but in a strengthening way.”
Flanagan and producer Trevor Macy, who’s worked on a few of Flanagan’s projects, described this devastating detail as the “beating heart of King’s book.” To take a moment so scary from Jessie’s past, all that vulnerability, fear and abuse, and mold it into strength is a testament to the filmmakers’ ability to capture the spirit of King’s story. They all so easily could have turned this into a standard feature about someone who tries to free themselves from a pair of handcuffs, but like Danny Boyle’s 127 HOURS, this is a story with more value.
“If you’re not scared of something in a movie like this, then why make it? If I ever get bored of making horror films or if I ever don’t feel scared when watching them, I’ll stop making them,” Macy said. “Our film BEFORE I WAKE (a title that’s been sitting on the shelf for two years and may not be released) is about the fear of losing a child. We both have children of our own. When we made that film they were all very little. I think for both of us in a lot of ways, it was an expression of very palpable fear. GERALD’S GAME is different, but still very real and scary.”
Throughout the film, we see Greenwood and Gugino also portray projections of Jessie’s cerebral landscape. Gerald awakes from his death to help and shake Jessie’s confidence, while an alternate version of Jessie appears to represent the calmer side of her character — a component that could have proven goofy in the hands of an incapable filmmaker.
“It’s a high-wire act to balance those elements,” Macy said. “Part of my job on set is to ask questions, like ‘Hey, is this going to be goofy?’ or ‘Is this going to be good?’ I’m the goofy police. So it’s important to get a range of performances and cast the characters well.”
“I credit [Gugino and Greenwood] with a lot of the success of that. To not sell that and make that the center of the story, the whole enterprise could have collapsed,” Flanagan added.
As the renewed wave of interest in King continues to attack the block, we can only hope that future filmmakers, talent and adaptations will be so congruous.
Stream GERALD’S GAME on Netflix today.