It’s a hell of a year for Stephen King fans. We’ve seen not one, not two, but three supposedly unfilmable Stephen King movies released: The Dark Tower, It and Gerald’s Game. And, remarkably, only The Dark Tower has proven to have earned that unfilmable reputation.
The trick to nailing a Stephen King adaptation is to create multi-faceted, interesting characters. That is the horror author’s greatest strength. The scary stuff only works because you care about these fictional people. They feel real to you. When I read It at an admittedly way too young age, I viewed every member of The Losers Club as my friend. The recent film adaption takes many liberties, but man does it perfectly capture those characters.
And now, two new Stephen King adaptations, Gerald’s Game and 1922 (both of which were produced by Netflix) continue this trend. King, despite his reputation as a horror writer, is all about character. Welcome to the Stephen King Movie Renaissance – not even The Dark Tower can mute the success of these other adaptations.
It’s About Character, Damn It!
All the best King movies have iconic, fleshed out characters. Carrie, The Shining (yes, I’ll stand against King himself on the merits of that adaptation), The Dead Zone, Stand By Me, The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, The Mist, Misery and Dolores Claiborne all jump to mind.
The Dark Tower failed on many levels, but the topmost reason it did not work as an adaptation is that couldn’t translate King’s richest, most well-developed characters to anything but broad caricatures on screen. Sure, the story was too weird for modern audiences, but the big secret is that even the most average movie-goer will roll with anything as long as they care about the characters up on the screen.
You can’t get any more convoluted and mythological than The Lord of the Rings, but when you give a crap about Frodo and his fellowship suddenly, you don’t blink an eye about a giant flame demon brandishing a fire whip.
Gerald’s Game, the Impossible Novel
Director and co-writer Mike Flanagan understood this and that’s why Gerald’s Game, a story that mostly takes place in a single location about a woman handcuffed to a bed with no one to talk to but herself, a wild dog and a creepy disfigured apparition that might or might not be a figment of her imagination, works so well.
It helps that Flanagan cast wonderful actors like Carla Gugino and Bruce Greenwood in the two biggest roles. Jessie Burlingame is a tough character. She has to be vulnerable, strong, helpless, determined, terrified and MacGuyver-smart all at the same time. Gugino expertly flips back and forth between panic attacks and a calm, realist approach to her rather unique and life-threatening situation in a way that feels so authentic that you instantly buy her as a real, complex character.
If you’re not familiar with the story, Jessie and her husband Gerald (Greenwood) go to a secluded lake house for a romantic excursion. Their relationship has grown stale and their love life is in jeopardy, so they decide to spice things up with a little minor bondage. Gerald takes things a little too far, then drops dead of a heart attack, leaving his poor wife handcuffed to the bed in a remote house with no possibility of rescue.
Flanagan and his co-writer Jeff Howard found a rather interesting way to keep a story that takes place largely inside the mind of a character that can’t really move visually interesting, which is no small feat in and of itself. Instead of the voices in Jessie’s mind being disembodied, Flanagan gives them human form. When she projects the insecurities she associates with her husband, it is Bruce Greenwood pacing around the room engaging her in conversation. When she’s having a weak moment, her strong inner voice is Jessie herself, free of the cuffs, healthy and filled with encouraged determination.
Combine that with a quick pace, a dynamic visual style and some career-best performances and suddenly this impossible-to-adapt story seems very possible. It just took a studio like Netflix to trust a smart, burgeoning genre filmmaker like Flanagan.
With the characters on-point, the only thing Flanagan had to make sure worked 100% was the subtext of the movie. On the surface, Gerald’s Game mostly resembles Misery, with its protagonist stuck in bed the whole the time, but it’s much more of a companion piece to Dolores Claiborne thematically. There are obvious parallels (both stories feature eclipses and sexual assault), but on a deeper level, both stories are about how buried secrets never stay buried. These secrets and rot you from the inside and have ripple effects that change your life without you being aware of it.
In Gerald’s Game, so much about Jessie’s determination to survive is rooted in her own healing. She has to face these secrets and if she does so, she’ll find the key to her salvation. Flanagan clearly knows this. He uses subtle visual imagery to signal this deeper meaning (keep an eye on the sky in the final shot) while not forgetting to make the movie a fun time.
The film isn’t perfect. The pacing is so quick that you don’t get the same sense of impending dread and doom for Jessie that you do in the book. That means the resolution seems a little unearned and anti-climactic and there’s a coda that so neatly wraps up everything up in such a dialogue-heavy way that it all comes across as lazy compared to what came before.
Despite that stumble at the end, I still found Gerald’s Game to be incredibly involving and squirm-inducing. There was one moment in particular that I am so glad I got to experience with an audience. That’s the one downside of Netflix making everything these days: you don’t get that communal experience of seeing something scary or funny or intense with an audience. Watching my entire row try to twist out of their seats during one particularly horrifying moment and hearing the wave of vocal reactions from the packed theater made this an experience far beyond what I could have gotten at home.
But Netflix has the money and the corporate will to finance things most studios will not, so they will continue to draw in interesting filmmakers wanting to make interesting projects. Quite frankly, it’s hard to imagine Gerald’s Game getting made anywhere else in 2017.
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