Mike Flanagan’s Gerald’s Game (2017) is, shot for shot, one of the most loyal Stephen King adaptations to hit the screen. The premise of the film and the novel (1992) is, for Stephen King, very simple. Jessie (Carla Gugino) and Gerald Burlingame (Bruce Greenwood) travel to their secluded lake house in an attempt to save their failing marriage. Gerald’s solution to their sexual stagnation is a pair of handcuffs. Jessie plays along with his game, witnesses her husband’s fatal heart attack, and finds herself alone. The terror of the story, like its protagonist, is confined. The book and the film are compelling, however, because the terror is not in the house or the ravenous dog feasting on Gerald’s decaying body. For Jessie, the fear is spawned by being bound and alone, with only the repressed terror of her past.
In Gerald’s Game, Stephen King crafts one of his most feminist novels. His original intention was to pair the story with Dolores Claiborne (1992) as they both take place at (the fictional) Dark Score Lake during a full solar eclipse. Unfortunately, the pairing never happened, but we did end up with two separate books that work well in establishing a purely feminine viewpoint within the Stephen King universe. In Gerald’s Game, Jessie Burlingame becomes our window into a world that has been darkened by broken trust and a darkened sun.
While the de-gloving scene is stomach turning, the most traumatizing moment of Gerald’s Game comes from the sexual assault of a daughter by a father. Throughout the novel, King makes a point of providing an insightful look into Jessie’s mind. We see her insecurities, her faults, and her guilt. The scene of sexual assault, while disturbing, is mired in these complicated emotions.
In the novel, Jessie has hidden her emotions for years because of her inability to accept her and her father’s role in the assault. Jessie blames herself for her father’s actions: she feels she tempted him, and she believes that she is at fault. Her excuse for never admitting the details of that day are that it would have broken up her family and that her mother would have blamed her. Jessie’s emotions, her excuses, and her inward justification are imperative to the novel and her progression as a character. King blurs the moral lines of the incident and, effectively, allows the reader to feel the conflicted, competing emotions that a victim of sexual assault may well end up continually juggling. King’s success lies in the details of the misconduct. The reader feels uncomfortable, they sympathize with Jessie, and, somehow, we come to understand the reasons she has hidden her secret. We are exalted when she comes to face the truth and we feel liberated, with her, when she finally accepts her father’s role.
Flanagan’s interpretation of Gerald’s Game sacrifices nuance in order to provide the viewer with a straightforward, black-and-white interpretation of sexual molestation. From the moment we enter into the flashback, we have an idea of what is about to happen. We know the father is a villain and we know that the young Jessie is going to be the victim. Is this uncomfortable? Yes. Is this a very hard scene to watch? Yes. However, the audience is presented with a highly conventional situation – one that they have seen before. In the film, the assault is presented as morally simple: it feels wrong immediately, and young Jessie doesn’t need to go through years of turmoil to know that what has happened to her is not right. Flanagan has sacrificed the complexity of the incident and provided the viewer with a scene that feels flat and fictional.
If there is a problem with Flanagan’s film, then, it is this ignorance of reality. Certainly, this is a stark criticism when speaking of a Stephen King adaptation. However, in the case of Gerald’s Game the reality of the situation is the most important portion of the story. In the wake of Bill Cosby, Bill O’Reilly, Harvey Weinstein, and an increasing number of others, it becomes imperative for any media dealing with sexual misconduct to consider the true and troubling circumstances in its interpretation. The blurred lines and harsh truths of King’s book portray such a real situation. The indecision of the protagonist and the mental games she must traverse help the audience to understand the deep repression of a terrible memory, thus providing insight to non-victims and, hopefully, a call to self-advocacy for those still alone in their suffering.
Flanagan does, however, provide a near line-by-line, moment-to-moment representation of what happens in Jessie’s bedroom following the assault, which is offered up by both book and film to be perhaps the worst crime. As if the viewer was not uncomfortable enough, we are exposed to the deceit and the lies that a father imposes on his daughter. We watch the guilt he casts onto her sink into her skin and, for the first time in this film, we see the deep-seated complications of familial sexual assault.
Gerald’s Game (book and film) is not perfect. Yet, the resurgence of one of the most underrated Stephen King novels is timely. Sexual assault has never before been so keenly tied to the forefront of the social consciousness. With this advancement, progressive media content needs to manage their depictions of sexual misconduct with care and honesty. Flanagan’s Gerald’s Game works as an pathway towards providing viewers with the realities of sexual misconduct. However, it is far from the final destination.
Ethan Robles is a M.A. student at Lehigh University who is interested in studying a 18th and 19th century fiction, including the gothic. He is a big fan of all things horror, especially Stephen King and the haunted house horror genre.