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Netflix’s Gerald’s Game is a graceful, mold-breaking Stephen King adaptation

Mike Flanagan’s taut film subverts our expectations with an added dose of feminism.

Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

Unlike most Stephen King film adaptations, the new Netflix movie Gerald’s Game, about a woman who becomes trapped in a remote vacation house after her husband dies, doesn’t announce itself as being based on a King novel. In a year when King is everywhere, that may be surprising — but it’s also indicative of how different both Gerald’s Game and its source novel are from most of their peers.

That’s a good thing for Stephen King fans, not only because Gerald’s Game is quite good, but because it indicates that Hollywood is stepping outside of the typical Stephen King sandbox to find stories that challenge our expectations of King as a writer, as well as our expectations of horror itself.

Gerald’s Game is a timely, feminist locked-room horror movie

One of the best things about this movie is its smallness. Almost the entirety of the film takes place in a single room — the master bedroom of the remote lake cottage that Jessie (Carla Gugino) and her husband Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) have rented for an isolated weekend retreat. With no neighbors around for miles, they’re eager to engage in a few sexual games to reignite their marriage — until it rapidly becomes clear that they haven’t fully discussed their respective boundaries and desires, and Gerald’s “game,” a crude rape fantasy, immediately falls apart.

But instead of abandoning the idea right away, Gerald resists. And then he has a heart attack, leaving Jessie handcuffed to the bed. At that point, still reeling from the trauma she’s just experienced, she must escape to save her own life, lest she eventually die of starvation. Upping the stakes are the presence of a starving stray dog, a strange reaper-like bone collector dubbed the Moonlight Man who may or may not be a hallucination, and Jessie’s own resurfacing memories of childhood sexual assault.

Gerald’s Game comes from director Mike Flanagan, who scored two horror hits in 2016 with Hush, also a Netflix exclusive, and Ouija: Origin of Evil. Though Flanagan has justly earned critical acclaim for his smart pacing and well-crafted storytelling, his movies — all of which he has written or co-written — have consistently felt uneven, especially in terms of their writing. Gerald’s Game is his first feature film adapting someone else’s material, and the difference is immediately apparent. By reducing the book’s cast, cutting much of its final act, and confining most of the film’s action to its one-room set, Flanagan strips King’s source novel to its core elements, in a way that allows the drama of Jessie’s predicament to unfold while centering her interior life in a way that we rarely see in horror.

The resulting adaptation isn’t perfect; its weakest moments come when Flanagan and his co-writer Jeff Howard step away from the original King story and get preachy about men controlling women, or water down an already basic look at BDSM and female empowerment into something even more oversimplified. But Gerald’s Game is still a taut, eerie thriller with plenty of tension and a few surprising moments of grace — particularly when a hallucinated Gerald tries to tempt Jessie to give up and welcome death. In those instances, King’s understated concept gains full force, as we realize Jessie’s struggle is not just to escape from the bed but to escape from a lifetime of feeling trapped.

Most Stephen King novels follow certain themes. Gerald’s Game upends them all.

As the record-breaking success of the recent remake of It reminds us, the quintessential “Stephen King movie” tends to have a distinct style and tone. These movies are often set in small towns with dark underbellies and are rife with deep-rooted nostalgia, themes of male bonding (particularly between men and boys) and boys becoming men, and allegories for the creative process. Even his non-horror classics like Stand by Me and The Shawshank Redemption exhibit many of these traits, and his most well-known works, like The Shining and It, comprise pretty much all of them.

Gerald’s Game, in contrast, is about none of these things. The novel came out in 1992 (during a period of low acclaim for King’s work after critics had panned 1991’s Needful Things), followed six months later by another novel, Dolores Claiborne. Originally intended to be part of the same work, both stories stand apart from the King canon for their depiction of women experiencing domestic abuse and sexual assault.

But where the character of Dolores Claiborne found her agency through violence, King vividly constructs, through Gerald’s Game’s Jessie, an allegory for the lived experience of surviving sexual assault through a single concept: A woman is handcuffed to a bed in which she has recently experienced a rape attempt, and has to free herself.

In Gerald’s Game, not only are the typical King tropes absent, but King deliberately distorts many of them. Flashbacks to Jessie’s childhood are shot through with horror, not nostalgia; her coming of age is defined by survival rather than empowerment. Family bonds are distorted and corrupted, and it’s female bonding — an aspect that’s sadly significantly reduced in Flanagan’s film — that helps ensure Jessie’s survival.

This is all wildly atypical for a Stephen King novel, let alone a screen adaptation of one. Flanagan has made a habit of directing female protagonists in small spaces (Oculus and Hush both feature female protagonists confined to a single location, for example), and the parameters of Gerald’s Game allow him to do what he does best — explore his female characters while ratcheting up tension.

The story’s supernatural elements, which are deliberately ambiguous in the novel, are explicitly negated in the film. But there’s still a touch of magical realism present, particularly in the couldn’t-be-timelier element of a solar eclipse that occurred the day of Jessie’s past assault. And it’s this part of the plot that gives Flanagan a unique cinematic opportunity. Thanks to the director’s surreal solar eclipse filter, we see the world through blood-colored glasses; that cynical stylization brings home just how refreshing this assured adaptation of an atypical King story is, and reminds us of how timely King’s uncanny powers of social observation and humanizing horror can be in the upside-down landscape of 2017.

Gerald’s Game is currently available to stream on Netflix.