IT may be the surprise box office hit of 2017, but it’s not the most surprising Stephen King adaptation of the year. That honor goes to Gerald’s Game, Mike Flanagan’s adaptation of what should have been King’s most un-adaptable novel — not necessarily in terms of the story’s graphic content, but by virtue of its narrative conceit. Approximately 98 percent of Gerald’s Game centers on one woman and her inner monologue as she desperately attempts to free herself from a dire situation.

Jessie Burlingame (Carla Gugino) and her husband (Bruce Greenwood as the eponymous Gerald) take a weekend trip to their secluded vacation home in the hopes of addressing their marital issues — specifically their sex life, which has become troubled, to say the least. The “game” is Jessie’s reluctant attempt to indulge Gerald’s sexual domination fetish, one that comes dangerously close to feeling unsafe. When Gerald handcuffs Jessie to the bed (using legit cuffs instead of the fluffy novelty kind), there is a clear shift in his demeanor; it’s something vaguely sinister, and the lack of consent only adds to his enjoyment.

But when Jessie tries to put an end to the role play and tells him to remove the handcuffs, Gerald has a heart attack (partially induced by Viagra) and collapses. Using her feet, Jessie shoves him to the floor, where it becomes immediately apparent that Gerald is dead — leaving his wife chained to the bed with very little hope for rescue because they chose a quiet weekend when most of their neighbors wouldn’t be home.

Jessie shoving Gerald onto the floor is just the first — and the least harrowing — of many dextrous attempts to survive this particularly horrific situation. Making matters worse is a local stray dog who wanders into the house and begins feeding on Jessie’s dearly departed husband, the implications of which give this predicament an additional sense of morbid urgency.

It’s what happens after Gerald dies that should have made King’s novel difficult to adapt, but Flanagan (who previously directed Oculus) turns that potential weakness into a strength. The bulk of King’s book centers on Jessie’s internal monologue, along with flashbacks to a traumatic incident in her childhood that sheds additional light on her relationship with Gerald. Flanagan’s solution is to have Gerald and Jessie (or the more rational part of her brain, anyway) appear as hallucinations — manifestations of Jessie’s interior thoughts. Gerald (obviously) represents Jessie’s doubts, fears and insecurities, while the other Jessie represents her resolve. It’s the part of Jessie that transmuted her childhood trauma into strength and empathy, and it’s this concept that will undoubtedly resonate with many viewers, especially those who have lived through similar horrors.

To that point, Gerald’s Game isn’t exclusively a story about trauma, but one of survival. Flanagan handles the flashbacks with impressive thoughtfulness; these are scenes that, in the wrong hands, could have been incredibly distasteful and alarmingly fetishistic. I can’t help but feel as though having an actor as dedicated as Gugino — who truly gives one of her most emotional performances to date — was a huge asset in exploring such horrific moments with delicacy.

There are some moments of conventional horror, including a terrifying element that calls Jessie’s own sanity into question and an insanely intense climax so visceral it elicited disgusted yells from almost every audience member at my screening. Those who have read King’s novel will know exactly what both of these things are, and you’ll be pleased to know that Flanagan handles them both quite effectively. Flanagan doesn’t quite nail the (admittedly tricky) ending, though the thematic implications and the narrative payoff are undeniably poignant. (There are also a couple of Stephen King easter eggs, including one that the author’s “constant readers” will really love.)

2017 has given us three films based on Stephen King novels, each difficult to adapt in their own way. Two of those have been successful — and surprisingly so. Andy Muschietti’s new adaptation of IT had a lot of things working against it from the outset, including the decision to split the sprawling narrative into two halves. Flanagan (also a longtime King fan) faced similar narrative obstacles, a couple of which were arguably even more challenging than Muschietti’s. Nevertheless, both directors have delivered the seemingly undeliverable: Surprisingly poignant experiences that use the language of horror to engage the audience on a deeper, visceral level.

Gerald’s Game premieres on Netflix this Friday, September 29.


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