When Mr. King preaches, the parables are unmistakable. The Netflix film adaptation for Gerald’s Game is no exception. Once widely considered to be completely unable to become a film, director Mike Flanagan, made creative decisions in the adaptation that resulted in a tightly-wound ball of tension and terror. This film will stand up as one of the best adaptations of a Stephen King written work. Flanagan’s experience in working in the horror genre with films like Oculus and Hush lead to these confident choices that stripped away the conventions of the 1992 novel that made any scripting messy and drew criticism even as elements of the book. What remains is a lesson wrapped in stories trapped in the frantic mind of a helpless woman chained to a bed. We are confined with her but, as Dickens illustrated in A Christmas Carol, the secret sins we keep are worse bondage than any pair of handcuffs.
Actress Carla Gugino brings Jessie Burlingame to screen on a secluded getaway with her alpha-lawyer husband, Gerald, intending to kickstart their marriage with some viagra, lingerie, and handcuffs far from prying eyes and ears. Jessie is handcuffed by the wrists to the headboard of a large four-poster bed (the headboard of which is actually the bottom frame of a certain mirror from Flanagan’s Oculus). Bruce Greenwood’s Gerald pops one too many little blue pills and gets too rough for the comfort level of Jessie and the marriage. The resulting confrontation ends in a heart attack for Gerald and Jessie being forced to kick his body onto the floor. Then, Folks, in much less time than you might imagine, Jessie realizes the extent of her new situation. This is where the trailer stops and where the spoilers start. I’ll try (as usual) to keep them to a minimum but this one is a doozy. Jessie is utterly trapped. What she and we will discover is that she always has been.
Jessie is left with her life in the balance and only her thoughts. Unfortunately for her, those thoughts are contained in a Pandora’s Box (which was actually a jar, but that’s another story) of her own making. Jessie locks terrible things away within herself and hopes that the confinement and darkness will keep them at bay. The private getaway is miles from anyone who could help and readily accessible by the outside world by way of the windows and doors casually left open. Jessie is stuck. She cannot shut the lid or turn on the lights. Trapped inside her box with everything she shoved inside, Jessie must face all her demons in darkness; their natural habitat.
Much like A Christmas Carol, Jessie is visited by ghosts. In the the novel, these specters take the shape and voice of multiple facets of her abused psyche in different forms and familiar faces from her past. Here on screen, all of those voices appear as an amalgam. Jessie’s doppelgänger appears to her as a stronger, more calculating, and calmer version of the handcuffed victim. Logic and survival permeate all of this version of herself as guardian angel. Though, “Jessie Prime” is not the first apparition. That dubious honor belongs to Gerald.
The real Mr. Burlingame is quite dead and his corpse lies just beyond a clear line of sight at the foot of the bed. His landing on the tile floor cracked open his head and a pool of blood , his outstretched hand, and (if Jessie stretches) a portion of his head is visible. The Gerald of Jessie’s Box of Demons begins speaking with her almost immediately. I’m going to call the vision of her husband “Gerald” because, at this point, the “real” Gerald is done actually talking, walking, or breathing. Gerald deals with Jessie as he did in life by belittling, insulting, and menacing her with every comment. He picks at the corner of every grasping effort toward stability or strength. Gerald’s voice is that of the abuser, the liar, the easy surrender, and that of the serpent. Gerald’s advice comes from the dancing devil upon the left shoulder but it is also, sometimes, the uncomfortable truth. Gerald is now in possession of much greater and deeper knowledge than when he was alive. He is connected to the very center of the King Universe and shows it by ranting that everything dies and, “…all things serve the beam”. This is an obvious mention of the energy beams that hold the Dark Tower upright and the Gerald that liked to choke his wife didn’t know anything about that.
In order of appearance, the next threat is a starving mongrel first met alongside the road to which Jessie insisted on throwing a piece of hideously expensive steak through their car window despite Gerald’s strong objections. It appears in the room searching for more food—which, it finds. The dog is simply raw nature and is unchanged by human condition. A literal wild card and threat of increasing severity that is both understood and imminent, the dog, named Prince in the novel but referred to as “Cujo” in the film, responds to her kindness with its own nature. It is needy and that need far outweighs any concern for her well-being. The dog will not take “no” for an answer and will take by force what it wants. As clearly as she is drawn to abusers like her Gerald, they are also drawn to her. Like a starving dog to fresh meat, the victims of abuse put out signals that act as an irresistible bait to those who would; by their very nature, make them further victims.
In the dark we all see shadows of our own design dance about in glee. One of these dancing nightmares for Jessie is The Moonlight Man. He is either a figment of her imagination or a wandering serial killer. Called “The Space Cowboy” in the novel, on screen he exists as pure fear manifested in another potential victimizer who cannot or will not control an urge. In the case of The Moonlight Man, whose reality is questionable throughout the building story, this is an insatiable urge to kill and collect trophies from victims. She is literally at his mercy and yet he chooses to wait and watch her predicament worsen.
By far the threat with the most impact is one from her deep past. This threat is called out in a moment when Gerald is grappling for superiority and forcing control by assaulting her with truth. It is a truth that only the newly-made version of Gerald could know. Deep from the bottom of Jessie’s Box emerges the horrible truth that her father, also a successful lawyer, engaged in a sexual act with her during an eclipse while on vacation with the entire family. Left alone together by circumstance, the man became a monster under the red sky and his pre-teen daughter bore shameful witness. But, as a viewer, we must ask ourselves which is “the scene” that makes us squirm in our seats the most uncomfortably? Is it the event under the eclipse or the horrid, guilting manipulation to cover it up?
These events are spoken of after goading by both Gerald and Jessie Prime to eventually draw forth the admission of not only both of the monstrous events involving her father but that Jessie had a vision of a woman in a red dress standing over a stinking well. This is another revelation that the veil in King’s Universe gets thin in places. That is the very scene of culminating vengeance that occurred in Dolores Claiborne for very much the same reasons. I wonder if that dress might not have been the shade of Rose Madder as well. These two events were connected by King at their writing to be a part of a larger work called In the Path of the Eclipse. They were separated into their own works yet both retain the same elements and themes of spousal and child abuse, women in peril, and freedom through truth. It also bears mentioning that the film partner, 1922, of Gerald’s Game also features a well and freedom through death. The cycle of violence is rarely ended well, but in King’s universe, it often ends at the bottom of one.
When all is said and done with Jessie and her box is emptied of its demons, she finds the very same remainder at the bottom of her vessel as did Pandora. Only hope remains when all the terrors have been brought to bear and released into the world. Hope that Jessie uses to work with other victims of abuse. Through her trials of literally and figuratively being stripped down, Jessie finds her truths and it is they that set her free. But, not without some truly gruesome stuff that will make you regret the decision to eat popcorn. Trust me that you’ll want to skip the food but not Gerald’s Game. Though there be monsters here, they bring lessons with them on how we all can better battle their real-life counterparts using the stories collected from the path of an eclipse.