Book: Gerald’s Game by Stephen King
Movie: Gerald’s Game directed by Mike Flanagan
Age/Genre: Adult Horror Fiction
Preferred Reading Environment: Not in a bed or near the woods. You’ll likely want to get up and walk around a bit on your breaks.
Reading Accoutrements: Stick with the basics with this one, stay hydrated with a nice glass of water.
Content Notes: Sexual Assault, Sexism, Fat-phobia
Last year, my husband Michael and I saw Gerald’s Game on Netflix. He’d been wanting to check it out for a while because he’d heard good things about it and he’s interested in Stephen King books and movies. We’d recently watched Netflix’s production of “1922”, another Stephen King work, and were surprised how good it was, so we went into Gerald’s Game with pretty high hopes, though neither of us had read the book yet.
The premise of Gerald’s Game is that Jessie and Gerald Burlingame, a married couple going through some issues are at their secluded summer home in the woods. Gerald wants to spice up their sex life with some handcuffs and roleplaying. Jessie isn’t into it, but is willing to try because she knows they need to try something, as their marriage is not in a good place. Unfortunately, Gerald suffers a heart attack during the shenanigans, and Jessie is trapped on the bed with no way out and no one around to help. She has to figure out how to survive, while also dealing with past trauma and other threats that present themselves throughout the plot.
The movie did not disappoint. It built tension really well, and had some super interesting visual tricks. I have recommended it to several people, with the caveat that the end felt really tacked on in a way that made me think the book was probably better.
My friend Deana is a pretty big Stephen King fan, and she watched the movie and decided to read the book, which meant I needed to read the book to talk to her about it. We both thought that the movie adaptation was surprisingly faithful, and that a lot of the differences are due to medium issues. Below, I’ll break down some of the major differences between the book and the movie.
The movie opens with typical establishing shots. We see a suitcase being packed, most notably with handcuffs, and then we see Jessie and Gerald, the couple at the center of the film’s plot, driving along forested roads. It’s clear before they even talk that they’re somewhat estranged, and that this trip is supposed to help “make things better” somehow.
The book opens with Jessie handcuffed to the bed, musing on her relationship with Gerald. We still see the trip up to their summer home, but later in a flashback.
Honestly, I think both of these beginnings have benefits. I really liked how the book opened up already in the action. At first I kind of missed the dynamic that was established by the beginning of the film, but since it came later, I think opening directly in the action was worth it. On the other hand, I don’t know how the movie would have opened in the action and then provided the context of the drive up without an unnatural flashback. Since the story already has other flashback, I think opening with the drive to the summer home was the right choice.
I have to say, the writing in the beginning of the book had me skeptical about how I was going to enjoy the rest. Jessie muses on her relationship with Gerald in ways that show her biases, which could be great, but I’m not so sure they aren’t also the author’s biases. Jessie thinks about how her intimacy with Gerald has faded, and reflects on how her body has aged. She says something to the effect of “she has at least managed to keep the weight off,” which instantly made me fly into a feminist rage. It’s not a woman’s responsibility to maintain her looks for her husband. Weight gain is not an inherently bad thing, and is natural with age. Combine this with her reflections on Gerald’s chubbiness as a child and resulting insecurities, and it made me feel like King is fatphobic as fuck. I obviously can’t say whether that’s true, as author intent is almost always a mystery, but it’s what I read into it, and I think that there’s a pattern of “fat” being coded as “bad” in a lot of King’s works (Carrie, IT, Misery).
It doesn’t help that I started this book right after reading a bunch of Octavia Butler. I just really prefer how she writes her characters. They have varying body types and backgrounds, and their insecurities aren’t excused away by society’s expectations.
In the film, after Gerald suffers his heart attack, Jessie starts to see versions of herself and Gerald. These hallucinations are the physical manifestations of voices in her head. This offers some cool visuals, such as seeing multiple Jessies arguing with each other, and seeing Gerald interact with his corpse on the floor.
In the book, Jessie has almost always heard these voices to some extent, and they are not given physical form. I think that this works great in the book. The voices are Jessie’s mind’s versions of people she’s known in her life and idealized versions of herself – her college roommate, Ruth, who tried to push Jessie to come to terms with her past trauma; a young version of Jessie herself; and also a puritanical voice that Jessie calls The Goodwife Burlingame, or Goody.
The voices in the book allow for a lot of exploration into Jessie’s past, especially the voice of Ruth. Since this voice is that of another person (though her words are all still Jessie’s thoughts), Jessie spends a lot of time reflecting on why she and Ruth are no longer in contact. The book has a lot more exploration into why Jessie has the hangups she does. In the movie, however, I don’t think Jessie has a ton of personality. She is mainly defined by the traumatic events in her life. I still felt like she was overly-defined by her trauma for a lot of the book, but the end kind of made up for some of that.
The end is the main thing I didn’t like about the movie. I’m not going to go too heavily into spoiler territory, but the last 15 minutes of the movie are completely different in tone from the rest of the film. I felt like I’d stepped into a Lifetime film. It tried so hard to make Jessie’s story inspirational that it felt disingenuous. I thought the movie would have been stronger if it had ended right before the shift in tone, which would have been sudden and open-ended, but the gruesomeness would have left more of a “wow” factor. As it was, I was wondering what movie Netflix had switched me to, and wondering when we could go back to the horror film.
The book still goes on past the main action (Jessie’s imprisonment on the bed), but it does so much more smoothly. It shows how she’s coping after the events, and how she’s moving on with her life in several ways. Jessie is the strongest she’s ever been as a person (and character) in this aftermath, and the ending is hopeful while refraining from dabbling in faux-inspirationalism.
Those were the main differences between the book and movie, but there are a couple more plot points I want to address.
A HUGE part of both the book and movie is that Jessie was severely traumatized in her childhood due to a sexual encounter with her dad. She has spent most of her life living in denial and fear of this moment, and her relationships with people have, of course, been affected. In her time in handcuffs, she relives the scenario as her mind attempts to get her to remember important details that could help her escape.
In the movie, these scenes made me really uncomfortable (as they’re meant to), but I didn’t think they were poorly done. Sexual assault as a plot point is really complicated. On one hand, people’s stories should be told, and stories like this can empower survivors and offer representation and knowledge that they aren’t alone. On the other hand, it can be a great excuse to make women characters suffer and help writers live out their rape fantasies. Neither the movie or the book do this, and I think a lot of it has to do with how… unsexual… it is. We see the events unfold from the perspective of Jessie’s 11 year old self. She’s confused by what is happening, and doesn’t understand anything about the changes her body is going through or why her dad is treating her differently. I think the egregiousness of her dad’s actions and subsequent manipulation are clearly shown, and that makes it seem like an exploration on how people’s actions affect others rather than a gruesome glorification of sexual violence.
There were certain things about the book that did annoy me. The narrative is mostly close-third person, being in Jessie’s head, but sometimes we are told things Jessie doesn’t know. There are whole sections showing the reader information that Jessie is unaware of. Those sections are less confusing than the parts where we’re told “she didn’t realize..” while we’re supposedly still in Jessie’s head. One of the longer narratives that is separate from Jessie has to do with a stray dog that is wondering around the house, presenting possible danger. I feel like King gets way too much pleasure telling us that the dog’s name used to be “Prince” before it was abandoned, and then referring to the dog as “Former Prince” for the rest of the book. We get it. You know pop culture. I’m surprised the dog didn’t have a purple collar. Ha.
There are some genuinely scary and gruesome parts of the book. It shows pretty realistically what kind of physical pain Jessie’s body would experience being handcuffed to a bed for multiple days, and her means of escape is not pretty. There’s also a really horrifying subplot that has some delightfully disgusting imagery and spooky moments. Overall, if you like gory horror, I think you should give this book and/or movie a try. Both are worth checking out, though if I had to choose which is better, I’d probably say the book. It just has way more character development and a much better ending. That won’t keep me from watching the movie again someday, however, and I’m looking forward to seeing if Netflix adapts any more of Stephen King’s works, because so far, they’ve done a way better job than anyone who made a Stephen King mini-series in the 90s.