How Netflix's 'Gerald's Game' Changes the Ending to Stephen King's Novel
The premise of Stephen King's 1992 novel Gerald's Game functions like a pair of handcuffs to a filmmaker adapting the story into a movie. For starters, any would-be screenwriter has to deal with the fact that the film's protagonist Jessie Burlingame (played by Carla Gugino) spends most of her screen-time shackled to a bed after her husband Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) suffers a heart attack mid-kinky-sex. Even as a novel, where a writer has more freedom to dig into a character's memories, the scenario feels like a narrative stunt. How do you sustain this for over 400 pages? Or more than 90 minutes?
And then there's the book's ending, which is… well, a little bonkers.
Luckily, in the case of Netflix's just released adaptation, director Mike Flanagan (Oculus, Hush) is up to the task -- and he doesn't back down from some of the book's more bizarre elements. As the horror filmmaker outlined in an interview with Thrillist, the novel, with its emphasis on internal monologues, limited action, and delicate human psychology, is in many ways "unfilmable." But despite making some significant changes, Flanagan's nervy take on the material is as faithful to the spirit of the book as Stephen King movies come.
Along with his co-writer Jeff Howard, Flanagan makes some cosmetic adjustments that move the story to the present -- a cell phone out of reach on a bedside table or a container of Viagra packed in a suitcase -- but he keeps the core elements of the novel: the handcuffs; the mangy dog; the flashback to a childhood trauma involving sexual abuse; even the monster gazing at Jessie from across the room.
The creepy visitor that haunts Jessie during her night of terror has inspired debate amongst King fans ever since he first appeared. As her mind slips away, Jessie sees a figure in the shadows that King describes as having a "misshapen head," "white cheeks," "slumped shoulders," and, most importantly, "dangling, long-fingered hands." She begins to describe him as the "Space Cowboy," swiping the name from the Steve Miller song "The Joker." He's one of the more underrated creations in King's gallery of villains, a nerve-wracking embodiment of pure evil.
Despite the movie's veneer of realism and willingness to engage with heavier themes, Flanagan doesn't back away from the more fantastical elements. In the film, the Space Cowboy is referred to as the "Moonlight Man" and he's brought to life by Carel Struycken, the seven-foot actor who played The Giant on Twin Peaks and Lurch in the Addams Family movies. When Jessie sees him from across the room, she tries pleading with him. "I need help," she says. But the Moonlight Man only smiles, flashing her the insides of his bag which contains nothing but jewelry and human remains. (If you listen closely at the beginning of the film, you'll hear a news report on the radio reporting that a grave-robber is on the loose.)
Like in the novel, the scene raises questions about Jessie's mental state: Is she having visions? Imagining a boogey-man? Losing her mind? Flannagan's smartest choice in adapting the book was reducing the number of voices in Jessie's head, dropping side characters like her old college friend Ruth and her former psychiatrist Nora. He also has her anxieties take physical form: She's both inspired and tormented throughout the movie by a confident, brassy version of herself, which Gugino excels at, and a cruel, sneering take on Gerald, which Greenwood relishes. Together, they're like the angel and the devil on her shoulders, one preaching survival and the other tempting her to give up.
If the "Good" Jessie and the "Evil" Gerald are both figments of her imagination, shouldn't the spooky monster with the bag of bones be similar? To make a long story short -- in the case of the novel, the post-escape coda of the book lasts over 70 pages -- after Jessie makes her escape, which involves slicing her wrist with a piece of broken glass, we find out the Space Cowboy is very real. He's a murder named Raymond Andrew Joubert, a Leatherface-style madman who lives in a house strewn with body parts. Jessie details his crimes in a lengthy letter to her friend Ruth in the novel. In one refreshingly 1992 moment, Jessie writes that Joubert is so crazy that he believes George Bush is "actually Dana Carvey, the guy who plays The Church Lady on Saturday Night Live."
Unsurprisingly, the Church Lady shout-out doesn't make it into Flannagan's adaptation. Without a Ruth to write to, he has Jessie write the letter to her younger self, which actually makes for a more poignant ending. Though it's possible to envision a "tighter" version of the story that concludes with Jessie freeing herself and fleeing the Maine vacation home that becomes her prison, there's a richness to seeing her communicate with her childhood self. It's an effective visual metaphor for her personal growth.
At the same time, some of the details surrounding Joubert's capture will likely strike many viewers as a little convenient. (The montage of Jessie poring over newspapers and blog posts feels silly.) The novel was dinged around its release for similar crimes. "Mr. King reverts to the classical evidence of a footprint to prove that one crucial episode was not fantasy but reality," wrote the New York Times in a review of the book. "Did Stephen King take on these heavy themes to prove that he is a Real Writer, not just a horror writer? Was he trying to shift from writing good bad novels to writing good good novels, and ended up with a bad good novel?"
Like the Church Lady joke, the Times writer's concern over mixing genre elements with heavy themes feels dated, a relic of a time when critics were more eager to look down their noses at horror. The movie adaptation of Gerald's Game arrives at a cultural moment that's more hospitable to artists hoping to combine big ideas with big scares. Audiences (and critics) aren't afraid to label films like Get Out, It Comes at Night, or Split as "good good" movies. Such distinctions strike most moviegoers as tedious hair-splitting.
In spite of some flaws, Gerald's Game is a "good good" movie. You might squirm when Jessie faces down Joubert in the courtroom at the end and chuckle when he breaks out of his handcuffs like a comic book bad guy. (In the book, she spits in his face.) There's an absurd quality to actually seeing this previously terrifying murderer in the harsh light of a courtroom, his dirty robes replaced with a clean orange jump-suit. He's not scary anymore.
And that's the point. Thought parts of it might feel awkward, the movie's faithfulness to King's meandering finale is both charming and necessary. The story was never really about whether or not Jessie can remove herself from the metal chains. It's about her facing her demons, discovering inner-strength she never thought she had, and staring into the eclipse. It's a fitting tribute to King's occasionally wonky novel that the movie never blinks.