Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Gerald's Game

by Stephen King

I like to re-read books. After my difficulties reading Garden of Last Days, I went back and re-read one of the lesser-known Stephen Kings. It's also one of the books I've been consistently tempted to adapt, probably due to its simple premise: Gerald's Game is about a woman handcuffed to a bed in the middle of nowhere. No-one is coming to rescue her, and if she's going to survive she's going to have to think her way out.

The handcuffs are the most obvious of the two antagonists in this book. The second antagonist is the lead character's own mind; Jessie Burlingame experienced something genuinely horrible 25 years ago, and has spent most of the intervening time repressing it. That's led to her mind not only creating a bunch of different voices to represent different aspects of her personality, but also a deeply self-destructive desire to undercut her own achievements, make her screw up, and ultimately kill her (because she 'deserves it').

These voices rise to the fore once Jessie is handcuffed: without any way of escaping, she finally has quiet time to listen to her thoughts without distraction. The truth of this really hit me; it's a phenomena that's been experienced by me and a few people I know recently as we've been dealing with some unpleasant mental crap.

For me, this idea of the antagonist being your own thoughts is the strongest idea of the book and oddly under-developed.(*)

(*) I've now realised it also has a lot in common with one of the new things I'm playing around with.

Instead, the psychological complexity that I admire in Gerald's Game threatens to go completely out the window once King introduces a psycho-killer with pallid skin, sharpened canines, and a suitcase filled with human bones. It becomes a little difficult to focus on the idea of an enemy inside your own mind when you're afraid that Leatherface is going to come back and kill you the next night.

At least, that's been my memory of this book over the last 15 years. However, I realised during this time through that, to his credit, King does play with the idea that the killer is imaginary. In fact, he does more than play with it -- by the end, the killer is not only real, but it's also how the self-destructive elements of Jessie's own mind have chosen to manifest themselves.

Still, my scriptwriter voice kept yelling out while reading it that the idea of the killer was a bit lame. That he's there to motivate Jessie to escape, putting a time-limit on her actions. To 'Scriptwriter Me' there's already a character in this book that serves this purpose: a scared and hungry stray dog. In my hypothetical adaptation, I'd up the threat from this corner, and bring out Jessie's 'Inner Antagonist' voice more strongly.

I'm not even sure it needs the killer in the book. The reliving of Jessie's repressed memory is horrible enough - visceral, repulsive, banally evil - and King takes his time detailing the aftermath of it, as much as he would with any other thriller setpiece. Reading these sections reminded of conversations with some of my exes, in which we've watched a movie (like, True Romance, for instance) and they've been baffled at what I could have seen in it. Questions have been asked like "Why would you want to watch something like that?" "How does it make the world a better place?"

After reading the icky repressed memory sequence, I'm beginning to see their point.

Re-reading it, I was suprised to find that the repressed memory at the heart of the book is pretty much openly acknowledged about 1/4 of the way through, and vividly [shudder] dramatised at about the halfway point. And just when I figured that it was all done with, King does something really exciting: he ties Jessie's chances of escape to her ability to remember by hinting that there's something else that she's repressing, something that we haven't been made aware of. This inverts the value of her memory - making it something she has to use rather than push away from her.

Later, King pushes the timeframe of the story forward, much further than I expected him to. It had the effect of pulling me out of the book, but after taking a break and pushing on, it actually seemed quite natural. King used the flash-forward to demonstrate massive character change in Jessie, dump a whole bunch of exposition on us, and dramatise her final triumph over her mind (through the act of finishing a letter).

After finishing it, I realised that Gerald's Game might be another one of those books that I've long wanted to adapt but subsequently realise that I don't (Phantoms by Dean Koontz also falls into that category). If I were to push myself to articulate why this is, it'd be something like: there are things about this book that I find compelling, things I find easy to visualise cinematically, and especially there are things that I would like to do differently. The question is: would I like to spend two years doing them?

And maybe the answer is that, for me, Jessie's transformation is satisfying but not quite meaningful enough. She goes through hell, she triumphs over some really nasty adversity, but the emotional bang isn't quite there for me. And I'm not sure why, and I'm not sure how to make it happen - and THAT is what any adaptation of this story really needs.

Random thoughts:
  • Gerald's Game is a companion piece to Dolores Claiborne. I seem to remember it was written at a time when he had come under a small amount of criticism for not being able to write women as psychologically deeply as he did men.

  • Actually, re-reading it made me realise how influential this novel was on me: the precision with which King deals with describing how Jessie tries to get out of her predicament. It's something I drew on when writing The Limit (in fact, that script contains a woman in a very similar situation).
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