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).


Masada (aka: Curtis) said...

I read this book long, long ago in a phase where I worked through many of King's books. I remember thinking it was unremarkable at the time. But I think I was quite young at the time... low 20's or even 19. Re-reading some of it now I see your points about female characterization. I was blissfully unaware of any criticism of King's writing. 20 years later I do see the keen insight he has in to the mind of this woman and she indeed reminds me of many women I have met since that have faced their own issues with abuse.

Strange how time can so change the perception of a book which is itself an icon of unchanging...

hix said...

Yes, I think this is part of an arc for King's writing of women characters that begins with Bobby Anderson in 'The Tommyknockers', passes through here and the companion novel 'Dolores Claiborne' and emerges out of the horror that is 'Rose Madder'.

The end result, as demonstrated by Odetta Holmes/Detta Walker/Susannah Dean, seems effortless to me. But is obviously the product of a lot of hard work.

... I'm also very taken by the emotions that seem to drive Jessie's denial: complacency and angry resistance. I don't know if they're the qualities you're talking about, Curtis, but they seem very true to me.

Helen Rickerby said...

I very much like the idea of the antagonist being the insides of one's own head. And I like even more that she has to then dig into the nasty insides of her own head and face it, in order to save herself. Despite that, I cannot imagine that I will ever read this book. I just don't like being _that_ freaked out.

hix said...

It's a weird brand of horror, though, Helen. Very much about pages of sustained, gradually rising tension, that are punctuated by a few intense gross-outs.

For you, I suspect the freaking out would mainly be confined to the last 70 pages or so. That's still quite a long time, but it really does read like you're watching the last 15 minutes of a decent thriller on TV.

C G said...

Never read this, but the pitch is like Misery or Cujo - trapped protagonist, very minimalist situation played out over time. I always thought it was amazing that King could write this type of novel, and that he could do more than just one or two - each one with a different story, tone, flavour, etc. It's one of the things he does really well.
I can see the attraction of adapting it just from that aspect - a character chained to a bed for the whole movie, it would be a hell of a challenge.

C G said...

oh yeah & then he always ends up breaking the tension with OTT gross-out moments, like he's thinking "okay I've been all sparse and minimal, I've earned this..."

hix said...

Exactly right on both counts, CG (about the tension and the challenge of adapting it). Although, despite the purity of it basically being a movie set in one room, it's totally legitimate (I think) to open it up with flashbacks, hallucinations, and gradually dramatising Jessie's inner voices with actual characters.

And I hadn't thought about the parallels with Misery or Cujo for quite a while. Well spotted.

Still, the technical challege *for me* is to create that sense of triumph and character change in Jessie in a way that's transcendent (think Shawshank Redemption) rather than cheap (think bog-standard 90s thriller where the woman in jeopardy finally kills her stalker).

The key, I reckon, is to combine the moments she defeats her inner demons and external antagonist.