Warning: This post contains spoilers for the film version of Gerald’s Game.
When Mike Flanagan started production on his dream project — an adaptation of Stephen King‘s “unfilmable” 1992 novel Gerald’s Game — last year, he had no idea that he’d be part of 2017’s great King-aissance. The calendar year has brought such major motion pictures as The Dark Tower and the reigning horror blockbuster, It, as well as TV adaptations of Mr. Mercedes and The Mist. Even though it’s coming at the tail end of this fresh wave of King adaptations, Gerald’s Game, which premiered on Netflix last week, has arguably received the best reviews of the bunch. And this film’s critical success, along with It’s monster box office, means we’ll be seeing a lot more Stephen King real soon. “As a lifelong fan, I love it because I’m getting new King stuff every couple of weeks,” Flanagan raves. “I hope what it does is shake loose a lot more opportunities to get his other properties made that, even a year ago, people would be reluctant to take on.” We chatted with the rising horror star — whose credits include such well-reviewed frightfests as Hush and Ouija: Origin of Evil — about the secret to making a great Stephen King adaptation and some of the notable differences between King’s book and his film.
Yahoo Entertainment: One of the interesting things about this current Stephen King boom is that it hasn’t just been a string of horror movies in a row. It has encompassed a sci-fi/fantasy film with The Dark Tower, a detective yarn with Mr. Mercedes, a ghost story with It, and now a chamber room thriller with Gerald’s Game. It really speaks to his range as a novelist.
Mike Flanagan: Oh, yeah. He’s capable of so many different things when it comes to characters, suspense, and tone. His library is so diverse. It’s lovely to see people discover Mr. Mercedes, which I’m loving, and then going out to see It and having a completely different experience
The odd film out in this case is The Dark Tower, which wasn’t very widely seen. Maybe more people will come to it on DVD or via the planned TV series.
I have high hopes for the TV series. I’ve heard a rumor that the series is going to be based on Wizard and Glass, which is my favorite of the book series. So if that’s the case, I’m all in. But that’s an almost impossible property to adapt, and having just done Gerald’s Game, I feel confident saying that! I’m still amazed that people would try [adapting] The Dark Tower. It’s like trying to adapt a mountain; I don’t know how you’d approach it.
Having just come off your own challenging adaptation, what’s the secret to getting Stephen King right?
The secret for me, even just as a fan, is to stay as close to the book as you can. Then, when you come up to elements that aren’t easy to translate cinematically, rather than try to reinvent the wheel or take off in some other direction, the best thing you can do is ask yourself, “What was the experience emotionally that I had when I read this? And if I can’t do literally what’s on the page, how can I still protect that emotional experience and be true to the experience of reading it?” That keeps the train on the tracks. The further away you get from the experience of reading the book, the more likely you are to see an adaptation go off the rails.
With that in mind, what was your experience of reading Gerald’s Game for the first time?
I first read it in college when I was 19. I had started reading Stephen King in the fifth grade and declared him my favorite author, so I had been catching up on his stuff for years and finally got to Gerald’s Game. I remember putting the book down and exhaling for a solid minute. It was so visceral; I don’t know that I’ve ever been dive-bombed into the psyche of a character as completely as I was with that book. Outside of all the terrifying stuff, what I thought was incredible about it was what it had to say about survival and female empowerment, as well as the lasting effects that abuse and trauma have on women in particular. I put it down and thought that if someone could re-create the experience I just had reading this on film, what a movie that would be.
But I also thought it was unfilmable! [Laughs] Still, it wouldn’t leave me alone, and for the next 19 years it kept turning over in my head until I started to see a version I thought would work. I carried the script around in my bag to meetings, and if someone said, “Hey, what’s your dream project?” I’d pull it out. So it’s a real dream come true for me to have made it. I don’t think it would have happened without Netflix taking an interest and Stephen getting behind it.
Let’s talk about some of the changes you did make to the book, starting with the casting of Bruce Greenwood. He’s a very different Gerald than the one described on the page, much more fit and movie star handsome. Reading the book, I pictured someone like John Carroll Lynch in the part.
We talked about him! It’s interesting, the person who first suggested Bruce to me was Stephen King. I had put together a list of actors, whittled it down to a top five, and Bruce was on it. Stephen had worked with Bruce on another project and said, “I would love to see Bruce Greenwood tackle this.” It is very different from the character in the book, but I figured if Stephen was talking him up, he wouldn’t be too upset.
What we liked about having this aggressively masculine Gerald is that it gave us a whole other tone to play with; I thought of him as the failed alpha male. Another important thing to me was that it needed to be someone we realistically believed Carla would marry. In the same way that Forrest Gump is built like a linebacker in the novel, I didn’t think that the physicality of Gerald was the element we needed to be the most faithful to. In the battle of the sexes seen in the movie, [Bruce’s version] made him a much more formidable opponent and a much more meaningful victory for her.