Mutants, Monsters, and Madmen Day 31: Misery (1990)
Writer: William Goldman, based on the novel by Stephen King
Cast: James Caan, Kathy Bates, Richard Farnsworth, Francis Sternhagen, Lauren Bacall
Plot: Paul Sheldon (James Caan) is a novelist feeling weighed down by the success of a series of bodice-rippers featuring the character Misery Chastain. Celebrating a new work, unrelated to Misery, Paul is driving down a remote mountain road in a snowstorm and winds up crashing his car. A woman named Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates) finds and rescues him, telling him the phone lines are down and she’s been unable to go for help. She also happens to be a big fan of Misery Chastain. Paul’s legs are severely damaged and he’s unable to walk, but Annie – a nurse – is slowly nursing him back to health. Annie asks if she can read the new book he had in the car with him, to which he graciously agrees. After beginning the book, Annie finds herself uncomfortable with the swearing, and almost spills scalding soup on Paul.
Paul’s agent (Lauren Bacall) has called the local authorities about his disappearance, and the Sheriff (Richard Farnsworth) and his wife (Francis Sternhagen) begin a search. Annie comes in from town with Sheldon’s newly-released Misery’s Child and tells him she spoke to a doctor and his agent, and that an ambulance will be sent for him as soon as the road to the hospital is dug out of the snow. When Annie realizes that Misery dies at the end of the new book, she goes berserk and nearly bashes Paul’s head with a table. Instead, she smashes it against the wall and reveals she lied about calling for help – nobody knows where Paul Sheldon is. She later forces him to burn the only copy of his new novel as a sort of sick penance, then returns with paper and a typewriter, insisting Paul write his “masterpiece”: Misery’s Return. When he requests a different kind of paper – a ruse to make her leave the house – she smashes the box of paper down on his injured legs, but leaves. Alone, Paul explores the house in his wheelchair, finding an unnerving shrine to his work and Annie’s stash of medication. He steals some pills to go along with pills he’s been hiding in his mattress, but is almost caught sneaking around when she returns.
The Sheriff finds Paul’s smashed car, which has been buried under the now-melting snow, and the state police assume he has died, but the Sheriff realizes from the dents on the car door that someone pried him out of the wreck. Back at Annie’s, she forces Paul to start over Misery’s Return, claiming the way he brings her back is a cheat (something she feels particularly angry about, going on a wild tangent about how an old movie serial once cheated her in a similar way). He goes back to work, turning out page after page of Misery’s Return… and getting his hands on a knife. The night before he plans to strike, Annie drugs him and straps him to the bed, revealing she knows he’s been wandering the house and has found his knife. As punishment, she hobbles him, breaking his legs with a sledgehammer. A chance encounter with Annie leads the Sheriff to suspect her, and he comes out to her house; she drugs Paul and dumps him in the cellar. He wakes up and calls for help, and Annie kills the Sheriff. Strangely unaffected, she tells Paul she plans to kill him, then herself, but he manages to delay her by tempting her with the end of Misery’s Return. At the final moment, just before she can read the end of the book, he sets the manuscript on fire and attacks her with the heavy typewriter. The two grapple and, in a bloody standoff, Paul manages to kill her. Eighteen months later, we see him back in New York, with a new novel about to hit. His agent suggests he try a book about his ordeal with Annie, and Paul tries to shrug it off… but he’ll never be rid of her entirely.
Thoughts: This is one of my favorite Stephen King novels and, in fact, is also one of my favorite film adaptations of his work. (To this day I’m not sure if I love the movie because I love the novel or in spite of the fact.) Admittedly, the story hits home for me as a writer. The scene where Annie makes Paul burn his new book (to his way of thinking, the best thing he’s ever written) is more terrifying to me than any legion of slashers, zombies, madmen or monsters you can create. I did find myself screaming at the screen on occasion – “It’s the 1980s, Paul! To hell with superstition! You have the technology to make a copy!”
This is, again, one of those rare instances where the Academy Awards really got it right. Kathy Bates got an Oscar for this movie – to date the only major Oscar a Stephen King adaptation has won, although they’ve been nominated for a few more – and you can tell why from the earliest scenes. She goes from creepy to dangerous slowly, gradually, eventually becoming terrifying in the process. By the time she’s casually sloshing lighter fluid around the bed and insisting Paul burns his book, you’re really starting to fear her. The transformation is remarkable and subtle and really the work of a master thespian, and it’s made even more effective by keeping the core of the character consistent. Even at the very beginning, where she’s gently taking care of him, something about the character just seems off. As that odd “off” feeling slowly takes over her persona, the sort of naïve quality she has at the beginning is never entirely eliminated – no matter how furious she gets, she still speaks in an almost childlike manner, refusing to use profanity and sticking to homespun colloquialisms that you’d expect coming from somebody’s grandmother.
James Caan, meanwhile, plays off Bates perfectly. He comes across as someone who’s a little self-involved, a little narcissistic, and to a degree he can even see his time with Annie as a sort of punishment for that. Even before Annie truly starts to scare him, there’s a level of discomfort he displays that really goes far beyond that of a humble writer who doesn’t know how to deal with a gushing fan. As Annie grows more dangerous, the relationship between the two of them transforms from that of a nurse and patient to a pair of adversaries in a truly lethal chess game. Annie grows to see Paul as hers, as something that belongs to her, and he has to find unexpected wells of ingenuity to get out alive. Perhaps the bravest move Stephen King made in crafting the story, though, is that he never particularly tries to make Paul into a hero. Even by the end, there’s no real undercurrent of nobility to him. Sure, he’s the victim and you sympathize with him (it would be impossible not to sympathize after you see the incredible, impossible angle his foot goes in when she smacks it with that sledgehammer), and you even root for him in those last blood-soaked moments of revenge, but he’s still kind of a jerk.
To a large degree, this is a two-person show (and in fact, in the live action stage version that was produced, only Paul and Annie’s characters are ever seen on-stage). The subplot about the Sheriff’s search for Paul, while included in the book as well as the novel, isn’t really that essential – in fact, the way the Sheriff dies without really affecting the plot reminds me very much of Dick Halloran in The Shining – and it would have been fairly easy to lift the whole thing right out had the screenwriter so desired. But William Goldman is a better writer than that. (If you recognize his name, he’s also responsible for the classic Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and, one of my personal favorites, The Princess Bride.) Goldman knew just how to balance the two to prevent Annie from ever going so far that the audience couldn’t take it. In fact, in the original novel, Annie chops Paul’s legs off instead of just breaking them. In his 1995 book Four Screenplays, Goldman explains that he changed that scene because it would have been too much for the audience to take, that they would never be able to forgive Kathy Bates the Actress as opposed to Annie Wilkes the Character. And y’know, I do believe he was right.
The relationship between Paul and Annie echoes Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? in a few key ways. Although Paul isn’t related to Annie and has no allegiance to her, he’s stuck in a wheelchair and cut off from the outside world, leaving himself totally dependent on her for his survival for as long as she remains sane enough to not slice him open like a fish and leave his guts in a steaming pile on the floor. King even picks up a little 1,001 Arabian Nights, with Paul playing Scheherazade, using the finale of Misery’s story to extend his own life.
Annie is a great villain, perhaps the best, most fully-realized one Stephen King has created. Although it strikes me that, for all her lunacy, I don’t know that I think Annie was completely crazy. Those old movie serials did cheat an awful lot.
Tomorrow we move forward in the 90s, as the man who changed horror twice before changes it again. It’s 1996, and Wes Craven brings us Scream.
Posted on October 27, 2011, in 1-Mutants Monsters and Madmen, Thriller and tagged 1990, Francis Sternhagen, James Caan, Kathy Bates, Lauren Bacall, Misery, Richard Farnsworth, Rob Reiner, Stephen King, William Goldman, Writer. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.