For all you number one fans of my work …
I reviewed Rob Reiner’s film of Stephen King’s Misery for Movie Rob’s Meathead March
Meathead March – Misery (1990) – Raging Fluff.
While many of Stephen King’s novels have been filmed, very few have been turned into decent movies; usually because the novel is butchered; in some cases because the source work isn’t that great to begin with. For every The Shining or Carrie, there’s a Thinner or Pet Sematary. For me, there are probably only a handful of really interesting King films, and three of them (Stand by Me, Misery, The Shawshank Redemption) don’t feature any supernatural elements. The other common factor for those three film is Rob Reiner: he directed two and produced the other.
I love Misery, both the novel and the film. It’s one of King’s better books, perhaps because he drew so much on his personal experience of being a hugely popular, best-selling author who desperately wants to be taken seriously by critics, and not just dismissed as a schlock horror hack. Let’s face it, he sort of is, but he’s always thrown in literary references in an attempt to hold himself to a higher standard, and of course he famously had a pseudonym, Richard Bachman, who wrote very different books from the kind that King wrote.
In Misery, Paul Sheldon is a successful novelist trapped by his most famous creation, Misery Chastain, the heroine of his dreadful pseudo-Victorian gothic romances, and who has made him millions. He hates her and decides to kill her off … and then, of course, his number one fan Annie Wilkes forces him to bring Misery back from the grave. It’s a blackly comic and truly terrifying read, and King has lots of fun with both the gothic romance genre and with every writer’s biggest fear: that your number one fan will be a complete psycho. (In 1999, after King was run over and almost killed by a distracted driver who later said he took his eyes off the road “to reach back and grab of them Marses bars”, the novelist joked that he always knew he’d be killed by one of his characters).
Misery is a great book, and William Goldman, who also adapted Stand by Me for Reiner, does a superb job turning it into a tense, disturbing, funny script.
After writing his greatest book – an actual proper literary novel – , Paul Sheldon (James Caan) crashes his car in a Colorado blizzard and is rescued by Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates), who nurses him back to health, only to keep him prisoner in her home until he finishes a new Misery novel.
You know the story, of course, and even if you’ve forgeotten the film, some details will have stuck in your head. The pig. The Liberace records. How Annie’s mood turns on a dime – and she’s terrifying. And of coursethe hobbling. It’s definitely worth revisiting. I had not watched it for several years, and it still holds up as a thriller. And it’s terrifically acted. Bates won the Oscar for her portrayal of the dangerously unhinged Annie Wilkes, and I think Caan is also very good in what might seem a very non-Caan role. And I forgot that Lauren Bacall is in it.
William Goldman famously declared that “screenplays are structure”, and Misery is among his very best, with suspense and shock moments dealt in equal measure. And with Misery Reiner showed that he could do more than direct comedy or gentle coming-of-age tale. The sequence with Paul in his wheelchair knocking over and almost breaking Annie’s penguin knick-knack as he’s trying to get back to his room before Annie comes back is edge of your seat stuff (with a terrific payoff). And in many of the scenes Reiner shoots Bates staring directly into the camera, which is a very unnerving thing.
The film is very good – and very funny – about the writing process (not a topic the cinema explores often). Annie Wilkes may be a psychotic bitch, but she’s a damn good editor. Worth noting also is the production and costume design, which captures perfectly the homespun, crafty, cutesy, kitsch element of Middle America.
All that said, I do have an issue with how the film disposes with Richard Farnsworth’s character. It seems callous to kill him off so quickly after he’s worked so hard at finding Sheldon, and I wonder is it a deliberate callback by Reiner and Goldman to what happens to Martin Balsam in Psycho.