James Caan - Paul Sheldon
Kathy Bates - Annie Wilkes
Richard Farnsworth - Buster
Frances Sternhagen - Virginia
Lauren Bacall - Marcia Sindell
Graham Jarvis - Libby
Genre - Horror/Thriller/Drama
Running Time - 107 Minutes
Sometimes I'm glad not to be famous. Sure, it has its perks - money, women/men [depending on who you are], VIP treatment. But it can also has its problems - gold-digging ex-wives/husbands, masseurs who enjoy giving happy endings, and fans who take what you do way too seriously. It's great when people love you, but not when they're building a shrine and following you everywhere you go.
In 1990's Stephen King's adaptation of his 1987 best-selling novel, MISERY, one fan takes her love and obsession for her favorite celebrity to the extremist level. Just because someone looks sweet and conservative doesn't mean they're not a complete wackjob underneath. Having a number-one fan may be MISERY, but this film is far from it.
Writer Paul Sheldon (James Caan) has gained a massive level of success in the literary world for his Misery novels. While he appreciates what the popularity has given him financially and fame-wise, Paul is tired of writing about the Misery Chastain character and wants to move on to something else - a book that will make people see and respect him as a serious writer. His last Misery book is about to be released in stores, which concludes with the character's death. Paul's editor (Lauren Bacall) wishes he would reconsider killing Misery off, but she respects Paul's decision.
Moving on with his literary career, Paul drives to his favorite Colorado hotel to begin a new chapter in his writing. After writing, he decides to drive back home in a blizzard, but wrecks the car in an accident. His legs are broken and almost freezes to death. But someone spots his car and saves Paul, carrying him back to their home.
The savior is Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates), a former nurse who tells a bed-ridden Paul that the snowstorm has caused the roads to be closed and that the phones are dead. Since they can't travel to a hospital, she'll tend to Paul's wounds herself - especially since she's one of Paul's biggest fans and even named her pet pig after Misery Chastain. Annie goes out and buys the latest Misery book, not realizing it's the last chapter in the series. Unfortunately for Paul, Annie doesn't take Misery's final fate all that well. Deciding to torture Paul, she demands Paul change the story or she'll make his life hell. Sigh...the lifestyles of the rich and the famous...
MISERY is, without any doubt, one of the better Stephen King adaptations made into film. There have been some great ones and there have been some less-than-great ones. But mostly everyone would agree to put MISERY on the "Best Stephen King Films" list. Even after 22 years, the film still holds up extremely well and has become iconic in our pop culture due to its terrifying moments.
Being a best-selling novel in 1987, Misery was adapted into a screenplay by William Goldman - who won Academy Awards for writing 1969's BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID and 1976's ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN. Misery wasn't a hard novel to adapt, as the book was basically a simple struggle between a proud writer and his number-one-fan, who was a religious nut who tortured him if he didn't bring her favorite character back from the dead. That could be a film all on its own, but Goldman decided to add in a few characters and deepen/enhance the struggle in order to create a thrilling story that audiences would easily embrace for years to come. The narrative is still very basic, but that's what makes MISERY so effective. On the surface, MISERY is a horror-thriller. But deep inside, there are elements of human drama, comedic moments, and even a somewhat strange one-sided love story between the two main characters. It has a little bit for everyone, which is why the film is still loved today.
MISERY's narrative strength comes from the characters. If they weren't so well-written, deep, and likeable, this film wouldn't work as well as it does. Paul Sheldon is obviously a character that's pretty close to Stephen King himself. He's a horror writer who appreciates what the genre has given him, but wonders if writing outside the genre will give him the credibility he feels he isn't getting from critics. That's a characteristic we can all relate with, as we have felt that maybe if we do something different for what we're known for, we'll be respected for it. He's also a strong and pro-active character, even when he's helpless in bed and having to deal with the horrible things Annie Wilkes puts him through to prove that she loves him. He's the victim in the film, but a victim that's always thinking and studying his opponent in order to capitalize on their mistake. While repulsed by Annie's obsession at the beginning, he uses it to his advantage during the final act to gain her trust. We root for Paul because of this. He's placed in a horrible situation and fights back to get himself out of it. That's a trait one must admire and respect.
However, the story's star is Annie Wilkes, the antagonist. Here's a complex individual that's quite unpredictable because you're never sure what you're getting with her. One day, she could be a ray of sunshine - cooking, tucking you in, and taking care of your wounds with love and professionalism with a smile on her face. Then the next day, she could be a total bitch - mean, abusive, and just plain insane. Because of this, her character is what raises the suspense and tension in MISERY because she can snap at any moment.
I think the slow build in finding out who Annie really is and what she's capable of is what keeps MISERY watchable and great. We slowly learn through Paul's investigations of Annie's house that she was once a nurse who supposedly murdered the children she cared for at the hospital she was employed at. She was acquitted due to lack of evidence, but lost her nursing license because of the crimes. Without this knowledge, Annie was already creepy. With it, she's downright scary. This leads to the most famous scene in the film [the hobbling scene], which proves she'll hurt the one she loves in order to teach them a dangerous lesson. She obviously has issues with obsession, paranoia, and probably bipolar disorder as well. The woman is not all there, and it's frightening to put yourself in Paul's shoes, as he's left in the mercy of this woman. Annie Wilkes is a true horror villain - one who may look sweet on the outside, but is dark on the inside. What's even scarier is that there are people like this in our own neighborhoods and we don't even know it. The realism sets MISERY apart from many other horror movies in the genre.
We also get added characters for the film adaptation in the form of Buster [the sheriff and state trooper] and his wife, Virginia. The state trooper character is in the novel in one of the pivotal scenes, but isn't really a fleshed out character. Goldman gives this character a name, a family, and more things to do for the film adaptation. And it's a good thing, as Buster and Virginia are our links to the outside world, since MISERY takes place at Annie's house for 95% of the film. And these two characters are very well-written and a pleasure to watch. Most police personnel in horror films are usually bumbling idiots who never figure it out until it's too late, being more of the comedy relief than anything. Buster, while comedic at times, is also intelligent and figures things out quicker than Annie would have probably liked. He's on the case the moment he learns that Paul is missing, investigating the crime scene and realizing that there's more than what is told to the media. Virginia is also intelligent and works hand-and-hand with Buster, reading the Misery novels to figure out any clues to his whereabouts. She's also quite spunky and sarcastic, which balances Buster's straight-man act a great deal. While Annie forces her love for Paul by being nice to him and vice versa, Buster and Virginia genuinely care for each other even while arguing over the smallest things. It's a nice counter-balance to the two main characters and their investigation on Paul [and then Annie] builds great tension as well.
What's also great about the screenplay is the dialogue. Each character has a distinct way of speaking which reveals a lot about that character. Plus the dialogue is funny at times, reveals info naturally, and always leads to something later on. I think the screenplay is extremely faithful to the novel, even adding more things to deepen the conflict a bit. It's done well.
The direction by Rob Reiner is excellent. When it was announced he would direct MISERY, there was a lot of skepticism over how he would handle the material. Reiner, a former TV star on All in the Family, was known as more of a comedy and drama director with 1984's THIS IS SPINAL TAP, 1986's STAND BY ME [another Stephen King adaptation], and 1987's THE PRINCESS BRIDE. However, all skepticism was erased once they saw how well Reiner handled the adaptation, creating a horror film that people would respect and appreciate for more than 20 years.
The best thing Reiner does in his direction is create a claustrophobic feeling in MISERY. Since most of the film takes place within the confines of Annie's house, especially the room she traps Paul in, the audience feels as if they're also stuck inside with them. It builds a ton of tension, as Paul and Annie's interactions are awkward and forced in order to please each other and keep the other from lashing out. When bad things happen, like the hobbling scene where Annie breaks Paul's feet so he won't escape, and the final confrontation, the atmosphere is thick with tension and you sort of want to get out of there. Luckily, Reiner gives us scenes that take place outside of the house, letting the audience breathe a bit before it starts over again.
I also love the slow-burn towards the finale. It starts off calm and warm, then to disturbing and creepy, and then full-on horrific by the end. The tension and suspense just builds and builds, as you anticipate that one of these two characters [maybe both] will blow up and just end this charade once and for all. Each scene leads into the next and you become more invested by what's going on and what will happen. This helps build character development, which makes the final battle that more satisfying. I'm glad Reiner didn't give it all away right from the start. He teases us and wants us to wait for the climax, which is great storytelling and great direction.
It also helps that Reiner has a strong cinematographer and composer. Barry Sonnenfeld, who worked on all three MEN IN BLACK films, as well as RAISING ARIZONA, THE ADDAMS FAMILY, and GET SHORTY, does a great job with the photography of the film. The framing, composition, and settings enhance the story well. And composer Marc Shaiman, who also worked with Reiner on THE PRINCESS BRIDE, gives the film a subtle score that never distracts from the visuals. Just really solid stuff behind the scenes.
The acting is also great. James Caan made a career comeback at the time as Paul Sheldon. The role was offered to a series of actors - like Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, Jack Nicholson, Harrison Ford, and so on. However, they each turned down the role because they felt the Paul character wasn't manly enough and was too weak compared to the Annie character. Caan, who had nothing to lose, chose the role and made it his own - proving that Paul could be just as strong as Annie, but in a quieter way. He gives the role a lot of strength, intelligence, and even masculinity during Paul's moments of weakness. I like him here a lot. Richard Farnsworth is great as Buster, the intelligent sheriff. He brings a lot of humor to the role, as well as his on-screen wife, Frances Sternhagen. They added a lot of the lighter tones to the film, which helps the viewer breathe from the more tense roles between Caan and Kathy Bates. Lauren Bacall doesn't get to do much, but she's fine as Paul's publicist, Marcia Sindell.
But the star of the film, obviously, is Kathy Bates as Annie Wilkes. Just a powerhouse performance by an actress who wasn't well-known by mainstream audiences at the time. She makes Annie so annoyingly sweet at one point, and then snaps into a terrifying and psychotic bitch the next without a sweat. She's the epitome of evil, but with a human face. She's just dead perfect for the role and definitely deserved the Academy Award she received in 1991 for Best Actress - a first for an actress in a horror film. It's no wonder why she's become one of the finest character actresses today. She's just wonderful here and anytime I see her in another film, I'm just reminded of her performance here. She's that good.
THINGS I'VE LEARNED WHILE HOPING TO NEVER MEET MY NUMBER-ONE FAN
- Never drive through the blinding snow. You'll crash your car and it'll make you feel lickety boom boom down.
- Annie believes that profanity has no nobility. Sir Lord Dick Fuckenstein says otherwise, bitch!
- Annie has a sow she has named Misery. I would guess that Misery is quite the ham once you get to know her...
- Annie wants Paul to burn his latest unpublished novel to get back at him for murdering Misery Chastain. Too bad she didn't keep Stephanie Meyer prisoner before she released those damn Twilight books.
- Paul's first words at his attempt to type a novel for Annie was "fuckfuckfuckfuckfuck..." Looks like Paul is writing Rob Zombie's next film.
- Annie, in love with Paul, wanted to kill him and then herself, just so he wouldn't leave her and they can be together forever. If only The Bachelor held such a commitment.
- After injecting Paul with a syringe full of drugs to keep him quiet, Annie is bothered by Paul's lack of trust in her. Maybe if she had kidnapped Courtney Love and Lindsay Lohan, Annie would feel much more appreciated.
THE FINAL HOWL
MISERY is one of my favorite Stephen King book-to-film adaptations. Excellent acting, solid direction, and an engaging and suspenseful story continue to make me watch this film again and again. I honestly don't see how this adaptation could have been any better and I hope no one attempts to remake this film because it can't be improved upon. A good book made into an even better film - MISERY kicks some ass. And I'm not even the film's number-one fan.