31 Days of Hell: Misery is a Must Watch Stephen King Adaptation


Annie Wilkes reads to Paul Sheldon
Image Courtesy of One Room With a View

Stephen King is one of the most prolific writers of his generation. His novels and short stories have delighted and terrified readers of all ages. Whenever the words “Based on the novel by Stephen King” scroll across the screen at the beginning of a film, I know I’m in for a special treat. The most iconic Stephen King film, The Shining which was given the full Stanley Kubrick treatment, is the first that comes to mind when I think of exemplar Stephen King films, but not far behind is the film adaptation of his novel Misery. Perhaps it is because Misery is the only Stephen King novel I’ve read, or it could be the plot grounded in realism in a way few Stephen King novels are, but the film adaptation terrifies me in a way few horror movies have. Directed by Rob Reiner and adapted for the screen by William Goldman, this film is a must watch for anyone who is a horror fan, or just a fan of incredible film.

James Caan was selected to play the role of Paul Sheldon, although the role was offered to Harrison Ford, Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Richard Dreyfuss, among others. Sheldon is a writer who, after finishing the first draft of a new novel at a remote lodge in Colorado, drives his car off the road shattering his legs and knocking himself unconscious. He wakes up in the home of Annie Wilkes, played by Kathy Bates for which she won 5 awards including the academy award for best actress. She is a nurse, who helps mend Paul’s legs and cares for him while the roads thaw out, and she can bring him to a hospital. Annie revels that she is Paul’s biggest fan, but her caring and doting attention quickly turns to abuse when Paul kills off Misery Chastain, the main character in Paul’s novel series from which the book and film derive their name.

Annie mends Paul's legs 
Image courtesy of It Rains... You Get Wet

This movie thrives in the subtleties of Paul and Annie’s interactions. The moments where Annie is caring for Paul, even before her duplicitous designs are revealed, are mixed with sinister elements. Annie at one moment shaves Paul’s neck with a straight razor, a caring act in which Paul allows her to run a razor blade along his throat, something he would not do by the end of the film. The dialogue also serves to build the characters in a similar way. Lines that Annie throws away in her often-manic conversations with Paul offer clues to the viewer that she has a dark past. She once throws out “That’s why I couldn’t remember all the details when I was on the witness stand in Denver,” and immediately moves on as the camera focuses on Paul’s reaction. Lines like these builds the character’s backstory without the need for clunky flashbacks and pointless exposition.

Annie’s little eccentricities also help to build such an interesting character. During one of the first scenes in the film where Annie’s caring veneer is ruptured she is spoon feeding Paul tomato soup, which looks like blood when she gets carried away and sloshes it onto the bed. Annie losing control of her actions when agitated turns her into a very unpredictable villain, who may lash out at the slightest provocation. Her lack of attention to what is in her hand is fairly harmless when it’s a bowl of soup but becomes dangerous as the film progresses.

Probably Annie’s most prominent eccentric behavior is her alternative curse words. When Paul does something she really doesn’t like, he’s a Dirty Bird. After a particularly sinister attack, Annie would say something like “look at this oogie mess” or “Heavens to Betsy.” The silliness of many of her sayings serves to amplify the tension, and strangeness of her rants. Her curse-free rants are scarier than if she had cursed the whole way through, and characterize her as someone comfortable carrying out extreme violence, but uncomfortable around bad language.

Although slightly overshadowed by Bates’ incredible performance, James Caan’s performance as Paul Sheldon should not be overlooked. Caan said it would be an interesting challenge playing Paul, a character who is entirely reactionary. Incapable of doing anything for himself, he relies on Annie for everything, forcing him to interact with and be entirely at the whim of this abusive woman. It is an interesting horror movie in this regard as well, as it spans a much longer time frame than most horror films would take on. There are also long stretches of peace between the outbursts that bring the horror. Reiner and Goldman also cut some of the more violent moments in the novel that they felt would go too far for the film, choices which ultimately made it a stronger film. This movie pushes the envelope of the horror genera, and should be on everyone’s list for this 31 days of hell.

--Patrick Bernas