Misery (1990)


*. The theatrical release poster for Misery is amazing. Three names get top billing: Rob Reiner, Stephen King, and . . . William Goldman.
*. Now admittedly William Goldman may be the most famous screenwriter of all time, and a living legend, but his appearance here is surprising. I don’t think he’s a name that puts bums in seats.
*. Still, his name above the title does highlight just how much this is not Stephen King’s Misery.
*. I don’t mean to describe all the changes, big and small, that have been made to the plot. Those are obvious enough. To take just a few examples, in the book Annie cuts Paul’s foot off (and a thumb for good measure), she doesn’t break his ankles. In the book there is no character of Buster (Richard Farnsworth) the olde-tyme sheriff, much less his wife (Frances Sternhagen). In the movie nothing is made of Paul’s addiction to painkillers. These are all significant changes, but there are two larger, tonal differences I want to focus on.
*. In the first place, Misery the film is a comedy. A black comedy to be sure, but still a funny movie. That line where Annie wants to celebrate by breaking out the Liberace records isn’t in the book. And the endless reaction shots of Paul trying to keep a blank, straight face while Annie takes flight are typical of a whole style of comedy that’s become very popular (think of the cutaways to Jim watching Michael Scott on The Office).
*. The second change, relating to the first, is the film’s treatment of Annie. In the book, Annie is an ogre. She smells foul, and looks worse (at one point King even compares her to Piltdown Man). She is also sadistic and gratuitously cruel, in a way that she isn’t in the film.
*. Part of this is down to the inevitable process of prettying-up that comes with making a movie. It may be that the sweet-faced Kathy Bates was as close to an ogre as anyone in Hollywood could imagine. The movie Annie even admits that she’s “not a movie-star type,” but she’s far from hard to look at. Being killed by the pig doorstopper fits with the earlier business of having her oink like a pig, but this almost casual harshness sounds a false note. That’s not Kathy Bates.
*. The fact that Annie’s actually kind of pretty in a rustic way lets Reiner play up the romantic/sexual angle more than it is in the book. We know that the cross Annie has on her necklace lies on top of a breast that is a hotbed of repression. We nod our heads when we see her watching The Dating Game and eating up all those Misery nurse-novels. Maybe she doesn’t want to fuck Paul, but she does want him to write some good porn for her.
*. By the way, I don’t recall that cross being mentioned in the novel. Annie does invoke God on occasion and says she receives guidance from him (as she does in the movie) but His presence is less overt. Here, however, you’re made to notice that golden cross in nearly every shot of Annie, the way it glitters out of her drab wardrobe. Is there any significance to the fact that we don’t see it when she’s all dressed up for her candlelit dinner with Paul?


*. I guess what I’m implying here is Hollywood’s inclination to treat faith itself as a kind of mental illness, though to be fair King’s novels are full of shots taken at crazed fundamentalists. I don’t say this from the perspective of an offended believer (I’m not), but just as a general observation.
*. Annie also occupies an uncertain no-man’s-land of psycho women in film. She’s not a psycho-biddy of the Grande Dame Guignol school, nor a honey trap or sexual predator of the Play Misty for Me or Fatal Attraction variety, but a bit of both. She’s a mommy taking care of her baby boy, but one who is full of sexual yearnings under all those layers of heavy winter clothes. You can certainly see elements of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? here, with Caan as Joan Collins, but there are also pieces that are recurring elements in the psycho-succubus genre.
*. The leads are all good, and Caan (who was way down the list of choices to play Paul) is underrated I think, playing against type (the tough guy as invalid).
*. As for the direction, it seems mostly functional to me. Roger Ebert’s notice is, I think, right: “It is a good story, a natural, and it grabs us. But just as there is almost no way to screw it up, so there’s hardly any way to bring it above a certain level of inspiration. Many competent directors could have done what Reiner does here, and perhaps many other actors could have done what Caan does, although the Kathy Bates performance is trickier and more special. The result is good craftsmanship, and a movie that works. It does not illuminate, challenge or inspire, but it works.”
*. So yes, the suspense is well advanced. When things get crazy there are some Dutch tilts and thunder and lightning thrown in for good measure. The inclusion of Buster and his wife helps beat the cabin fever or letting the whole thing turn into a horror version of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. As mentioned, none of that is in the book, though Buster’s end reminded me of nothing so much as the similar rescue fail by Scatman Crothers in The Shining.
*. Good use is made of a couple of repetitive shots. In the first place we have all the giant close-ups of tiny but significant items: bobby pins, matches, pills, porcelain curios. This is an effective way of bringing home to us Paul’s incredible shrinking world.
*. The other repeated shot is that of Annie’s head looming like a storm cloud just slightly above us, imperiously holding instruments of torture and control like Zeus clenching a thunderbolt. Shots like this give the “goddess” impression of Annie that King made a major motif in the novel.




*. All of these little touches work. This is a small movie in more ways than just the restricted set, but it’s the kind of story that I think has always shown King at his best. We feel like we’re watching a well-made play, with everything in its right place. For example, I love the dressing and arrangement of that overhead tableau shot near the end showing the foot of the bed the open door, the broken glass of champagne, the pile of the burned manuscript, and Annie lying by the typewriter. Those are all stage marks.
*. Finally, I can’t help but think there’s something elegiac in all of this. It’s 1990 and we are on the cusp of the digital revolution, still living in an analog media landscape. Wordsmith Paul Sheldon, however much a hack, is the last of a dying breed, banging away on his clunky manual typewriter (the kind that I first learned to type on). In his secluded mountain cabin he is living a dark parody of the romantic myth of the solitary artist shivering in a garret, dangerously isolated from the madding crowd.
*. And as for Annie, well, isn’t it nice to have a reader who cares? Annie isn’t one of those social-media friends who “likes” Paul in an ethereal way. I’m afraid that she’s the real deal.


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