The King of Adaptations: Misery (1990)

The King of Adaptations: Misery (1990)

Stephen King had published 20 novels by the time Misery was released in 1987. The novel won critical acclaim, including the first Bram Stoker Award for Novel. The story of novelist Paul Sheldon and his number-one fan, Annie Wilkes, represented something of a departure from the material King had published until then; so much so he originally planned to publish the novel under his pseudonym, Richard Bachman. Misery was stoked to fruition by the negative reaction King’s previous novel, The Eyes of the Dragon, received from fans of his earlier work in the horror genre. The result is a series of descending metaphors that get to the root of King’s sense of responsibility to his fans, and to himself. Misery trades in the supernatural for an imposing, claustrophobic, psychological horror spearheaded by one of King’s best villains, Annie Wilkes. 

Paul Sheldon, having just finished his latest manuscript and disavowed his previous work, the best-selling series of novels featuring Misery Chastain, crashes his Mustang in a Colorado blizzard. The first thing we learn about Paul, in King’s novel, is that he has always had a vivid imagination. He constantly hears his mother in the background of his mind, “I don’t know where he gets it,” she says, “Nobody on MY side of the family had an imagination like his” (King, 40). Paul’s imagination is what Annie Wilkes finds so marvelous. 

Annie is Paul’s biggest fan. More specifically, Annie is Misery Chastain’s biggest fan. She is an obsessive reader of Misery’s Lover, Misery’s Paradise, Misery’s Unchained and the rest of the Misery series. She’s read them all five times each, and can’t wait for the new one to arrive in paperback at the local hardware store. Oh and wouldn’t you know, Annie just happens to stumble across Paul’s car crashed off a scenic road in Sidewinder, CO; just in time to pry his lifeless body from the wreck and bring him home. Who among us hasn’t wanted a pet novelist?

In 1990 the novel was adapted into a film starring James Caan and Kathy Bates as Paul and Annie. Written by William Goldman and directed by Rob Reiner, the film is the only Stephen King adaptation to win an Academy Award – won by Kathy Bates for her portrayal of the Jekyll-Hyde Annie. The film is very good, a solid adaptation of one of King’s best novels; but there are a few things that come through clearer on the page than on screen. Paul’s imagination, and his addiction. 

Shortly after beginning his tenure at the Wilkes home, Paul realizes Annie has hooked him on little red pills called “Novril.” The novel even carries a disclaimer,

There is, of course, no such drug as Novril, but there are several Codeine-based drugs similar to it, and, unfortunately, hospital pharmacies and medical practice dispensaries are sometimes lax in keeping such drugs under tight lock and close inventory.

The film does well to show Paul’s addiction to narcotics, but does not impart the feeling of addiction Paul eventually feels to writing Misery. The sudden realization that Paul finds writing as much a “fix” as the pills is jarring and profound. He’s been dealing with the painful, sweating agony of narcotic addiction for some 200 pages; once he realizes he’s addicted to writing the novel, the only thing keeping him alive, he’s powerless to resist. 

One of the pleasures of reading Misery that the film can’t offer is actually reading Misery’s Return. Once Annie realizes Paul has killed Misery in his latest novel, she holds him captive until he finishes a novel that brings her back to life. And that novel, Misery’s Return, is actually great fun to read. Set at the turn of the 20th Century, it tells the story of a woman being mistakenly buried, then clawing her way up through coffin and dirt only to perish at the very cusp of survival, her broken, clawed hand stretching from the fresh dirt of her grave. Not only is the novel fun to read, it also offers a metaphoric insight into King’s feelings about his own work. 

Misery, James Caan, Rob Reiner, Kathy Bates, Stephen King,

Paul eventually falls in love with Misery’s Return. No longer resentful and obligated to Misery, he finds himself engaging and truly enjoying writing her again. One can easily overlay King’s own feelings about his “obligations” to his fans, and his reliance on them. In the same way Paul is addicted to writing, he is also reliant on his fans being addicted to his writing. 

When King published The Eyes of the Dragon, he received negative reaction from his fans mostly because the sci-fi/fantasy novel was not the horror they had come to expect from him. King must have gone through a similar range of emotions as Paul Sheldon: anger and sadness his other work wasn’t of interest to his “fans”; resent of the work those fans did like; and, finally, acceptance and willingness to pursue the work further. Ultimately, not for the fan, for himself. 

The film plays into the claustrophobia of Paul’s paranoia and starkly presents Annie’s illness. The seclusion of Annie’s home, Paul’s confinement to a wheelchair, and Annie’s constant observation make his escape seem truly impossible; but Bates’s performance is what really hammers home Paul’s helplessness. One moment she’s hospitable, enthusiastic, encouraging; in the next she’s distant, demeaning, and violent. 

Annie, like a lot of the King’s best characters, is conflicted about what she wants. Bates plays this conflict with an eye-twitching forced smile, until Annie can’t take it anymore. Enough with these cockadoodie pretentions. Annie takes a sledgehammer to Paul’s ankles, affirming what he’s known this whole time: She’s not going to let him leave. 

Misery, on screen and page, is a Stephen King masterpiece. There are some subtle differences between the two (in the novel Annie “hobbles” Paul by cutting one of his legs off just below the knee), but ultimately the changes made for the adaptation to screen are wise, unobtrusive ones. Buster, the Sheriff played by Richard Farnsworth, does not appear in the novel; rather he’s created as a sort of amalgam of two or three different officers that visit the Wilkes home in the novel. Buster’s realization–putting the pieces together by reading the Misery novels and recognizing a quote in a newspaper article about Annie–is, likewise, not in the novel, but it’s a moment that plays well in the pace of the film. 

About halfway through the novel, Annie tells Paul the story of her first victim. A young artist on an assignment from a magazine in New York to sketch the ruins of the hotel. You know, the famous hotel that burned down about ten years ago? “It was a famous old hotel called the Overlook,” Annie says (King, 264). 

We may hear more about that hotel next week.

What’s your favorite Stephen King adaptation and why? Leave us a comment below or tweet us at @TalkFilmSoc.

Be sure to stay tuned for a look back at Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining as part of our King retrospective in anticipation of IT: Chapter Two!

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