One of my favorite Stephen King books and film adaptations is Misery. The book came out in 1987, with the film following shortly in 1990. Tonight, I watched the film for the first time in years. It used to be one of those cable re-watches, but it’s been a while. In short, the film follows Paul Sheldon (played by James Caan), a romance novel writer of books about a character named Misery, who is tired of writing about Misery. You could even say he’s miserable writing about Misery. He wants to flex his writing muscles about something else. In fact, he writes such a novel and on his way from Colorado, where he likes to write, to New York to deliver the book to his literary agent, he crashes during a snow storm.
At first, fortunately for him, a former nurse named Annie Wilkes (played by Kathy Bates) finds him, rescues him from the wreckage and nurses him back to health, all the while assuring him that she’s his, “number one fan.” But, it turns out that she’s a psycho who used to kill babies on top of the fact that she’s stark raving mad that he killed off the Misery character. She holds him hostage at her home, forcing him to write Misery back into existence.
His literary agent and the local sheriff, Buster (Richard Farnsworth), are trying to track him down. One of the things I appreciated about the film was that Sheriff Buster wasn’t treated as the stereotypical small town bumbling fool of a cop. Instead, he was earnest and taking Sheldon’s disappearance seriously. He got so close to figuring it out and rescuing Sheldon, which makes his death at the hands of Annie at the end all the more devastating to watch. I put my hands over my eyes, knowing it was coming!
I think the genius of the film (and the book) is that it is such a small cast of characters and for the most part, we are there with Sheldon in the little room, with broken legs and at the mercy of this psycho fan, Annie. Kathy Bates plays her almost to comedic effect because of how goofy the character is, like not liking cuss words in Sheldon’s new novel or snorting with her hog “affectionately” named Misery. But it all adds up to an unsettling picture of a woman who isn’t well, to say the least. Bates rightly won the Best Actress award at the Academy Awards. She’s genuinely frightening at times and of course, the sledgehammer scene is iconic at this point.
I would say it’s one of the best adaptations of a Stephen King film. It’s true to all the characters involved, with terrific performances and it captures the mood of the film: again, that unsettling atmosphere, waiting for the crap to hit the fan and then bracing each time it does. And there’s the thriller element of wondering just how Sheldon is going to get out of this predicament.
Even if you haven’t read the book, on its own merits, the film is worth seeing, and despite it having such a small cast and largely taking place in one room, it moves fast. It’s taut. But still, I’d highly recommend the book, too. In fact, I’m due for a re-read myself to refresh myself on the details the movie doesn’t include, despite being a rather faithful adaptation. Arguably, the sledgehammer scene, which isn’t in the book, is a better version of the horror Sheldon endures.
The reason the film and book endure to me as among the best of King’s books and the best film adaptations is that it’s so grounded in reality rather than using any of his trademark supernatural elements. That makes it all the more terrifying.