Let’s Talk About ‘Misery’ (1990)

“Oh poo, I can’t think of any words. Would great be insulting?”

What Misery Means to Us

I cannot pinpoint the first time I watched Misery, but I can absolutely describe how it made me feel. Claustrophobic. Tense. Scared. And that scene with the sledgehammer. I still wince thinking about it. Had this movie really come from the guy who made Stand By Me and The Princess Bride? Wooooboy. Above everything else I remember how terrifying Kathy Bates’s portrayal of Annie Wilkes was. No, she was not your typical horror movie monster. She wasn’t Jaws, or Freddy Krueger. This was just a woman. A very enamored woman. Maybe that’s what made it so much scarier than any other horror movie I’d ever seen. It wasn’t until much later that I understood exactly what Annie represented, especially to an author like Stephen King. How “fandom” can become obsession and that obsession can turn psychotic and murderous. It’s such a chilling movie, especially watching it presently with “stan” culture and the ability to be that much closure to idols thanks to social media. But this isn’t an analysis on how Misery resonates with today’s society. This is a small blurb to express my appreciation for one of the few King adaptations that captures the same terror I felt when I read the novel. My only gripe is that they didn’t go full throttle with the ankle scene like King did in the book. But the scene is still extremely effective, so I can’t complain too much.

–Romona Comet

King adaptations are notoriously lackluster, but at least two of the master of horror’s tales are among the most rewatchable films of all time. And it’s funny (or maybe it’s not), but they essentially tell the same story.

A man is held unjustly against his will, but his will to be free is unbreakable. And despite many hardships and setbacks, he never loses hope, never gives up, and eventually wins his freedom back. 

That description works for The Shawshank Redemption and it works for Misery. Both of which are excellently written, directed, acted, plotted, and paced adaptations of Stephen King’s work. I’ve never actually read Misery, so I can’t speak to how faithful it is an adaptation, but it’s every bit as gripping and compelling as Shawshank is, and it’s just as rewatchable. I don’t care how many times I’ve seen it, my palms sweat every time Paul gets out of his room and starts to poke around Annie’s house.

Misery is like comfort food. I can put it on in the dead of summer and find myself transported to the snowy Rockies, shivering with cold as if I were there with Paul and Annie, and hoping, even though I’ve seen it dozens of times, that Annie won’t notice the penguin facing the wrong direction.

But she always does…

–Billy Dhalgren

From Page to Screen

There’s a saying in Hollywood that goes something like, “No one sets out to make a bad movie.” There’s another saying about how “it’s easier to make a bad movie than a good one.” As far as Stephen King adaptations go, the majority often come up short. Now I would never call myself a connoisseur of Stephen King (I’ll leave Romona and Bob to fight over that title), but I’m familiar enough with his body of work to come up with a couple of theories as to why some adaptations of his work and others don’t. Hint: It’s all about the word count.

Simply put, brevity is not in Stephen King’s lexicon. Sure, he’s written short stories, but he also knows what the word short means. But once he became famous, novels consisting of less than 200 pages like Carrie became a thing of the past. Instead, his manuscripts grew larger and longer, with seemingly neverending word counts. Now, where am I going with this? Well, I think the problem is that the source material is either too long or too short to be probably adapted to film.

Sure, there are exceptions to this theory. The Shawshank Redemption was based on a short story and is great. I agree with that. It is a bazillion pages long and has been successfully adapted not once, but twice. Again, I agree with you, but even if It is a great movie, it’s a highly condensed version of King’s story. So here’s where I’m going with this ramble. Personally speaking, and I think this applies to every literary adaptation, novels with word counts between 75,000 and 125,000 are the perfect length for film adaptations. Again, there will be exceptions, but anything more and you’d be better off for a limited series or two-part adaptation.

Now back to Misery. Despite its 110,000 word count (roughly 400 pages), the story is gripping. King’s writing keeps you reading. I watched the 1990 movie long before I ever read the source material, but the two are largely identical. It might be one of the most faithful adaptations of a King story, with myself only noticing a few minor character and story differences between the two.

Well, I guess there was one major difference I noticed when reading King’s novel and it concerns…

The Hobbling Scene

One of the things I love about Misery is how it makes small moments feel extremely tense and suspenseful. Whether it’s our trapped author Paul Sheldon (James Caan) picking up the hairpin or hiding the pain pills in his mattress, the film keeps you on edge wondering if he will accomplish his task or get caught in the act by his crazy captor, Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates).

However, “The Hobbling Scene” is not tense nor is it suspenseful. No, “The Hobbling Scene” is just downright brutal. Paul has been caught. She’s found his knife. She knows he’s been out of his room. The jig is up. Now we wait, like Paul, to see what Annie is going to do for punishment.

“The Hobbling Scene” is definitely the most gruesome and terrifying part of the film. It’s the one scene in Misery that always has me cringing in pain and glancing away as Annie brings down the hammer and absolutely smashes Paul’s ankles to pieces. Both actors give one hell of a performance in this scene, with Caan convincingly portraying immense pain and Bates doing her best deranged Florence Nightingale impression. I mean, as soon as the deed is done, the camera zooms in on her face to catch her saying, “God, I love you,” to Paul. Creepy! It makes my skin crawl just thinking about it.

Yet, it could have been worse. King, who has never shied away from excessive violence in his novels, does not have “The Hobbling” in his novel. Instead of breaking Paul’s ankles, Annie straight up severs one of the author’s feet with an ax. It’s a lot and director Rob Reiner thought so too, telling the film’s screenwriter William Goldman to change the scene to something a little less gruesome. Goldman initially fought for it to be included, but has subsequently written that Reiner made the right decision as the visual depiction of amputation would have caused the audience to hate Annie instead of sympathizing with her madness.

“I am your number one fan.”

Misery‘s Legacy

Misery was a huge success at the box office and with critics. Bates particularly received acclaim for her performance, winning the Academy Award for Best Actress at the 63rd Academy Awards. Now, while I agree that Bates is the MVP of the film, I feel that there is no bad performance in Misery. Caan is equally great as Paul, showing a wide range of emotions such as fear, dismay, and anger within the span of seconds. I’d also kick myself if I didn’t mention Richard Farnsworth and Frances Sternhagen, who supply Misery with some much-needed comedic relief as Silver Creek’s Sheriff Buster and Deputy Virginia, respectively. “You see, it’s just that kind of sarcasm that’s given our marriage real spice” is easily my favorite piece of dialogue from the movie.

I’ll always say that Misery was released during Reiner’s hot streak, coming out after the one-two-three punch of Stand by Me (1986), The Princess Bride (1987), and When Harry Met Sally… (1989), and before A Few Good Men (1992). I mean, c’mon, most directors would wish to have two of those films in their filmography let alone all five. Also, does having two outstanding Stephen King adaptations on his resume make Reiner the de facto King of King adaptations? Something to discuss in the comments.

So, what is Misery‘s legacy? Well, look no further than the ScreenAge Wasteland Archives for the answer. The film is #5 on our list of Greatest Stephen King Adaptations and #8 on the Greatest Horror Films of the 1990s list. Annie Wilkes landed at #18 and #26 on our Greatest Female Characters in Horror and Greatest ’90s Movie Characters lists, respectively, while “The Hobbling Scene” is #68 in Sailor’s 100 Scariest Movie Moments of All Time list. Those are some pretty great placements. So yeah, if you haven’t seen Misery yet, please go and watch it. I promise you that you’ll enjoy it. Hell, you might enjoy Misery so much that you end up becoming the film’s number one fan. Just don’t go all Annie Wilkes on society afterward, okay?

Are you a fan of Rob Reiner’s adaptation of Stephen King’s Misery? Do you have a fun fact or piece of trivia about the film? Share it in the comments below!

Author: Marmaduke Karlston

"Wait a minute. Wait a minute Doc, uh, are you telling me you built a time machine... out of a DeLorean?"