Via Correspondence: Misery (1990)
The Series: Isaac lives in New Brunswick. Jason lives in Toronto. Every so often, they watch a movie separately and then share their thoughts in a back-and-forth conversation here. It's the written equivalent of a movie discussion podcast.
The Movie: Rob Reiner's adaptation of Stephen King's 1987 novel Misery. It's the story of Paul Sheldon (James Caan), a successful writer who almost dies in a car crash during a winter storm. Fortunately, he is saved by his number one fan, Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates). Unfortunately, Annie is dangerously unstable and knows her way around a sledgehammer.
Why This Movie? This is another entry where one of us had already seen the movie, and one of us had not. I (Isaac) am a huge fan of Stephen King. We're not talking Annie Wilkes levels of devotion but he's my favourite artist in any medium. Misery is one of his very best novels and also one of the best movies based on his work. Not just that, it's one of my favourite movies of all time. So when that dirty bird Jason told me he'd never seen it, it was pretty darn clear what cock-a-doodie movie we were going to watch next.
Isaac: I was pretty surprised when you told me you'd never seen this one before. It's such a well known film that has become an essential part of the pop culture canon. It has to be one of the most parodied and referenced films ever. Even people who haven't seen it are probably familiar with its key scenes just through cultural osmosis. It airs on television regularly, which is where I first saw it. It's also in a pretty exclusive club of Oscar winning horror/thriller films (thanks to Kathy Bates' legendary performance). And since you're one of the biggest film buffs I know, I just assumed you'd seen it. Of course, we all have our blind spots and I'm happy to have helped you remove this one.
Clearly I love this movie to pieces (you bet your ass that pun was intended) but before I get into the specifics, I'm curious about your experience with it. Did it strike a nerve with you or did it make you wonder what all the fuss is about?
Jason: By and large, I liked Misery quite a bit. I've long said that I wish more horror films or thrillers were set in wintry locations because the snow and the cold so naturally creates a sense of isolation. That's here in spades. Not just because our protagonist, Paul Sheldon, is bedridden because of his various injuries sustained in his car wreck. That's the primary cause of his isolation, but the oppressive mounds of snow add to this even before we get a full understanding on just what Annie Wilkes is all about. At first, Annie is bizarre but she seems well-meaning. Eventually, and I'm sure we'll talk about her transformation, she becomes another overt element in his predicament, one far more dangerous than the piles of frigid snow and ice on the outside.
This is a painful movie, and I mean that in a mostly good way. It's funny, though, because its title gives away its twist - if you can really, even call it that - and despite the main character of Paul Sheldon's novel being Misery, you know full well that the misery of the title is referring to the trials and tribulations he will face in that bed. I couldn't help but thinking how the impact of Annie Wilkes' psychology turning her from prospective caretaker to torture-chamber operator would have been escalated if it had a less obvious title. Then again, it's also based on a Stephen King novel and he has precious few "nice" stories in him. Think of the Takashi Miike film, Audition. Its entire first half, if not longer, is some weird combination romantic drama/comedy before it goes full bore into insane thriller mode. In a sense, Misery borrows from the Psycho method of storytelling in that the title prepares us for some unknown terror that looms. We know it will get bad, but we're unsure exactly what it will be.
Let me be clear, this is not a criticism of the film, but a mere observation about how films are marketed. Genre is so important in advertising, and this is so very clear in horror cinema. Imagine this had a title like When Paul Met Annie. So many distraught viewers. Even knowing the plot and knowing about the big scene with the sledgehammer, I didn't find the impact to be lessened. It's an effective, claustrophobic, nightmare situation and it works very well for the most part. What did you glean from it this time? Were there any new angles you saw the subject matter from?
Isaac: It's funny that you mention the title giving away the unsuspected threat that Paul Sheldon faces, because I was thinking of that very same thing as I was watching it and I came to the same conclusions. The nature of how films are marketed demands that certain elements (some might argue too many) are given away before the audience even lays eyes on the thing. And, of course, this is a Stephen King adaptation, so even if the audience manages to go in without knowing the plot, it would still be obvious that Annie is dangerous long before the film tips its hand.
But there's still fun in that tension, the way the film plays with Annie's intentions. In these times of spoiler alert saturation, movie goers seem so insistent on being blindsided by major twists and surprises, but sometimes (when it's handled well) there is a pleasure in watching the inevitable unfold. It might be an interesting movie if we had no idea Annie was crazy until Paul knew, but there's also something to be said for the audience knowing more than the protagonist. The tension comes from us knowing the other shoe is about to drop while being forced to watch Paul slowly discover it.
And Misery is such an expertly told story that I was completely riveted even though I've seen the film a few dozen times as well as read the novel and watched a stage production. So, this time around there were no surprises, just the fun of watching a group of talented artists (both in front of and behind the camera) at the top of their game, adapting the work of a talented writer at the top of his.
I can't say I really saw it from a new angle because I'm so familiar with the material. This viewing was more like visiting an old friend I know inside and out. What got me the most this time was how difficult it must be to write a quick moving, intense roller-coaster of a story that is essentially two people in a room talking to each other. There is action, scenes of horror, thrilling moments (particularly the scenes where Paul explores Annie's home while she's away) but the large majority of it is two people talking. And one of them is confined to a bed. So the filmmakers can't get away with relying on visuals. Mostly, our only scenery are four dull wooden walls and a glimpse of the beautiful snow covered forest we see through Paul's window. Much like a stage play, it's all in the characters. How they play off each other, how they effect each other, how they manipulate each other and, strangely, how – at times – they're even good for each other.
Besides the monsters and villains he creates, Stephen King is most well known for his fully realized and relatable characters. A quality that is rarely translated to the screen when his work is adapted. I can count on one hand the films based on King's work that really capture the essence of what makes his books special, and Misery is one of those films.
Jason: Misery is absolutely one of the better King adaptations, though that's not really hard. Reiner made two good ones between this and Stand By Me, which defies the general expectations behind a King story. It's kind of funny that both Reiner and Frank Darabont started their King adaptation careers with non-horror films before eventually cutting their teeth on the more sinister. Darabont did The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile - which are their own kinds of horror stories, but aren't in the genre, obviously - before moving on to do the delightfully campy and fun The Mist. I wonder if this was by design. Probably coincidental, but the results work.
The Biggest difference between Darabont's and Reiner's foray into King's full horror is Reiner stayed in the real world while Darabont drifted into the supernatural. That might be why Reiner's films and Darabont's first attempts at adapting King are possibly the best translations of King's novels to the big screen. Those four movies are far more rooted in reality than the macabre of the shadows. The evils in those stories are mostly within the people and aren't part of something more sinister or less human. Often, King's monsters - the non-human variety - come off as hokey. Look at The Langoliers, for example. That might be victim to poor budget and sfx, but it was pretty poorly done.
This isn't a hard rule as The Mist has shown, and I'm partial to 1408 as well. Misery is just a pulpy piece of fun. Over the past couple years I've watched a couple James Caan movies for the first time, notably this and Thief, and to a lesser extent, Elf. I can't help but wonder why he didn't stay a big deal. He's very good as Paul Sheldon. Everyone, rightly, always sings Bates' praises but they play off one another perfectly. Caan is surprising because I've always seen him as a bit of a blue-collar thug or lunkhead with good intentions like Sonny in The Godfather. As the novelist in Misery, he shows a surprising amount of vulnerability, which is absolutely necessary for this role to work. The power dynamic between Annie Wilkes and Paul Sheldon is what makes the tension tighten. It would be so easy for a tough guy hero to just grimace through the pain, taking it like a man all the way, which is precisely what I expected, but once again my expectations were bucked.
I do think the overall visual flair was lacking, though. While it worked as subtle for you, it was too blase for me. Of course, if this movie were made today there would be a rash of smash cuts and the pacing would be sped up and Annie Wilkes would have a giant speech manifesto or something, explaining why exactly she did what she did. Something in between would have been nice. While I think he may not have been the right choice at the time, a Sam Raimi version of this post A Simple Plan might have hit the right groove for me. That's merely speculation, of course, and it didn't hurt my overall enjoyment of Misery.
Isaac: I'd love to see Sam Raimi's version of just about any King novel. In fact, he's one of the few major directors in horror who hasn't adapted King. John Carpenter, David Cronenberg, George Romero, Tom Holland, and Tobe Hooper have all worked with King's material at least once. One of the many things I admire about Raimi is, when adapting the work of others, he's very adept at staying true to the spirit of the source while still showcasing his cinematic idiosyncrasies, whether it's something fun and wacky like Spider-Man or more serious fare such as A Simple Plan. King is a writer with a very distinct and immense artistic vision and it often takes a director with comparable talents to do him justice. Who knows, maybe someday we'll get a Raimi/King collaboration. Back in '82, King was an early champion of The Evil Dead and his endorsement helped put the film on the map and into theaters, which Raimi has acknowledged in interviews. There seems to be a mutual admiration between the two, so maybe it's possibility. One can dream.
I agree that King's straight horror stories don't always work on screen. In my opinion, the best film based on his work and the one that best captures the feeling of reading one of his novels is Stand by Me. I think a lot of the time his imagination is so ambitious and high concept and, at times, downright weird, that it is almost impossible to accurately translate to film even if it works beautifully (or terrifyingly) in written form. Especially when his longer works are sanitized for a modestly budgeted TV miniseries. Langoliers is a perfect example. The novella is one of King's most inventive, mind blowing stories. A fan favourite. But the film is all cheesy melodrama and cheap looking CGI. Doesn't quite capture the cosmic terror of it all. I'd say it's the same reason there aren't many well loved H.P. Lovecraft adaptations.
Even though Misery is a modern-ish film, it's just old enough to benefit from aspects of both classic and more contemporary filmmaking. It's not flashy, it takes its time, it lives and dies by the strength of the story and the acting, so in that way it is a very classical sort of film. On the other hand, it can be gruesome, it doesn't sugarcoat the nastier aspects of human nature, and it doesn't portray Annie as a simple bogeyman or a character who is pure evil. There are no defined lines between good and evil, just characters who think what they're doing is right or at least makes sense.
One of my favourite things about Annie is that she has a self awareness. She knows she can fly off the handle, that something is wrong with her, but she has blind spots too. She knows what she is doing is wrong, because she goes to great lengths to cover her tracks and keep the outside world from finding Paul. But she also thinks what she is doing is right, maybe even the work of God. It's that kind of well-rounded character that makes King's stories so easy to get lost in.
Jason: Misery does find a happy medium between the ultra-gory and purely psychological. And while I spent some time suggesting Sam Raimi over Rob Reiner, it's easy to forget just how great Reiner's output in the 80s and early 90s really was. Besides the two King adaptations, he directed This is Spinal Tap, The Sure Thing, When Harry Met Sally, and The Princess Bride. Of those, only The Sure Thing isn't widely regarded as a classic, whereas the other three have pretty rabid fanbases.
That he was able to capture very different tones effectively speaks highly of him as a director and makes his last 20 years even more disappointing. Very few filmmakers rattle off this solid of a resume in consecutive films, especially when starting out.
My favourite King adaptation is probably still Kubrick's The Shining, but it really doesn't work well as a straight representation of the source material. Outside that, it's The Shawshank Redemption, but I hold both of Reiner's films in fairly high regard after finally catching up with Misery. He was able to put together complete, successful stories in ways that neither Carpenter nor Cronenberg, two directors I place higher in the ultimate pantheon than Reiner, could.
Next Time: We go back to the format of both going in blind when we look at the Danish drama, The Hunt starring Mads Mikkelsen as a man accused of some pretty rotten stuff in a small town.