The blogger otherwise known as the Scientist Gone Wordy and I are back to close out April with another movie title that began its life between a book cover for this duo post series of ours. I ask you, where the Hell is the year going?!? Don’t answer that. This month we’re taking our first look at one of the most popular and prolific writers on the planet. Stephen King. Likely the most well-known American author of contemporary horror, suspense, science fiction and fantasy.
Sell more than 350 million books will garner such acclaim, I reckon. Contrary to the majority of them, the TV/film adaptations of his novels — sometimes referred by me as the good, the bad, and the ugly — have been a mixed bag. Luckily, Rachel picked one of the better ones. His twenty-seventh, counting those books under his name and nom de plume Richard Bachman persona, the appropriately titled Misery will be given scrutiny.
As usual, the wordy one will examine the 1987 novel later adapted to film, which I will review. The Bram Stoker Award winner, World Fantasy Award nominee published for her. Me, its surprising 1990 film. Rachel’s book review can be found here:
A brief synopsis of the film: Paul Sheldon, the ever popular author of the Victorian-era heroine Misery Chastain novels, has just experienced two life-changing events in his career. A near-death car crash, and meeting his biggest fan. An ex-nurse by the name of Annie Wilkes. The former could have killed him. The latter will prevent that. Unfortunately, as a result of both, what unfolds for the injured writer in the coming weeks and months, will prove his caregiver-captor was easily the worse of the two as he attempts to write a novel to save his own life.
[spoiler warning: some key elements of the film could be revealed in this review]
“There is a justice higher than that of man. I will be judged by him.”
Hard to believe it’s been almost twenty-seven years since I pored over Stephen King’s Misery novel. As mentioned, the last of his I read in a long row going back to the mid-70s. A terrific and terrifying tale that was as much about writing, and the craft of sacrificing oneself for the construction of a novel, as being trapped by your own success and failure. For that matter, trapped in a house and in the clutches of a mad woman, who just happened to be your greatest fan. Completely at her mercy, or lack thereof.
In the capable hands of director Rob Reiner, the film adaptation of Stephen King’s proved to be one of the better ones offered for what was left of the 20th Century. The film, his second SK venture (the stellar Stand By Me from the author’s The Body novella being the first), one in his very successful line of movies that began with his brilliant rockumentary, This Is Spinal Tap. The string solidly bookended with his next, the wonderful A Few Good Men (1992). Then, North would thud on stage. Still, quite the run, regardless.
For those too young to remember, Stephen King adaptations since the 70s have varied quite a lot in quality. They weren’t the automatic draws his work seems to have become in the last two decades. It’d be fair to say Rob Reiner, with his two SK efforts, helped turn the tide. His take of Misery, though made more as a psychological thriller than King’s more horrific and entrapping tale, blunted the emotional and physical terror for this translation.
Consequently granting the film, and King, more mass appeal, especially with those not into this genre. Credit a good portion of that to Reiner’s second collaboration with screenwriter William Goldman, here. The Princess Bride (1987) their first real showcase together, and one of the early duo posts Rachel and I took on. Yet, Goldman, himself an author of some standing, retained a decent portion of the book’s central motif. That of the novelist toiling in the mineshaft of creativity. Wielder and prisoner of the dark art of imagination some forever labor with.
The film’s use of Liberace and his music an adept touch. His Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto #1 displayed his virtuosity as it accompanied the writing montage depicted. The American pianist and vocalist’s version of “I’ll Be Seeing You”, closed out the end title sequence, and hinted Paul’s PTSD of Annie Wilkes, in a perfect send-off.
Wrestling and twisting it some as Sheldon’s tale of misery unfolded. The writer as inmate, a cripple captive to his popular creation. The Misery Chastain novels, as much as to his #1 fan. Each terrible in their own right. Still, Reiner and Goldman did include clever touches to augment the book’s adaptation. Deploying the R&B classic Shotgun by Junior Walker and The Allstars as a needle-dropped start to the film. Effectively enlivening what lay ahead, and foreshadowing the weapon’s later use.
Likewise, discarding the first-person narrative of Stephen King’s novelist character (his namesake an allusion to the “prince of potboilers”, Sidney Shelton, perhaps?) enabled filmmakers to divert a small share of the film to secondary characters. Lauren Bacall‘s literary agent for one, the marvelous pairing of Richard Farnsworth‘s Sheriff and his wife, portrayed by Stephen King movie regular Frances Sternhagen, the other.
In fact, the sheriff’s buildup was done so well, it made his demise that much more distressing when the moment arrived1.
“MISERY IS ALIVE, MISERY IS ALIVE! OH, This whole house is going to be full of romance, OOOH, I AM GOING TO PUT ON MY LIBERACE RECORDS!”
All this is on the periphery, though. The real meat of the tale lay with the two primary characters of Misery. That of Annie Wilkes and Paul Sheldon. Kathy Bates rendering one of all-time best goddess muses, albeit of the truly terrifyingly psychotic variety, for her creative artist, in the suffering form of James Caan. Really one of the unexpected casting calls that without a doubt paid off for the film, in general, and Bates, specifically. She’d walk off with the Lead Actress Oscar and Golden Globe awards that year.
While this was only my second time reading the novel, recalling the wince-inducing experience of long ago, it’s easily my fifth or sixth time with the film. Each time, I’m convinced more than ever, despite her brilliance with the character onscreen, Caan was also robbed of an acting nomination. His reaction shots alone provided a superb base for Bates’ monstrous Annie. That, and his pain. His agony so palpable. Yes, Caan’s delivered a more smart-ass take than the novel’s Shelton, but the results spoke for themselves, I think.
Misery, as a film, turned out to be a wonderfully dark, perhaps even droll, adaptation of a Stephen King literary work than fans of horror and the author would’ve expected. Reiner/Goldman condensed the tortured novel nicely within its 107 minute runtime, giving audiences a more palatable treatment. SK fans might argue it smoothed too much off of its horrific edges for the benefit of more mass appeal. Yet, the film proved popular for good reason. Pulling box office returns three times the film’s budget for the studio.
Stephen King himself correctly prophesied that Kathy Bates would garner that year’s Best Actress Oscar.
The film’s performances the prime reason. The key one by Kathy Bates, for sure, who threaded a fine line alternating between sweet and sublime nurse to pissed-off evil with ease. Although, we truly empathized with James Caan’s tormented writer. One tasked with having to resurrect Misery, à la Sherlock Holmes from Reichenbach Falls for his fan(atic). Cynical humor and cleverness his lone allies. Perhaps, the closest the film compares to would be Robert Aldrich’s wickedly masterful What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Even King acknowledged such in the pages of the book.
In the end, though, it was Bates’ superb Baby Jane to Caan’s shortchanged Joan Crawford.
Parallel Post Series
- The Name of the Rose
- I Am Legend
- The Right Stuff
- – 2013 posts
- – 2012 posts
- – 2011 posts
- – 2010 posts
- An aspect director Stanley Kubrick missed entirely by killing off Scatman Crothers’ Dick Hallorann the way he did in his 1980 version of The Shining. ↩