Still more lazy thoughts from this one…

Misery Film Review

miseryThe 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:

Misery by Stephen King

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.

rob-reiner-misery--large-msg-131404540418For 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.

william-goldmanConsequently 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.


No amount of looking will help. They’re not anywhere in the book.

“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.


Believe me, novel Annie is way darker and oogy than Bates’ Annie.

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

  1. 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

27 Responses to “Misery Film Review”

  1. Cavershamragu

    Bravo – I think it’s a terrific movie and a really impressive adaptation of what is by any stretch a tough nut as a commercial proposition.


    • le0pard13

      Thank you very kindly, Sergio. Yes, re-reading this once more brought that aspect back to light. I guess it’s why I’ve revisited its film adaptation so many times over the years. Appreciate your reading the piece and leaving a comment, my friend.


  2. cindybruchman

    Great review, Michael. Bates and Caan, like you mentioned–how dissimilar and electric their chemistry. It was a wonderful adaptation. Clever connection to Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? I’d give the award to Bette but Bates is pretty sinister with her sweet voice.


    • le0pard13

      Yes, this was some pairing. Made me wish they’d have collaborated in another film. They are wonderful in this. Many thanks, Cindy 🙂


  3. Writer Loves Movies

    I think it’s tricky for any director to pull off the kind of intimacy that King’s writing provides us with his characters. I haven’t yet read Misery and I’m holding off watching this movie until I have but it sounds like this is one of the better Stephen King adaptations. Great post!


    • le0pard13

      Great point, WLM. SK has had a wonderful way with his characters on the page. Doesn’t translate sometimes to film. I do recommend Misery as a read, but it can be a wince-inducing experience. Luckily, it’s not one of his gargantuan-sized novels. Many thanks for the read and comment 🙂


  4. Rachel

    A lovely and thorough review as always! I really enjoy how your reviews are a mix of the movie and everything going on behind the scenes of that movie.

    I completely agree about the sheriff. That was definitely a Level 2 death if I ever saw one. In fact, it might be the thing that upset me the most while watching the movie.

    I also thought Caan did a great job. The angles that were used to film Bates didn’t really work for me (they decreased the tension rather than increased) but any look at Caan’s face made me truly afraid.

    What’d you think of that dinner scene? I thought it was pretty much a perfect scene but the look on Caan’s face when the wine was spilled had to have been the highlight. Absolutely perfect.



  5. le0pard13

    Thank you very much, Rachel. Wonderful choice of yours in selecting this. I don’t know if I would have re-read this book, or done it this early (what, 27 years is not enough?), but glad I did. Yeah, Richard Farnsworth was wonderful as the Sheriff. I miss him (in real life and in the movie).

    Interesting point about the angles in framing Bates on the screen, Rachel. Now I want to go back and look at them again. Caan’s reactions were striking, weren’t they? Fear, well registered.

    Oh, the seduction dinner scene…loved it. You nailed it, “the look on Caan’s face when the wine was spilled had to have been the highlight. Absolutely perfect.” Given the darker mood of the novel, something like it could never have work there. But in this film, it was a splendid scene.

    Well, we are on a roll for the year. And it’s now summer movie season. Look forward to our next gig in May. 🙂


  6. Victor De Leon

    This was a great read, Michael! Nice work. I love this film very much and need to re-visit it soon. It’s been a while.


    • le0pard13

      Thank you very kindly, Vic. It’s a fine thriller and a wonderful adaptation from Stephen King’s novel, for sure.



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