Misery (1990)

Back when I first saw the preview for Misery I had no idea who Kathy Bates was.  She was a theater actress and, if she had any movie roles before this, I'm pretty sure they were small.  The one thing I did know, at first glance, is that I was looking at Annie Wilkes.  Often when books get adapted to movies it's amazing if they get the hair colors right.  But, here I was, looking up at the screen, and it was as if director Rob Reiner had made a trip to rural Colorado and found not an actress to play the part but somehow dragged Wilkes right out of the pages of the novel.

I know this is the reason why Stephen King, when agreeing to sell the movie rights to Misery, insisted on Reiner directing or at least producing.  King had been impressed with Stand by Me, Reiner's adaptation of his novella The Body, and trusted him to treat Misery with the same kind of care.  It was a new direction for Reiner as well as he had never made a horror or suspense film.  Still, King was right in his choice and, though there are significant differences between the book and movie, this is still one of the best King movies. 

Writer Paul Sheldon (James Caan) is known for his series of period romance novels featuring a heroine named Misery Chastain.  The last book in the series has just been published, with him killing off the character, and Sheldon has just finished a new novel that he believes reconnects him with being a writer.  After leaving the hotel where he is staying a blizzard hits and Sheldon, going too fast on the road, loses control and goes off the side.  He is saved from certain death by Annie Wilkes who declares herself his number one fan.

At first Sheldon is grateful for Wilkes's care as she nurses him back to health but, more and more, it becomes apparent things aren't quite right with her.  Her worst side manifests itself when she finishes the latest book, Misery's Child, and is enraged that he would kill off the character.  Informing him that nobody knows where he is she continues to take care of him but makes him burn his new novel and start writing a new Misery book in which the character lives.  As he writes it and gets stronger it becomes apparent that Wilkes has no intention of ever letting him go and, still in a weakened state, he must find a way to escape.  

Besides James Caan and Kathy Bates there are two other great performances in the movie, and that is Richard Farnsworth as Buster, the Silver Creek sheriff and Frances Sternhagen as his wife and only deputy Virginia.  Their interaction adds a little lightness to the story that is needed as Buster slowly figures out what happened to Sheldon.  It also provides some time out of the confines of Paul's room, where most of the movie takes place.

What Reiner did was capture the hopelessness and desperation, as well as the claustrophobia, of King's novel.  A number of parts were cut out as the gore was thought to be too distracting or, if put on screen, unintentionally funny.  That was a wise idea because instead the movie dwells on the interactions of Sheldon and Wilkes, something that screenwriter William Goldman strove to do rather than dwell on the horror elements.  

Truth be told Sheldon could be played by anyone, as he is another in a long list of writer protagonists of Stephen King, but Caan does a great job in an atypical role for him since he usually plays tough guys.  The focus in the book, as well as the movie, is Wilkes, and this is an amazing way to start off a movie career.  She brings the character to life in a way that almost no other actress could and, being unknown at the time, there wasn't the distraction of a big name doing a challenging role.  For all intents and purposes Bates could be Wilkes, and it's a credit to her acting skill that in later roles she played she was able to not get typecast, although she often does play a good villain.

It is too bad Rob Reiner didn't do any other King adaptations.  Then again, directors don't like to get typecast either, and Reiner was always more comfortable with comedies and light dramas.  He still is among an elite few who got Stephen King right and, for that, we should be grateful.

Misery (1990)
Time: 107 minutes
Starring: James Caan, Kathy Bates, Richard Farnsworth, Frances Sternhagen
Director: Rob Reiner



  1. There's also Lauren Bacall as the agent. I don't think it was too much later when Bates was in Dolores Claiborne which was another King story. That and Fried Green Tomatoes in the early 90s helped build her profile up and keep her from being typecast. Though I thought she got denied a supporting actor Oscar for Primary Colors in favor of Judi Dench's 8 minutes on Shakespeare in Love.

    Anyway I never read the book but I liked the movie. Shame I never bought it. There's probably someone out there who would do that to me. Lol


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