King's Highway pt. 52: Misery

The Film

I think most people know the plot of this one, so let's just dive in.

One of the more successful King-adaptations, both in terms of box office and faithfulness-to-the-text (more or less), Misery was released in 1990 and was the second (and to-date last) Rob Reiner-helmed King project, after Stand By Me proved a breakthrough for both Reiner as a director and for King's exposure beyond "just a horror writer." (Not that perceptive fans of his work needed that last bit, of course, but in the eyes of mainstream film audiences.) Misery, though, is unreserved suspense/ horror, and it's done pretty well. It pops up frequently on best-King-movies lists, and King has referred to it as one of his personal favorite adaptations.

Easy to see why. Well-paced, well-directed, competently-scored, and strong performances from the leads:

James Caan as Paul Sheldon. (A bit of a "comeback" role for Caan.)
And Kathy Bates as Annie Wilkes. (Her breakthrough performance)
And although they don't appear in the novel, two familiar faces for the audience:

Lauren Bacall as Paul's agent (alluded to in the book but given lines and a place in the plot-proceedings for the film)
and Cliff Claven's Mom/ Irene-from-The-Mist and Richard Farnsworth as the outside-authorities looking for Paul.
William Goldman - no slouch in the writer department, himself - adapted the book. I think both Paul Sheldon's addiction/ injuries are watered down a bit...

Understandable, I guess.
...as is his interior world. But Caan/ Goldman still bring the role to life. He effectively conveys the character's helplessness/ rage, and you root for him to escape.

Bates-as-Wilkes is not quite as iconic, for me, as Tim Curry from Pennywise, but she gives an exceptional performance. She captures Annie from the novel pretty perfectly, actually. When she lapses into the "cock-a-doodie" twisted-Disney-character sort-of dialogue, she sells it; when she needs to intimidate/ express-explosive-rage, she sells it. One of the better on-screen depictions of the bi-polar with violent-tendencies personality, for my money.

Unlike in the novel, Paul manages to keep both his thumb and his foot in the film, though as the above illustrates, he doesn't exactly have a smooth ride of it. The other changes and additions all make sense (a just-missed-chance to kill her and escape with the drugged wine, the aforementioned outsiders-searching-for-him stuff, etc.)

One additional change is the very ending, where, instead of Paul dealing with PTSD and taking the first few "hobbled" steps on the road to recovery, as it happens in the novel, Paul meets with his agent (Bacall again) at a restaurant, where they discuss his non-Misery new book, The Higher Education of J. Phillip Stone, and Paul sees a waitress that reminds him of Annie (played by Bates). The waitress tells him she's his number-one fan... roll credits.

I don't mind the changes, here, except I wonder why that name/ project was chosen? Is there something I'm missing? Or did they just invent a title/ new book for Paul to write? Not that it's a misstep, just curious how these things come together.

The collector's-edition DVD has no deleted scenes, which is unfortunate. Kathy Bates has mentioned a cut-scene where she runs over a police officer with a lawnmower, which, in the novel, was the fate of the first young trooper who comes to Annie's house and whom Paul alerts (tragically, for the young trooper) to his presence. But that character is compartmentalized in the film to Farnsworth, who is "merely" shot, a death that sets up the final act. This is common for many films released in the pre-DVD era, though; in those days, what was left on the cutting-room floor was often destroyed, alas.

Additionally, I discovered there's a Tamil adaptation of this as well called Julie Ganapathi. As with No Smoking, I believe it's an unsanctioned adaptation. I wonder what other non-sanctioned Bollywood-King films are out there? I also wonder what kind of money/ legality-issues arise from stuff like this.

I haven't seen it. Netflix is down at the moment of this writing, so I don't know if they have it. If they do, I'll give it a whirl.
The Novel

Misery and The Tommyknockers (the subject of our next blog) are King's last novels written "in the Dead Zone," i.e. coked/doped/sauced. He describes his state of mind while writing it as highly-disturbed, and in On Writing, refers to the plots/horrors of these books as cries for help from his unconscious-mind, the place where the monsters come from, given metaphorical form. (i.e. "Annie Wilkes is coke, Annie Wilkes is booze, and in the end I was tired of being Annie's pet writer.")

I noted a few passages that seem to describe this:

"Fact is, you're getting worse, Annie, aren't you? A little worse every day. Psychotics can cope in the world - after a fashion - and sometimes, as I think you well know, they get away with some very nasty shit. But there's a borderline between the lands of manageable and unmanageable psychosis. You're getting closer to that line every day... and part of you knows it."

"'Do you remember Brer Rabbit telling Brer Fox about his Laughing Place?'
'That's what I call my place upcountry," (Annie says). "My Laughing Place... Sometimes I do laugh when I got there. But mostly I just scream."

"His stints at the typewriter grew gradually longer as the pain slowly receded and some of his endurance returned... but ultimately he wasn't able to write fast enough to satisfy her demands. The gotta which had kept them both alive - and it had, for without it, she surely would have murdered both him and herself long since - was also what had caused the loss of his thumb. Have a little irony, Paul - it's good for the blood."

"There was no Annie because Annie had not been a goddess at all, only a crazy lady who had hurt Paul for reasons of her own. (She) had managed to pull most of the paper out of her mouth and throat and had gotten out through Paul's window while Paul was sleeping the sleep of drugs... She had actually died of the fractured skull she had received when she struck the mantle, and she had struck the mantle because she had tripped. So in a way she had been killed by the very typewriter Paul had hated so much."


"...he yearned for Novril. Sometimes he thought it would be worth being back with Annie just to have the dope. His doctors had weaned him from it. The booze was his substitute."

I don't think it's a coincidence that his last few novels of this period in his life give us inside-views of a man trapped/ addicted to dope, or the raging alcoholism and physical deterioration of the main characters in Tommyknockers. (I'm reminded of his "Alcoholics / addicts build defenses" line; it's certainly true. And a writer of King's caliber is going to build his out of stories.) But let's not over-focus on it. Misery is a book about a writer held captive by a psychotic nurse; his dope addiction and the violent-imprisonment aspect serve that plot. I can see him picking this stuff apart in therapy in the years after he cleaned up, and as well he should. More power to him; I'm sure it's instructive. But I'm not his therapist; I'm just some guy who enjoys reading his stories.

What I'm trying to say here is, I make note of this kind of stuff (and will for Tommyknockers, as well) but if that's all there was here (just an I NEED HELP metaphor) it wouldn't interest me so much. And if that's the only thing people root around these things for, that strikes me as kind of ghoulish. But hey, since he brings it up himself, it's worth mentioning.

The plot of Misery is straightforward enough. The three-people-trapped-with-one-another scenario of The Shining has become two here (and will become one in Gerald's Game, still-to-come at the time of Misery's publication), and the isolation/ inner-torment of Paul is fleshed out quite well. His despair, setbacks, addiction - all illuminated as well as anything else on which King has turned his considerable writerly-spotlight over the course of his career. Annie Wilkes is characterized perfectly, from her backstory to her mannerisms to the "dull disinterest" she has in things like the mechanics of how the story is put together. Her triggers to rage (and Paul's desperate dance trying to stay ahead / afield of them) are, again, pitch-perfect.

And I liked the epilogue. A happy ending (our hero escapes, the monster's dead) but no easy-breezy walk into the sunlight. Paul's ordeal has taken the kind of deep toll on his state of mind that anyone could reasonably expect: PTSD is in full bloom here. But, inspired by a random observance on his walk home, he finds "the hole in the paper" again and begins to write... a flower grows in the gloom.

Couple other lines I liked:

Describing writing-something-to-completion: "For each little success, he had paid a toll of absurdity."


"In a book, all would have gone according to plan... but life was so fucking untidy - what could you say for an existence where some of the most critical conversations of your life took place when you needed to take a shit, or something? An existence where there weren't even any chapters?"

The Novel-within-the-Novel (Misery's Return)

Any resemblance between cover-model and author must surely be coincidental. :-) This picture cracks me up.
The excerpts from the book Annie forces Paul to write (and which becomes his ultimate salvation) at first struck me as just too much. Why the hell is he including so much of this stuff? I wrote in my notes while reading. Ditto for his central, ongoing metaphor of "Africa." Near the beginning of the book, Paul remembers going to the zoo as a child and crying uncontrollably over an African bird he sees there, its wings clipped, captured from its homeland for display "in captivity." It works enough as a metaphor / touchstone for Paul's situation, but it threatens to become the "Beep Beep Ritchie" of Misery through over-use in several spots.

Then, at the end, when Paul brings the Misery's Return story to its conclusion, I ended up reading it (I'd skimmed the previous excerpts from it) and tying together the Africa-described-therein with the Africa-motif-of-his-drugged-out-thoughts. I then went back and read all those sections again, and it all clicked. Misery's Return is to Misery as the "Tales of the Black Freighter" sections of Alan Moore's and Dave Gibbons's Watchmen are to that main narrative.
i.e. an ongoing seemingly-unconnected story that actually works as counterpoint to the main story.
Not that there aren't other examples, I just like bringing Watchmen into anything I can.
I'd noted something similar about the play Jack is writing in my blog for The Shining (novel), but alas, that one was lost to the Blogger ether, as lamented elsewhere. (Still smarts, damn it!)

Some Final Thoughts

The book is dedicated to "Stephanie and Jim Leonard, who know why. Boy, do they." Stephanie Leonard was for many years King's secretary and the editor/publisher of Castle Rock; I'd love to hear some of her anecdotes from her time as King's front-line-defense between him and his rabid fans.

As reported in The Stephen King Companion, in 1980, King signed a book for a stranger, who referred to himself as King's "number one fan." Something about the fan struck King as unsettling, but he thought nothing more of it until a few months later, when he was watching news footage of John Lennon's assassination. King recognized the assassin, Mark David Chapman, as the same fan for whom he autographed the book... Creepy.

Speaking of the Beatles, this got in my head everytime I picked up the book or saw the title along its spine:

King mentions both John Fowles and Alexander Dumas and some other writers who have explored the captivity narrative. As The Occasional Review-er notes, "King clearly respects the tradition (in which he's) writing... he has a fine sense of what needs to be left out to maintain his claustrophobic atmosphere - we get almost no backstory about Paul, and certain questions, like what became of Annie's brief marriage, are pointedly left unanswered."

I liked that.

Solid stuff all around.


  1. That comparison to "Tales of the Black Freighter" is excellent. Very apt.

    I think the addiction metaphor in this novel is really potent, not the least because what Paul is really addicted to is creativity. Creativity is what ends up saving Paul, so in a sense, his addiction(s) are positive forces.

    It amazes me that in 1987, King published this, "The Tommyknockers," and "The Drawing of the Three." All three are excellent novels, and all three deal with the theme of addiction. Amazingly, they do it in very different ways, and manage to not feel like retreads one of the other.

    Quite a feat.

  2. I agree King writes on more than just one note. In fact, these notes have been sounded by Tony Magistrale in his book The Landscape of Fear. It's a great read, and it shows that King is in many ways still a sixties hippy at heart, he's also written a literary biograhpy of King called America's Storyteller. Both good book.

    Now here I have to apologize for my obvious lack of taste but.....

    I listened to that song and I still can't tell who's playing rhythm!


    1. That's one of the rare songs attributed (originally - I think subsequent pressings of the record had the names in the more familiar order) to McCartney/Lennon rather than the other way around.

      While Lennon's Playboy interview (shortly before he died) is better-known, McCartney gave one a few years after, and like Lennon did for his, went through the catalog song-by-song (well, not quite song-by-song, but quite a few of them) and offered his off-the-cuff thoughts.

      Which, as you can imagine, were a little less-focused... Dana Carvey's McCartney impersonation comes to mind!

      I'm horrified by the thought of their re-doing all those songs, as Lennon seemed keen to do. ("There's not a one of them I wouldn't re-do.") No, no, no, NO, SIR.

  3. Misery was, for me, that rare instance when the movie outshines the book. I thought the book was average (I have not yet read and reviewed it for my blog). The movie was outstanding, especially Kathy Bates.

    1. There aren't many of those instances, are there?

      I think I personally still prefer the novel, but the margin between the two isn't big enough to be worth arguing over much. Both are great, and one complements the other quite nicely. Gotta love it when that happens!

    2. The movie may indeed be more enjoyable than the novel. It's a close call. If I have a complaint of the movie (and it's not so much a complaint, just an observation) it removes the creativity-saves-Paul aspect of the novel (as Bryant discusses pretty well above, so no need for me to double up on this) and makes it more of an "escape" narrative. Which is more than understandable, and cool to watch. I don't know how they'd reproduce the counterpoint that Misery's Return performs in the novel, anyway.