A Tale of Two Miseries – Looking Back at the Film and the Novel

It may have taken me 29 years, but I finally found time to read Stephen King’s Misery. Well, to be honest, I didn’t actually read it.  I listened to it.  In audiobook format! And to top it off, I also went right ahead and watched the Rob Reiner film adaptation which I’d also managed to avoid all this time.  Why did it take me so long? I guess I have some sort of obsessive compulsive need to read Stephen King’s books before I watch their filmic adaptations.  In so many cases of novels-to-film, the source material degrades when it hits the silver screen.  King’s work tends to suffer that transition particularly badly.  In fact, it usually suffers as badly as the protagonist in Misery – stripped of its dignity, its vitality, and hobbled in some way or another.

For every SHINING, there’s a DREAMCATCHER, and for every CARRIE (1976), there’s a CARRIE (2013), but MISERY has long been considered one of the best adaptations, so it’s a shame it took me this long to finally delve into it.  The book, released in 1987, was written at the height of King’s writing superpowers, and is not only a great tale when taken at face value, but beneath the surface, is also an excellent examination of the trials faced by writers whether they be first time authors, or mega-famous purveyors of pop-fiction.  I feel I barely need to summarize the story, since it’s one of those books that almost seems as if it HAD to be written.  Even without reading or seeing it, I felt like I already knew what it was about.  I could almost tell how the story would play out, from start to finish, but that didn’t make it any less compelling or engaging.  Sometimes the best stories are like that.  They feel as though they’ve always existed – just waiting for someone to come along and put them on paper.  I’m not saying it’s predictable – I’m saying everything about it feels “right”.

The basic setup is this – a popular author who just finished writing his latest book at a Colorado retreat crashes his car on the way back to civilization.  He’s found by a woman who claims to be his number one fan, and she takes him back to her home where she promises to nurse him back to health.  With two broken legs, he’s unable to walk, so he has no choice but to do as she says.  It quickly becomes apparent that she’s not on that level, and has nefarious plans for him and his new book.

The film and the novel work from that exact same premise, but surprisingly, the book hits the ground running more so than its adaptation.  Annie, played by Kathy Bates, is more vicious on the page than the screen right from the beginning.  Don’t get me wrong, Bates was born to play this role, and won a well-deserved Oscar for her effort.  I couldn’t imagine anyone else in her place.  She’s excellent, but she plays the character a little more chipper, a little more naive, and a lot more infatuated with her “patient”.  Annie in the book is a devious, calculating force of insanity.  Every time she entered the scene, you knew things were about to get serious, but she still remained realistically vulnerable and very human.  The movie’s tone is lighter, and that extends to the performances of both leads.

The character of Paul Sheldon goes through a horrible transformation in the novel, and as a reader, we’re there in that room with him.  We feel his pain, and it’s drawn with masterful detail. It’s clear that King wrong himself into the story – Sheldon is King – and you can only assume that this scenario is something he felt could actually happen.  I wonder if a particular piece of fan-mail inspired him to write Misery? The fact that it’s plausible is what makes it so terrifying. James Caan plays the character in a likable manner, but perhaps the limitations of the film format don’t allow him to really portray the Paul Sheldon of the novel.  Rarely does he look truly desperate, or in pain, or suffering awful sickness at the hands of Annie.  We never feel the transformation that happens on the page.

The film also introduces another main character – the town sheriff, Buster – played by Richard Farnsworth.  He serves as extra comic relief, and somewhat of a plot device, giving us more detail on Sheldon’s career as he goes about investigating his disappearance.  This is where I feel the film takes a major stumble.  I understand why he was added to the story from a script writing standpoint, but it takes us out of Annie’s house – out of the room that Paul is locked in – and as a result, some of the tension is broken.  Paul feels complete isolation in the novel.  We never really know if anyone is coming to help him, and it adds to the desperation.  By showing us that someone in the outside world is actively searching for him, the audience is given relief. We know Buster’s on the case.  It’s only a matter of time before he saves him, right?

Other than that, it’s a truncated, but relatively faithful adaptation.  Reiner does a good job of putting the story’s visuals on screen.  Who would have thought that Reiner, known mainly for comedies, would be one of the most adept at bringing King’s work to the screen?  Between this and STAND BY ME, it’s clear that Reiner has what it takes.  Frank Darabont is the only other director with a stronger King-to-screen track record.  Perhaps it takes someone with a flair for comedy to do it properly?  The book is genuinely funny at frequent intervals, and the film manages to carry that darkly comic feel, even though it’s lighter, less horrifying, and the infamous central “hobbling” scene is far less injurious and graphic.

My biggest problem with the movie is that it could have been much, much longer.  The second half puts its foot on the pedal in a rush toward the end.  In doing so it loses its chance to really explore the themes that the novel exceeds in tackling.  It’s good, but perhaps it was always going to be overly difficult to translate a story that takes place more inside its main character’s head than anywhere else.  It’s one of the better Kind adaptations, sure, but it still doesn’t reach the achievement of the book, which is a genuine horror classic.

As a side note, the audiobook version, is read fantastically by Lindsay Crouse and I recommend it highly.  Don’t tell anyone I said this… but I think her performance as Annie was better than Bates.  Ssssh!

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