The tale of Paul Sheldon crashing his ‘66 Ford Mustang in the mountains of Colorado and getting abducted by an abusive ex-nurse was originally told by Stephen King in 1987’s “Misery.” Written as a love-letter to his obsessive fan base, the novel stretched the limits of suspenseful literature in the completely riveting and fast-paced King style that his followers have come to love.
By 1991, the tale had made its way to the big screen, with actress Kathy Bates as the violent antagonist Annie Wilkes. Her wide eyes, flat hair, and vacant expression brought the character to life, and she won an Oscar for best actress for her efforts. From her first “I’m your #1 fan” to her last “cockadoodie,” the in-depth description of Annie featured in King’s novel is captured on screen.
The problems in Rob Reiner’s film occur where it departs from the original text. The most noticeable example is the differing time frames. In the final scenes there is still snow on the ground, implying that Paul had been in the room for no more than a month or two. The book takes place over a period of around six months, with Paul seeing the mountains go through the changes of Spring and imagining the snow around his buried car melting away for the police to find. He describes a calendar on the wall that stays flipped to February for the duration of his stay and his lack of knowledge about how many weeks have passed becomes a notable point of disorientation for him.
The tone of the film feels very different, with charming characters from the community and Paul’s life also playing key roles in Paul’s story. Yet the protagonist’s isolation is where the terror of the Misery novel truly lies. As the pages flip by, readers sense Paul’s madness stirring, symptoms of Stockholm syndrome arising and his dynamic with Annie evolving. His lack of human interaction and lack of knowledge about his disappearance case creates a slow burning sense of speculation, obsession, and fear. He begins to accept Annie as a singular goddess in the world who brings him food when he is hungry, pills for his injuries and cruel punishments when he disobeys her. The film’s introduction of his publisher, the local sheriff, and his quick-witted wife hinders both the presentation of his claustrophobic dread as well as the suffocating enormity of Annie as his keeper.
As I was reading the novel, there were times when I would have to keep reading long past midnight for the sake of my own night’s sleep. I found myself wanting Annie to snap at him as a welcome break from the constant paranoia and graphic description of his bodily pain. An area where film often benefits over the written word is in visualizing jumpscares or gruesome attacks. Even so, I often found King’s prose far more chilling than the events depicted in the film. For this reason, I would say that Misery is definitely more worth reading than viewing, and were it not for Kathy Bates’ performance, I would have avoided it altogether.
That being said, even in light of this strong allegory for the dangers of fandom, I must confess to Stephen King – I’m you’re #1 fan.
Image courtesy of Nick Youngson via Alpha Stock Images