Autumn Classics: Misery (1990)

Thirty years ago, Rob Reiner's adaptation of King's novel became an iconic thriller.

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Autumn Classics: <i>Misery</i> (1990)

As the nights grow chilly and you become convinced you’ve just seen a red balloon peeking out of every storm drain, lovers of film often find themselves returning to the melancholy and macabre movies that evoke the feeling of autumn. Ken Lowe is revisiting four such Autumn Classics during the month of October. Catch up by reading his take on Jacob’s Ladder and catch up on all past entries here.

Stephen King adaptations, as I have opined before, are extremely hit or miss. It’s hard to believe that I’ve been revisiting autumn movies for three years now and no other King film adaptations have made their way into Autumn Classics until now. Misery, directed by Rob Reiner, is set over a severe winter and the beginning of a stormy spring, but hear me out: It is an autumn movie for those who start suffering from seasonal depression the moment the sun sets any earlier than 8 p.m.

In the gigantic canon of King adaptations, each one wildly different in quality and tone than every other, it is the only one I can think of where both the laughs and the horror seem entirely intentional, and are never working at cross purposes.

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Paul Sheldon (James Caan) pours himself precisely one flute of champagne and smokes precisely one cigarette to ring in the occasion of finishing his latest novel—the first one since his wildly popular “Misery” series, which we gather are about the life and loves of a 19th century woman. The final book in that series is set to print, and he confides in his literary agent (Lauren Bacall) that he’s both nervous about writing an original work but determined to prove he can write literally anything else.

On the snowy drive away from the winter lodge where he traditionally finishes his works, the weather gets the better of him and he goes careening off the road, waking up in the home of a nurse, Annie (Kathy Bates, in a giddily inspired casting turn). Sheldon is completely out of commission—legs broken, arm in a sling, laid up and snowed in at Annie’s house, and on a steady diet of liquid and painkillers.

Right from the start we know something is off, of course: Annie’s pig is named “Misery,” she moved here because she knew Sheldon always came here to write, and she seems to go from cheery and mousy to fiery and ranting at the drop of a pin. It doesn’t take long for him to figure out that the phone in her house isn’t actually out, the roads aren’t actually closed, and Annie isn’t (just) the gushing fangirl she seems to be. Sheldon isn’t a patient in her house, but a prisoner, and she really, really does not like that he’s just killed off her favorite character.

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King wrote of Misery that in retrospect, he realized it was about grappling with his addiction and his anxieties about being a writer. There’s some of that in Reiner’s adaptation, but precious little. That is fine because what’s here is a compelling watch. The premise never gets much deeper than what I just described, but Bates and Caan are equal to the task of making you unable to turn away. Sheldon tries to struggle against Annie, tries to outwit her, tries to bargain with her—but she’s always that one little bit stronger, smarter or more devious than he is, and as much as you root for him, you know he’s about to get knocked back down every time he tries to escape or gain himself a little shred of freedom.

This doesn’t always play out violently, or even in a way that’s necessarily creepy. In one gambit, Sheldon finds Annie’s stash of drugs while covertly casing the rest of the house, and manages to slip some into her wine at the dinner he’s charmed her into laying for him. They toast … and then she “accidentally” spills the wine everywhere and falls all over herself apologizing, nothing in her delivery indicating that it’s anything but sincere. Sheldon knows, she knows, we know—but there’s no lingering looks or hit-you-over-the-head camera work, no sadistic retribution from Annie. Sheldon quietly soaks up his defeat and the two have dinner.

Eventually, Sheldon is essentially chained to a desk in Annie’s house and forced to slam out an entire novel, the subject matter of which he absolutely could not give a shit about—or he’ll die. (What, all those glum content creators out there wonder, must that be like?!)

It’s symbolic that Sheldon gets back into his writing groove as he’s secretly flexing his muscles for his last-ditch escape attempt. King is a writer who writes things through the lens of a writer writing things, so we know that the hastening rhythm of that typewriter means the final battle fast approaches (even if the old Royal is missing the letter “n”).

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Autumn makes me want to get out and feel the wind and smell the leaves, but for a lot of people it makes them feel crammed indoors to escape the gloom (a position I respect even if I don’t understand). Misery is about being forced indoors, about hurting, about being trapped with something that for some perfectionists or very ambitious people is actually worse than failure: being defined by your own inescapable mediocrity. This tension plays out in a movie so tightly plotted, acted and blocked that it would work just as well as a stage play without sacrificing one bit of what makes it compelling.

The movie is also funny, always in ways that are dark. Bates won’t let a swear pass her lips, won’t even tolerate a movie serial that cheats its cliffhanger ending, but what she will do is pretty unsettling. You know I have to mention that scene. It’s the moment from Misery, the one everybody knows about even if they haven’t seen it. Annie discovers Sheldon has been trying to escape and realizes he’ll never stop trying. She makes sure he’s strapped down nice and tight, braces a block of wood between his ankles, and makes sure there’s no chance he’ll take to his feet again.

I apologize for creating another opportunity for you to see that scene, but it’s incredible not just for how viscerally awful it is, but for how it fits in with the scenes where Caan and Bates, totally aware of their animosity for one another, play off each other like canny old adversaries. It is one unforgettable part of a movie that is simply the perfect thing to watch as the days grow darker and we all feel a little hobbled.


Kenneth Lowe is your biggest fan. You can follow him on Twitter or read more at his blog.

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