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Monday, November 30, 2020

‘Misery’ at 30: The Destructive Co-Dependency Between an Author and His Number One Fan

Misery ranks high among the upper echelon of Stephen King adaptations. It holds a firm spot among the top-grossing King films, captured the hearts of critics and audiences alike, and boasts a powerhouse, Oscar-winning performance by Kathy Bates as psychotic nurse Annie Wilkes. Wilkes’ iconic and chilling portrayal marked Bates’ breakout role, a virtual unknown before getting recommended to play the part by screenwriter William Goldman (Magic). Released in theaters on November 30, 1990, Misery managed to hold a respectable place at the box office, taking second place to holiday season juggernaut Home Alone. Thirty years later, Misery remains a top tier King adaptation and has been credited as a prescient dissection of modern toxic fans. However, its journey from book to screen proves a far more layered and timeless relationship with fandom.

The idea behind the novel came to King in a dream on a flight to England. It was intended to be a short story or novella, but its characters became too big to be contained, and a full-blown novel ensued. Like many King stories, Misery was a personal one. The author’s attempt to branch out of horror with the high fantasy novel The Eyes of the Dragon was met with contempt and backlash from fans. He was deep in the throes of alcohol and cocaine addiction and no stranger to bizarre fan behavior at this stage in his career. Then, while writing Misery with the intent to release it under the pen name Richard Bachman, a book store clerk noticed similarities between Bachman’s work and King’s, did some sleuthing, and eventually exposed King’s shadow writer identity.

The book’s title is a double entendre; Misery refers to the heroine of protagonist Paul Sheldon’s most successful book series and his state of being throughout the story. More acutely, it’s King’s state of being during its writing. At the beginning of the book, in a drug-induced fog, Paul wakes to the unnerving sight of Annie Wilkes. She’s rescued him from a car wreck caused by Paul’s drunken state of mind. Still, instead of getting him proper help, she holds him captive and proceeds to inflict psychological, emotional, and physical torture throughout the book’s pages. There’s no pretense of Annie’s psychosis here, and she acts as both the drug that feeds his addiction and the tumultuous relationship between editor and writer. On a broader scale, Annie – Paul’s number one fan- acts as a stand-in for toxic fans that demand far too much from their idols. As such, Paul may hate Annie, but he needs her to survive, both literally and figuratively.

Because Misery hit very close to home for King and that other adaptations of his work failed miserably, he became too conservative when granting rights. Misery wasn’t for sale, not until Rob Reiner put in a request. Having been pleased by Reiner’s Stand by Me, based on another profoundly personal story, King granted Castle Rock Entertainment rights on the sole condition that Reiner produce or direct. 

Reiner tapped Goldman to pen the screenplay and initially intended to hand the directorial reigns over to George Roy Hill and Barry Levinson. When they backed out, Reiner decided to direct it himself and set about studying every Alfred Hitchcock and thriller movie he could get his hands on to develop the visual language.

Bringing King’s novel to life on the big screen meant changes to the story. The film removes Annie’s duality as symbolism, dropping the drug addiction component entirely to focus on the relationship between a flawed author and his intensely toxic fans. In the novel, Annie intentionally gets Paul addicted to fictional painkiller Novril, ensuring that he’s dependent upon her. In the film, Paul (James Caan) tucks his doses of Novril in his mattress to stockpile for an escape attempt.

The adaptation speeds up the ticking clock to layer in immense suspense by introducing local sheriff Buster (Richard Farnsworth) almost straightaway when Paul’s agent (Lauren Bacall) realizes he’s missing very soon after his crash. Conversely, this version of Annie isn’t nearly as vicious up front; the longer it takes for Paul to be found, the more Annie’s pleasant veneer cracks to expose her deranged, murderous side. That slow-coiling escalation, combined with Reiner’s employment of wide angles and Dutch tilts, demonstrated that the director’s in-depth study of thrillers paid dividends in mounting tension.

Played to perfection, Bates imbues Annie with far more sympathy than ever afforded the character in the novel. Her plucky simpleton and eager-to-please persona masking terrible darkness glimpsed in her violent rage every time Paul steps on a hidden landmine of her short temper. To offset her sympathetic nature, the film makes the scrapbook reveal of her serial killing ways far more nefarious- instead of giving an overview of her lifelong serial killing ways, the movie cuts right to the chase of her maternity ward baby-killing spree for brevity’s sake. It’s the lowest of lows when it comes to taboo breaking monstrosities, making it an easy choice for Reiner to convey Annie’s darkness all within the span of a single newspaper clipping.

In perhaps the most glaring departure from the novel, Reiner infuses hope. Instead of losing a limb via ax, Reiner switched it out for the infamous hobbling scene by a sledgehammer. He wanted his protagonist to make it out whole and undefeated. That’s also why Paul manages to successfully publish his first novel outside of his Misery series in the end, instead of publishing Misery Returns once he’s finally free from Annie’s clutches- the novel’s coda for Paul. The movie’s author succeeds in breaking free from fandom’s-imposed limitations, where the novel’s author finds renewed interest in his famous book series after finding more comfortable footing- pun intended- with his relationship toward the fans that fuel his career.

Whereas the central, antagonistic relationship between Paul and Annie in King’s source material offers layers of meaning, Reiner cuts straight to the chase with a thrilling examination of the co-dependency between fans and creators. The director hit it out of the park, and King has often cited Misery to be among his favorite film adaptations of his work. 

In the social media age, where fan access to creators is easier than ever before, it’s easy to refer back to Misery as a predictive commentary on where fandom was headed. The truth is that fans had always taken ownership of their most beloved stories, well before King came along. The novel is as much about the author’s lack of control, thanks to addiction, as it is about his very personal experiences with fandom. Even when the book was published in 1987, he faced a backlash from fans over its vicious takedown of fandom’s darkest impulses. Never mind that Paul Sheldon was no prize himself, or that he needed Annie just as much.

Reiner honed in on that co-dependency and crafted a gripping, award-winning thriller around it. Where there’s an ugliness to both characters from the novel’s beginning, the film treats them with humanity and empathy. There’s a timelessness to the central theme. It’s bolstered by the thought and care put into every facet of the adaptation. From the writing to Reiner’s direction and smart changes to the casting choices that introduced the world to Kathy Bates, Misery firmly holds its own as one of the best King adaptations. As the mutual need between fans and storytellers only speeds up and grows louder in the digital age, Misery holds just as much relevancy now as it did thirty years ago. Perhaps even more.



source https://bloody-disgusting.com/editorials/3642258/misery-turns-30-destructive-co-dependency-author-number-one-fan/

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