Spangler’s From Sentence to Screen: Misery

Misery is a 1990 American psychological thriller film directed by Rob Reiner, starring James Caan and Kathy Bates. The movie’s screenplay was written by William Goldman and based on Stephen King’s 1987 novel of the same name. The film starts with Paul Sheldon (James Caan), a famous novelist, finishing his manuscript for a new book. While traveling from Colorado to his home in New York, he is caught out in a bad blizzard and loses control of his car. Paul loses consciousness in the wreck and breaks both of his legs. He is soon saved by Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates), who sees the car in a ditch. She gives Paul CPR before taking him back to her house, still unconscious. When he finally wakes up, Annie introduces herself as a nurse and tells him that she can take care of him until the storm passes because all the telephone lines are down. Annie also tells him that she is his biggest fan and has read all the books in his “Misery series” multiple times. Paul lets Annie read his untitled manuscript because she saved his life, the book angering her because of the profanity. She quickly calms down and apologizes for her outburst, but from this event Paul begins to realize that he might not be safe. Soon after though, she reads his latest Misery novel, in which the main character Misery dies, which sends Annie into a rage. She reveals to Paul that no one knows where he is, having never called a doctor or his daughter and lying to him. Annie locks him into the room he is staying in, and given how badly he is injured, he can not leave.  Paul realizes that he needs to figure out a way to escape from Annie before something worse happens. In this blog, I will look at how the events of the book were changed when being adapted to film. 

A very interesting and important element left out of the film adaptation was the excerpts from “Misery’s Return,” the book that Annie makes Paul write while holding him captive. Throughout the book Misery, the reader has a rough understanding of Paul’s book series, which included three books, eight in the movie. When he starts writing the fourth book for Annie, the reader can see the whole writing process and even get full chapters of the book as Paul writes them. At the start of Misery, Paul never planned on going back to the series because he thought writing the romance novel didn’t make him a “serious writer.” Even though he is forced to write the book, he realizes that he can make it as complex and compelling as his other novels, even given the genre. This is important to his character development throughout the book because it gives him one more reason to want to escape. He ends up loving the book he writes and wants to make it out of Annie’s house alive so he can have it published. In the film, though, the audience doesn’t get any of this, and though we know what Paul is writing about, it doesn’t seem to have a great effect on him. He is just doing it to keep Annie happy and not face her wrath, which happens often even when he is trying to be good. 

This change makes the plot of Paul’s writing “Misery’s Return” not as effective, I believe, because the audience never really gets to understand why the book is so important. It only functions to show the audience how obsessive Annie is while holding no real importance to Paul. In the end, when Paul kills Annie and can escape, Paul burns the real book, which makes sense as it was something he was forced to write. While in the book, he just burns a random pile of pages so that Annie loses control of her emotions and gives Paul the opportunity to kill her. He instead saves the real book under his bed and later has it published, and in other Stephen King novels, the reader learns he continued the series after “Misery’s Return.” Writing the new book gives Paul  a different understanding of himself as a writer and what he could be capable of while still catering to the readers of his “Misery series.” 

Another change made to Misery was the overall timeline of events, which was significantly shortened when the story was adapted. In the film, everything happens in only a few weeks which for an hour and a half film makes sense, but it also leaves some logistical problems for the filmmakers to deal with. One of those being the book “Misery’s Return”; not to say an accomplished writer can’t create a good novel in that time, but it would be very hard. When it came to King’s Misery, it takes Paul months to complete his book; first, because of how anal Annie is about making sure the book is perfect and secondly, because Annie keeps punishing him, which makes him unable to write for long periods. This extended length of time also gives him the ability to think about ways of escaping, even attempting several, though they all fail for one reason or another. The movie’s time frame only allowed for one well thought-out escape attempt, which fails, two if you count him stealing one of the kitchen knives. Interestingly in the film, the failed escape attempt has Paul trying to kill Annie and then the final one that succeeds with Annie dying. This is sped up compared to the book, where Paul’s original plans didn’t include Annie dying and that only changing when he realizes the only way to make it out alive would involve killing her. After a while though, finishing “Misery’s Return” becomes as important to Paul as escaping, so for several weeks at a time, he doesn’t even think about escaping. However, this is also partially caused by his injuries and dependence on the pain medication he is on. Overall, I think the movie’s changes made sense given the time constraints, but I still found myself wishing for more throughout the film as I didn’t feel the same sense of suspense as with King’s book.    

I have seen several adaptations of Stephen King novels before, all of which had varying levels of success. Much like King himself, I have also considered The Shining to be a particularly bad adaptation. That being said, Misery as an adaptation is quite enjoyable, with a good script that keeps the essence of King’s book and wonderful performances by Kathy Bates and James Caan, who do great justice to their characters. There are parts where it is almost so light-hearted and comical that you forget it is a thriller until something terrible happens, which creates a really interesting tone for the film. Which is something I credit to the amazing acting of Kathy Bates, who was able to portray the chaotic mood swings of Annie Wilkes in a way that draws the audience in and surprises them. In my next blog post, I will be looking at the 2012 film The Hunger Games directed by Gary Ross and based on Suzanne Collins’ book of the same name. 

— Jo Spangler, Film blogger.

Jo’s bio:

Jo Spangler
Jo Spangler

Jo Spangler is a junior at Lewis University, majoring in English Literature and Language with a minor in Creative Writing. She is a writing tutor in the Lewis Writing Center and a Youth Enrichment Aide for the YMCA. In her free time, Jo enjoys reading, writing, listening to music, and watching movies. She has been to 10 countries outside the United States, including England, Italy, Turkey, and Austria. One of Jo’s favorite book series is The All Souls Trilogy, by Deborah Harkness, because of how she mixes the supernatural with history and the focus on character development. In the future, she hopes to go into the publishing industry to help find new and exciting books for people to read.

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