Despite being a fan of Stephen King’s work, most of his adaptations do not translate well to film or television. The unconventional atmosphere and themes expressed in his work are often lost in translation. Without the right execution, it can be unintentionally campy and confused. Thankfully, there are several excellent adaptations out there, and there is one film adaptation that is near flawless as both an adaptation and a film.
“Misery” was released in 1990 and is based on the 1987 novel of the same name.
James Caan plays Paul Sheldon, an author known for his series of romance novels based on his character, Misery Chastain. When he suffers a car accident that almost kills him, his “number one fan” named Annie Wilkes (played by Kathy Bates), rescues and cares for him in her remote home. However, she reveals her true nature once she discovers he killed off Misery in the last installment. She traps him in her home and forces him to write a new novel about Misery’s return by any means necessary. While a local sheriff (played by Richard Farnsworth) comes closer to discovering where Paul Sheldon is, Paul has to use all of his resources to escape from Annie’s clutches before she can kill him.
Barry Sonnenfeld’s cinematography successfully creates a taut, suspenseful mood throughout the plot. He expertly utilizes any shot to keep the atmosphere consistently tense. In the first few scenes, his focus on two presumably inconsequential aspects of Paul Sheldon’s character foreshadows what the climax will entail. Brilliant choices like those strengthen the excitement of the film’s overall impact.
Another vital part of the production team is William Goldman’s screenplay. He knows how to adapt a story and make the necessary changes without steering away from the source material’s nuance. The infamous “hobbling” scene was much gorier in the novel, but the lack of bloodiness does not keep it from being any more shocking now than it was back them. He also focuses on other characters besides Paul and Annie, such as the sheriff, his wife (who also serves as his deputy), and Paul’s editor, played by Lauren Bacall. These characters never get too much focus, but their presence in the film also never feels unnecessary, as they help contribute to the story in imperceptible ways.
However, the real heart of the film’s success lies within the incredible performances by Kathy Bates and James Caan. Bates’s performance is a powerhouse mixture of vulnerability, eeriness, and brazen evil, yet none of it feels too jarring. Her devotion to the role and her ability to switch from being a caring nurse to a sadistic captor is thrilling from beginning to end. However, Caan also does more than hold his own against his co-star. His subtle facial cues and body language add to the suspense of his character’s plight, and Annie’s crusade never overshadows Paul’s fight for his life.
Misery succeeds as a suspenseful thriller, and it is a staple for both Stephen King and Rob Reiner. You will both be scared and have fun watching it. If you did not fear the dark recesses of fandom before, you will after seeing this film.