I first saw Misery when it came out on VHS tape. I remember it vividly. If it wasn’t the first Stephen King adaptation I saw, it was the first to have real impact. I was in Gisborne, summer holidays. A small bunch of us staying at a friend’s house, watching Return of the Living Dead and whatever else we could find – horror films, action films, martial arts, a few classic music concerts too. We’d swim, play golf, muck around on the guitars, do our best on the giant snooker table, buy cassette tapes (Deep Purple, Jeff Beck) and generally fill the days with some sense of spirit and some sort of activity. But it was also just a way of passing time before the slumber party thrill-ride of watching four or five films through the night.
And Misery was a white-knuckler for us.
Around this time I started reading Stephen King too. Pet Sematary, It, Carrie…I always remember the first three and the order in which they arrived – ticking off the movie versions of each too. Other classics from there, over the next decade. And then no more. For many years.
In fact I’ve just got back into Stephen King this year – mostly listening to podcasts, revisiting the movies, catching up on a few adaptations I hadn’t seen, and wanting to read his books again as much as actually reading them.
Only recently I finally read the novel Misery. I had always meant to read it.
I’d long been told it was one of his best, and though I never doubted that I guess I just felt I knew the movie well – and that it had done a great job. And then King was out of vogue for me, for the longest time.
Deciding to read Misery, in the build up to watching it again, was perfect. It’s such a great story. So well told. And, yes, there’s a little bit extra in there – a few things that don’t quite translate – the way it is with any book that is moved to the screen. In the book we get to read bits of the novel Paul Sheldon is forced to write. In the book the famous ‘hobbling’ scene plays out with similar set-up and dialogue but is even more brutal.
But then, watching the film again – so soon after reading its source material – I really was struck with what a good job they did. World built, explored, action covered, tension ratcheted. It is a small film. Like a two-hander theatre piece for the most part, really only a half-dozen characters ever make it on to the screen. But is perfect in its way.
And what a dream-team of cast and crew.
Stephen King’s source material is turned to screenplay by William Goldman (arguably during his golden run). The director is Rob Reiner – he may not be your first pick for greatest director of the 80s and 90s but it’s hard to see where he put a foot wrong as he surveyed many genres (This is Spinal Tap, Stand By Me, The Princess Bride, When Harry Met Sally, then Misery, and following that up with A Few Good Men). Reiner was right at his peak and he’d proved he could do a great job of adapting King – taking the novella The Body and turning it into Stand By Me.
Director of Photography Barry Sonnenfeld is now known as a director (Get Shorty, Men in Black) but as a cinematographer he had worked on early Coen Brothers classics Blood Simple and Raising Arizona and is perhaps best revered for his work on their masterpiece Miller’s Crossing, which arrived the same year as his stunning efforts capturing Misery’s claustrophobia and isolation.
Then you have Hollywood legend James Caan who could play any type of character in any kind of film across the 1970s – but often a hero. And the star-making turn from Kathy Bates, who had done character work and theatre roles – but really broke through with her turn as Annie Wilkes, winning both the Golden Globe and Oscar.
In support you have Richard Farnsworth (I love him!) and Lauren Bacall cameos as Paul Sheldon’s agent. There’s even a blink and you’ll miss it uncredited cameo from J.T. Walsh, in one of the only other on-screen roles.
Recently we saw it on the big screen – I got to take my son along. He’s already watched it once, but it was not only his first time seeing it on the big screen it was also his first ‘horror’ at the movies. Watching Misery this time, and it must be half a dozen times I’ve seen this film, at least – I really appreciated the comedic timing of Frances Sternhagen, another great character actor. She wins every small scene she is in. Farnsworth and her, just brilliant.
The experience of seeing Misery on the big screen was an utter joy. You know the story, you know what’s going to happen. And yet there is still tension. Marc Shapiro’s score subtly builds, Reiner makes these interesting decisions to give you close-ups on a section of the wheelchair, before cutting away to a car making its way through the snow. Your heart races in the hope that Paul will get back into bed and lock the door before Annie returns with the reams of typewriter paper. Yes, yes, you’ve seen it before, you know the answer – but in that moment of immersion you aren’t ever quite sure.
This is the power of great filmmaking and of wonderful story telling.
Reading the book I was powering through it – King’s a compelling writer, I knew the central action from the times I’d seen the film – and yet I was still held in that little, terrifying world. It’s such a page-turner.
We’ve formed a little club. Me and a mate. And my son. We’re getting together and watching horror films. This was our first big screen outing. And it was amazing. The film still stands. After so many good times in its quite brutal darkness.
Misery loves company eh.