Stephen King’s brilliant novel Misery seemed one that couldn’t be adapted in any sort of satisfying way. The amount of precision and detail contained in the writing of it seem as though any attempt to transfer it onto the silver screen would be an exercise in disappointing futility. However, director Rob Reiner has satisfyingly and successfully adapted book to screen, resulting in one of the most thrilling and suspenseful movies out there.
After a car crash, famous novelist Paul Sheldon is “rescued” by a woman who turns out to be his “number one fan”. However her at-first pleasant and helpful nature starts to fracture as she begins to show her true, psychopathic colours.
The combination of Rob Reiner and a thriller/horror doesn’t quite seem right as an initial notion. He has done everything from drama to comedy, from action/adventure to documentary and Misery was his first (and only) film of this type. However he proves that it isn’t necessarily experience that counts but more the willingness, the skill, and effort that can truly create a great film. He puts King’s novel from page to screen with such effortless strokes it’s hard to see how he does it. He captures the futility and the hopelessness of Paul Sheldon’s time as a captive, the despair of every failed revengeful action and the tension he manages to build up in almost every scene is both almost unbearable and masterful.
One of the many reasons I found to love this film is my strange fascination with stories (or indeed movies) which take place within one location for the most part. It’s the reason I love such films as Rear Window, 12 Angry Men, and even the recent first Saw film – it just fascinates me that a director can keep your interest for the entire time all the while in one primary location. In the case of Misery it’s Annie Wilke’s spare bedroom turned writer’s studio where author Paul Sheldon is forced to write a new story for his obsessive and psychopathic captor — an exercise that could readily be described as “writing for your life.” And we are almost like a second captor stuck in this awful house with this awful woman, forced to put up with her obsessive ways and paying the consequences when Mr Sheldon does something that’s against her liking; for us, we have to watch, for him, he has to suffer. It’s quite unbearable what we’re put through as the viewer in this film and to make us feel for what a fictional character is going through in such a relational way is the mark of true, suspense-conjuring genius.
Apart from looking in pain and conveying the desperation of his character, James Caan isn’t given all that much to do. Now don’t get me wrong, he’s nothing short of great, as he always is; it’s the character that calls for nothing more. But it’s the performance of Kathy Bates that truly makes this film as thrilling and sometimes downright terrifying as it is. The character of Annie Wilkes in the novel is one that needed to be captured to perfection that it, again, seemed impossible to adapt onto screen. However when you see Bates in the role, wearing those clothes, in that house, doing the things Annie does, it’s impossible to imagine anyone else playing her. She doesn’t just play Annie Wilkes, she is her. One of the most perfect casting choices in the history of film, which even the Academy recognized when they gave her the Best Actress Oscar.
The only real problem with Misery is the way in which it ends. Although virtually the same as the novel (minus a couple of scenes at the finish line that would have been unnecessary for the film anyway) the way in which it was done just didn’t seem exactly right to me. It’s hard to explain unless you’ve seen it for yourself but the best way I can think of is that it just seems to sort of end suddenly, with a kind of throwback to the rest of the film. Although the final scene is preceded by one of the most thrilling confrontations I have ever witnessed in a film, its final few frames left me kind of miffed.
Such brilliantly done book-to-screen adaptations as Misery are hard to come by. Reiner is clearly a director who knows what he’s doing, whatever the genre might be, and this just might be his finest hour. And overall I am very pleased to say that thrillers just don’t get much more thrilling than this.