Friday, August 15, 2014

Misery (1990)

Director: Rob Reiner                                       Writer: William Goldman
Film Score: Marc Shaiman                              Cinematography: Barry Sonnenfeld
Starring: James Caan, Kathy Bates, Richard Farnsworth and Frances Sternhagen

I’ll never forget how bitterly Stephen King complained that Stanley Kubrick had ruined his book when he made The Shining. I hadn’t read the book at the time and so the criticism was mystifying to me, especially considering how incredible the film was. It wasn’t until many years later, after Misery became one of my favorite novels of King’s, that I understood what he meant. William Goldman ruined Misery. The entire, overarching theme of the book was about addiction. King had written an allegory about his addiction to drugs and alcohol and all of that hinged on the fact that his main character, Paul Sheldon, became addicted to painkillers, even after his pain had gone away. But Goldman did away with all of that to make the character “noble” in refusing to take the painkillers. The second theme was the writing itself, that the pretentious novel he had produced with the goal of being “literary” was self-indulgent tripe, and that the book Annie Wilkes makes him write is actually the best thing he’s every written. But Goldman changed that as well and in the process undercut everything King had done so perfectly. Goldman, like so many screenwriters, thinks he knows better than the author who wrote the original work. But he doesn’t.

The film begins in a Colorado mountain lodge where writer James Caan is finishing his latest novel with the utterly pretentious “Untitled” adorning the title page, even after finishing the thing--in King’s novel it was called Fast Cars. Out of touch with the news because of his work, he doesn’t know that a storm is coming as he climbs into his Mustang and heads for home. To the sound of Junior Walker’s “Shotgun” he struggles against the worsening conditions until he careens off the road and down an embankment. But someone climbs down and pulls him out of the snow, and when he wakes up he’s in the home of Kathy Bates, his legs broken and his shoulder dislocated among other things. It turns out that Bates is Caan’s “number one fan” and has all his books, romance novels featuring a noble peasant named Misery Chastain. Caan can’t walk, a virtual prisoner in his bed, but Bates is a nurse and takes care of him to the best of her abilities. Once the storm clears and she buys his latest book, she becomes outraged that he has killed off Misery. Now that she has him prisoner, she is not going to let him go until he writes a new novel bringing Misery back to life. And she doesn’t care who she has to kill to make it happen, including Caan.

In popular terms, the film was a huge hit. Directed by Rob Reiner, it was produced during a string of hits he directed that included The Princess Bride, also written by Goldman, and another film based on a Stephen King story, Stand By Me. One of Reiner’s many talents is casting, and in this film he gets it just right. James Caan was at a very low point in his career. After a string of successes in the seventies, beginning with The Godfather in 1972 and ending with Thief in 1980, he hadn’t made a successful film in a decade and Reiner’s film resuscitated a dying career--though to be honest, Reiner had offered the role to just about every other actor in Hollywood before settling for Caan. Kathy Bates, on the other hand, had been making slow but steady progress, first through television and gradually moving into films, giving a brief but memorable performance in White Palace just prior to this film. Misery would be her breakout into stardom, not only launching her into an A-List career but earning her an Academy Award for best leading actress as well. To complete the relatively small principal cast is the great Richard Farnsworth as the sheriff of the small Colorado town, and his wife, the feisty Frances Sternhagen. And in a final bit of genius casting is the late Lauren Bacall as Caan’s literary agent, a small but memorable role, and J.T. Walsh in a cameo as a state trooper.

The novel is much more gruesome than the film came close to being. King has his protagonist suffering not one but two amputations at the hands of his psychotic fan. And the scene when Annie Wilkes runs over a state trooper with her riding lawnmower is one of the most horrific in literature. The emphasis of the film is on the chess match between the two main characters. Caan has been ordered, at gunpoint, to produce a new manuscript bringing his dead fictional character to life. He knows that when he’s finished Bates will have no further use for him, as the investigation into his disappearance is leading people ever closer to his discovery. The question for Caan, then, becomes how is he going to stay alive. Like The Big Clock, every page he writes brings him that much closer to his own death. Kathy Bates, of course, is wonderfully bipolar as the crazed, homicidal fan, and the cracks in her ditsy façade are as chilling as any of the overt actions she takes. Like many famous authors have to do, Stephen King has mellowed over the years and even Goldman’s butcher job on the underlying thematic elements of his film doesn’t seem to bother him too much. Popularity will do that, and because of the success of the film the author lists it as one of his favorite adaptations. And what the hell, I like it too. What it does, it does great, and if I ever want the real Misery, I can always go back to the novel.

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