Reiner: Misery (1990)

Like so many of Stephen King’s works, Misery, and Rob Reiner’s adaptation of Misery, is an operatic horror-comedy about the experience of composing a novel. This time around, the writer is Paul Sheldon, played by James Caan, author of the bestselling Misery cycle, a series of Victorian romances centring on the character of Misery Chastain. When Paul has a car accident shortly after completing the last Misery novel, he’s rescued by Annie Wilkes, a nurse who claims to be his biggest fan, played by Kathy Bates in her breakout role. As Annie nurses Paul back to health in her sprawling house, where she lives alone, he allows her to read the manuscript he’s just finished. When she discovers Misery dies at the end, and that this is the final book in the Misery cycle, Annie burns it in rage, and keeps Paul prisoner until he writes a story that ensures the continuity of the franchise, while suggesting Misery’s Return as a title. 

Right from the beginning, Reiner adapts King with the same lushness he brought to bear on Stand By Me. The landscape is very different here, but there’s the same sensuous attention to physical space, starting with the cosy den where Paul finishes the novel, and moving out into the wintry landscape where he crashes, and then back into the eerie snugness of Annie’s house. Like Stand By Me too, Misery feels like a quilting-point for many of King’s other stories, a summation of his body of work as it stood in 1987, when the novel was first released. In that respect, it’s not unlike The Dark Tower franchise, which combines many of King’s characters and motifs, especially those that involve the writing process, into a unifying vision.

Yet Misery is also an unofficial sequel to The Shining, both in its literary and cinematic form. Like Jack Torrance, Paul Sheldon retreats to the mountains of Colorado to finish his writing. Yet whereas Jack’s stay at the Overlook Hotel is a one-off, and ends up decelerating his workflow, Paul has got the balance right. Whenever he needs to finish a new Misery novel, he shacks up at the same lodge, and bunkers down for the winter until he’s done. If anything, he’s trying to escape this serial productivity – trying to find a way out of the franchise that’s trapped him in. Being forced to continue the Misery cycle is Paul’s own form of writer’s block, since it prevents him growing as an author. Annie functions in much the same way here as the Overlook, both inciting him to improve but also setting tangible limits on what he can do.

Like The Shining, too, Misery is haunted by the past. In The Shining, the power of the Overlook Hotel ultimately stems from the nineteenth-century history of the region – specifically the genocide of first nations peoples on the site where the hotel was eventually constructed. To function as the caretaker, Jack Torrance has to repress that history, even if he also draws on its dark power. Paul finds himself in a somewhat analogous situation. After all, the Misery novels are all set in nineteenth-century America, meaning that his effort to conclude the cycle, and write a more contemporary novel, is also a kind of historical repression. Again, Annie functions like the Overlook, forcing Paul to confront the past in increasingly traumatic ways, culminating with the central set piece of the film, when she “hobbles” him; a brutal punishment meted out by local miners to first nations peoples during the nineteenth-century.   

While there are some key similarities between The Shining and Misery, then, they all serve to reiterate a central difference. In The Shining, Jack is desperately trying to write, because writing will allow him to resume his paternal purview over his family. Everything that prevents him writing becomes part of the Gothic apparatus of the Overlook Hotel. Conversely, in Misery, Paul is desperately trying not to write, at least within the Misery cycle, because the Victorian romance has gradually emasculated and disempowered him over time. As a result, everything that incentivises him to continue the cycle, in the form of Annie, but also his agent, Marcia Sindell, played by Lauren Bacall, becomes part of the Gothic apparatus of the film. This produces a unique horror-comedy blend in which King confronts his own seriality, his congealment into a late 80s brand that wasn’t as streamlined when he composed The Shining.

As a result, Misery often plays as a parody of The Shining, right down to Caan’s performance and intonation, which seems to be inchoately channelling Jack Nicholson during most of the key scenes, just as Kathy Bates draws on the atonal intensity of Shelley Duvall’s presence as well. There’s also something more comic about a writer confronting their unconscious in the form of a person rather than in the form of a space. No doubt Annie’s house becomes a character in itself, and expresses her in quite eerie and ingenious ways, but she still personifies the writing process more emphatically than any single figure in The Shining – which means that she also personifies all that’s absurd and atonal about the writing process.

In that sense, Annie is like Paul’s writerly unconscious, continually second-guessing him, and forcing him to revisit passages that he thought were complete. This is one of the primal fears of Misery – that a book that seems finished, might not be. Here, King is obsessed with the difficulty of concluding a novel, and a franchise, and even a particular authorial persona, rather than with starting the artistic process, which is the main preoccupation of The Shining. Like any unconscious, Annie doesn’t obey logic, giving continuous advice but without any clear sense of the drafting process, or even a proper distinction between fantasy and reality.

As Paul’s writerly unconscious, Annie also offers him a screen whereon to project his deepest desires of leaving the Misery cycle behind and becoming a “serious” novelist. Through her eyes, he oscillates between self-doubt and delusions of grandeur, especially because she thinks his new Misery draft is “a perfect, perfect thing,” a novel so grand that it transcends the entire Misery cycle. This is what makes Annie so seductive, and what endears Paul to her despite himself – she suggests that there is still room for serious literature within the Misery franchise, and that he can reinvent it from the inside, rather than having to reject romance altogether. It’s not hard to see Paul as King here, wondering, through Annie, whether he can continue to achieve his literary ambitions via genre, or if he needs to discard “mere” horror.

Perhaps that’s why Misery is so uncertain and ambivalent about its relation to horror too, veering between suspense and comedy – or perhaps more accurately, finding a comic edge to even the most dramatic situations, which was Reiner’s real gift as a director at this time. You sense a longing for real literary greatness, both from Paul and King, in the way Annie compares the latest Misery novel to the Sistine Chapel Ceiling, describing them both as “the only two divine things in this world.” Of course, she’s crazy, and yet her craziness provides Paul with a glimpse of his own potential for greatness in and through the Misery cycle, especially once she appoints herself as the divine guardian and custodian of these romances. 

While Annie sustains Paul, he can never quite look at her directly, or embrace her unequivocally, since that would be to confront the paucity of his own fantasies. At stake here is the horror of a writer encountering his fans, and the dysfunctional ways that fans absorb writers into their own narratives in turn. Writers need readers so much, and readers need writers so much, that they can’t afford to spend too much time in each other’s presence, or else the fantasy will be lost – at least that’s how Misery frames it. Beyond a certain point, Paul and Annie feel like projections of each other, and don’t quite seem to exist outside of the writer-reader relationship, even or especially as that relationship grows more volatile in their continuin physical proximity. Annie is as fickle as the market – you can never quite predict how she’ll respond – while she fears Paul’s fickleness in delivering the same perfect formula.

This relationship strongly recalls Jack Torrance’s relationship with the Overlook Hotel, insofar as it evokes a writing process, and a reader-writer communion, that casts its own reality, and then excludes everything outside that own reality. While Lauren Bacall and Richard Farnsworth are second-billed, they never quite feel like they occupy the same world as Paul and Annie. Bacall’s character never comes to Colorado, and mainly occurs in flashbacks, while Farsnworth’s character, a local sheriff, is murdered as soon as he breaches the reality-principle of Annie’s house. As a result, this is a two-hander in spirit, since nothing quite exists outside of Paul and Annie’s negotiations to remake the world through their literary relation.

After a while, Annie ceases to even feel like a conventional character, and more like a hallucinatory kaleidoscope of all the people a writer can conceivably imagine reading their work at any one time. This is “the reader” as a composite figure, destructive and productive in the same instant, and prone to mood shifts that are at once sudden and subliminal, usually because they correspond to Paul’s own moods before he’s aware of them, or before they’ve fully emerged from his unconscious. That makes for a remarkably eerie and emergent tone, along with a wonderfully mercurial performance from Kathy Bates – it’s not hard to see why she won the Oscar, since she effectively plays the “actor” in as composite a manner as Annie plays the “reader,” cycling through an endless array of registers that never settle or congeal.

In part, that’s because Annie sees Paul as the “writer” in a composite sense as well – the locus of all meaning and continuity in her own life. Gradually, by exploring the house when she’s away, Paul traces the history of Annie’s psychopathy. We learn that she was an ambitious nurse, and that she was responsible for a series of patient deaths, but Annie herself provides the key incident in the development of her pathologies – the moment when she realised that the Saturday movie serials weren’t entirely continuous from week to week. The rage of that discovery propelled her into a drive for continuity – for ultra-continuity – that she found in the Misery novels, which explains her rage at Paul’s decision to conclude the cycle. As soon as he starts the cycle again, she’s able to exhibit continuity in her own tone and bearing, but whenever she doubts him, she begins to dissociate back into this atonal “reader” composite.  

Annie’s effort to rein in continuity is part of what gives Misery is own playful discontinuity, its emergent atonality, while Reiner’s skill as a director lies in balancing those two imperatives. The result is a highly precarious and vertiginous horror-comedy, never quite holding the two registers in equal balance, but never entirely losing control of them either. That precarity is also what provides Paul with the discipline he needs to continue the franchise, as Annie makes it clear that she is staking her own continuity on the next Misery novel, which “can’t be a chapter play.” Instead, she announces that “I expect nothing less than your masterpiece,” turning her imprisonment of Paul into a kind of intensified writer’s retreat, in which she plays the role of an especially scrupulous editor, or mentor, riding him to draw out his best work.

This gives Annie and Paul’s rapport a distinctly fetishistic flavour, the heightened sense of otherness that’s often associated with sado-masochism. The result isn’t quite screwball, but it’s certainly oddball, as Paul puts it, culminating with the queasy comic centrepiece of the film – a formal dinner where he joins Annie in her living room, still her prisoner, but also somehow her husband, as they share a toast “to Misery.” This otherness is, in part, the otherness of female paperback readers to a male writer who has managed to disavow them. There’s a stark contrast between Paul’s rugged masculinity and the world where Annie lovingly curates shrines to his Misery novels – full of kitsch, camp and trash, from the talk shows she watches in bed, to the Liberace memorabilia that dots the house, which seems to embody Paul’s latent fear of what he might become with too much exposure to female fans.

This fetishistic configuration of writer and reader eventually extends to books themselves. Of all the adaptations of King’s novels, Misery is the most preoccupied with the raw materials of literature, which are separated and recombined in ritualistic combinations over the course of the film. We first see this obsession with the materiality and texturality of literature in the opening scene, which details Paul’s two traditions whenever he finishes his latest Misery novel. First, he lights a single cigarette, and then he goes outside and throws a snowball at a tree. These two elemental visions of paper and wood are amplified once he’s imprisoned, partly because he’s debilitated in bed, and attuned to the texture of the room around him. You see hints of Gerald’s Game here in the way Paul learns to read his room, while Annie is also attuned to the small details of the house that he disturbs as he maps his way outwards.

This textural detail gradually focuses in on paper and wood, the raw materials of literature, as it does in the opening scene. The most vivid forensic moment occurs when the police officer played by Farnsworth examines a series of broken branches in order to deduce whether Paul’s car might have gone off the road close to Annie’s house. Similarly, the most textural scene in the house occurs when Annie burns the original Misery finale on a portable barbecue in Paul’s bedroom. Reiner really lingers on this spectacle, offering a series of extreme close-ups to depict the pages crumpling under the extreme heat, in sensuous detail.

Just as Paul is forced to experience the “reader” up close in the form of Annie, now both he and Annie are forced to experience literature as a material object that mediates their fetishistic dependence on each other. Conversely, since the film garners so much of its atmosphere from woods, this atmosphere feels especially heavy with literary prescience, with an unspoken sense of all the other stories that could be told, along with those words of King’s that didn’t make their way into William Golding’s script, but still inhere in every tree as a kind of condition of possibility. You see this in the lavishly painted film poster, which suggests an impossibly atmospheric tableau that exceeds any one story that could ever be told about it, or within it. Perhaps that explains why King has always considered Misery to be one of the most complete adaptations of his novels, even though it doesn’t even clock in at two hours.  

What we have, then, is a kind of reduction of literature to a sado-masochistic relationship between writer and reader in which the novel itself is their fetish. In order to keep that fetish flexible, Annie and Paul have to oscillate between extracting the novel from the trees that produced it, and subsuming it back into those trees. Again, this process informs Paul’s twofold ritual for finishing a novel – smoking a cigarette, as if to remind himself of the fragility of paper, before throwing a snowball at a tree, as if to remind himself of the durability of wood. This uneasy space between paper and wood is the canvas where Annie and Paul write their masochistic contract, and where the most violent negotiations in the film take place. No doubt, the most brutal scene in the film is when Annie “hobbles” Paul, but we don’t feel the full effect of this violence until Paul is compelled to drag himself from room to room, bumping his legs on one corner and surface after another, in search of a single precious sheet of paper.

While Paul and Annie tousle for the book as a fetish that morphs paper and wood, raw material and finished product, the film periodically cuts back to New York, and to Paul’s agent’s offices, which become synonymous with the spectacle of mass produced books – books displayed in bulk, in piles, in different displays and configurations. This is the end product of Paul and Annie’s struggle, the moment of sublimation at which it becomes possible to recline on the spectacle of books as bluntly material objects without having to situate them within the fetishistic matrix of reader and writer that Paul and Annie embody. These are books that are both physically present and confident that the reader-writer relationship has been entirely naturalised, confident that the composite “reader” has been completely ameloriated to the necessity of purchasing Paul’s novels, which even sell in corner stores in rural Colorado.

In that sense, Annie enlivens the writing process again for Paul, and makes him feel like something is at stake in writing. She loosens the “reader” from the demographic calculated by his publishers, and rescues the materiality of literature from store displays to the rawer and more volatile interplay of wood, paper and fire. As literature comes alive, Paul and Annie both come to see the new Misery novel as their child, meaning they have to allow it to primally separate from them, and form its own identity, and its own autonomy – they have to make a sacrifice that neither of them made for the original Misery novels. In that sense, the final Misery novel truly is the serious literature that Paul has always wanted to write, a vision of transcendence through genre he would have never achieved without Annie’s help.

Of course, that means that he and Annie can only escape each other through the novel itself. Hence the final scene, halfway between a fight and foreplay, in which they come together in one final fetishistic configuration around this manuscript. Paul tries to kill Annie with the typewriter, and then with the manuscript itself, but his actions quickly exceed any survival imperative, as he slams her head into the burned detritus of the novel, and then crams the ashes into her mouth and eyes, forcing her to consume the final Misery outing as a collection of raw ingredients. This partly plays as poetic punishment, and yet it’s also a sacrifice to Annie as muse, as well as a final ritualistic binding of them as reader and writer. By literally feeding his words to her, Paul fuses them for life, and transforms his novels from mass-produced objects to magical objects, brimming with a material volatility that will always channel Annie.

This leads onto a comically ambivalent epilogue, some months later, after Paul has returned to New York. He’s written his serious novel, and been nominated for a few major prizes, for a novel that doesn’t seem to be part of the Misery cycle. For a brief beat, he seems to have disavowed the role that Annie played, and the existence of readers full stop, confiding to his agent that he only writes for himself now. In the last second, though, a waitress stops to tell him that she’s his number one fan, and in that flickering beat he briefly sees Annie again. You could see this as a return of the repressed, and in a way it is, since it reminds Paul that he’ll never be without an audience, even or especially as he claims to not be writing for anyone anymore. But this is also a consolation, Paul reminding himself that Annie is still there right when he needs her, ready to enter into the perverse bookplay that brought literature alive for him again, just as that last Misery novel will always be buried deep within his future work. 

About Billy Stevenson (930 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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