A Disturbed Writer Terrorizes a Modest Woman: An Essay on the Film Misery

Misery is a movie about a psychotic fiction writer who mentally and physically tortures a proud and humble woman: at least, that’s how the first half of the film seemed to me.

screenshot from Misery, Kathy Bates

It might come as a surprise to many of you that, up until a few days ago, I’d never sat down and watched all of the famous 90’s movie Misery.  I almost didn’t have to.  Misery is one of those movies that, like Psycho, have become such a part of the collective unconscious that even if you haven’t seen it, you’ve seen it.  Ask just about anyone over 20 what Misery was, and you’re bound to hear something like, “Oh, it’s that movie about the woman keeping that guy hostage and breaking his feet with a sledge hammer.”  They may not remember the whole film, but everyone knows the gist of it, just like everyone knows the shower scene of Psycho, but most forget the film was also about a robbery.

When I committed myself to actually watch the movie, I had a different take on it.  As I’m technically a writer myself, although not a very successful one, you’d expect me to identify with James Caan’s character, Paul Sheldon, the writer who inevitably gets abducted by his biggest fan.  Instead, for the first half, I couldn’t help but identify with Kathy Bates’ character, Annie Wilkes.  Sure, I might be a writer now, but I’ve been a reader for years.
Writers and other types of storytellers tend to have a nasty tendency to monkey around with their audience, often with less than dignifiable reasons.  So frequently, people will fall deeply in love with fictional characters, or become fascinated by their every adventure, turning into an obsession that transcends reading or watching television.  Then, the storyteller, for some pitiful reason, will ruin the beloved character, or tarnish the series.

For an example of this, think of Indiana Jones 4.  I’m one of the few people, it seems, who didn’t hate that movie, but I didn’t necessarily love it either–at least, not in the same way I loved the other ones growing up.  Other people were not so forgiving as me.  South Park famously lampooned it, and it seemed everywhere else there was a huge backlash, and now the general consensus is that George Lucas is cuckoo-bananas.

Speaking of Lucas, Star Wars was something I obsessed over for many years, watching each of the movies at least 50 times, and reading dozens of spin-off books.  Imagine my horror then when, a few years ago, Chewbacca was killed off in one of the books.  By that time, I had more or less stopped obsessing over Star Wars, but I had to go and read the book anyways to see what happened to my old friend.  The book was complete garbage.  I later found out the whole reason why the folks at Star Wars decided to kill of Chewie was that the writers were complaining it was too hard to come up with things for him to do.  Now, if Chewbacca had died in some way that was integral to the plot, or perhaps as an instance of beautiful poetic justice, I wouldn’t have minded…  but just to appease some snivelling writers?

Something similar happened in the 19th century, when Arthur Conan Doyle grew tired of writing about Sherlock Holmes all of the time.  Doyle was a writer with many talents, detective fiction being only one of them.  Among other things, he’d written of dinosaur adventures and historical epics concerning past wars.  Sherlock Holmes though was what excited the public.  To free himself, Doyle disposed of Holmes, having him plummet off a cliff in a climactic battle with Moriarty.  The public wouldn’t have it.  The outcry was severe.  Legend has it that even Queen Victoria, usually so isolated, protested this conclusion.  His return seemed like the kind of thing you’d find in Flash Gordon: it only seemed like he died, but didn’t.

To give a last example, think of one of the most popular fictional characters of all time, Superman.  People who don’t read comics know all about him.  Everyone could pick him out in a line-up.  In the 90’s though he was killed off, and not because of a clever ploy by Lex Luthor or because it absolutely had to happen, but because of a grudge some of the people in the comics industry had.  Long story short, the 90s comics market was being taken over by comics that were high on style, but low on content.  Superman had always tried to be a comic with a lot of content in each issue, but it was losing sales to rival companies putting about books made up mostly of flashy pictures and little dialogue.  To get back at them, DC comics decided to have Superman die in an issue that was made up of full page illustrations and NO dialogue at all.  His death brought in a record number of sales, and the creators could thumb their noses at rival companies, but the rest of us had to see a childhood hero destroyed.  Then he came back to life less than a year later.

Anyways, when you create a character or story that becomes so prevalent in the culture, you have a responsibility to your public.  I’m all in favor of free speech, and allowing writers to write whatever they want, but conscience has to enter into it.  As I said before, change has to be integral to the composition and the integrity of the story as a whole.  If something’s hugely popular, then you have to watch out: the collective unconscious won’t stand for much tomfoolery.

To get back to my original point, I did, to some extent, understand where Annie Wilkes was coming from.  To be honest, it was Paul Sheldon who I thought was scarier through the entire film.  Sheldon’s a dangerous man.  I don’t mean just because of his ability to reshape and rethink stories, but because his personality’s malevolent. He never seems to try to empathize or level with Annie Wilkes, instead, he’s constantly manipulating her from the beginning, scheming and plotting at every turn.  Also, he doesn’t seem like much of a writer to me.  Writers would have a better understanding of psychology, for one thing.  For instance, people have what are called fetish objects, and those things aren’t necessarily sexual.  Oftentimes, people can survive through enormous amounts of stress and sadness so long as their fetish object is intact.  For Annie Wilkes, her object was Sheldon’s books.  He should have realized that, by giving her a manuscript that kills off her cherished character, a lifetime of trauma would come out as a violent abreaction.

Annie Wilkes seems to have a pretty extreme case of a bipolar disorder.  If he had any human compassion, he would have treated her differently.  That sort of disorder can’t be easily sorted out.  Sheldon though is egotistical, narcissistic, and duplicitous.  These are things a little will power could curb.  He doesn’t use that will power, and that’s why he scares me more than Kathy Bates in all of her apoplectic glory could ever scare me.

James Caan as Paul Sheldon

It seems to me Stephen King might have sensed that his story was ambiguous, which is why he throws in the plot device of the photo album conveniently left out.  That’s a plot device that’s been around for centuries, used heavily in early 19th century gothic romances and parodied so well by Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey.  King basically has the same thing happen in The Shining, when Jack finds a book of newspaper clippings explaining the sordid history of the Overlook Hotel.  Misery is essentially The Shining pared down.  The photo album bluntly explains to the audience that Wilkes is the evil one.  Not only has she killed many people including her late husband, but she has also killed several newborn infants.

The whole photo album twist to Misery seems terribly hackneyed to me.  Maybe in the book it made more sense–I haven’t read it.  While I can see how possibly Annie Wilkes could kill her husband, I don’t see anything in her character that would explain her killing newborn children.  I think this in some ways exploits people with mental disorders.  Just because Annie suffers from loneliness, paranoia, and massive amounts of repression, it doesn’t mean she’d go around killing for no reason.  I guess King wanted to make sure we weren’t rooting for her.

With the ambiguity gone, the second half of the film goes way down hill, hitting rock bottom at the truly lousy climax.  Again, maybe the book was better.  In the film, the climax is over-the-top ridiculous.  You might as well re-edit it and add the theme song from Benny Hill.  After building up suspense for an hour and a half, I don’t understand how it could all be wasted in a scene full of slapstick so corny the Three Stooges would blush.

That's right. The final showdown involves a groin kick.

Wise guy, eh?

Overall, I’d say that Misery was a pretty solid movie–not excellent, but above average.  Its strength lies entirely in Kathy Bates’ performance.  Really, the movie should be said to belong to her.  While I enjoy Rob Reiner’s work as an actor in All in the Family, I don’t think he’s much of a director.  Apart from Misery and This is Spinal Tap, it seems all of his movies have been cornball schmaltz.  James Caan was okay, and I enjoyed Richard Farnsworth as the sherriff (Farnsworth was excellent in the unusual David Lynch film The Straight Story), and couldn’t help but love seeing Lauren Bacall in the few scenes she was in.  Kathy Bates though is the one that people will remember.  Whether it’s tv or movies, Bates brings 100% commitment to her roles, including her recent work as the spitfire boss on The Office and as Gertrude Stein in Midnight in Paris.

Richard Farnsworth

The movie does have an unintentionally scary last scene–Paul Sheldon lives and he’s still at large!  Just when you thought it was safe to go into a bookstore!

I've written a book called The Madness of Art: Short Stories now available in paperback.


Read other movie reviews.

If you like Misery, you might also enjoy Psycho and The Perfect Host.


2 thoughts on “A Disturbed Writer Terrorizes a Modest Woman: An Essay on the Film Misery

  1. I haven’t seen most of the movie because the approximately 90 seconds I saw on TV (which happened to be the ankle-breaking part) scared the crap out of me.

    However, I have read the book, and though I haven’t read it recently, I think it makes a much clearer case for who the victim is. After all, Annie Wilkes IS keeping Paul Sheldon HOSTAGE, so, ya know, it’s sort of hard to have pity for her. From what I remember of the book, he had already written and published the book that killed off her favorite character, and she makes him write another one where that character comes back to life or something crazy like that. Also, after seeing Elf (which I saw many times before I saw the tidbit of Misery on TV), James Caan just seems like an annoying Scrooge to me, so I don’t think I’d sympathize with him either!

    You make an interesting point about the mental illness thing. While I understand where you’re coming from when you say the movie seemed “exploitative” and that just because she’s mentally ill it doesn’t mean she’s going to just go around killing people for no reason, the fact is that some mentally ill people DO do that. I don’t think that anyone who reads or watches Misery is automatically going to go around thinking that all depressed/lonely/bipolar people are evil murderers. Frankly, the impression I got from the book was that she was just plain old crazy, which I suppose isn’t really a diagnosis, but I never really saw her as depressed or bipolar. Lonely, definitely. But that still doesn’t make it okay for her to do all the stuff she did.

    I’d be interested to hear what you think of the book, now that you’ve seen the movie…

    • This article is way, way off base. I don’t understand in any way how you could sympathize with the character of Annie Wilkes. I think overall Paul handled himself pretty well while dealing with someone with an obvious mental illness who has violent tendencies. The book being left out wasn’t hackneyed either. Annie left it out on purpose because she wanted him to see it. If you read the book this is precisely what King describes. She knew he had gotten himself out of the room and laid three strands of her hair across it to see if they are tampered with so she knows when he has read it. Also, the book that Annie was so upset about was already in stores right after she met Paul. The manuscript she read was called Fast Cars and she disliked it because of the foul language. There is no way he could have stopped her from reading the upsetting Misery book, or to know that she would react the way she did because in the beginning she appeared normal. Also, I don’t agree the climax was “over the top ridiculous”. Based on the book I would say it was minimal. Another point I don’t agree on is how you think there is nothing in her character that shows she’s capable of killing newborns. How can you not think that? Maybe it takes reading the book as well to get a full picture of Annie Wilkes,because she is much more violent in the reading. However, just judging on her manic states and her lack of remorse after her actions and her projection of blame it seems likely this woman would do anything. I think Annie has Schizoaffective disorder and I also think people should do their homework before writing ridiculous reviews of things their not yet educated on.

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