More and more, Misery feels like one of the great films about writing, not so much because it nails the discipline required to complete a novel (although it does), but because it dramatises the implicit contract that exists between writers and readers, in ways that feel appropriately gruesome. Adapted from the Stephen King best-seller about a deranged fan who imprisons her favourite novelist and forces him to resurrect the heroine of his best-selling romance series after killing her off, the film’s very premise gets to the heart of the vexed relationship successful authors sometimes have with both their work and their fans.
Having lain to rest the titular heroine of his Danielle Steele-esque Misery Chastain books in a pique of artistic frustration, Misery’s hero, Paul Sheldon (James Caan), begins the movie taking great delight in putting the finishing touches to an as-yet-untitled manuscript, celebrating with a glass of champagne and a solitary cigarette – rituals he’s adhered to since first finding success. The new book marks a return to the hard-hitting, semi-autobiographical fiction he began his career trying to write, before getting side-tracked by the embarrassing genre fiction that’s bought him a couple of houses, a Mustang and a college education for his daughter. His agent (played by Lauren Bacall) isn’t thrilled about killing the golden goose, but she’s sympathetic to his artistic needs, which is more than can be said for his “number one fan”, Annie Wilkes, played with terrifying conviction by an Oscar-winning Kathy Bates.
One of the entertaining things about the film version of Misery – which was adapted by legendary screenwriter William “nobody knows anything” Goldman and directed by Rob Reiner, who previously transformed King’s short story The Body into the magnificent Stand By Me (another excellent film about writing and storytelling) – is the way it gradually makes literal Paul’s exasperation at being held hostage by success. At first Annie is a benevolent presence: a former nurse who saves his life after he crashes his car in a snowstorm following the completion of the aforementioned opus. Confined to a bed in Annie’s house – two-broken legs strapped up, body battered and bruised – it’s not long, however, before his saviour turns savage.
The warning signs come early. Excessive testaments to his literary genius give way to confessions of stalking. Then comes a frighteningly unhinged rant against the profanity in Paul’s gritty new book, at which point Caan’s physically restricted performance becomes a masterful display of just how much simmering fear can be masked with a polite smile. But things get really dark when Annie picks up the new Misery book and discovers the fate of her favourite character. First she makes Paul burn the only copy of his new book (casually dousing his bed with lighter fluid as she calls his bluff on the manuscript’s uniqueness). Then she informs him of his next task: to write a new Misery novel, one that brings the eponymous heroine back to life in a plausible way. Under extreme duress, he literally starts writing for his life.
What follows is an extreme and violent depiction of what’s become known as “fan service” – a buzz term that’s crept into cultural commentary in recent years to describe the way writers and filmmakers are increasingly forced to pander to the very vocal whims of social-media-savvy superfans. Misery anticipated all of this. Annie is the extreme version of every maladjusted nerd, fuming in their basement or ranting online at the supposed injustices perpetrated against them by the creators of the thing they’ve grown to love out of all proportion. When Annie takes a sledgehammer to Paul’s leg (in the book it’s even more extreme), Misery’s horror movie money shot feels increasingly like gleefully sick joke, grimly symbolic of the way writers can be hobbled by the unrealistic demands of their readers.