Misery (book and movie)

After years of holding off until I read the book, and waiting to read until after I’ve seen the movie, I finally buckled down and read the novel and watched the movie. Oh boy they’re both great.

The book and film follow the same narrative. A novelist name Paul Sheldon has been writing a series of trashy novels following the romantic and adventurous heroine Misery Chastain. He wants to be free of the character and taken seriously as a writer, so he kills Misery in the latest book and sets off to the mountains of Colorado to write his first “real novel.” After completing his masterpiece he drives down the mountain only to crash in a major blizzard. He is rescued by Annie Wilkes, a former nurse and mentally unstable fan of the Misery Chastain books. She and Paul enter into a psychological battle of wills as Paul realizes that with two broken legs and the roads snowed in he’s her prisoner.

I read the book first, so I’ll start there. This is one of the most horrific and disturbing books I’ve ever read. The book is told entirely from Paul’s point of view, and we are locked into his experience. This adds so much to the claustrophobic feeling of the situation. He is trapped with a crazy woman who will torture him, starve him, and abuse him in any way she can in order to get him to write a new Misery novel and bring back her beloved heroine.

I was anticipating a slow build in the novel. Her madness would unfold gradually over the course of the narrative. Nope. She dives right into the horror. she sets his mangled legs and gets him addicted to pain killers. The descriptions of his pain and drug infused nightmares are quite unsettling. But it isn’t a hundred pages in before Annie is physically harming Paul when he upsets her and outright torturing him when her mood darkens, and it darkens a lot. She torments Paul and commits heinous acts against him that haunt me still.

It’s not all torture though. It’s also a story of addiction and a really fantastic dive into the writing process. King has a beautiful way of describing the act of writing and getting swept along by your creation. He creates an indelible counterpoint to the horror that elevates the narrative.

The film is a different beast entirely while also being exactly the same. The film stars James Caan as Paul, and the legendary Kathy Bates as Annie giving a once in a lifetime performance. The biggest change is that the film opens up the narrative. It’s no longer just two people locked in a room. We now include the local sheriff, played by Richard Farnsworth.

I think the sheriff is one of the keys to the films success. With a book you can read at your own pace. I took breaks. When things became too intense or disturbing, I put the book down and watched silly YouTube videos or decompressed in other ways. With a movie, you are locked in for two hours. You don’t get to take the same kinds of breaks. The movie provides those breaks with the sheriff. He makes the horror endurable.

The movie is so well made. It’s wound like a clock and springs to life from the opening moments. It clicks along with a skill that isn’t often present in new films. The movie is incredibly tense and suspenseful. It takes the scenes of the book and turns them just enough to make them riveting film scenes.

There’s a difference between a good book and a good movie scene. In both book and film, Annie forces Paul to burn his masterpiece. In the book, we’re in Paul’s head as he weighs Annie’s reactions. His mounting fear at her potential reaction makes for a riveting read. In the movie, we see Annie’s growing anger and her casual way of dousing him with lighter fluid. Through careful shot selection and great performances, the tension builds and builds until it culminates. By giving Annie action and filming it effectively, they’ve turned a book scene into a movie scene.

The biggest thing we lose is Paul’s point of view. The book burning is probably the biggest loss. In the novel we have a much greater sense of how important that book is to Paul, and how devastating its loss is to him. The movie shows us, but it doesn’t scratch as deeply.

The hobbling scene is another example. Reading that scene in the book was one of the most horrendous and disturbing things I’ve ever read. The scene in the movie is famously horrifying, but in a different way. I didn’t feel it on the inside like I did with the book. The movie builds a sense of dread and terror. It twisted me in knots in anticipation of the horror to come. Both are great, but it’s a very different experience.

One is a great novel. The other is a great example of filmmaking. I really loved both. I appreciated each I’m their own way. I don’t think I’ll ever reread the book. Those pages are seared into my memory forever. But I would watch the movie again anytime. The expansion of the story and additional elements make it an exceptionally entertaining film.

Both are my cup of tea. A for both.

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