To date, Misery remains one of Stephen King’s best works. Undoubtedly, the book’s success owes in part to its memorable villain, Annie Wilkes. But Misery’s status also stems from its relevancy. Like the best fictional works, King’s story of an obsessed fan eerily forecasted the current state of toxic fan culture. Similarly, Rob Reiner’s 1990 movie stands out as one of the best adaptations of King’s work. Aside from its expertly crafted psychological horror, Misery’s depiction of obsession and dangerous fan entitlement is more socially aware today than it was in 1990.
Misery Balances Mounting Dread With …
Prior to Misery, audiences knew director Rob Reiner for ‘dramedies’ like Harry Met Sally and the fantasy classic, The Princess Bride. Yet in spite of his inexperience with horror, Reiner accomplished something rare – he made an excellent King movie. Simply put, Misery is an economically paced thriller that expertly ratchets up tension. Wasting little time in putting author Paul Sheldon in his private prison, Reiner relies on psychological tension built meticulously over the movie. Annie’s first outburst and confused rambling about ‘forgetting things on the witness stand in Denver’ are unnerving, particularly given Sheldon’s vulnerable state. And Paul’s first ‘trip’ outside his room is unbearably tense.
Though Reiner departs from the source material, it’s no less gruesome.
Arguably, Misery’s best scene is ‘The Hobbling’. Not surprisingly, Bravo ranked the scene high on their 100 Scariest Movie Moments list. Though Reiner departs from the source material, it’s no less gruesome. Everyone remembers the bone-crunching finale, but it’s the set-up that makes the scene work. Wilkes calm recounting of the ‘Kimberley diamond mines’ while Beethoven’s Midnight Sonata plays in the background perfectly juxtaposes with the horror that follows. But it’s James Caan’s agonized scream that sells the moment.
Kathy Bates Creates One of Horror Most Memorable Villains
Over the last few years, critics have thrown around the term, ‘elevated horror’. Studios like A24 have specialized in art-house indie horror movies. But the idea of ‘elevated horror’ is a bit of a misnomer. Critically-acclaimed horror movies aren’t new. The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, The Shining – all hailed as classic films. And in the early 1990’s, horror enjoyed another brief love affair with critical success. In 1992, The Silence of the Lambs swept all five of the major Oscars. Just one year earlier, Kathy Bates won the Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role for her portrayal of Annie Wilkes.
And in the early 1990’s, horror enjoyed another brief love affair with critical success.
As Paul Sheldon’s ‘Number One Fan’, Bates had a difficult task in Misery. King’s novel offers a great deal of insight in Annie Wilkes’ psychology. Comparatively, a film adaptation doesn’t have that same luxury. As a result, Misery must necessarily rely heavily on Bates’ ability to bring Annie Wilkes’ obsession to life. In this regard, Bates excels at balancing subtle and subdued confusion with explosive outbursts. She’s as frightening when she dismissively muses that she may put bullets in her gun as when she’s swinging a sledgehammer.
Annie Wilkes, The Original ‘Fanboy’
In the 30 plus years since King wrote Misery, fanboy culture has morphed into something ugly. Dangerous celebrity obsession is nothing new. Recall that Mark David Chapman stalked and shot John Lennon several years before Misery. But King predicted something specifically toxic about our current fan culture – entitlement. Game of Thrones fans petitioning HBO to remake the series’ final season is ridiculous on its face value. And yes, it is ridiculous. But then one could argue that Jason Reitman’s Ghostbusters: Afterlife is extreme fan service. After the vitriol aimed at Paul Feig’s all-female reboot, Reitman’s direct sequel, which ignores the 2016 reboot, does seem to capitulate to an angry fanbase. Recently, Rian Johnson lamented fan service as ‘indulgent storytelling’. Whether you liked The Rise of Skywalker or not, it’s hard to deny that it walked back much of Johnson’s The Last Jedi.
But King predicted something specifically toxic about our current fan culture – entitlement.
As a fictional work, King’s Misery was eerily prescient. His ‘Annie Wilkes’ is not just an obsessed fan. Like some current fanboy subcultures, Wilkes has an unhealthy attachment to her fictional hero. Outraged at her favourite author’s creative choices, she forces Sheldon to write a new book to ‘resurrect’ her heroine. That’s right. Three decades before JJ Abrams undid some of Johnson’s creative directions, Annie Wilkes was forcing her own ‘re-writes’ out of Sheldon. If Reddit forums existed in 1986, it wouldn’t be hard to imagine Wilkes posting a petition demanding a new Misery novel.
Misery Remains One of Hollywood’s Best King Adpatations
With a spotty track record for adapting his work, Misery still stands out as one of Hollywood’s best Stephen King treatments. On one level, Misery offers some biting social commentary that has only become more relevant. Subtext aside, Reiner’s thriller is timeless. Nothing about the movie dates it. Misery’s psychological horror and restrained violence ensure it will find audiences for years to come.
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