King’s Misery


Stephen King has been part of the film industry ever since his debut novel Carrie was adapted for the screen by Brian de Palma in 1976. Critic Pauline Kael referred to the book as “an unassuming pot boiler.” This criticism of bestselling fiction, and of King’s literary reputation as little more than a hack has followed the author since the first publication of his work. In the dozens of film adaptations of his novels, only one Oscar has been won, but it’s a good one: Kathy Bates (for Best Actress in 1990) in an electrifying performance as psychotic nurse Annie Wilkes in Misery.

I remember the importance of the video shop to the weekly family agenda in the early nineties. Renting a 15 film, or even better, an 18, with its stark, red and white circle, promised the unknown, promised extremities, promised the chance at a genuine emotion. My mother, a German teacher at a nearby boy’s secondary school (where she was head of languages) was usually dismissive of most rentals. It became a running joke in my family about how quickly mum would fall asleep in the latest movie. If she lasted to the end, then it was, by definition, a good film. Misery passed the test.

I have read around thirty or forty Stephen King bestsellers, in hindsight marvelling at his industry and natural way with dialogue and capacity to tell a story. As a kid who learnt to read before the internet was a thing, if I had to choose one stand out novel out of the scores of King’s books it’s Misery. One thing that stands out in the book is pain. The physical and emotional torture suffered by romance writer Paul Sheldon is eye watering, especially if you haven’t yet seen the film. (Available on Netflix).

She speaks earnestly but never quite makes eye contact…”I wasn’t trying to be funny in a mean way when I named my pig Misery…I named her in the spirit of fan love, which is the purest love there is…”

Both Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty expressed interest in the part of Paul Sheldon, but bowed out after screenwriter William Goldman refused to remove the notorious ‘hobbling’scene, where the author has his foot cut off with an axe. Eventually, when James Caan was cast opposite Kathy Bates, Goldman was convinced to change ‘hobbling’ into both ankles being broken by a sledgehammer.

John Fowles’ debut The Collector, which I wrote about some weeks ago for CSM, operates as the flip side of Misery, and is quoted twice in the novel. Since King is playing fast and loose with his reputation as an unassuming replicator of the Victorian penny-dreadful, he has more to say about the craft of writing in and of itself with the interplay of Paul Sheldon, author of the Misery Chastain books, and Nurse Annie Wilkes, Sheldon’s Number One Fan. The relationship between reader and writer has never felt so urgent and cerebral as it does with Misery, borne of at least two decades worth of alcohol and cocaine abuse, which King himself felt was a perfect metaphor for Annie Wilkes. She brought out not two capsules but three.

‘Here’, she said tenderly.

“He gobbled them into his mouth, and when he looked up he saw her lifting the yellow plastic floor-bucket toward him. It filled his field of vision like a falling moon. Greyish water slopped over the rim onto the coverlet. ‘Wash them down with this,’ she said. Her voice was still tender.It started with a dream the author had on a plane to London, with the words: She is an absence of hiatus scrawled on a napkin, into a meta-fictional masterpiece that King wrote during a two year battle with addiction.”

“As sick with drugs and alcohol as I was much of the time,” King wrote in his memoir On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, “I had such fun with that one.”

Follow Andrew Moody on Twitter @VoguishFiction