My Online Prose Portfolio

"Write out of love, write out of instinct, write out of reason. But always for money."
Louis Untermeyer

Misery: A Movie Review

Director: Rob Reiner
Screenplay: William Goldman
Based on the novel Misery by Stephen King
Studio: New Line Cinema
Year Released: 1991

Misery is a suspenseful tale that touches on, yet never fully explores, the power that literature can exert on a demented mind. For a scary movie, it’s rather intelligent (despite some annoying flaws), with no gaping plot holes. The characters are smart and endearing, while the villain is deliciously creepy.

Paul Sheldon has just completed his latest novel in the same Colorado lodge he finishes all his books. As he is driving back to town along a desolate mountain road, a blizzard strikes, and his car hits a slippery patch and crashes down an embankment, turning over several times before resting upside down.

Luckily, Annie Wilkes, who lives on a nearby farm, witnesses the crash and pries Sheldon from the wreckage with a crowbar. A former nurse, she takes him home and splints his two shattered legs and broken arm. Throughout the rest of the movie, Sheldon is bed-ridden and crippled, which increases his peril and the film’s tension.

Annie Wilkes, she informs him, is his number one fan. She has read all his books, which center on a beautiful Southern belle named Misery Chastain. Wilkes feels blessed by God, because He sent her to rescue Sheldon so he can write more Misery books.

Sheldon’s troubles are just beginning, though.

First, he allows Wilkes to read the book he has just completed, his first non-Misery novel. Wilkes doesn’t like the profanity, and flies into a rage when Sheldon tries to justify it. Her diatribe is the first hint we get of her insanity, but it does raise an interesting question: Are all people who pray to God and object to profanity insane?

Disaster strikes when Wilkes purchases and reads the current Misery book, Misery’s Child. Sheldon, you see, has grown tired of Misery and kills her off, intending this to be the last Misery novel.

On a stormy night, Wilkes enters his room. “You dirty birdie,” she hisses. “You killed her. You murdered Misery!” Screaming and ranting, she smashes a table into the wall just above Sheldon’s bed.

The next day, Wilkes wheels a charcoal grill into Sheldon’s room. His new manuscript is on the grill. She douses it with lighter fluid and hands him a match. He must burn his new book and rid the world of this filth, she explains. “I asked God about you. And God said that he delivered you unto me to show you the way.” When Sheldon objects, she sprays him with lighter fluid, and he is forced to burn the only copy of his unpublished book. Not only does Wilkes pray to God and object to profanity, but she’s a book-burner to boot.

The battle of wills now begins. Wilkes wants Sheldon to bring Misery back to life with a new novel. She buys him an old typewriter, paper, a table and a wheelchair. Sheldon, although he hates Misery Chastain and wishes to keep her buried, works on this new book to stay alive and plot his escape.

For example, rather than take his pain pills, he stores them in the bed, between the mattress and the box spring. He lifts the typewriter over his head, trying to strengthen his arms. And while he still can’t walk, he is healing quickly, but still pretends to be an invalid to deceive Wilkes. He even uses a bobby pin to unlock his door and explore the house in his wheelchair when she’s away. He is especially nice to Wilkes, hoping to make her think he really wants to write this novel.

His plans backfire, though. When he’s nearly finished with Misery’s Return, he asks Wilkes to have dinner with him, then, while she’s elsewhere looking for a candle, he pours the powder from his accumulated pain pills into her wine glass. She spills the wine, though. Then she finds his bobby pin and discovers he’s been outside the room. She fixes that by strapping him to the bed and breaking both his ankles with two mighty swings of a sledgehammer (Stephen King, in the book, does it better: Wilkes chops off his foot with an axe and seals the stump shut with a blowtorch.).

Sheldon finally wins in the end, though. He announces to Wilkes that Misery’s Return is complete. Wilkes, who has been reading every page as he types it, is on pins and needles for the last page. What’s going to happen? Sheldon, though, stalls by asking her to get a match, a cigarette, and a glass of wine. Every time Sheldon finishes a book, he sips a glass of wine and smokes one cigarette. Wilkes knows this, of course, so she thinks nothing of it. She comes back with the items, and Sheldon, charming to the end, says this time he needs two glasses. Wilkes, ecstatic that she’s been asked to partake of his ritual, hurries to get the glass. While she’s gone, Sheldon lights the match, and, just as Wilkes walks through the door, burns the last page, then throws it onto the rest of the book. A grisly struggle ensues, and Sheldon finally kills her. The irony is obvious. Wilke’s dementia threatens Sheldon’s life yet results in her death.

As I said at the beginning, the movie raises a provocative question: Can literature drive sane people insane? It is evident that Annie Wilkes is obsessed with Misery Chastain. She named her pet pig Misery, and her bookcase is a shrine to Misery, with the books organized in a kind of altar, with a framed photo of Sheldon in front. When she finishes Misery’s Child, in which Misery dies, Wilkes sees herself as Misery’s savior, forcing Sheldon to write her back to life. When Wilkes reads the first chapter of Misery’s Return, she prances with joy, singing out “Misery’s alive, Misery’s alive!” In fact, Wilkes herself seems to realize how entwined her own life is with this fictional character. At one point in the movie, when she’s depressed over how close Sheldon came to dying, she tells him, “You’ll never know the fear of losing someone like you if you’re someone like me.” Sheldon is Misery’s creator, so Wilkes must keep him alive – and, more importantly, imprisoned, so he can write the next Misery book.

Yet this raises yet another question: Was Wilkes a wacko before she read her first Misery book, or was she perfectly normal before, with the obsession turning into madness? Or maybe she was merely an eccentric, and the death of Misery combined with Sheldon lying helpless and wounded in her home sent her over the edge? Can literature do this to normal people? Can it drive a sane person insane?

These are powerful yet subtle issues; the film never comes right out and addresses them. In my opinion, they deserve an equally subtle treatment, in which the answer is left up to the viewer, or perhaps craftily planted with sneaky clues.

Unfortunately, in what I feel is the major flaw of the movie, it hits us over the head with the answer. During one of his trips out of his room in his wheelchair, Sheldon conveniently finds Wilkes’ scrapbook. In it, he discovers, through clipped out newspaper stories, that Annie Wilkes was tried for the deaths of several newborn infants at the hospital where she was head of the maternity ward. Although she was acquitted, the stories left the strong impression that she had, in fact, killed the babies.

So that answers that. Wilkes is just a nutcase. Is it too much to ask a film to leave us with some disturbing, unanswered questions? Must they always give us the nice, pat answer?

Finally, the anti-Christian bias in the film is evident. Not only does Wilkes object to profanity, pray to God, and burn books, but she wears a cross necklace and has placed in her scrapbook – next to newspaper stories about murdered infants – religious images such as praying hands. One would think that directors and producers would tire of such an over-worked, inaccurate stereotype.

Back to Non-Fiction