“Now the time has come. I put two bullets in my gun. One for me, and one for you. Oh darling, it will be so beautiful.”
The author Stephen King presented the world with a new nightmare in 1987. A story of horror, isolation and adornment called Misery. A short three years later, the story arrived on cinema screens courtesy of Rob Reiner (Stand By Me). Looking back three decades later, it is still a glorious, Hitchcockian thriller, and that sense of claustrophobic helplessness still resonates.
The movie replicates the nightmare of fame: the idolatry and plastic worship that is bestowed upon those who are creative. Misery remains unnerving, losing none of the initial impact it originally had, and there are many reasons as to why that is.
Misery is the tale of a writer, Paul Sheldon (James Cann), who gained fame through his Victorian romance novels based on the exploits of the fictional Misery. Deciding to leave behind that romantic-fiction style, he travels through Colorado on his way to re-launch his career as a serious writer.
His car veers off the road during a snow blizzard and he is left unconscious. He wakes up in a bed, disoriented, with both legs broken and greeted by his angel of mercy, nurse Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates). This saviour turns into a questionable, unhinged character. Annie proclaims her love for Sheldon’s novels, stating she’s his ‘number one fan’. But that statement is incorrect. It is not Sheldon she loves, instead it is his creation within his novels.
From here, proceedings become charged with fear and uncertainty, especially as Wilkes burns the draft of Paul’s intended final Misery novel – angered that he has killed off the title character. She forces him to continue the series in his bedridden state.
Wilkes has complete control over Paul Sheldon, ensuring that he cannot make contact with the outside world or even leave the house. Sheldon is brandished with a typewriter and forced to re-write his novel the way this fan wants it. In some ways he ends up giving into his audience, writing for their (her) satisfaction and not his own. We can therefore see Misery as a biographical outlet hinting at commercialism over art, something Stephen King certainly examined in the original novel.
One of the most distressing scenes, and the most famous, is the ankle breaking scene. When Wilkes suspects Sheldon of leaving his room, she drugs him, brutally breaking his ankles with a sledgehammer to stop him escaping in a scene still as harrowing and haunting today. As the days go on, Sheldon begins to improve, driven by a plan to escape.
The typewriter becomes a key symbol, much as it does in another genius Stephen King adaptation, The Shining. It is the object through which Paul Sheldon harnesses his power, starting to write again alongside using it to strengthen his weakened muscles. It also at one point becomes a weapon. Meanwhile, watching the movie again, you’ll notice the opening of Misery is darkness to the sound of a clicking typewriter, signifying how essential it is to the overall story.
There is a further overriding theme to Misery, a dark exploration of addiction. Annie Wilkes’ obsession with Sheldon is a form of addiction, one she needs, and one which eventually leaves her powerless to him. Even more harrowing is the symbolism that Wilkes herself is a controlling factor like a drug or alcohol, one which a person becomes helpless and a slave to.
Overcoming Wilkes then becomes symbolic of overcoming addiction. The spectral presence of her at the climax of Misery, as Sheldon sits in a restaurant, signifies two different conclusions. One, the obvious: that anyone can be an obsessive, violent fan, willing to go to any lengths. But there is a second reading too: there is no escaping addiction.