I’ve written before about Stephen King – I mean, let’s face it, the man is easily one of the most prolific authors in recent memory and his books (mainly thanks to the frankly bonkers amount they sell) have been adapted over and over again. Now, I’m well aware that King has his flaws – the rapid pace at which he churns out novels is not necessarily conducive to decent quality control and and his nigh unshakable devotion to the New England milieu can get trying but I think, and have thought for a very long time, that King has been seriously under-appreciated critically.
He’s somewhat hampered as a genre author – literary critics tend to be quietly dismissive of those who cling to rigidly to the tropes of a genre and King himself self-deprecatingly compared himself to the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and fries, which strangely, makes me respect him even more as he seems to be aware of the criticisms against him and, y’know, not really care about them.
Whilst the limitations and tropes of his genre do sometimes affect the quality of the final product I’ve always felt there is more ambition and scope in King’s writing than is acknowledged, and it’s one of his more interesting novels I wanted to talk about here as it shows one of the prevailing concerns of King’s writing that often gets glossed over.
The 1987 novel ‘Misery’ is a book about a writer and the struggles of writing – immediately echoing some more well known of King’s fiction. The main character is Paul Sheldon a successful romance writer who, after finishing his first non-romance novel gets caught in a severe snow-storm and is severely injured, shattering both of his legs. His is rescued by a reclusive, obsessive former nurse called Annie Wiles who just so happens to be his biggest fan. Of course Annie is none-too-happy when she discovers that in the last of his romance novels Paul killed off the beloved protagonist and wants to write more ‘serious’ fiction. It turns out that Annie isn’t just obsessive but is seriously insane, prone to homicidal rage and she has a background steeped in murder the weak. This writer with the broken legs is then forced by his crazed captor to write a new book bringing back his formerly killed off character under threats of torture and physical pain.
HMM, I THINK STEPHEN KING MIGHT BE TRYING TO TELL US SOMETHING ABOUT THE WRITING PROCESS!
Alright, so it isn’t exactly a subtle metaphor but what shouldn’t be overlooked is that this is a very well put together horror tale. The characters are compelling – (if this is King being a little autobiographical he should be commended for his honesty), the set-up and environment does not strain credulity too much and it manages to generate some very deep scares. (more on that later)
It may not be subtle but it is highly effective and compulsively readable. Paul Sheldon as a character is identifiable and as with other works King manages to construct an interesting tension between love/hate, need and fear, not just in his relationship with Annie but in writing itself too. With Annie he fears her but at the conclusion of the novel finds himself missing her and her narcotics that she dosed him with, his good ‘Annie-dope.’ His insights on writing aren’t shallow here, even if they aren’t subtle and it’s clear that King genuinely does have an interesting relationship with his craft and how a writer produces something in a creative way when writing has become more and more about business and keeping fans happy at the expense of your own creative energy.
This is something that has gone through King’s work, as far back as the Shining, a weird tension between love and fear that King seems to be fascinated with and is a mainstay of Gothic horror fiction for as long as the genre has existed.
The book was a success though King was reluctant to sell the rights thanks to how previously films had been adapted. Thankfully Rob Reiner got hold of the film rights after King had been persuaded by how he had treated ‘Stand by Me.’ This is a very faithful adaptation but it manages to stray away from being self-indulgant. Much of the gore is skipped over and the focus of the film is on the psychological contest that emerges between Paul (played by James Caan) and Annie (the magnificent Kathy Bates.)
This tight focus really does help the film as instead of getting distracted by the musings on writing that worked in the book what we’re left with is a battle of wills. The gore being minimised doesn’t affect things much either as there is one scene which is different from the book, but in my view actually better done. At one point Annie becomes aware Paul is attempting to escape – in the book she cuts off his foot with an axe and then cauterizes the wound with a blowtorch. The writing is close and intense and Paul’s terror is very well done. The key is the film didn’t aim to recreate the book but rather translate it. In the film Annie uses a block of wood and a sledgehammer to ‘hobble’ him. Watching the scene you can’t help but notice the effort that has gone in to telling something that was originally literary in cinematic language. Annie Wilkes is all sweaty, wide eyed close ups, and the choice of perspective makes us, along with Paul look up to her. The expert editing and shooting makes this not just a great horror thriller but a great example of how to adaptation well. Bates deservedly won an Oscar for her performance, proving that even if it’s a Big Mac and fries, occasionally that can be just what you’re hungry for.
- Stephen King’s ‘Misery’ (boredearlysummer.wordpress.com)