Collins’ Crypt: My Stephen King Education Began With MISERY

BC isn't exactly Annie Wilkes, but he's been a fan of King's for over 25 years.

Rob Reiner's Oscar-winning adaptation of Misery hit video stores in July of 1991, and my mom rented it more or less right away, making me 11 (almost 11 and a half!) when I first saw it. Thanks to the It miniseries, which aired several months before, the Stephen King name was starting to mean something to me, though I didn't fully understand "what" yet (i.e. that he wrote books that got turned into movies), just that he was a big deal and therefore anything he was involved with was just as enticing as an appearance by Jason or Freddy. I knew my mom was a fan because I started noticing his name on several of those books she had on the shelf (I never picked up the same appreciation for Mary Higgins Clark, for the record), and since she was also the one that picked Halloween and Fright Night for me to watch, I figured she knew what she was talking about when it came to scary stuff. Later on I'd discover the man also wrote the source material for movies I saw as a kid ("He wrote Stand By Me?!?" - thirteen-year-old me), but Misery was the "New Stephen King movie" and thus deserving of the same attention I'd offer a new franchise sequel. Bonus: I had started watching the Oscars already (another thing I knew was Important™ but not fully aware of what it meant) so I knew the lady from the movie was the Best (Actress, that would be Kathy Bates as Annie), which added to my excitement.

Of course if you've seen the film or read the book you'd know this is an unusual place for one to really start developing their appreciation for the author, as it has not one supernatural element and focuses only on two characters instead of his usual ensemble casts. Hell, it doesn't even take place in Maine, and while I was happy to give people guff for referring to It as a "thriller", Misery definitely belongs on that shelf in the video store as opposed to horror - which, ironically, I'm sure it was due to King's name. Anyway, it wasn't long after this that I started "borrowing" my mom's books and reading them, and naturally I kept watching the movies I came across, both older (I finally watched The Shining the following summer thanks to a TV broadcast) and newer - once upon a time I was excited to see The Mangler, of all things. And then I had a job so I could buy the books myself, eventually getting to the point where a movie would come out based on a book I had already read (The Green Mile was the first), and for a while there I was making good headway into finally finishing the back catalog thanks to a long commute, devouring big ones like It and Wizard and Glass on the subway. Alas, when I moved to LA I started driving to work again, so I've had trouble keeping up, especially since he continues to write at a young man's pace, publishing one or two novels or collections for all but one year (2010) going back fifteen years. Of the recent ones I've only read (actually, listened to) Mr. Mercedes, 11/22/63, and Under the Dome, though I've devoutly purchased them all and in the past year or so I've gone back to replace most of my beat up paperbacks with nicer hardcovers:

I'm pretty proud of that bookcase (and I sleep easier knowing it has been secured to the wall, as if it toppled during an earthquake it could probably kill ME, let alone my son), so I had to laugh in Misery when Buster (Richard Farnsworth) takes a look around Annie Wilkes' house and sees her little shrine to Paul Sheldon (James Caan). Luckily, beyond dedicating an entire piece of furniture to my collection of my favorite author's work, I felt no other kinship with Ms. Wilkes, as while I may be a fan I do not think I can consider myself "obsessed" to the point where I'd ever be mad at him for anything (I had no problem with him working himself into the Dark Tower narrative, for example). Nor do I usually get too resentful of filmmakers who change his stories; again, I like some more than others, but the changes from his source material never bother me much as long as the film is working (I have written before about this very topic and don't need to go into it again), because then I have two good versions of a story I enjoy, and there's no harm in that. The novel Misery is gorier than the film, yes, but I can't imagine that seeing Annie sawing off Paul's thumb for complaining about the broken typewriter would have made the film superior, so I don't care that screenwriter William Goldman excised it from his adaptation.

(That said, I might be pretty upset if they ever make a Dark Tower movie and turn it into some bland PG-13 thing that crams in references from all seven novels without explaining what any of it meant, but I doubt that will ever happen. I don't need to worry about that.)

Anyway, rewatching Misery on Scream Factory's new disc, it occurred to me that I hadn't seen it since that day in 1991, so it was basically like watching it for the first time (and if you're wondering, this is one of the few back catalog titles I've never read). What little I remembered about the film - i.e. the infamous "hobbling" scene - was likely the result of pop culture references to such moments as opposed to memories of watching those scenes in proper context - and I forgot that she sledged *both* feet, so I had an "Oh here it comes" moment as expected, but then a surprise of sorts when she knocked the other one. Even my memories of the basic plot were hazy - for example, in my memory, the fresh manuscript Sheldon was carrying with him when he crashed was the new Misery Chastain novel, and when Wilkes discovered that Misery was being killed off in the book she forced him to write a new ending (in the actual book/movie, Misery's would-be final novel was already set for imminent release at the time of his crash; Annie buys a copy directly from the store on its street date). In the actual story, Annie actually defends the existing novel, telling him he can't cheat by changing what was already published. Instead, she burns his new, Misery-less book and forces him to write a sequel where the character would be resurrected.

As I knew little about King when I last saw it, it wasn't until now that I saw the autobiographical content he was working into his story, something he's done time and time again over the years. The Annie Wilkes character was dreamed up by the author after his book Eyes of the Dragon was released, as his fans were outraged that this "master of horror" would write an epic fantasy novel aimed more at children, so he embellished their attitudes and created the villain for his next thriller as a sort of tribute/payback. As for Sheldon, like King he has problems with drugs and alcohol (the book was published in 1987, a year after he directed Maximum Overdrive while, in his own words, "coked out of his mind"),  but the main detail he borrowed from his own life was Sheldon's desire to branch out, with his Misery novels (Victorian era romance, for the record) standing in for King's very successful horror work. Nowadays he frequently strays from outright horror, so it's not much of a surprise, but it was a fairly rare excursion back then, and those fans' reaction to Eyes was presumably troubling for him - would he be forced to exclusively write horror just to keep people happy? I have to wonder how many of the people who likely swore they'd never read another one of his books kept their word and missed out seeing themselves memorialized (unflatteringly so) in Misery.

In fact I wonder if the book (and subsequent movie, if one was made at all) would have been as successful if it had gone out under the Richard Bachman name as originally intended. The Bachman pseudonym was a bit of an experiment, to see if the writing itself would be enough to sell books or if it was just the King name that would move copies. Unfortunately his ruse was discovered before he had any concrete answers, but 30 years later it's obvious that the Bachman works don't get as much attention even when we know they are from King. While Thinner found more success once King's pseudonym was exposed, the older ones, as well as the subsequent books that were released with full understanding that they were King's haven't met the same levels of recognition. Even when he released two books together as one unit, more or less (King's Desperation and Bachman's Regulators), the one with the official King name vastly outsold the other. Only two Bachman books have been turned into films: Thinner, which was barely in print when King admitted he was Bachman (and was not a particularly good film), and The Running Man, which had almost nothing to do with the source material anyway. But third time's the charm, right? I seemed to think so in 1998, when I sat down to write a feature adaptation of Bachman's masterpiece: The Long Walk. Now, if you're doing the math you'd know that meant I was only 18 at the time, so you can imagine how good that adaptation (co-written with my friend JB) probably is. And that's why I hadn't thought about it in years, until Misery gave me some unexpected flashbacks and realizations. 

For starters I remember we changed a few details (not the ending), such as starting the story from Pete McVries' perspective instead of Ray Garraty's, which is the sort of thing that would drive fans into a rage today. The other thing that struck me as funny/coincidental was that Misery added in a pair of characters (Buster and his wife Virginia, played by the great Frances Sternhagen) to break up the action a bit, which is the same thing JB and I did with Long Walk. For those who haven't read the book, it depicts a near-future where the villainous Major holds an annual competition for one hundred young men: a non-stop walk from northern Maine down to Massachusetts - if you stop walking, you are shot and killed. With the action taking place entirely on these roads and showing nothing but people walking and talking (or not talking), I knew any adaptation would need something to cut to in order to make it more cinematic, so we added two reporter characters to break up the visual monotony (if memory serves, we embellished on a minor plot point concerning the Major's illegitimate children and had the reporters seeking to expose his secret). So when I looked at Misery's Wiki page to see if Buster also died in the book and discovered he and his wife were invented for the film*, I had to wonder if I had read that factoid sometime in the '90s and subconsciously borrowed the idea when I sat down to write Long Walk, as their function in the film was basically the same.

Frank Darabont optioned The Long Walk years ago, and I still hope to see his version someday, but watching Misery inadvertently brought back memories of writing my own silly version as a college freshman. That's what makes the film interesting, I think - it's one of the most minimalist things King has done (it's been turned into a few stage productions, in fact** - doubt that will happen for the likes of Under the Dome) and yet it works on several levels. You can just enjoy it as a thriller, as I did when I was a kid, oblivious to any of its real-life counterparts and just soaking in the suspense and shocking moments of violence (Buster's death is particularly harsh). Or you can enjoy it as look back on simpler times, when fans - crazy or not - had few means of gaining access to the artists they love (if the story was set today, Wilkes would angrily discover Sheldon had muted her replies on Twitter, I'm sure). As for me, even if I didn't realize it at the time, I look at it as the start of what's become a lifelong collecting hobby and appreciation of an author who will seemingly never run out of new ideas, who helps give horror some of the credibility that often eludes it (Bates' Oscar win was the first for an actress in a genre film), retains a good attitude about the hit or miss adaptations of his work, and even inspires people like me to try their own hand at writing. I may never find the time to read everything he's done (I'm probably around 50% at this point, thanks to him speeding up as I slow down), but I kind of like the comfort of knowing there's always more, old or new. Reading his older books invokes a pleasant nostalgia of staring at the covers before I was old enough to read them, and reading his newer ones help prove that you're never too old to be great at what you do. And if I never do find the time to read them all, at least I can settle for movies like Misery that do them justice, despite what the Annie Wilkes of the world might think.

*There is a cop in the book who gets killed by Annie's lawnmower, but he's not the same character Farnsworth played and as best I can tell, only appears in that one scene before his demise, whereas Farnsworth's Buster appears throughout the film.

**One starring Bruce Willis, who presumably leapt at the chance to play a bed-ridden character and inch closer to his apparent dream of literally sleeping through a performance.