Compared to other genres, comedies and horror films are at greater risk of losing their efficacy as they age. No matter how The Exorcist may have terrified audiences upon its release, there’s a good chance someone watching it for the first time in 2020 won’t be fazed by it, either because they’ve become desensitized or because the subject matter is effectively passé at this point.
One film that has avoided that fate is Rob Reiner’s adaptation of Stephen King’s Misery, precisely because it has only become more relevant since it debuted in theaters on November 30, 1990. The harrowing tale of a deranged superfan who kidnaps her favorite author not only anticipates the rise of toxic fandom, but also hints at the kind of dangerous direct access that contemporary social media affords the general public. It’s also just a damn good movie. To celebrate its 30th anniversary, we explore how the Hitchcockian thriller predicted the fraught relationship between the content creators of today and their sometimes problematic fans. Keep those cockadoodie sledgehammers handy.
When we first meet Annie Wilkes (played b Kathy Bates, who won an Oscar for her performance), she’s polite, sweet, and, dare we say it, likable. Sure, she has difficulty with boundaries, but she seems harmless enough and genuine in her love for the work of writer Paul Sheldon (James Caan). Having rescued Paul from a bad car accident during a snowstorm, she’s initially surprised to discover he’s different from what she expected, based on how his book covers described him, but she makes the most of her private audience with him to air her grievances.
This disconnect between a celebrity’s public persona and private self is an all-too-common discovery in the age of social media. These days, every public entity, from pop stars and athletes to fast food companies and, ahem, movie review websites, maintains such a meticulously curated presence online – their “brand” – that breaches of protocol, even deeply human ones, risk massive controversy. Even still, it’s never been easier to contact your favorite actor, comedian, or, yes, writer; all it takes now is a Tweet, and if you’re lucky, you might get a response. This unprecedented access can lead to fun, insightful interactions, but it can just as easily breed unfettered hostility – there may not be anyone strapped to a bed, but this is about as direct as hate mail can get, and it can be pretty nasty.
The thing that differentiates Annie Wilkes from most other movie stalkers is that her violence and sense of entitlement are born of artistic admiration, rather than sexual attraction or murderous intent. She is dangerously unwell, of course, but her sickness manifests in a twisted devotion to Paul’s popular, Harlequin-esque series romance novels starring a character named Misery Chastain.
Our first indication that she’s more than just an obsessive fan comes when she convinces Paul to let her read a draft of his latest book, an attempt to branch out from romance. To say Annie disapproves of the profanity is a gross understatement; as Paul calmly explains that it’s based on his own experiences, she lashes out in a bizarre tirade before she catches herself, but by then it’s clear something is amiss.
Later, when Annie picks up a copy of the latest Misery book and discovers the character dies, she snaps and calls Paul a murderer. The dynamic changes as she ceases to be a caretaker and instead becomes Paul’s captor. She grows more violent, but she rationalizes her behavior as a byproduct of her love for Paul and the books. She kisses his cheek, apologizes, and asks him to forget anything bad has happened. When she finally admits that she’s kidnapped him, she blames Paul for everything; clearly he brought it all upon himself.
Three decades later, we’ve seen a rise in fan culture taken to dangerous extremes, with cries of ruined childhoods and death threats forcing some to leave social media altogether. Like Annie, the gaslighting comes from a place of distorted love, the kind that compels her to “hobble” Paul with a sledgehammer when he dares to seek escape from his captivity. He has committed a grievous crime in the eyes of his “number one fan,” and he is obligated to fix it at any cost.
In Annie’s mind, there is only one way for Paul to atone for killing Misery Chastain: Bring her back to life in a new book, and do it in a fashion that satisfies Annie. She knows exactly what story she wants to read, but she needs Paul to write it. Naturally, the first pages he delivers aren’t to her liking, because she remembers the novels better than anyone – possibly even better than Paul himself – and according to her, the new direction flies in the face of continuity, and she won’t stand for it. Her expectations are more important than the right story being told, so she throws another hysterical tantrum, and an exasperated Paul is back to square one.
In real life, this admittedly isn’t a new phenomenon. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, for example, was compelled by publishers and fans to revive Sherlock Holmes over a decade after he wrote the character’s death. Nowadays, though, it’s exceedingly common to see people feel so entitled to a piece of media that they would presume to dictate how it should be done.
It’s natural for fans to feel a connection to their favorite characters, and it’s frequently said that a creator’s work no longer belongs to them once it’s presented to the public. But it’s another thing to send death threats to Rian Johnson for his handling of Star Wars: The Last Jedi – whatever one’s opinions on the film are – and even campaign to remake the film. Just a year later, Game of Thrones viewers were so incensed at the series’ final season that they petitioned HBO to spend millions of dollars to remake it as well. After a massive fan outcry, Paramount Pictures literally went back to the drawing board and redesigned the title character in Sonic the Hedgehog, effectively delaying the release of the film by four months. Next September, HBO Max will premiere Zack Snyder’s Justice League, a recut, partially reshot, serialized version of the 2017 DC superhero film closer to the director’s vision, thanks in large part to another fan petition after the original production suffered multiple setbacks and a poor reception. This is, in other words, not a trend on the downswing.
Stephen King originally intended to call the book “The Annie Wilkes Edition,” which gets to the heart of the story and helps explain why it’s still relevant. Annie clearly adores Misery Chastain – she even named her pet pig after her – and she just wants to do right by the character, but it’s telling that she has no plans to publish Paul’s corrective novel after he finishes it. When she realizes that the police are onto her, she plans to shoot Paul and then herself as soon as the book is ready. Paul isn’t the object of her affection; he’s merely the delivery mechanism for her personal fan fiction. Misery belongs to Annie and no one else, and Paul only matters as long as he gives Annie exactly what she wants.
This doesn’t feel too dissimilar from some of the outrage over 2016’s Ghostbusters for going with a female cast (“This isn’t my Ghostbusters“) or the backlash over the diversification of the Star Wars sequel trilogy’s cast. Behind the bigotry seems to lie a fear that these franchises will somehow actively work to exclude the people complaining about it. They are the original fans, they might say, and they won’t stand to have their memories desecrated. There are certainly other legitimate criticisms to be leveled at those films (and the final season of Game of Thrones, and Justice League), but the folks making those criticisms aren’t the ones we’re talking about. Imagine all the Misery Chastain fans in Paul Sheldon’s world who were upset with the character’s death but, you know, didn’t kidnap him, torture him, and force him to write another book.
Misery not only became a commercial and critical success, but also the only film in the prolific world of Stephen King adaptations to win an Academy Award. But beneath the fake smiles and that horrifying sledgehammer scene lies a deeper, more prescient indication of how terrifying it would be if an Annie Wilkes – much an army of Annie Wilkses – were to rise up every time a Misery Chastain meets her end.
Misery was released in theaters on November 30, 1990.
Thumbnail image by (c)Columbia Pictures