Misery: From Pen, to Screen, to Stage
“For the first time, clearly, the thought surfaced in Paul Sheldon’s mind: I am in trouble here. This woman is not right.” – Stephen King, Misery
This article is written with the assumption that the reader has a basic knowledge of the story of Misery, either the novel and/or film adaptation.
My timeline for Misery was a disgrace: First, the film. I was younger, my first viewing was around middle school (I was five when I first saw Silence of the Lambs; this should tell you something), then, just last month, the play starring Laurie Metcalf and Bruce Willis. Finally, Stephen King’s novel, read just a week after seeing the play. This 1987 novel was also my first official step toward King fandom, having devoured Misery, The Shining, and Different Seasons all that same week.
While I read the novel, I was in a constant state of unease, all of the various mundane noises of the day became sinister with each passing sentence; the sound of my husband’s voice innocently asking if I’d like a cup of tea became enough of a threat to make me jump in my chair; my dog scraping at his food dish was a sign of danger close at hand. The novel held me captive from start to finish. I delighted in the depth of detail it was offering, using the experience of the film as a jumping off point. While I knew the framework of the novel, King’s mastery of language truly paints Annie as, “the moon which brought the tide.” The reader suffers Sheldon’s misfortunes and celebrates his victories, emotions undulating to the cyclical whims of Annie Wilkes, because the novel is grounded in his dread as he realizes the severity of his situation.
The novel is, I am not afraid to say, the most terrifying of the three adaptations, thanks in part to Sheldon’s inner monologue and Annie’s ping pong descent into, and seeming reprieves from, madness. The film comes at a respectable second thanks to masterful performances from James Caan and Kathy Bates (winning her the 1990 Best Actress Oscar), and camera angles from Sheldon’s perspective that convey the hugeness of the threat that is Bates’ Annie – she looms, portrayed at harsh, unflattering angles, as though the viewer were in bed right alongside Sheldon. The play, however, was another experience entirely, which is surprising given that William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), The Princess Bride (1987)) adapted the novel for both the film and stage versions.
While the theatre marquee barked, “MISERY, BROADWAY’S SUSPENSE THRILLER,” the performance inside of the Broadhurst Theater, despite holding with much of the film adaptation, is unable to convey the psychologically complex terror of its source material. Director Will Frears and writer William Goldman had the difficult task of adapting a truly terrifying story that most audiences already know. There is little suspense possible because all of the major plot points, if not known by having read the novel or watched the film, have been ingrained in popular culture: the crazed ‘Number One Fan’ trope and the demented “hobbling” scene (notably more gruesome in the novel), to name a few. The play succeeds in the audience’s expected suspense of the infamous scenes, but falls short when it comes to the unsettling thrill of the novel and the film. The same knowledge of the story never impeded my enjoyment of the novel, but serves to alter the communal experience of the play.
In fact, the play is surprising for its dark humor, abound in both the novel and film. And I’m not entirely sure Frears and Goldman (lauded for his dry, subtle wit) failed at all with what they set out to do, as other critics have claimed. If their aim was to take a known terror and let the audience in on the joke of it, especially when utilizing an action superstar unknown to Broadway (Willis, as captive novelist, Paul Sheldon) and a woman celebrated for the versatility of her work from dramatic theatre to comedy (Metcalf, as the demented ex-nurse holding Sheldon captive in her secluded home), then they have succeeded. Simply stated, the play is oftentimes hilarious due in part to Willis’ petulant groaning and Metcalf’s comedic timing, but also because the audience is in on this story together: No one fears too terribly for Willis’ Sheldon, but we all wanted to know just how the actors would pull off that infamous hobbling scene (spoiler: with fake legs, of course).
Even as a black comedy, the stage adaptation falls somewhat flat, though it is still entertaining. Compared to the novel and the film, the play fails to breathe life into Sheldon and the horrors he’s faced with and Metcalf’s Annie is painted as a somewhat sympathetic and eccentric lunatic. Sheldon’s discovery of Annie’s bloodied past via a meticulous scrapbook is notably absent from the play, sparing Sheldon his revelation that Annie is a serial killer instead of a long suffering, lonely woman. The framed publicity shots of Willis in Annie’s sitting room in lieu of her scrapbook lend a greater light heartedness to the play, reinforcing intent for something more darkly comical than truly terrifying.
Misery, while seemingly ideal for the stage with its close, uncomplicated quarters, and intimate study of just two subjects, suffers from the audience’s previous relationships to the story. While Metcalf carries this show, she cannot be expected to carry the performance the same way Annie must have physically carried Sheldon, and is further damaged by a lackluster (though still exciting, because, Bruce Willis) performance by Willis. Willis’ emotions in this production range from his signature gruff humor to boredom and annoyance, merely put out by his plight, but by the end, as he’s shown on his new book tour for Misery’s Return, Willis, finally standing for the first time in show’s 90 minutes, seems comfortable in his role.
Besides Metcalf’s portrayal of Annie Wilkes, the play’s greatest success is David Korins’ impressive revolving set, granting the viewer both interior and exterior views of Annie’s cottage, allowing the audience to escape with Willis and explore rooms much like a camera. The lighting effects, music, and the revolutions of the set did serve to create a sense of suspense when Sheldon escapes his room, though could not ultimately hold the viewer in that mindset for longer than the duration of a turn.
Misery runs through February 14th at the Broadhurst Theater in Manhattan.