Kathy Bates’ portrayal of Annie Wilkes in Misery is one of those rare turns that rolls actor, character, and performance all into one. There’s no Misery without Kathy Bates. It’s inconceivable. That’s not to slight any other aspect of the film — James Caan’s miserable turn as the victim, Rob Reiner’s nimble direction, William Goldman’s slick screenplay, or even Stephen King’s book — but Bates’ Oscar-winning performance devours all of them, the same way Annie Wilkes is capable of sucking all the air out of any room. Bates gets to do everything. Annie Wilkes cycles through just about every emotional state available to humankind. Goldman and Reiner are well aware that this is the Annie Wilkes show. The script gifts Bates with a dozen indelible moments, and Reiner gives her some killer closeups. Caan seems just fine with letting his costar steal every scene.
Bates was virtually unknown as a film actress before Misery, and afterward, she was a household name. Her Annie Wilkes belongs up there with Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter — another iconic villain who’d win the rare horror performance Oscar one year later — though The Silence Of The Lambs has top-notch direction and storytelling, and Jodie Foster’s Clarice is just as good as Hopkins’ Lecter. There’s a movie there, even if you take Hopkins out of it. (Lecter’s role is limited, whereas Misery is all Annie, all the time.)
That’s the biggest difference between King’s book and Reiner’s movie. In the novel, we’re in Paul’s head. We’re privy to every agonizing thought he has. (And there are a lot of them!) King’s Annie is monstrous; just as dominant as she is in the film, but less human. It’s Paul we latch onto, as he suffers — oh, the misery! — and struggles inwardly with the twin demons of drug addiction and creative writing, and outwardly with the crazy lady wielding an axe. In Reiner’s film, we feel bad for Paul, sure — but Annie’s the one we can’t get enough of. She’s a deranged narcissist and dangerous killer, but Bates makes her likable, in a sense (similar to the way we “like” Dr. Lecter, even though we wouldn’t ask him over for dinner).
In a weird way, Annie almost becomes the protagonist of Misery. Paul’s entrance and exit from her life feels like her tragedy. In part, that’s because King created such a fascinating character, imbuing her with just about every mental disorder under the sun. Of course, it’s also thanks to Bates’ performance, which finds humanity beneath each and every one of Annie’s demented actions.
I’ve seen Misery several times, and I’ve always enjoyed it. This time, having just finished the book, I couldn’t help but wish for a little more of the claustrophobia and sickening dread King’s book makes so palpable. The novel lives up to its title, whereas the movie is far from miserable — it’s actually quite a lot of fun to watch. It’s easy to imagine a version of Misery made now that really leans in to horror, but it’s unlikely that that version would star Kathy Bates. I don’t think I’d want to make that trade. Misery could have been a more intense, scarier film, but it couldn’t have found a better Annie Wilkes, and if I have to choose between character or atmosphere, I’ll almost always choose the former. Kathy Bates single-handedly makes up for any longing I have to see a more faithfully miserable adaptation of Stephen King’s Misery. The film may not have as much cockadoodie claustrophobia as I’d have liked — Reiner just isn’t that kind of dirty birdy — but it’s far from an oogy mess.