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The 36 Dramatic Situations: Misery (1990) and Falling Prey to Cruelty and Misfortune

By  · Published on August 9th, 2010

This article is part of our 36 Dramatic Situations series.

For 36 days straight, we’ll be exploring the famous 36 Dramatic Situations by examining a film that exemplifies each one. From family killing family to prisoners in need of asylum, we brush off the 19th-century list in order to remember that it’s still incredibly relevant today.

Whether you’re seeking a degree in Literature, love movies, or just love seeing things explode, our feature should have something for everyone. If it doesn’t, please don’t tie us to a bed and break our feet.

Part 1 of the 36-part series takes a look at “Falling Prey to Cruelty and Misfortune” with Misery.

The Synopsis

Famous pop author Paul Sheldon (James Caan) is fortunately rescued from a horrific, snowed-in car crash by his biggest fan, Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates). She feeds him, nurses him back to health, and takes a sledgehammer to his feet when he acts naughty. What begins as a life-saving effort reveals itself to be the deranged fantasies of a woman obsessed with control, pain, and Misery.

The Situation

“Falling Prey to Cruelty or Misfortune” – This situation only requires the presence of a Victim and either a Master or a Misfortune. Bad Thing A happens to Person B and has lasting ramifications on Person B’s life. In this case, Bad Thing A is followed up by Totally Insane Person with a Sledgehammer C.

Both the Victim and the Master are obvious here in what might be the best portrayal of a fangirl gone wild to ever hit film. Despite the situation’s simplicity, it allows for a broad range of dramatic entanglements and, in this case, is the basis for a sickly rich story that allows for characters you can feel deep down in your bones.

The Movie

Is there anything better than putting two seasoned actors together in the same room with a veteran director and making a horror film? What started as one of Stephen King’s best novels reveals itself in film form to be another animal completely and makes me never, never want to meet Kathy Bates in person. Or, at least, it makes the scene where she takes a sledgehammer to her wall in Fried Green Tomatoes look completely different.

The helplessness and victimhood that Paul Sheldon feels is so complete that you can’t help but hold your breath whenever he’s crawling down the hall to escape. Every fiber screams out for silence as if Annie Wilkes will here you from your seat in the theater and punish Sheldon for your insubordination.

Like other examples of this dramatic situation, Misery places the audiences in the shoes (or bedsheets) of the victim and places the victim in harm’s way for no particular reason. There’s no great ethical impulse or reasoning for his position. Sheldon was in a car crash during a snowstorm – something that anyone could experience – and, as a result, he finds himself being slowly tortured and fearing for his life. The film forces us to imagine what it would be like to find ourselves in the same situation the next time we turn on our car and head out of the driveway. Will we wake up in harm’s way?

Bonus Examples: Sleepers, RootsCastaway

Check out our entire series of 36 Dramatic Situations, 36 Movies.

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