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Script Analysis for the film, “Misery” (1990)

Info

Director: Rob Reiner
Writers: Stephen King (novel), William Goldman (screenplay)
Stars: James Caan, Kathy Bates, Richard Farnsworth
Logline: When Paul Sheldon, a famous novelist, is injured in a car crash, his self-proclaimed #1 fan “rescues” him; but it doesn’t take long for him to realize that he’s actually in need of being rescued form her violent obsession.

A Note on Script Analysis:

Script analysis is important for both screenwriters and directors to gain an adequate understanding of the structure of screenplays. By analyzing the structure of scripts, an artist can better understand how to incorporate certain skills and tropes into their own work. While we should never be slaves to format, there are certain rules that many successful screenplays have followed. If you master these rules first, you will be better prepared to break them in a way that elevates your work. Script Analysis can be achieved by answering certain questions about a script.

Script Analysis Questions for Misery

  • 1. Whose story is it? Explain why this is the central character. What does he or she want? What does he or she need? Explain how this distinction helps reveal this as primarily a subjective or primarily an objective drama.

Paul Sheldon is the protagonist. We begin and end with Paul and he drives the story forward. Our hope and fears are tied to Paul throughout. We are fully invested in whether or not he will survive his ordeal with Annie. Paul’s want and need are both to escape from her alive. This is an external conflict and thus our story is a primarily objective drama. Although we do not know in depth-details about Paul’s character, we are still greatly invested and the story is extremely dramatic.

  • 2. What is the point of attack? Why?

The point of attack is the first inkling we get of what the story material is made of. If the story is a storm, the POA is the first time we hear thunder. We don’t know yet what it means, but we know the status quo has been disturbed.

The point of attack is Paul being taken home by Annie after his car accident. She seems to be ready to nurse him back to health and return him to civilization. Annie had to find Paul in order for us to have our story, yet we do not yet know that she is a psychotic serial killer from whom he will have to later escape.

  • 3. What is the main tension? When does it begin?

The main tension is the dramatic question posed by the story that has a yes or no answer. Here, the main tension question is, ‘will Paul be able to escape from Annie?’ The main tension begins when Annie tells Paul, “Don’t think of anybody coming for you. I didn’t call them . . . If I die, you die.” It is at this point that Paul’s want is specified.

  • 4. What is the midpoint? Why?

The midpoint focuses or narrows the scope of the main tension. The midpoint occurs when the police find Paul’s car in the melting snow and announce that he is dead. The scope is narrowed because Paul must ostensibly escape from Annie on his own. After this, Paul begins to consolidate the powder form his pills so that he can go through with a plan to drug her.

  • 5. What is the culmination? When does it occur? Why is that the culmination?

The culmination happens at the end of Act II when the main tension question is answered. It occurs when Annie hobbles Paul. Annie has found the resources Paul planned to use to defeat her (hair pin & knife) and not only does she take them away, she injures him so that he is physically unable to escape. At this point, Paul is furthest away from his goal. Will Paul get away from Annie? It seems that he will not.

  • 6. What is the twist in the third act? Why?

A twist is a surprise change in a story that the audience was not expecting. It occurs when expectations have been set up and reversed. The twist occurs when Buster is suddenly shot. It seems that Buster will serve as Paul’s savior. He is the only one that believes Paul is alive and the only one that knows for sure once he discovers Paul in Annie’s basement. An expectation has been set up for the audience that Buster will solve the mystery and save Paul. Instead, Buster is unceremoniously executed.

  • 7. What is the resolution? Why?

The resolution occurs when Annie dies. A resolution is a release of tension. The audience has been released from the tension, the hope versus fear, of whether or not Paul will survive. Paul has triumphed. He has defeated Annie - she is dead and no longer has any power to harm him.

  • 8. Identify one sequence and break it down: when does it begin and when does it end? Whose sequence is it? What is the sequence tension? Is there an event around which the sequence is shaped?||

Sequences help contain your story. Sequences are smaller stories that are dovetailed together to create a larger story.

The first sequence in the third act begins when Buster the Sheriff notices Annie Wilke’s profanity-free outburst of road rage. This sequence belongs to Buster. Buster goes to the library armed with the quote from Misery that he had previously written down. He finds the article about Annie Wilkes’ trial and realizes that she quoted Misery. He then goes to the general store where he finds out that she’s been buying writing supplies. Suspicions confirmed, he pays a visit to her house where he explores the rooms and finds nothing out of the ordinary since Annie drugged Paul and dumped him in the basement. The sequence tension involves whether or not Buster will discover and save Paul. Buster leaves the house, but returns when he hears Paul making noises in the basement. He rushes back inside where he discovers Paul and it seems that Paul will finally be saved, but this resolution is false. In a cruel twist, Annie shoots Buster in the back. The sequence is shaped around Buster’s discovery of Paul.

  • 9. Give an example of planting and payoff.

A plant is something that appears earlier in a story that we later see function again in a satisfying way. For example, in the first scene of the film, we see Paul drink a single glass of champagne and smoke a cigarette after lighting it with a single match just after completing his book. These props function again when Paul asks Annie for them after completing the Misery book she has demanded. There, they serve as essential parts of his plan to defeat Annie. He uses the excuse of a 2nd wine glass to get her out of the room so that he might prepare, and he uses the match to burn the manuscript as he begins to exact his vengeance.

  • 10. Cite a scene which is primarily for revealing character rather than moving the story plot forward.

A lot is revealed about Annie’s character in the second sequence of the first act while Annie talks to Paul while he pees into the bottle. She tells him that she wasn’t prepared for her husband to leave her, that it wasn’t easy, and she felt that she might go crazy. We learn that Annie threw herself into lonely night shifts at the hospital and finally found solace in Paul’s misery books. She is clearly is obsessed with Paul as well as his books. She also talks about marriage, telling Paul, “It would take a pretty special guy to make me walk down the aisle.” We additionally learn that Annie thinks people no longer respect the institution and commitment of marriage. In line with her obsession, Annie leaves the conversation in order to continue reading Paul’s Misery book.

  • 11. Cite one instance each of the use of mystery, suspense, and surprise.

Mystery is a function of the past or present. It involves what has happened or what is happening. An example of mystery would be Paul’s consolidation of the powder in the pills. We already know that he has stopped taking them because he recognizes that Annie is insane. However, we don’t know why he chooses to place the powder in his make-shift paper box or what he plans to do with it.

Suspense is a function of the future. We know the possibility of what could happen, but we don’t know what will happen. One of the most suspenseful scenes of the story is towards the middle of the second act when Paul tricks Annie into leaving the house to buy better typing paper. Paul escapes from the room but finds himself in a predicament when Annie comes home and he is still in the kitchen. We are held in the suspense of whether or not Annie will catch Paul out of his room, and the terrible consequences that may follow.

Surprise is a function of the moment and involves no preparation or warning. Buster getting shot is a huge surprise, as well as the major twist.

  • 12. Give two examples of the use of elements of the future.

An element of the future is anything that pushes the audience’s attention towards the future, whether it be setting a date, a bad omen, or a character declaration. Two examples of anticipation are:
1. Annie: “As soon as the road to the hospital is open, they‘ll send an ambulance for you.”
2. Annie: “You’ll be done with the book soon.”

  • 13. Give one example each of the special use of a costume, and the special use of a prop.

The special use of props and costumes help us understand the evolution of the story or what’s happening in the lives of the characters.

One example of a special use of a prop is the typewriter. Annie gets Paul a typewriter that is missing an “n” which she tells the cashier is, “a letter in my favorite author’s name.” Paul must use the typewriter as a tool to keep Annie at bay as he fulfills her wish to write the next installment in the Misery series. He then uses the typewriter to actively defeat Annie. After he uses it to finish the book, he then picks it up and hits Annie on the head with it. Annie also falls on the typewriter and is momentarily knocked unconscious.

An example of the use of costume would be Annie’s style. She wears simple cotton flower patterned dresses, sweaters and turtle necks. Her clothes are subdued colors. Her manner of dressing makes her seem like a simple, non threatening person which belies the reality of her psyche. An important aspect of her costume is her cross necklace. This symbol points to the duality of Annie’s existence. Although she claims to be a good person and objects to even the use of profanity, she thinks god delivered Paul to be held captive by her and has no moral qualms about being a serial killer.

  • 14. Give one example each of scenes of preparation and aftermath.

Preparation is getting the audience ready for a dramatic event about to take place. For example, after Annie leaves to ostensibly get bullets for her gun, Paul retrieves a knife from the kitchen. He then practices pulling it out of his arm sling in preparation to attack Annie when she comes home. In the end, his preparation is for naught.

Aftermath occurs after a major dramatic event. It is screen time given to milk the audience’s relationship to the change in the life of the character. For example, during the dinner scene, Paul’s plan to drug Annie with the spiked wine is foiled when she accidentally knocks her glass over. We cut back to Paul more than once as he dejectedly looks at the spilled wine, which was (at the time) his best chance to escape. Instead Paul has to begin writing the misery book.

Scene Breakdown Based on Eight-Sequence/Three-Act structure

Act I

  • Sequence 1:

Paul Finishes book
Paul Crashes
Expositional Scene with Agent
Annie gets him out of wrecked car
Point of Attack: Annie cares for him in bed

  • Sequence 2:

Agent calls Buster about disappearance
Annie shaves Paul and asks to read his book
Annie has an outburst about the profanity
Buster and Wife drive along road, searching for Paul
Annie begins reading first misery book, loves it tells Paul she spoke to Agent
Annie introduces pig
Annie tells Paul about her life problems while he pees
Annie storms into Paul’s room after finishing book where Misery dies “Don’t even think about anybody coming for you. If I die, you die” - Paul crawls out of bed

ACT II

  • Sequence 3:

Buster on phone with the agent: “Don’t worry the FBI is here”
Annie forces Paul to burn his book & pours gasoline on him -
Buster spots Wilkes house from helicopter
Paul hides pill in mattress

  • Sequence 4:

Annie wheels Paul in chair and gives him a razor - sets up “new studio” Paul finds hairpin, asks Annie for better paper (flips) Paul unlocks door and explores house, steals pills
Annie comes home and almost catches Paul, he asks for pills and she puts him in bed

  • MDPT: Buster spots car from helicopter, reporters presume Paul dead
  • Sequence 5:

Paul consolidates pills in paper box
Paul at typewriter, Annie tells him that what he’s written isn’t good enough, explains watching serials as a child “they cheated us! Misery was buried in the ground at the end, you’ll have to start there”
Annie reads part of book - so excited, mentions playing records, Paul asks for dinner
Sheriff’s office - he brings home misery books
Annie and Paul have dinner, proposes toast & spikes wine

  • Sequence 6:

Paul writing book montage
Annie tells Paul “the rain gives me the blues. I love you even though u don’t love me - books almost finished and your legs are getting better. I have this gun…bullets”
Paul steals knife
Sheriff reads in book, “There is a justice higher than man”
Paul reads memory lane book of death, gets back in bed, practices pulling out
Annie inject Paul with syringe
Annie tells Paul she found knife, hair pin & knows he’s been out. Annie hobbles him

ACT III

  • Sequence 7:

Sheriff sees Annie have road rage, goes into office to retrieve quote
Sheriff goes to library, sees Wilkes newspaper report
Sherriff goes to general store, asks about paper
Sheriff drives to Annie Wilkes
Annie comes in and drugs Paul, drags him downstairs
Sheriff comes in and explores the house, leaves, hears noise & rushes back in, shot - (false resolution & twist)

  • Sequence 8:

Annie tells Paul that they must die together and Paul says that he loves her and must finish the book; he steals gasoline
Paul continues to write the book, asks for 3 things cig, match, glass; tells her we need one more glass, burns book with gasoline and match, they fight, she dies

Coda: Paul has lunch with his agent, they talk about Annie Wilkes non-fiction book, Paul is reminded that he may have other “number 1” fans

Film Thriller Script Analysis

 


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