It's hard to think of the film Misery and not picture what Annie Wilkes did to Paul Sheldon. It's arguably the most harrowing moment of the film, and its bleak brutality has led to it becoming a bona fide part of cinema history. In the film, obsessed fan Annie Wilkes gets the chance of a lifetime when she discovers her favorite author hurt in the snow. She nurses him back to health, but refuses to let him leave without writing a book for her. In an effort to keep him with her permanently, she takes a sledgehammer and bashes his feet with it.
The "hobbling scene," as it's sometimes known, was not only difficult for viewers to watch. The vicious scene also took a toll on everyone involved with the project, and some genuine misery took place behind the scenes. This is the story of how a group of filmmakers attempted to tackle one of the most brutal scenes in cinema history.
While Misery is a generally faithful adaptation of Stephen King's novel, there are actually some pretty huge differences between the film and the book when it comes to the most iconic scene.
In the movie, Annie uses a sledgehammer to brutally mangle Paul's legs. While that's pretty scarring already, the book takes the horror even further. In that version, Annie actually uses a fire ax to sever both of Paul's legs at the ankle. That's not all - she then grabs a blowtorch and cauterizes the wounds herself.
The gruesome content in Misery was tough for a lot of people to get behind. This includes the original director of the film, George Roy Hill. Hill had been hired by producer Rob Reiner to direct the movie, but Hill had reservations about the "lopping scene." This was before the script had been changed to include the sledgehammer instead of the fire ax.
Things had been going according to plan when Hill suddenly left the project. The film's screenwriter, William Goldman, claims that Hill simply could not bring himself to say "action" when it came to that particular scene.
While most people seemed to be rather squeamish about the ax sequence, screenwriter William Goldman found it exciting. In Goldman's book Which Lie Did I Tell? More Adventures in the Screen Trade, he describes how the scene was a total mindblower for him: "I could not f-ing believe it. I mean, I knew she wasn’t going to tickle him with a peacock feather, but I never dreamt such behavior was possible. And I knew I had to write the movie."
He states that this particularly scene is what hooked him on the project and convinced him to adapt the story.
While Kathy Bates manages to make disfiguring people look easy, not every potential actor had the stomach for the role. Bette Midler was offered a chance at the part, but she turned down the project because of this particular scene. In her own words, Midler said, "And Misery, I turned that down because I didn't want to saw someone's foot off, even though the role won an Oscar. It was stupid to say no to those pictures."
Midler is referring to how the scene originally went in the book, but she has a point either way. It's hard to blame her for not wanting to viciously deform someone. While Midler would have certainly had a unique take on the character of Annie Wilkes, the stony severity of Bates perfectly suits Annie.