Monday, February 21, 2011

A Week of "Misery," Day 4

Hey hey, ho ho, allrighty then ... so I couldn't do a post on Misery every day for a week.  I should have known that was overly ambitious.  Last week turned out to be a bit more hectic than I'd planned, so King-blogging had to take a back seat, along with most of the other nonessentials in life.

But you didn't come here to read about that, did you?

Let's waste no further time, but go ahead and dive right back into the wacky world of Paul Sheldon and Annie Wilkes.  I've got a slender topic today, but I think it's a vital one.

One of the things that makes Misery an interesting novel is an element that cannot really ever hope to be translated from prose into another medium ... which, given how meta this novel is on the subject of writing, seems very appropriate.

Take a look at page 218 (of the hardback, that is; hopefully, if you're looking at another edition, the page number corresponds -- if not, it's the end section 3 of Book III).  As we reach the end of the excerpt from the Misery's Return manuscript, which has "handwritten" letters anywhere an "n" or a "t" appears, we suddenly get the following line:

"For a mom     h   hr   of  h m"

Paul's typewriter has thrown yet another letter, the "e" this time.  Can you figure out what that line above is supposed to say?  You're undoubtedly smarter than I am, so you probably can ... but you may have to take a few seconds to do it.  I suppose this could be adequately translated onto film (I can't remember whether it happens in the Rob Reiner movie), although even then, there's no way to replicate the impact of all those handwritten "n"s and "t"s; seeing those scrawls, some of which appear hastier than others, accumulate across the page communicates something interesting, especially when you consider the fact that King drops in, between two bits of manuscript, the information that Paul is now also missing a thumb in addition -- whoops, make that subtraction -- to a foot.

Sure, film can at least somewhat get at it from a plot standpoint.  What can't get at it very well at all is the audiobook format.  I used to have the cassettes of this novel's audiobook, but they've long since been converted to MP3s and donated to a less computerized friend, so I located the files and skimmed around for a bit until I found the section the above line comes from; I was curious to hear how Lindsay Crouse dealt with reading it.  As it turns out, she basically just makes the sounds that would correspond to the remaining letters.  (Earlier in the section, when only the "n"s are missing from Paul's typewriter and therefore from the manuscript, Crouse  simply read the words as though they were missing no letters, which is a reasonable choice, since the human mind can quickly fill in the letters when they are absent on the page; the impact of their absence is entirely gone, however.)  It's the wrong choice, but let's not be too quick to criticize: what would the right choice have been?

Well, the director or producer might have opted to have Crouse read the line as though none of the letters were missing, and then dialed in some sort of audio distraction to mask the sounds of the letters that are supposed to be missing: some sort of typewriter noise, for example.  But even that wouldn't replicate the reaction every reader undoubtedly has, which is to pause at that line, and try and puzzle out its meaning. 

And why do we do that?  Because we want to know what is happening to Misery and Geoffrey and Hezekiah; we've become invested in their story as well, and therefore been drawn closer to Paul, but also closer to Annie.  This is a great example of King's ability to draw us in.

Sure, technically speaking, a listener could rewind the track (or the tape, if you're really old-school) a number of times and try and puzzle it out that way, but who does that?  One of the great pleasures of reading words off of a page is that if you are so inclined, you can back up and reread a section if you feel like you've forgotten something, or if you feel your focus has strayed a bit, or if you just plain feel like it.  And if you're naughty ... you can peek ahead to find out how it all turns out...

The audio format is also completely unqualified to deal with things such as font changes, which we get several times during the novel as we get sections of Paul's manuscript, first the typed sections and then the handwritten sections.  It may or may not be the words themselves that are important, and they will all be read by the narrator, but the reader's listener's relationship to them has changed utterly.  This, of course, is true of any audiobook, which cannot replicate a great many of the things that are fundamental to the craft of any good writer: the comma, the paragraph break, the italicization.  When a narrator puts an emphasis on a word, should we take it as an attempt to represent the writer's having italicized a word, or is it a case of an actor getting into her part?

Ultimately, it doesn't matter.  An audiobook isn't a book at all; it's a performance, and while they can certainly be highly enjoyable -- if you don't believe me, find something narrated by Frank Muller -- they should never take the place of the book itself.  If you have only "read" a book through the audio format, then brother, I got news for you: you haven't actually read that book.

Somewhere, I once read someone analyzing King's writing style who said that he was plainly and evidently a post-literate writer, one whose work showed all the hallmarks of having been raised on movies and television moreso than on novels and stories.  From what I can recall, I accepted that criticism at the time, and while it didn't bother me (probably because it's a criticism that is very much true of me), I took no issue with it on a factual basis.

As I've gotten older, though, I've started to see how very not true it is.  Say what you want about King's talent, but I think there is plenty of evidence to prove that his style comes very much from a place in which the word on the page is place above all other considerations.  Time after time, King's writing is a commentary on the art of writing itself, and it's got a lot to say that filmmakers -- and narrators for the audio format -- can't necessarily do justice to in their adaptations of his work.

Well, I'm not going to be back tomorrow, but when our increasingly lengthy week of Misery resumes, I'll be pondering the theme of addiction, which is a major element of the novel.


  1. I'm not smart enough to figure it out...
    "For a moment....."?

    1. I can't remember! I think it might be "For a moment the three of them," but I can't be sure of that.