Roger Ebert Home

How Misery Predicted Toxic Fandom

Annie Wilkes foretold the future.

Rob Reiner’s 1990 thriller “Misery” finds Annie, the self-proclaimed “number one fan” of writer Paul Sheldon, holding him hostage in a snowy woodland cabin and forcing him to rewrite his latest manuscript to her liking. Paul had planned to kill off his most famous character, Misery Chastain, heroine of a beloved series of romantic adventures, so that he could move on to a different sort of writing. But Annie wants Misery to live so badly that she smashes Paul’s ankles with a sledgehammer, to break his will and make it impossible for him to escape her.

In 1990, the moment held up a mirror to viewers who were so obsessively devoted to their favorite intellectual properties that they tried to hold artists hostage to their whims. Those types of fans have always existed, but they had to go to a lot more trouble to achieve their goals than they do now. The Internet and social media have handed every obsessive fan their own sledgehammer. 

This is no ordinary fandom. It’s the kind that makes popular artists like Stephen King, who wrote the novel that “Misery” is based on, fearful of sharing their visions with the world. And thanks to Twitter, Facebook, online petitions, and cyber-harassment, it has become coordinated, fast, and disturbingly effective. 

When King first wrote Misery, it was inspired by angry reactions to his fantasy novel The Eyes of the Dragon. Like Paul, who wanted to move on from his famous series of historical romance novels, King wanted to depart from his usual output of horror fare. Some fans saw this venture as a betrayal. King experienced a conflict currently felt by creatives dealing with toxic sections within genre fandoms who feel that because they buy books and movie tickets and give clicks to TV shows they love, they are entitled to have a say in the creator's future career path and even dictate the fine points of individual projects.

The highly divisive final season of “Game of Thrones” caused such a stir that there was a fan petition signed by 1.7 million people demanding that the cast and crew redo the entire season. Additionally, the similarly polarizing “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” had certain displeased fans signing a petition for Lucasfilm to remove it from the "Star Wars" canon because they felt it tarnished Luke Skywalker’s legacy. Some even demanded a complete redo of one or more films in the sequel trilogy. The vitriol towards “The Last Jedi” also channeled straight white male entitlement. Vietnamese American actress Kelly Marie Tran left social media after months of racist and sexist comments from social media trolls. Director Rian Johnson remains on Twitter after nearly three years of nonstop attacks by people who deemed his chapter of the trilogy illegitimate or displeasing, and has implied that if it weren’t for the “block” and “mute” functions, he would’ve left, too.

Avengers: Endgame” was a critically as well as popularly beloved franchise-ender, and became the highest-grossing picture of all time, yet it still was vulnerable to pressure tactics by unsatisfied customers. There was even a petition to film an alternate ending so that Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) lived. Iron Man’s fate was meant to certify the end of Downey’s 11-year tenure in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the conclusion of Iron Man’s character arc. But some fans were as bereft and betrayed as Annie, who shouted “Misery Chastain cannot be dead!” after reading Paul’s new manuscript.

These fan actions were shrugged off by the intellectual properties’ owners. But DC Films and its distributor and studio, Warner Bros., were powerless to stop the onslaught over “Justice League.” Released to widespread fan dissatisfaction, the movie amplified the arrogance of toxic fandom. Zack Snyder left the project during post-production due to a family tragedy and was replaced by Joss Whedon, a writer/director with a markedly different tone and style. 

This is where the #ReleasetheSnyderCut movement took shape. It was a call to release an alternate cut from Snyder that may not have even existed and involved harassment and cyberbullying towards critics and execs such as former DC Entertainment president Diane Nelson, who deleted her Twitter after DCEU fans accused her of opposing Zack Snyder’s vision because she praised early footage of “Joker.” The movement also involved, of course, another petition, created after the picture’s release, that garnered over 100,000 signatures. When it was announced early this year by Snyder himself that fans would be getting a “Snyder Cut”—even though it would cost the studio tens of millions in reshoot and additional footage costs—journalists worried that this would be read as a toxic fandom victory that could embolden those who treat storytellers as employees. Collider writer Drew Taylor worried that the Snyder Cut greenlight set a dangerous precedent and would send the worst kind of message: If you resort to harassment to get your way, it’ll be rewarded. 

Additionally, if throwing such temper tantrums on social media causes creatives to say, in effect, “Here you go, now leave us alone,” it also forces the numerous cast and crew members to be tied down to a property they thought they were finished with, and redo work they already put in, and that they might be perfectly happy with. 

People like Annie have no empathy for an artist’s creative process. At one point in “Misery,” she even forces Paul to light a match and burn his own book. He tries to hold onto his vision by promising that his novel won’t see the light of day, a tactical move that would’ve saved him from having to write yet another manuscript (either Annie’s version, or a recovered version of his own). Sadly, Annie doesn’t budge, and makes him throw the match anyhow.

Instead of using sledgehammers or matches like Annie, 21st century fans use petitions, DMs, and 280 tweet characters as their own form of hobbling, hoping to tie artists to their favorite artworks and bend them to their will. This twisted form of devotion becomes overly integrated into their daily lives. “Misery” remains a shattering reminder that this line between admiration and obsession is one that shouldn’t be crossed.

Latest blog posts

Latest reviews

Code 8 Part II
God Save Texas
Article 20


comments powered by Disqus