Of the Stephen King novels I've read, the most appealing are those propelled by their characters and gradual tension rather than supernatural horror - "The Shining," "The Stand" and especially "Misery," for example.

As a movie, "The Shining" had its moments but was a disappointment. "The Stand" seems to have mystified screenwriters and directors who have attempted to film it so far.But now comes "Misery," King's black satire on celebrity worship, adapted by the very talented hands of two people who have never tackled horror before - and maybe that's all to the good - screenwriter William Goldman ("Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," "All the President's Men," "Marathon Man") and director Rob Reiner ("This Is Spinal Tap!" "The Sure Thing," "When Harry Met Sally . . ."), who, on their last collaboration, gave us "The Princess Bride."

The result is arguably the best King novel-to-film adaptation yet, a tense character study that grows and builds and has plenty of humor, both light and dark, along the way.

"Misery" begins with novelist Paul Sheldon (James Caan) holed up in his favorite Rocky Mountain hotel in Colorado putting the finishing touches on his first real book, as opposed to the gothic romances that have made him rich and famous. He tosses his manuscript into his car and heads down the mountain, unaware that a major snowstorm is building. His car goes off the road and rolls, and he's near death when a woman named Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates) rescues him.

A former nurse, she takes him home, splints his broken legs and helps him regain his strength, explaining that the roads are closed and the phone lines are down, so she can't call for help.

But in reality she has made him a prisoner. "I'm your number one fan," she tells him, explaining that she loves his series of novels about the romantic adventures of "Misery Chastain."

What Annie doesn't know is that the heroine dies in the latest "Misery" novel, which is just about to hit the stands. As soon as "Misery's Child" comes to the local general store Annie picks it up and begins reading. Needless to say, she's not too happy about the ending.

Her solution: Paul will write her a new "Misery" book, reviving the heroine. Or else.

Though Goldman has added some other characters for the film, most prominently the local sheriff and his wife (Richard Farnsworth, Frances Sternhagen) and Paul's publisher (Lauren Bacall), "Misery" remains essentially a claustrophobic two-character play, with Annie slowly revealing behind her smiling exterior a madness that will eventually take over and Paul realizing the danger he's in and plotting his escape.

As such it relies heavily on the performances of its stars, and both Bates and Caan are more than up to the task. Bates, a respected stage actress who has played a number of supporting parts in films (most recently, "Men Don't Leave") has the more flamboyant role here. Whether she's being sweet and nurturing, blathering on with her twisted religious ethic or blithely committing mayhem, she is utterly, chillingly real.

Veteran tough guy Caan gives an excellent performance as a bedridden victim most of the way, playing it subtly and reacting most convincingly. Though not as instrinsic to the film, Farnsworth and Sternhagen also stand out and have great chemistry together.

Goldman's script makes a few changes here and there, giving certain little story elements more credibility and logic, improving on King's tendency to overwrite. Reiner's direction is straightforward, with an emphasis on humor - gallows and otherwise - and he plays down the gore. In fact, this is the least bloody Stephen King movie since "Stand By Me," which Reiner also directed.

Wouldn't it be nice if it became a hit and horror filmmakers learned a lesson or two about making horror scary instead of gory?

"Misery" is rated R for violence and a few profanities.