From Book To Screen: “The Shining”
Welcome back to the Stephen King Book to Screen series. We started our series off last time examining the three film adaptions of King’s first novel Carrie. Now we move ahead and examine two film adaptions of one of Stephen King’s most popular and most acclaimed works: The Shining. Why have we skipped ahead to the third novel that King wrote? Mainly because this writer constantly forgets that Salem’s’ Lot came before this work. Not to worry for fans of that novel, we will cover it in time.
The two adaptions of The Shining are separated by a little under two decades. One is the very well-known 1980 adaption from director Stanley Kubrick that is often regarded as one of the best horror films ever made. The other is the lesser-known 1997 made-for-television adaption. It was originally aired split into three parts and aired over three nights, which was essentially how I watched it. Which of them is the best adaption and which is the most faithful to the novel? Let’s find out.
The first edition cover
The Shining was King’s first novel to be a best-seller as a hardcover. In many ways, it was the novel that truly established him as the preeminent horror novelist in the United States. After setting his first two novels in small towns in Maine, King was looking for a change of pace and ended up picking the location of Boulder, Colorado randomly from a map. Traveling there with his wife, they checked into the Stanley Hotel that would serve as the inspiration for the Overlook Hotel of the novel. They happened to be the only two guests staying there that night as it was getting ready to close up for the season. It proved an inspirational environment, as a novel about a psychic boy that he started two years earlier and had abandoned popped back into his head.
King and his wife ate dinner completely alone in the grand dining room with taped orchestral music playing in the background. His wife then headed to bed, leaving him to wander around the grand, empty hotel hallways by himself. King eventually wandered into a bar and was served a few drinks by a bartender named Grady. That night, he dreamed of the psychic child running through the corridors in fear, terrified of a fire-hose. Waking up, he went to a window and looked out at the Rockies while forming the bones of the novel in his head.
Many elements of Jack Torrance would be autobiographical: King suffered from alcoholism and was privately terrified of his own anger towards his children. Major elements of the novel explored Torrance’s history of alcohol abuse and physical abuse of his child Danny. These thematic elements combined with the supernatural terror of the Overlook made The Shining a gripping book, and it is personally one of my favorite novels. How do the films compare?
Steven Weber as a possessed Jack Torrance
Fully titled Stephen King’s The Shining, this adaption was personally overseen by King himself. King was highly critical of Kubrick’s adaption, feeling that the famed director had entirely missed the point of his novel. Determined that a more faithful adaption be created, he entered into an oft-rumored agreement with Kubrick to cease his public disapproval of the prior version in exchange for getting another crack at adapting his book to the silver screen. Stephen King worked with director Mick Garris, who would become notable for his work on many King adaptions, to bring his vision to life.
Perhaps the most notable feature of this adaption is that large portions of it were filmed using the very hotel that inspired King to write the novel: the Stanley Hotel was used for all of the exterior shots and for several interior shots. For shots not filmed within the hotel itself, the building still served as the blueprint for the sets. Fans of the novel will appreciate seeing the adaption play out as described in writing.
The greatest strengths of this adaption lie in the writing and slow-burner pacing. With over six hours of screen-time to work with, Garris and King were able to pace the tension and build-up in an appropriately creepy fashion as the Torrance family slowly begins to unravel, the Overlook Hotel working to rip them apart. Here, we are treated to the full background of Jack Torrance as a character. Struggling to maintain sobriety and tortured by the memory of the abuse he has directed at his wife and son, Jack is a man trying to earn a second chance. This makes him a sympathetic protagonist, like the novel’s version of Jack. We can get behind him as a person and have an emotional investment in the story. He is played by Steven Weber, notable mostly for his TV work on the show Wings. Weber makes for a surprisingly fantastic incarnation of the character. He plays the role nearly pitch perfect. While clearly not a fully stable man, he still comes off across as a normal person at the beginning of the series. Weber conveys a slow loss of sanity and descent into the Overlook’s clutches well, and makes the onset of insanity gripping and realistic.
The other strong performance in the cast comes from Rebecca De Mornay of Risky Business fame. She plays the strong-willed and well-developed character of Wendy from the novel. De Mornay has the demeanor and fierceness of the character as written. Her Wendy is confident enough to stand against Jack and the horrors of the hotel, while still displaying an appropriate amount of fear when needed.
This adaption is not without its blemishes. A noticeable flaw comes in the form of Cortland Mead‘s turn as Danny Torrance. Mead is, of course, a child actor, and while his is not quite the worst performance by a child actor I’ve seen, his delivery is clunky. His scenes often elicit a mixture of annoyance and boredom. The literal interpretation from the novel of “Tony,” a personification of Danny’s psychic abilities, appearing as a ghost also doesn’t work as well on screen. It comes across rather cheesy, which is only compounded by Mead’s mediocre acting ability. This is especially a shame since this version of The Shining is much more Danny-centric than the 1980 version, as is the novel.
Overall though, Stephen King’s The Shining is a good adaption. Appropriately paced despite the six hour run-time, this film conveys the thrills of the novel as well as its heartbreaking family story. The relationship between Jack, Wendy, and Danny is fully developed, which makes its gradual deterioration all the more painful. Weber sells Jack fighting to hang on to his last shreds of humanity and his love for his son. Aside from rather clunky moments, such as flashbacks to Jack’s past that slow down the early flow of the film, this is a well-made movie considering its TV medium.
Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance
Stanley Kubrick‘s famed adaption premiered three years after the publishing of the novel. Kubrick made The Shining in the wake of the tepid reception, both commercially and critically, of his previous film Barry Lyndon. He was determined to make something that would fulfill him artistically while also being more commercial in nature. Burying himself in his office, Kubrick began to work through stacks of horror novels brought to him by his secretary, tossing each aside with a thump until he landed on The Shining. Enraptured, Kubrick decided this would become his next film. The process of building sets then began as Kubrick began to have all of the interior sets constructed in Britain where he was living. Armed with the newly-developed Steadicam technology, Kubrick went to work.
I should warn readers now that I’ve been somewhat harsh on Kubrick’s adaption in the past. I had seen the film twice before watching it again for this blog series, and both times I had been less than impressed. I count the novel as one of my favorite King novels and, frankly, one of my favorite books in general. My first viewing of The Shining left me highly disappointed, as I didn’t find it frightening in the slightest. A second viewing warmed my response to it, but I was still fairly lukewarm to the film. How did I feel this time?
Some of my criticisms of the work are still valid. My biggest previous complaint is that the script robs the story of its emotional depth by cutting away much of the character of Jack Torrance. That complaint remained upon this viewing. Jack’s alcoholism is reduced to a mere plot mechanism, as is his physical abuse of Danny. It’s not an inherent flaw that the film doesn’t match the novel in these plot points, as they are two separate artistic visions. The issue is that film still uses the physical abuse aspect of the character without the background and context that places into it the arc of the character. We are given only a couple of quick references to it before we see Wendy explode on Jack when Danny is discovered with bruises on his neck. Without the greater emotional context for that scene, this anger feels out of place and doesn’t really make much sense.
There is also the issue of Jack Nicholson‘s performance. Don’t get me wrong — Nicholson is wonderful at playing the deranged aspects of the role. The man is a great actor and he captures the utter lunacy of Torrance in a way that Weber can’t touch. The problem is something that King himself and many others have expressed: he’s always apparently crazy. From the start of the film, there is something off about the character of Jack Torrance. This makes him completely unsympathetic. While there is value in having a totally deranged character, the film attempts to have it both ways by illustrating his struggles to write a novel.
This adaption eschews much of the influence that the Overlook plays in the novel in exchange for the concept that Torrance’s madness may be much more of the source of the dangers of the film. This would be more effective if the relationship between Jack and his family was ever really conveyed. Jack comes across as embittered towards both Wendy and Danny for much of the film’s running time leaving me to wonder why I should even care about the story being told. It doesn’t help that Shelley Duvall‘s Wendy is a lame duck of a character as well. Gone is the fierce and independent woman of King’s novel, and in her place a shivering rabbit. She runs around screaming in incoherent terror and seems to shrink back utterly confused and oblivious to the situation around her. There is little value in watching a giant flick away a cardboard cutout. I don’t feel fear, only annoyance.
All of that aside, Kubrick’s film is still fantastic on a cinematic level. For all of his failures in communicating a human story, his film is certainly a visual feast. The film opens with gorgeous shots of the Torrance’s car traveling as a tiny yellow speck in the rolling mountains of the Rockies. This mirrors the imagery of the yellow tennis ball rolling along the hallways of the Overlook. That is just one of the many visual parallels through the film. There is plenty of iconic imagery throughout: the elevator overflowing with blood, the Grady sisters standing in the hallway, Jack poking his head through the hole in the door, Jack frozen to death in the snow, him typing in the grand ballroom, Danny moving his finger and saying “Redrum”. . .
For perhaps the first time, The Shining managed to provide some thrills for me. It’s a testament to craft when you can generate jump scares even when the audience knows its coming. There are several of these moments throughout that work well. Kubrick has done plenty to create a feeling of tension and claustrophobia throughout the film. The scene between Jack and Lloyd at the bar still stands out as a highly creepy and disturbing scene which is played perfectly by both Nicholson and Joe Turkel. Turkel has just the proper combination of subtlety and assertiveness to make for a bone-chilling character.
The Best and The Most Faithful
The question of the most faithful adaption should be a fairly obvious one at this point. In terms of faithfulness to the novel, the 1997 miniseries is the clear winner. It captures almost all of the novel’s visual moments and character developments. It features the wasp nest, the moving hedge animals, the prominent role of the hotel’s boiler, a not-dead Dick Halloran, and the ultimate catharsis between Jack and Danny when Jack sacrifices himself to stop the hotel from claiming his son’s shining abilities. Had there been a better actor for Danny and a slightly more developed visual style (i.e. a better budget), I would also easily declare it the better adaption. As it is, the TV version won multiple Emmy’s and a nomination for Outstanding Miniseries. This adaption is much better than many give it credit for.
Still, Kubrick’s version cannot be entirely discounted when it comes to deciding which is the better adaption. In many of the film’s horror moments, I have to declare the Kubrick version superior. For example, we can look at both versions of the woman in Room 217/237 (another change in the Kubrick version is the room number). The 1997 version of the scene is not entirely uncreepy, but the take on the scene is a little more obvious and hampered by cheaper makeup. Kubrick’s version is quite visceral and makes for an overall creepier scene. This is also one of the few instances where Kubrick’s version is able to lift more directly from the novel than the TV version due to the R rating. The scene of Jack bursting into the bedroom with the axe/mallet is also more iconic when done by Jack Nicholson.
From a craft perspective, Kubrick’s version is superior. The visual elements are top-notch, and that’s not even considering the score. The score is in a style that Kubrick used in many of his films, and works perhaps best here. The weird modernist sound palate from Béla Bartók, Krzysztof Penderecki, and others is effective at setting you on edge. But the film’s emotional shallowness and flatter characters harm it despite Nicholson’s dedicated performance. In all other aspects, the 1997 version would have be to be declared the better one. For that reason, I declare my preference for the 1997 version.
The Final Verdict
While I don’t think either version is a perfect one, I think both are worth viewing. I don’t revere the Kubrick film anywhere close to the level that many do, but it’s still a fairly effective horror film and certainly has a strong and distinct visual canvas. If Kubrick had been able to maintain more character to his characters, it might stand up as a truly superior adaption. The original mixed reception to the film was appropriate, I feel.
The opposite is true for the 1997 adaption. With a larger budget and more dynamic visual style, this version could have stood as a truly superior one. Still, its well worth a viewing for fans of King’s novel and should be given a chance by others. Its still a good film even for those not hyper-dedicated to the works of Stephen King.