Adaptation Breakdown: A Tale of Two Shinings

The film adaptation of The Shining and the well-publicized blood feud between Stephen King and Stanley Kubrick has been the subject of nearly endless internet debate, but for some reason it’s a subject I’m obsessively fascinated by and often get into long, rambling conversations about, which is why I decided to unburden myself in written form here. Sorry in advance (not really).

I’m going to go in a slightly skewed direction with this, though; rather than discuss the drastic differences between King’s book and Kubrick’s film, and the subsequent decades-long hatefest between them, I’d like to delve more into the contrasts between Kubrick’s film and King’s 1997 mini-series adaptation. Yes, I will obviously have to talk about the book too, so readers may see this as a distinction without a difference, but fuck it.

Let me just take a few moments to talk about Stephen King as a writer. I would consider myself a fan, though I admit I haven’t kept up with his voluminous output in the past couple decades. The most recent work of his I read was 2014’s Revival, which I found at a second-hand bookstore and quite enjoyed, and before that, I think the last ones I read were Under the Dome from 2009 (which was okay) and Doctor Sleep from 2013 (which I didn’t love, though I liked Mike Flanagan’s film version quite a bit).

I definitely felt as though the quality of his work has declined post-car-accident (understandably), and I know I am not alone in that opinion; his more recent work just doesn’t stick with you the way his earlier stuff does. He’s a very good “popular” writer, though, and he’s written some absolutely GREAT books, The Shining among them. Is The Shining as great as, say, Shirley Jackson’s Haunting of Hill House, which partly inspired it? Hell no, and only an idiot would argue otherwise. But The Shining scared the ever-loving bejesus out of me the first time I read it, and has held up very well over multiple re-reads over the years. When King is on, he’s really, really on.

Here’s what I find weird, though. I’ve mentioned a few times in other posts how much I love Danse Macabre, King’s scattershot but surprisingly astute analysis of horror in entertainment. In fact, in my own writing, I have used paraphrases from that book to back up some of my own viewpoints about what works and doesn’t work in horror; namely, that ambiguity and perhaps even obfuscation are necessary for really effective scares. What is unknown and largely unexplained is always more terrifying than what is known. King seems to grasp this, and even singles out books and films that were effective for this very reason, but when he is given the reins of a film project, he never seems to take his own advice. He has never really appeared to understand, at least in practice, that literature and film are two completely different (hedge) animals; in a novel, you can, to some degree, get away with huge chunks of exposition and meticulous description of detail, because you are creating an entire world in the reader’s head.

In film, everything is paraded right in front of your eyes, which means you have to exercise some measure of restraint, both in what you show and what you keep hidden. This is something that King has never really been able to do, judging both by adaptations of his work that he’s had a hand in (like Maximum Overdrive, which was similar to pro-wrestling in the sense that it was big, loud, and stupid, but also sorta fun, though no one would call it a masterpiece of celluloid), and adaptations done by others that he claimed he enjoyed (Children of the Corn, The Mangler). King is a good writer, and to be frank, sometimes I wish that he would just be content enough with that, and not try to dabble in mediums that are obviously not suited to his (quite prodigious) talents.

All that said, let’s dissect the 1997 mini-series, shall we? I remember seeing it when it initially came out; since I had always been such a big fan of both the book and of Kubrick’s adaptation, and was well aware of King’s tendency to royally whiff any film project he touched, I went into the viewing with some trepidation. And I’m sad to say that most of my worst fears about King’s version duly came to pass, and I ended up not even finishing the series because I hated it so much.

Fast forward many years. My boyfriend and I were discussing The Shining because of a radio program we’d been listening to about Kubrick’s use of symbolism. I think I happened to mention that I had really detested the 1997 mini-series that King had made, as it seemed like nothing more than a self-indulgent, jealousy-fueled, bitchy dismissal of Kubrick’s singular vision. My boyfriend countered that he’d actually liked the mini-series, mainly because he felt it was closer to the spirit of the book and followed the plot more faithfully (though he still agreed that Kubrick’s version was miles better). I hadn’t seen the thing in a long time, and I was willing to entertain the idea that the mini-series might not have been quite as terrible as I remembered, so late one night we sat down with our snacks and booze and watched the entire six hours in one go.

I will say straight out that indeed, the mini-series was actually not the atrocity I’d remembered it as. It wasn’t great, by any means, and parts of it were pretty cringe-inducing, but at no point during its run time did I feel as though I wanted to scoop out my own eyeballs or drop-kick a baby into a wood chipper or anything like that. So…not awful, but a mediocre misfire at best. The problem with the entire production, I think, is what I was alluding to earlier, about King not fully understanding the differing strengths and weaknesses of the film medium as opposed to the literature medium. King’s version of The Shining is certainly far more faithful to the source material than Kubrick’s, perhaps even slavishly so, but that, to me, is the exact reason why it doesn’t really work.

The main difference between the two adaptations is that King’s was literal while Kubrick’s was mythic. A stark illustration of this is the fact that King’s mini-series was filmed in and around the Stanley Hotel, the real location that the Overlook was based on, while Kubrick’s Overlook, built entirely as a set (at least as far as the interiors were concerned), had a more otherworldly, dreamlike, and hence mythical quality.

One of King’s main criticisms of Kubrick’s film was that in casting Jack Nicholson, Kubrick presents a man who is clearly a raging lunatic right from the get-go. King tried to rectify this by casting Wings star Steven Weber as Jack Torrance 2.0, but I have to say that both King’s criticism and his attempt to realign the character to more suit his tastes is not really fair or effective. Weber is a good enough actor, but it’s obvious he’s striving to play Jack as a fallen “good” guy, and his portrayal suffers from a veneer of forced joviality. This is a character, remember, who was even portrayed in the book as an abusive alcoholic who may have had some redemptive qualities at his core. Nicholson’s Jack, while certainly something of a departure from the novel character, was more effective on screen because he exuded the anger and desperation of a man teetering on the brink of insanity at all times. This made him almost unbearably menacing, and thus the film that much more frightening.

King’s most persistent gripe, though, was that Kubrick’s film was soulless, that the heart of King’s book was ripped out and stomped flat in service to Kubrick’s coldly logical exploration of pet themes. While I can see why King would see it that way, I feel that he’s kind of missing the point. Yes, Kubrick simply used the frame of King’s story to hang his own vision on, and along the way may have altered the original intent of King’s novel (though not as much as King thinks he did, in my opinion). But I don’t think Kubrick was so much concerned with the sentimental, pedestrian tragedy of Jack’s downward spiral as he was with creating an archetypal meditation on isolation, evil, and the fragility of our rational humanity.

So Kubrick’s film featured an elegant hedge maze (shades of Theseus and the minotaur) in place of King’s roving hedge animals (which looked painfully ridiculous in the mini-series when they began walking around like green CGI Scooby-Doos). Kubrick’s film kept aspects of the hotel’s history ambiguous (the woman in the bathtub, the blow job furry) to mirror the confusion and dislocation of the characters, while King drops a pallet-load of exposition about all the horrible things that happened at the Overlook in pretty much the first ten minutes of his adaptation. Kubrick’s film had those creepy sisters, King’s had a hose with CGI teeth. Kubrick’s film has Danny talking to the “imaginary” Tony using nothing but his own croaking voice and a bent finger, King’s shows Tony in all his nerdy, floating, special-effect-y glory. Kubrick’s film keeps apparitions to a minimum, making them appear as real people, adding a layer of uncertainty about their nature and origins. King, meanwhile, populates the Overlook with hundreds of partying phantoms who appear and disappear in tendrils of smoke, and some of whom are afflicted with tragically bad “ghost” makeup. Kubrick’s film ends with Jack simply freezing to death in the middle of the maze, and the Overlook enduring with Jack’s unredeemed spirit trapped there for eternity, a testament to the fact that evil never dies. King’s film ends with Jack fighting two laughably bumbling spirits for control of the boiler’s vent pipe (and oh, that trite “boiling over/letting off steam” metaphor is hurting me right in my literary gland), then letting the whole hotel blow up with him inside it in a silly, unnecessary “redemption.”

At every turn, King chose to portray in his film the story exactly as he had originally written it, and at every turn, this was shown to be a mistake of plodding literalism over filmic mythmaking. King’s only sop to the novel I actually kind of liked was the fact that, as in the book, Halloran didn’t get killed at the end. I actually understand (and even agree with) the reasons Kubrick chose to kill off Halloran immediately after he arrived at the Overlook; after all, it showed that even despite Halloran’s own supernatural gifts and his tireless race to rescue Danny and Wendy, the evil of the hotel was just too powerful for him. It was still kind of a bummer, though, because Scatman Crothers as Halloran was a fucking legend. So yay for Halloran not dying (although of course he was played by a different actor, Melvin Van Peebles, in the 1997 version).

I will say that the acting was actually decent for this type of thing, by which I mean, it wasn’t awful, but it was okay in a TV-movie sort of way. I didn’t get the sense that these were real people the way I did in Kubrick’s version; say what you will about Jack Nicholson and Shelly Duvall (and I happen to think the casting, while weird on the surface, worked like gangbusters in the final product), but they played those roles with conviction, son. The little boy who played Danny in King’s version had a very distracting mouth that he never seemed to be able to close and he always talked like he had a sinus infection, but I’m not gonna pick on a kid for shit he probably couldn’t help. He was fine, even though I didn’t believe him as a real character either, mostly because of his oddly stilted dialogue.

Which brings me to another of the film’s glaring weaknesses: THAT dialogue, because of course you knew I would come to that. King, even in his books, is actually fairly adept at writing relatable characters, but he does have a well-documented habit of putting weird regionalisms and repeated “catchphrases” into the mouths of his protagonists. I can forgive this in his novels, as it’s usually not frequent enough to be grating; even though I don’t know a single person who talks like a Stephen King character in real life, on the page it’s an acceptable aspect of the unique world King has created with his stories. Hearing these “cute” verbal touchstones spoken aloud many, many times over the course of a mere six hours, however, is quite another matter. I swear I thought I was going to strain something from wincing so hard in empathetic embarrassment with Steven Weber as he had to repeatedly refer to Danny as a “pup” and incessantly scream at him to “take his medicine.” Over and over and over again. And that whole “kissing/missing” thing was so egregious that I almost felt like King was trying with all his might to forcefully wedge a catchphrase into the public consciousness so he could sell it on T-shirts or something.

And then there was that epilogue, which as far as I can remember did not appear in the novel (and please correct me if I’m wrong; it’s been a few years since I last read it). Ten years later, Wendy and Halloran are watching Danny graduating from high school, and we can see that (surprise), the grown-up Danny is actually the previously floating but now sadly earthbound Tony. As Danny collects his diploma, he sees his father standing there, and Jack repeats that horrible “kissing/missing” line and then they blow a kiss to each other in what is probably the creepiest and most unrealistic father-son moment ever captured on film. Yeesh.

Look, I understand that The Shining was a very personal story for King, based as it was on many of his own struggles with alcoholism, and I can even see why, when he made the film after having been sober for so long, he’d want to add in that little “hooray for redemption” fillip at the end there, as if to say, “See, the alcohol made us both monsters but we came through it and made everything okay and we’re still good guys, even if it’s only in the Jedi afterlife like Jack here.” I get that. But keep it out of your movies, man (and your books, wherever possible). It’s self-indulgent, sappy, and frankly sort of tawdry, the kind of ending I’d expect to see in a Nicholas Sparks movie or one of those Lifetime disease-of-the-week deals. Don’t cheapen what was originally a great story with manipulative mawkishness.

In summation, the reason Kubrick’s adaptation is widely adored and generally considered one of the top five scariest films ever made is precisely because he restrained his emotional impulse and chose to elevate its source material to make an artistic statement. He trusted the audience to fill in their own blanks. He took what was a good story about a decent man being tragically consumed by demons, and he added layers and layers of subtext and symbolism, universalizing the story far beyond its dysfunctional family roots and turning it into a terrifying, complex fable that can be (and has been) interpreted in myriad ways (see the stellar documentary Room 237 for just a sampling of the wild theorizing). King’s 1997 adaptation, by contrast, simply took what was on the page and slapped it on the screen in an ordinary way, more or less word-for-word, thereby draining the narrative of any vitality or visual impact. It left no room for the viewer; everything was painfully laid out in front of you and over-explained to the rafters. An argument could be made that it is theoretically possible to craft a more faithful adaptation of King’s novel that is still a fantastic film, but unfortunately, the 1997 mini-series isn’t it.

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