Practically everyone who reads and goes to movies in our genre (whatever that is) knows the face in Figure 1. It’s Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance in the Stanley Kubrick version of Stephen King‘s The Shining. Well, Halloween’s coming up, and I thought I’d take the next couple of columns to look at some Halloween-related genre stuff. After thinking fairly hard—well, as hard as I usually do—about the book and its video representations, I decided to review the TV mini-series from 1997 and talk about all the stuff around it, like the aforementioned Kubric opus. Don’t get me wrong, I like the Kubrick version, but let me be clear: it’s not Stephen King‘s The Shining, it’s Stanley Kubrick‘s The Shining, which is a horse of a totally different colour. (And no jello is involved, either. It’s okay if you don’t get this reference. I’ll give you a hint: “Who rang that bell?”)
To start, I’m going to give you an extremely shortened version in case you’ve never read The Shining. The subject is Jack Torrance, an alcoholic wannabe writer, who’s about to lose both his temper and his job as an English teacher at a private boys’ school on the East Coast. He has an older, richer, well-connected friend who’s also a recovered alcoholic; this friend got him the job when he seemed unemployable. Besides his drinking problem, he has a temper; at one point he broke the arm of his son, Danny, when the boy (younger than when the book started) thoughtlessly scattered some of Jack’s papers. Although the arm breaking was “accidental,” it spurred his foray into AA, and nearly lost him his family—and he’s not entirely sure it was accidental, either. We also learn that son Danny—about 8 years old—has a secret: he’s somewhat psychic and has an “invisible friend” named Tony, who tells him things.
When one of Jack’s students slashes his tire, he beats the kid up and is fired. His friend intercedes, and gets him a job as caretaker in Colorado, at a big hotel (The Overlook) that was closing for the winter. The previous caretaker went mad and killed his family. Jack assures the manager, Ullman, that he, Jack, has a book to write and will be too busy to succumb to cabin fever.
Jack, son Danny, and wife Wendy move to Colorado and settle in; Jack is not only writing his book, but he also has maintenance tasks to accomplish on the hotel, not the least is watching out for the boiler, which is unpredictable, and leaks—an old steam boiler—and has to be regularly checked and pressure released; he must also mend the roof, clean the gutters, and do whatever winterizing the staff was unable to finish while they were closing out for the year. There is no alcohol available in the hotel; Ullman has seen to that, so there’s no danger Jack can relapse. The roads will not be plowed, and the phone will be at best unreliable when the snow closes in, so the family will have to rely on an ancient snowcat for transportation in the case of an emergency. And since this is way pre-cellphone, if the phone lines go down, there’s a CB (Citizen’s Band) radio to the nearest Forest Ranger station. They will be isolated for sure, but the refrigerator and pantry are well-stocked.
At first, all is well; Jack works on his book and the hotel maintenance, Danny plays with his plastic toys, and Wendy cooks, etc., and teaches Danny reading. The cook, Dick Halloran, who left for the winter, also had a psychic bent, which he told Danny in confidence was called “shining.” He says Danny has the strongest shine he’s ever encountered, and tells the kid to call him if there’s ever an emergency, using his shine. Tony, Danny’s invisible friend, makes the odd appearance warning Danny of unknown dangers.
The Overlook, however, is an old hotel, and many untoward things have happened within its walls—murders and worse. We are given the idea that evil might permeate the hotel; Danny is warned by his father not to go into any hotel rooms or Jack’s “office” where he’s writing his book. (There are passkeys to all floors in the hotel’s office.) But Danny is seeing visions of room 217 (the room number was changed, for whatever reason, in Kubrick’s movie), which seems to hold a strange attraction for him. He’s also seen visions of a firehose in one of the hallways, which he feels is out to get him, like a venomous snake.
Things happen which give Wendy the idea that Jack is again physically molesting his son—the dead woman (a suicide years ago) in 217 left finger marks on Danny’s neck, but who could believe that? The most obvious answer is that Jack’s drinking again, and losing control. Things escalate; Jack begins studying the hotel’s history, using scrapbooks, receipts, etc., that he finds in the basement. The hotel begins influencing him in subtle ways at first, but more overtly later. And that’s about all I can tell you if you haven’t seen the movie, TV show, or read the book. (Okay, I’ll tell you this: it won’t end well for Jack.)
I will, from this point, assume you’ve either read the book or seen the Kubrick movie; rightly or wrongly, I think a lot of modern readers haven’t seen the now over-20-year-old miniseries. So if you’ve done neither (reading the book or seeing the Kubrick movie—which, by the way, is right now available in Blu-Ray at Wal-Mart in Canada for $8 for Halloween!) you’ll have to depend on my précis above.
In re-viewing the miniseries (from a DVD; it doesn’t appear to be available as a Blu-Ray), I also listened to much of the commentary, which jumped around from short comment to short comment; commentators included King himself, the director, Mick Garris, his wife, Cynthia Garris, the lead actor Steven Weber, and others of the cast and crew. In my opinion, although there was some useful information, the more traditional full-length commentaries are better for people who are trying to get insight into the film, the film’s process, and/or the acting/actors. But I digress.
To begin with, like the Kubrick movie, this series is, in part, victim of its own casting. One of the fatal flaws of an otherwise brilliant adaptation, the central star of the Kubrick Shining is Jack Nicholson, who comes with a lot of baggage as an actor. As I’ve been saying for years—and King echoes my sentiment in the commentary—Jack is a fantastic actor, one of the best, but he’s just not the guy you’d hire to stay in a hotel, cut off from civilization along with his family over a snowy Colorado winter. Especially since the previous caretaker, Grady, did his family in (remember the two little girls?). Of course, the plus of hiring Nicholson to play this part is that he’s a screen presence, and dominates the screen whenever he’s on.
King has said that at least in the early part of the book (up to the hiring at the Overlook), Jack Torrance was Stephen King (or vice versa)—minus the child abuse. (In fact, as of the DVD’s commentary, King still hadn’t fully admitted his addiction, saying “I guess I’m an alcoholic, although I haven’t had a drink in over 15 years.” The “I guess” means that he hadn’t fully accepted that he was an alcoholic.) The Overlook hotel—and the whole book—comes from a stay that King and his wife had at the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado; although the Kubrick Overlook owed its look to “movie magic,” the miniseries is filmed at the Stanley itself except for a couple of Los Angeles sets. Kubrick’s Shining is a movie about addiction; in Kubrick’s mind, all the “supernatural” doings at the Overlook were a product of Jack’s deranged alcoholic brain. In King’s novel, however—as in almost all King’s books—Torrance was a victim as much as any of the poor souls that the Overlook—an evil entity in itself—had trapped.
(Not that Torrance wasn’t partially responsible for his own downfall. I think that many men are capable, whether they admit it or not, of violence towards even those they love deeply. But to control that violence, you have to take personal responsibility for your own actions. And Jack couldn’t do that: it was always the alcohol’s fault; it was always Wendy’s fault; it was always Danny’s fault, it was always the school board’s fault, or it was always the Overlook’s fault. Jack surrendered responsibility for his actions to outside forces, which was entirely his own fault.)
I’m not trying to say that all (or even most) men are evil or out of control; just that we men, who are usually the physically strongest in a male-female relationship, must be personally responsible for any violence—no matter what the provocation—we inflict on others. Whether alcohol, supernatural forces, other drugs, family tensions, or whatever else is the trigger; ultimately we are responsible for ourselves and our actions. And in the miniseries, as opposed to the movie, supernatural forces are the trigger for Jack’s eventual disintegration.
So to clarify, Kubrick’s version was about addiction leading to disintegration of mind and soul; King’s and Garris’s version (because King wrote the screenplay for Garris’s series) was about external evil triggering that disintegration, as much as the addiction.
The first problem I see in Kubrick’s film was the casting of Nicholson; the second was the casting of Shelly Duvall. She began as a victim and continued as a victim throughout the movie. Even in Figure 5, where she’s defending herself against Jack, she’s mostly ineffectual in her own defense. King’s own vision of Wendy Torrance was a strong person, an ex-cheerleeder (blonde), who wouldn’t be Duvall’s kind of victim. He chose Rebecca De Mornay, whom he’d previously met. The problem I see with his choice is that she comes with baggage of her own as an actress; she’s often the bad person in her movies (The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, et al.). Steven Weber was at the time, known mostly for the TV show, Wings (which I didn’t watch); and Courtland Mead (who played Danny) was just too “precious” in my opinion (and he never closed his mouth! A typical adenoidal movie “mouth-breather”). Weber has (at least in this movie) little of the presence that Nicholson displayed. So the three leads were a “bad” woman, a “nonentity” man, and a “precious” kid. Not a great start. (I think the kid who played Danny (Danny Lloyd) in the Kubrick film was just about right for the character.) The problem I see with Weber is not that he had baggage, but that in the words of the immortal Gertrude Stein, there was no “there” there. And even the real hotel Stanley (Figure 4) didn’t have the screen presence of the fake Overlook in Kubrick’s film. Not a great beginning.
So what did they do right, that made the series worth watching? Well, I’m glad you asked that! Remember that the film was Stanley Kubrick‘s The Shining—well, this series was Stephen King‘s The Shining! For everything they got wrong in this series, they did something right for a fan of the book itself. The stuff Kubrick left out, Garris put in, right down to the wasps’ nest that “came alive,” and the “hedge animals” that did ditto, both of which didn’t fit with Kubrick’s narrative.
Another problem is that Garrick’s not in Kubrick’s class as a director—which is not his fault; few are.You can tell from the commentary that he thought long and hard about everything in the series, from the lighting (warm on De Mornay’s face, cool on Weber’s, even in a “two-shot” in front of the fireplace) to the camera angles (when the camera points down it’s a wider angle; when the camera points up it’s a closer angle), to camera movement, to set dressing. But one of the problems most book fans have is that it just doesn’t all work together.
For example, where the Kubrick Overlook’s lobby is expansive and empty—adding to the characters’ sense of isolation—the real Stanley lobby is close and claustrophobic in some ways. Where you never saw Danny’s “imaginary” friend Tony in Kubrick’s film, he was a floating yuppie/Seattle “grunge”guy—prompting audience disdain, if not outright laughter—in Garris’s teleplay. Where the hedge animals were supposed to be scary and threatening, they came off as mostly fake-looking. All these errors add up over a three-segment (two hours/segment) series, to leave the audience wishing for something more substantial. Since I have to rate it, I’ll give it a 3- (¤¤¤-) flibbets.
So for fidelity to King’s work, we have the Garris TV version; for actual scariness and horror, we have Kubrick’s movie which, make no mistake, was Kubrick’s, and not King’s movie. Somehow, someday, someone will make a movie—and I don’t rule out a multi-part movie—that is both faithful to the book, and full of as much tension, horror, and sadness, as Kubrick’s.
For those of you who don’t follow King’s writing, he actually wrote a sequel to The Shining, called Doctor Sleep (2013), all about Danny Torrance as an adult. In part due to his childhood trauma, and part due to his alcoholic father, and in part due to his “shining,” Danny has become an alcoholic. I won’t spoil it for you if you want to read it. But be aware that it will be a major motion picture in 2020, starring (at least as of now) Kiefer Sutherland as Danny. I look forward to it with trepidation as well as anticipation—I don’t think the book was anywhere near the quality of its predecessor.
If you’re not a King fan or reader, you might ask why do we even care about The Shining (or indeed, any Stephen King book)? There are any number of reasons: psychologists assert that horror books and movies can provide a release, a catharsis, for fears and terrors; you might enjoy the occasional frisson of fear that one gets from reading these, or perhaps you just like reading well-written scary books. My wife and I are giant King fans, but we both agree that he often needs an editor, and writes the occasional dog. (In fact, she’s reading the current King work, The Outsider, and complained yesterday that the book must have been written by the Langoliers*, because she immediately forgets what she’s read the day before!)
*The Langoliers are from a King book which became a teleplay, about creatures that erase the past to keep the present clean. It’s an odd book, but very vivid.
King has a particular genius, in my opinion. His books usually involve normal people, like you and me, who are drawn into unusual (usually paranormal or supernatural) events, often with unfortunate results. His genius is in portraying the characters as sympathetic, and gradually twisting both the setting and the characters into totally unexpected and unforeseen circumstances. (Usually horrific.)
Oh, and before I forget, King’s cameo (like Stan Lee, he almost always has a cameo) in the TV version is a character named Gage Creed. Those who are steady King readers will recognize the name; if you don’t, be sure to watch the upcoming remake of Pet Sematary. I don’t know if this new one will be as creepy as the original film, but it’s bound to deliver at least a few scares and shocks.
Comments, please. Remember, you don’t have to like what I post, or even agree with me, but like most people I’m sure you have an opinion. After all, you’re reading this, aren’t you? So let me know what you think. I’m not afraid of opposing views; I usually learn something from them. So drop me a comment, will you? My opinion is, as always, my own, and doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of Amazing Stories or its owner, editor, publisher or other columnists. See you next time!