When the 2013 TV-series adaptation of Stephen King’s novel Under The Dome launched on CBS, King posted an open letter to his website, assuring his readers that any discrepancies between the show and his book were no big deal. As proof, he trotted out the old James M. Cain quote (often attributed to Raymond Chandler, or to many other authors, including King himself) about how the adaptation hasn’t hurt his book: It’s still right there on the shelf, doing fine. Offering his blessing to the writers rewriting his story, he pointed out that he himself often starts stories with a plan, then lets them develop in whatever direction seems natural: “If you play fair with the characters—and let them play their parts according to their strengths and weaknesses—you can never go wrong. It’s impossible.”
So where was this philosophical, easygoing Stephen King when it came to Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 adaptation of King’s 1977 novel The Shining? For that matter, where was this devotion to playing fair with the characters when King wrote and produced the 1997 TV miniseries version of The Shining, which he intended to finally rectify Kubrick’s failings? Given how consistently and virulently King has complained about Kubrick’s Shining over the last 30 years, it’s no surprise that he’s still bringing it up—most recently, with a petty little dig in the Author’s Note of his recently released Shining sequel novel, Doctor Sleep, and in public appearances associated with it. (At the Savannah Book Fair in 2012, he rehashed his old objections to Kubrick in a fairly funny way—although the way he gloated over having outlived Kubrick, and having “cancelled out the movie entirely” with the upcoming Doctor Sleep, came across as more tasteless than good-humored.) What is surprising, though, is how little he followed his own advice when he had the opportunity to set the record straight.
It’s worth noting that King’s issues with Kubrick’s version, while subjective, are thought-through, and extend past knee-jerk contrarianism. He laid out his core objections for Playboy in 1983:
I’d admired Kubrick for a long time and had great expectations for the project, but I was deeply disappointed in the end result. Parts of the film are chilling, charged with a relentlessly claustrophobic terror, but others fall flat. I think there are two basic problems with the movie. First, Kubrick is a very cold man—pragmatic and rational—and he had great difficulty conceiving, even academically, of a supernatural world… a visceral skeptic such as Kubrick just couldn’t grasp the sheer inhuman evil of the Overlook Hotel. So he looked, instead, for evil in the characters, and made the film into a domestic tragedy with only vaguely supernatural overtones. That was the basic flaw: Because he couldn’t believe, he couldn’t make the film believable to others.
The second problem was in characterization and casting. Jack Nicholson, though a fine actor, was all wrong for the part. His last big role had been in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, and between that and his manic grin, the audience automatically identified him as a loony from the first scene… If the guy is nuts to begin with, then the entire tragedy of his downfall is wasted. For that reason, the film has no center and no heart… it’s a film by a man who thinks too much and feels too little, and that’s why, for all its virtuoso effects, it never gets you by the throat and hangs on the way real horror should.
He’s reiterated these complaints many times in various forms over the years, and added new complaints to the list, including charges that Shelley Duvall’s portrayal of Wendy Torrance is “one of the most misogynistic characters ever put on film”, and that Kubrick’s storytelling choices include “a mistake that a freshman director wouldn’t make.” The objections amount to a minor mania for him. King has occasionally dismissed other screen adaptations of his writing, but when he does, he tends to be clipped, simple, and moderate—Firestarter, he says, “wasn’t particularly good,” and The Mangler is “energetic and colorful, but it’s also a mess.” Far more often, though, he has enthused over even the clumsiest, dumbest film adaptations of his work, usually in similarly simple terms. On Children Of The Corn: “Awww, c’mon… it’s not s’bad. To me, it had a Wicker Man-ish feel (the first Wicker Man, the good one), and Linda Hamilton, who would go on to Terminator glory, certainly gives it her all.” On his “Trucks” adaptation, Maximum Overdrive: “It’s a wonderful moron picture… It’s fast. A lot of things explode.” On the execrable Dreamcatcher, which frequently turns up on lists of the worst films ever made: “I like the mixture of the tones. I like how funny it is and how scary it is.” The Shining seems to be the only film he’s addressed with such extreme asperity, and with so much analysis and intellectual judgment, and with so little willingness to budge on his opinion.
“Banality defines the miniseries, in which everything is made smaller, more obvious, and more comprehensible than it was in King’s book.”
There are numerous theories as to why, most of them unflattering: Fans of Kubrick’s film have accused King of petty jealousy because Kubrick’s version of the story has eclipsed his. They’ve accused him of irrationality, of having bad taste, of loving schlock, or just being too precious with his own words. More kindly, they’ve suggested that his personal, autobiographical identification with the material makes him intolerant of any changes that interfered with his story. While autobiographical elements are common in King’s work—an awful lot of his protagonists live in Maine, and/or are writers, and/or have substance-abuse issues—The Shining seems to have come from a particularly personal place.
But that doesn’t explain why, after decades of specific complaints about what Kubrick did wrong, King and director Mick Garris still produced such a problematic adaptation. It barely needs to be said at this point, but: A screen adaptation of a book can respect the original text and still be terrible. It can respect the author’s wishes and still be terrible. Still, few adaptations are as openly awful as the TV version of The Shining. Given King’s complete freedom with the screenplay—“I wrote the script and ABC never asked for a single change,” he said. “We went right from first draft script to production”—it has to be presumed that the story changes are exactly what he wanted. And yet they directly contradict not just what’s frightening about his book, but also what he said he wanted and didn’t get from Kubrick’s version.
The four-and-a-half-hour 1997 Shining does restore many smaller book elements that King regretted losing in Kubrick’s version. Alcoholic, troubled would-be writer Jack Torrence (Wings star Steven Weber) is given much more time with his psychic son Danny (Courtland Mead) and wife Wendy (Rebecca De Mornay) before they wind up isolated together over the course of a long winter caretaking at the Overlook Hotel. True to the book, when Jack falls under the hotel’s influence, he tries to murder Wendy and Danny with a roque mallet rather than an ax. The hotel comes after Danny with animate hedge animals rather than leaving him to run around in the hedge maze of Kubrick’s version. (The hedge animals, already cheap-looking by 1997’s CGI standards, look garishly two-dimensional and unreal today.) Danny’s psychic buddy Richard Hallorann, played by Melvin Van Peebles, arrives to save Danny, and doesn’t instantly, senselessly die. There’s no “Here’s Johnny!” when Jack breaks through a door to get at his cringing wife: Weber winds up with a much less iconic “Boo!” instead. (In the book, incidentally, it’s “Nowhere left to run, you cunt.”) Wendy is a little stronger before Jack goes insane in this version, though she’s just as terrified afterward—and much less convincing in her mortal fear. Ultimately, Jack burns to death while blowing up the hotel, rather than freezing to death—a difference King has repeatedly attributed to the difference between Kubrick’s coldness, and King’s human warmth.
But because King’s words live onscreen more accurately in his version doesn’t mean they breathe onscreen. Quite the opposite: Where the TV miniseries closely follows the book, it has a thudding, overexplained literalism that’s miles away from the petrifying original novel. The TV version opens with a clumsy exposition scene that lays out King’s symbolism and explains exactly how the story will end, as the Overlook’s caretaker shows Jack the finicky boiler that will explode if too much pressure builds up, nudge nudge, and if it doesn’t periodically let off some steam, hint hint. As the story continues, Danny uses his psychic powers for further exposition, giving Wendy periodic speeches to explain exactly what’s going on.
And this kind of audience-pushing surface approach doesn’t begin to serve what King said he wanted out of a true Shining adaptation—the terror inspired by the “sheer inhuman evil” of the Overlook slowly taking over the mind of a good and loving man. Kubrick’s approach may be clinical and analytical, but his clinical analysis leaves room for the unexplained and unknowable, which is much scarier than long, detailed explanations. King’s version is so packed with foreshadowing and teases, and Weber’s performance is so weirdly artificial from the start, that he’s no more convincingly stable and sane than Jack Nicholson was in the role. King cheats from the start by setting him up not as a villain, but as a foreordained villain-to-be, beginning with the first scene.
“If Kubrick ‘thinks too much and feels too little,’ the TV version does the exact opposite.”
And where King wants a version of the story that “gets you by the throat and hangs on,” nothing in Garris’ tame, plodding version has that kind of grip. There’s no mystery to his otherworldly element, which is just a bunch of people in costumes and Halloween makeup, laying out the plot for each other. Where Kubrick’s version traffics in suggestion, insinuation, and emotion, King’s version uses silly video effects to zap visions rapidly in and out of existence, in ways that look too cheap and obvious to be frightening.
The miniseries’ failure to embrace mystery never gets more apparent than with Danny’s imaginary friend Tony, an invisible presence who warns him about impending danger. In Kubrick’s version, Tony is entirely imaginary: Child actor Danny Lloyd speaks to his own crooked finger in an eerie, croaking voice, turning the whole process into an enigma. Is Tony some sort of otherworldly being, or just Danny’s own subconscious talking to him, or something else entirely? By never answering the question, Kubrick diverts attention from something that’s more frightening as an unknown. In King’s version, on the other hand… Tony is a glowing, flying, transparent teenager who makes video effects happen with a wave of his arm:
In a single oblique line in the book, King suggests that Tony is a part of Danny, a piece of future adult potential made manifest. In the miniseries, that idea is taken, again, to the most literal place possible: Tony is actually a sort of time-traveling telepathic vision of Danny’s teenage self, scripted and acted in a painfully banal way. There’s nothing to interpret or guess at. It’s an idea flattened out on the screen, and exposed as ridiculous.
That banality defines the miniseries, in which everything is made smaller, more obvious, and more comprehensible than it was in King’s book. It’s an illustration of the frustrating contradiction that’s dogged King’s work from the beginning: The focus on personal, minute, realistic detail that makes his writing real on the page makes it feel fussy and artificial onscreen, unless it’s filtered through someone who understands how the language of cinema and the language of novels differ. In the book version of The Shining, King has the freedom to sprawl out in time, to explain what’s going on inside his characters, and to build his horror slowly and organically. The same approach onscreen just means interminable pauses, flat speeches, and unnatural dialogue that makes the actors struggle to sound like people.
And in the end, after decades of complaining about Kubrick “wasting” the tragedy of Jack Torrance’s downfall… King whiffs on that as well, by retracting it at the last minute. In a commentary on the DVD release of the miniseries, King, Garris, and Weber crow about the series’ ending, which rewrites the book to give Jack Torrance an out-of-nowhere redemption moment. In the book, the possessed, insane Jack manages a single moment of control, enough to beg his son to run and hide. Then the spirit of the hotel consumes him entirely, and the only reason it doesn’t kill Danny immediately is because Danny reminds it that the neglected boiler is about to explode, taking the hotel up with it. The possessed Jack-thing tries to vent the boiler, but it’s too late. In King’s miniseries, on the other hand, Jack shakes off all that evil and makes a conscious decision to die with the hotel, and he and Danny share a teary psychic goodbye, while the hotel ghosts rage impotently:
The oddest part of all this is that on the commentary track, King chides Kubrick for not giving Jack any chance at redemption, even though in the actual book, King didn’t either. Only 20 years after the fact did he loop back and decide Jack needed a chance to save the day. If Nathan Rabin is right in his Movie Of The Week Keynote, where he suggests that King was trying to come to terms with his alcoholism, and the threat it posed to his family, when he wrote The Shining back in 1977, then the tacked-on happy ending of the miniseries makes a great deal of autobiographical sense. King eventually kicked his habits, exorcised his demons, and saved his family from himself. No wonder he wanted Jack Torrence to do the same.
The problem is, the miniseries ending doesn’t at all adhere to King’s well-meaning line about playing fair with the characters. He doesn’t “let them play their parts according to their strengths and weaknesses”—he gives Jack an unconvincing, mawkishly sentimental, abrupt get-out-of-jail-free card, and in the process, he dissipates any sense of horror the story might have had. There’s no intractable evil to his version of The Shining, just useless wannabe-villains in ghost makeup. And the story ends with phony uplift and still more thunking literalism, in the form of a 10-years-later graduation scene where Danny has become Tony, and his dead father has become a Jedi ghost, ready to show up and give his son a tearfully respectful salute:
It’s astonishing, in the face of that scene, that King once complained Kubrick spoiled The Shining by not believing in the supernatural enough to make his film “believable to others.” There’s nothing believable about King’s miniseries version, either, and its version of the supernatural is a weak and hollow fraud. If Kubrick “thinks too much and feels too little,” the TV version does the exact opposite. And in the process, it suggests that maybe someone who feels too much for his characters has no business dictating what anyone else should do with them on the screen.
Our Movie Of The Week discussion of The Shining ends here. Don’t miss Monday’s Keynote about the film’s symbolic portrayal of alcoholism, and Tuesday’s staff Forum about the film’s style and its specters. And tune in next week, when we’ll be talking about Michel Ocelot’s charmingly bizarre animated fable, Kirikou And The Sorceress.