Stephen King has famously denounced Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film The Shining, citing it as a poor adaptation that completely misses the point of his source material. Now, while I think Kubrick’s version is a damn fine horror film (one of the best of its era, actually), I have to agree with King. Look, before things get all hot and bothered in the comments section, hear me out: you can enjoy the same story in different mediums for different reasons.
Real quick, here’s the gist of the story…
The Shining (in all its iterations) tells the story of Jack Torrance, a struggling writer and recovering alcoholic, who wisely decides to bring his family to live in a haunted hotel in Colorado for the winter while he watches over the place and deals with increasingly aggressive ghosts.
Now let’s talk about the source material…
Stephen King’s 1977 novel is a masterclass piece of horror fiction and is the second scariest haunted house novel I’ve ever read – next to Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. There is a slow, methodical burn to King’s story. We see a family, trying their best to keep things together, slowly being torn apart by evil forces who want to manipulate and/or consume each of them for different reasons. And while that alone should be enough to populate a novel with enough pants-shitting moments of sheer terror to satisfy any horror fan, where the book really shines (pun totally intended) is how it tackles the theme of addiction.
Not to get too personal, but the way King handles the quiet denial and hidden demons of alcoholism shook me to the bone, and while these things are presented through the somewhat heavy-handed analogy of literal ghosts, they feel way too true to life. The way in which Jack’s wife, Wendy and their young son, Danny deal with their father’s diminishing insanity and inevitable relapse is as heartbreaking as it is terrifying. As a reader, you want Jack to overcome these figurative (and literal) demons. He’s a likable protagonist who, deep down, loves his family and doesn’t really want to kill his wife with a Roque mallet or let the malevolent spirits of the hotel consume his son for his psychic abilities.
But then again, actions speak louder than words, don’t they Jack?
In Stanley Kubrick’s version…
The emotional core of the story is ripped out and replaced with cold and calculated horror in The Shining 1980. There is no buildup of tension and no time to get to know the characters or their quirks: just unrelenting unease from the first frame to the last. The moment we meet Jack Torrance, the audience is already unsettled. This is mostly due to Jack Nicholson’s iconic portrayal of the character. Unfortunately, we don’t really care about Jack. There’s no emotional investment. Sure, he’s fascinating, but not in the way his literary counterpart is. This Jack is callous and wicked and seems like he’s just waiting for an excuse to get all choppy with an axe. And sadly, Wendy and Danny also suffer from being stripped of a lot of their complexities.
These things don’t make a bad film. Quite the contrary. Kubrick’s film is simply astounding. It constantly fills the viewer with dread and never lets up. In fact, it’s the minimalist approach to the source material and the plot choices designed to subvert the audience’s expectations (poor, poor old Dick Hallorann) that make it a masterpiece of horror cinema. But as an adaptation, it just doesn’t work. Being a huge King fan, it took me years to appreciate the film for what it was and separate it from the book that scared the hell out of me when I was way too young to read it. Kubrick’s movie is less an adaptation and more of an interpretation.
Personally, I’d like to see something that captures the heart of the book while maintaining the horror that Kubrick committed to celluloid. The film is like a serial killer that has been turned into a Romero-style zombie. Sure they’re scary lumbering around, but man, when they were alive, that’s a different story altogether.
Hey, what about that Steven Weber thing?
I’m glad you asked. In 1997, horror director and Stephen King aficionado Mick Garris took another stab at the property by adapting the novel into a three-part TV miniseries on ABC. And with King writing the teleplay things should have gone… well, way better. While I will say that Steven Weber’s everyman portrayal of Jack Torrance was not only good, but pretty damn accurate to the book, and the family dynamic felt real (albeit wooden), the miniseries just doesn’t have the emotional heft of the book or the sheer terror of Kubrick’s film. It’s languid somewhere between.
Also, those CGI hedge animals were… well, a product of their time.
So… what next?
I feel like striking a balance would be perfect. As much as I love the novel, I’ll be the first to admit it’s not perfect (again, 2nd best haunted house novel). Like most of King’s work, it sometimes meanders like a herd of cats. Perhaps applying Kubrick’s minimalist approach (no need for a six-hour series), while keeping the emotional impact, would make for the perfect blend of horror and drama. I say allow the characters to become fully realized before putting them through the wringer. And with such a small cast, there’s no reason this can’t be done effectively.
In the hands of a savvy director who excels at working with small groups of people and family strife (Mike Flanagan, anyone?), and populated with likable actors, we might just have a perfect adaptation on our hands. The Shining doesn’t need so much a remake as it does a refocus.