James Dempsey: Stanley Kubrick’s ‘The Shining’ was never good enough for Stephen King
TODAY sees the rerelease of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, regarded by many as the finest horror movie ever to grace the silver screen.
Over the years, the film and its numerous iconic moments (the sight of the ethereal twins, the river of blood flowing from the lifts, Jack Nicholson chopping down the door, gurning and shouting “Here’s Johnny” at a hysterical Shelley Duvall) have won over fans and critics alike, those who overlooked the Overlook upon its theatrical release in 1980, and made The Shining a genuine classic.
But there is one person who still doesn’t like the movie, the novelist Stephen King.
King was often a vocal critic of Kubrick’s interpretation of his source material, going so far as to say that it was the only adaptation of his novels that he can remember hating.
For him, Kubrick was a director who “thinks too much and feels too little”, a man whose vision and tireless fidelity to his craft cost the film the emotional arc of the novel.
King even actively campaigned against the casting of Jack Nicholson in the role, saying the actor, who had recently been McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, would be too well known for playing crazy to achieve the novel’s slow decent into madness, and wouldn’t it be better if Jack Torrance was played by the more all-American Jon Voigt?
Upon the film’s release, there were many who agreed with King.
The film was slow to take off at the box office, and received mixed reviews.
There were no major award nominations, beyond two Razzies, for worst director and actress.
But in the years since the slow-burning emptiness of the film has added to its impact, it leaves a lasting psychological impact and sense of threat. And Stephen King still hates it. So in 1997, he made his own.
At four and a half hours, Stephen King’s The Shining, a mini-series that aired on ABC in April 1997, is his definitive version.
Scripted by himself and directed by long-time collaborator Mick Garris, it is everything that Kubrick’s wasn’t, with the hedge-maze replaced by the novel’s topiary, the axe replaced by a croquet mallet.
Wendy, instead of played by the bug-eyed Shelley Duvall (who was ritually bullied by Kubrick on set in an attempt to leave her feeling entirely helpless), is played by Rebecca de Mornay, in an negligee, while the role of Jack is taken over by Steven Weber, perhaps best known for a seven-year stint on the sitcom Wings.
King’s The Shining is not good.
It lacks any subtlety and the chilling presence of the Kubrick version.
Its Overlook, shot at the Stanley Hotel in Estes, Oregon – the inspiration for the hotel in King’s book – is a family-friendly resort, cheerfully decorated with good old American charm, and the site of no fewer than five John Denver Christmas Specials.
We know it’s haunted, though, because of all the spontaneously closing doors, the suddenly igniting fireplaces, the ringing cash register. At one point towards the end, all the lighting changes to green while the numbers on the door are replaced with plastic skulls and crossbones. Spooky.
Nothing quite prepares you for Courtland Mead’s performance as Danny, however.
His pompous nasal whine through puckered lips is so grating, his bouts of ESP shining so hammy, that you’re almost willing Weber’s Jack to follow through on his threats and wield that croquet mallet better.
Of Weber himself, well he’s no Jack Nicholson, but it doesn’t help that after breaking down the bathroom door behind which hides his busty blonde cheerleader-type wife, he pokes his head through the hole and giggles “Boo!” at her. Halloran is a jive talkin’, pimpmobile drivin’ mofo, yo.
What is perhaps the most interesting thing about Stephen King’s The Shining is how much it feels so much like a poor man’s version of Kubrick’s that the Kubrick one has entered our collective consciousness as the definitive Shining, novel or otherwise. The things that made it so lasting, the sense of scale and impossibility of the sets, so well examined in the documentary Room 237 (also currently playing at cinemas) all came from Kubrick himself. The twins, the river of blood, the hedge-maze, all Kubrick.
In order to get the rights back from Kubrick to pen his own version, King had to agree to a self-imposed gagging order to stop himself publically criticising Kubrick’s treatment of his material.
So for the last 16 years his own version has had to do his talking.
Something tells me we won’t be seeing a Room 217 documentary dissecting King’s series any time soon.
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