Stanley Kubrick's 1980 film The Shining is not only one of this highly regarded director's most well-known pictures, it's also one of the most popular and critically praised horror films ever made. The leering visage of Jack Nicholson grinning through a shattered door is one of the most immediately recognizable scenes in cinema, and Nicholson's performance here is one of the most well-remembered out of a very long career. So everything's all cool here, right? Well, but for one thing: Stephen King, author of the novel of The Shining, had a singularly negative opinion of not only Nicholson's portrayal of lead character Jack Torrance, but of the film in general. And so he took it upon himself to pen his own adaptation of the novel, and, determined to bring his version of the story to-well, not the silver screen, but at least the phospho-dot idiot box screen-teamed with almost disturbingly uninspired director Mick Garris for a remake.
It's easy to throw stones over these sorts of developments-in fact, I plan to throw several before this piece is over-but it's not impossible to see King's point of view. Kubrick's film really doesn't take all that much beyond the most basic premise of the novel, and the Jack Torrance of the film wasn't very much like his print-form counterpart. Nicholson seems like he's teetering on mentally unstable (in exactly the way he always does) from pretty much the start of the film. No one is particularly surprised to see him go insane; it's just a question of how long it will take. His son Danny's "imaginary friend" Tony doesn't play even remotely the same role, and the veritable menagerie of ghosts present in the Overlook Hotel of King's book becomes the ghosts of a single family. So, all in all, King's disenchantment with this take on his story isn't beyond comprehension or sympathy. What verges on incomprehensible is the fact that he keeps allying himself with Garris (who also directed the TV mini-series of The Stand as well as the execrable theatrical feature Sleepwalkers,) a man with the subtlety of a ten-ton hammer but none of the corresponding force. There's no question at all that his version is far closer to King's book than Kubrick's is, but that's hardly the question. The question is simply, "Is the TV remake any good?" I'm going to be charitable and say "No." Charitable, in that I could have said "Shit no!"
Whatever similarities in actual plot events the Garris version may share with the novel, it manages to nevertheless feel less like the story than the Kubrick film for entirely other reasons. For one pertinent example, both the book and Kubrick's version are, oh, I don't know...say, scary? People can make whatever arguments they want about the limitations of what TV will allow and blah blah blah, but frankly the Kubrick film was never terribly gory to begin with. There are no TV edicts about "too much creepiness" or "too much tension." The subtlety aspect is also a major factor here. It's quite possible to read a good three-quarters of the novel or watch the first two hours of the Kubrick film without ever being sure whether or not the hotel is actually haunted, or if Jack and his son simply have overactive imaginations. No such ambiguity is even remotely possible in the TV version. From the moment we enter the hotel, there are flickering lights and self-actuating doors, which continue to flicker or self-actuate throughout the entire three part series. The ballroom party scene is particularly telling. One of the few parts of the book that survived more or less intact in both versions, Kubrick's film simply has Jack enter a room full of partygoers in this supposedly empty hotel and start talking and carousing. The interpretations are multiple here: perhaps he's simply imagining these goings-on as a way of attenuating boredom, or perhaps he really believes these people are actually there. Or maybe the hotel is in fact haunted, and the people he sees really are there. Ultimately, the answer is twofold: the hotel is full of ghosts, which is in turn making Jack lose his mind. Garris' version makes no bones about saying what's what, simply alternating between shots of Steven Weber's Jack stumbling around an empty room and shots of him at the party. He might as well have included a narrator.
It's in the area of the supernatural aspects that the TV miniseries does most of its drunken bumbling. The few instances wherein ghosts are seen in the Kubrick film depict them as totally tangible in appearance, with fleeting glimpses of their true nature, lending itself well to the "it's all in their heads" interpretation. The ghosts in the Garris film, which are far more plentiful, walk about semi-transparent, constantly moving things around, and occasionally bursting into showers of sand, as if for no other reason than to justify the studio's exciting new particle system software. Special effects should, in fact, be special, and not distracting or annoying. We see Danny witness a picture change its face, and instead of thinking "how creepy is that!" we think, "Lord, that was a cheesy-looking morph." If his adaptation of The Stand had indicated that Mick Garris had no idea how to utilize FX technology to effectively portray magical happenings, then this film pounds that realization home with the aforementioned ten-ton hammer.
This is not to say that the Stanley Kubrick film is without flaw. The "thwacking" of the Dick Halloran character makes his entire long, arduous journey up to the hotel seem nearly pointless. Flies halfway across the country, drives up the snow-covered mountain roads in a blizzard, walks into the Overlook and Thwack! he's dead inside a minute. The ballroom party and the visions of the blood-filled elevator are never explained, and the script contains a few glaring continuity errors, such as the fact that one of the hotel's previous insane caretakers is initially named as Charles Grady, only for Jack to later refer to him as Delbert Grady, the name of the character as he appeared in the novel. (Read the IMDB FAQ on this film and watch as Kubrick's die-hard adherents desperately try and claim that this was done on purpose for reasons involving "character duality" and other obvious bullshit. Perhaps they can explain why the film changes its mind over whether Jack injured his son six months or three years earlier.) And Jack Torrance really does start to crack up a bit too soon. His descent into madness isn't slow enough to really convey the idea that he's being adversely affected by the hotel; he seems to be a typical garden variety madman who's just been waiting for his chance to pop. But the good points are on the more heavily weighted side of the scale. Kubrick's direction, almost always of a remote, cold nature, is perfectly matched to the subject matter here, the horror successfully walks a fine line between psychological and supernatural, and Nicholson's performance, even if perhaps too much too soon, is truly intimidating.
By contrast, Steven Weber's Jack is too little too late in the nutball department. He always seems entirely too much in control, and we consequently never really feel that the family is in danger. Unlike Nicholson, he does gain the sympathy of the audience, but he doesn't make the switch into scaring them at all, frankly. I did like Rebecca De Mornay as Wendy; she makes the character much stronger and less of a victim, which though making her more likeable, simultaneously makes the film less frightening once again. If the people actually IN the story can stave off their fear, then we at home are going to manage it in spades. I won't take any digs at the kids that played young Danny Torrance-it's downright unreasonable to expect brilliance from five or six year-olds, so I'll cut them some slack.
The moving hedge animals, which Kubrick had attempted but failed to execute convincingly (prompting the change to the hedge maze,) is one point where the TV version comes close to working. The topiary creatures appear to be moving closer to Jack, but only while his eyes are averted will they move, slowly encroaching as he tries to keep all of them in view at once. This comes so close to achieving what the book did, and they then proceed to ruin it by having the playground equipment spazzing out and the swingset smacking Jack over. What the hell is the point, I'm asking you, of having a scene where the entire idea revolves around the fact that you can't actually glimpse the supernatural phenomena at work, only to then have some amazingly obvious supernatural mucking about right in its midst? What damn point? None that a good director could find, I assure you. We keep watching in hopes that Garris isn't totally missing his subtlety genes, but our hopes never find purchase. I suppose there was never much promise of it to begin with. One of the earliest scenes shows Danny's "imaginary friend" Tony (who in the book was meant to be the man Danny would become) hanging in the air talking to him about the dangers of the hotel. If the director couldn't find any other way to get across the idea that the guy was imagined or magical than by hanging him on a friggin' wire, then there never was any real hope to be had. By the clumsily sugary ending and the subsequent obligatory horror film cliché of "Look! There's room for a sequel" (which King has never written,) we can really, truly understand why so many directors don't want the writers hanging around on the production. King needs to stick to books in the worst way.
If you liked the book but felt alienated by the Kubrick film for its many differences, then do yourself a favor and just stick with the book. I'm quite confident that you can imagine a more compelling version of The Shining in your own head, one that I expect will not include silly-looking CGI fire hoses with teeth. Because, really, you're probably not that much of a lameass.
-review by Matt Murray