In 1977 Stephen King’s novel The Shining came out. Now, considering that was a decade before I was born I can’t personally testify as to whether it made a splash or not based on firsthand recollections, but I’m told it sold very well and it soon came to the attention of a filmmaker named Stanley Kubrick who was looking to make a film that could be depended on to be a surefire hit, so he set about adapting it and in 1980 his film version came along and that seems to be widely regarded as the version of that story most worth spending some time on, at least that was the extent of my interest up until recently.
Now, Stephen King himself has never been a big fan of Kubrick’s take on his story, calling it out as recently as June 20th of this year in his Ask Me Anything over on Reddit and as far back as 1981’s Danse Macabre, his breakdown of horror as he saw it at the time. This long-standing dissatisfaction seemed to lead to the 1997 TV mini-series entitled Stephen King’s The Shining starring Steven Weber and Rebecca de Mornay which picked up a couple Emmys back in its day but seemed to fade to obscurity rather quickly. Now, in light of several key factors, namely Room 237, the recent Kubrick-centric LACMA exhibit and the upcoming release of Doctor Sleep, a sequel to the novel that started it all, I have gone through all of these different interpretations of the story and wish to share some musings on the pluses and minuses of each respective version and ponder what we may find in Doctor Sleep when it comes out in September. If you prefer watching long, rambly videos to reading text, scroll down to the attached video and you’ll find me in a bathrobe talking through some of the major points as they came to mind. For those patient enough for the written version, on we go.
The main setting of the story, the century old Overlook hotel which resides deep in the mountain ranges of Colorado, is generally the same in all three expressions of the tale, but there are some key differences in how it is presented that really have a profound impact on the mood of the whole thing. Both the novel and mini-series show Jack stumbling onto piles of old newspapers and scrapbooks in the Hotel’s basement detailing many of the grisly events that happened there over the years, from mob hits to suicides. Kubrick’s film elects to not reveal that backstory, instead simply showing you, for example, the reanimated corpse of the woman in room 237 (or 217 in the book and series) and leaving you to wonder why she is there and what happened all those years ago. I find not knowing somewhat more unsettling than knowing it was a specific suicide brought about by reasons x and y, it explains away the mystery and consequently prevents it from lingering in my mind after the credits roll. So, while its kind of neat to know King put a good amount of thought in charting out a timeline for the hotel, I feel it was a good decision on Kubrick’s part to simply hint at some of that stuff rather than explicitly tell the audience what is going on. Why is there a man in a weird dog suit giving head to someone? Why is there a man with a huge cut down his face talking about how great the party is? Why is this party happening anyway? Did something happen on July 4th in 1921? Better to have those questions than a bunch of answers as it makes it harder to get the story out of your head.
The divulging of the history of the hotel is not the only difference, there is also the differing set-pieces of hedge maze vs topiary. In the book and mini-series there are a variety of hedge animals that come to life whereas the Kubrick film has a labyrinthine hedge maze that is not so much supernatural as it is a good place to get lost at inopportune times. Its been said the topiary was cut from the film largely due to the impossibility of rendering such a thing believably with the visual effects of the day, but I’d suspect another reason was hedge animals are not exactly threatening and can easily come across as, well, silly. Speaking personally, the idea of getting scratched up by some bushes against my will is certainly unpleasant but hardly the worst fate I can imagine. And the topiary animals seemed to be best employed in the book as a device that enabled people to question their sanity as opposed to a serious threat. When they graduate to the prime thing preventing Dick Hallorann from getting to the hotel things get absurd pretty rapidly. The way they are depicted in the mini-series begins rather promisingly with the movement of the creatures happening in between edits allowing for some degree of uncertainty in regards to whether or not they are moving at all, but eventually 1997 TV quality CGI brings the animals to life and the result is sadly quite laughable.
Its a shame, as there was one sequence involving the topiary animals in the book that was quite excellent, though for reasons tangential to the reanimated animals themselves. Danny stumbles into an underground drainage area and gets the sense there is some thing in the darkness. But alas, he is trapped, he has to dig through some snow while whatever it is in the darkness is crawling after him. It successfully conveyed the very real panic of getting trapped in a tight space and the mysterious horror of not knowing what it is that’s crawling around in the darkness but never getting to know what. It actually does the thing I felt the Kubrck film pulled off in holding back on the information it gives you. We never find out what was down there and that’s exactly how I like it. Then the book reverts back to its very overt threats as Danny emerges to find the hedge animals moving around and has to deal with that, but that brief encounter with mystery in the tunnels under the Overlook still lingers in my mind as the highlight of the novel and it is a sequence that was not rendered in either of the filmed adaptations.
And finally, the boiler room plays a very different role in the book and series than it does in the 1980 film. There is some mention of the boiler room and how important it is to heat different parts of the hotel on a rotating basis in the movie, Ullman says as much during the interview, but that is pretty much the end of it in Kubrick’s film. In the novel and series the boiler is a source of danger, it has no safety valve and is liable to explode if gone unchecked for more than one day. This sets up the very different endings between the two most differing takes on the story, but it also highlights the fact there is very little actual care-taking going on in the Kubrick film. He skips right to winter in his film whereas both of King’s expressions of the story show Jack contending with hornets, patching up the roof, fretting about the shutters, doing his job, essentially. The very real and relatable anxieties of holding down a job are trimmed out of the Kubrick film entirely, making Jack’s slide into madness less understandable but again, maybe more intriguing. The less we know, the more work the audience has to do. That said, there are rewards to be had in understanding the mind of Jack Torrance. While reading I found some of his thoughts echoed my own, and knowing the terrible things he eventually decides to do, it touched upon a different kind of horror, recognizing the darkness within yourself.
How Jack Torrance contends with his sobriety is another point of contrast between the three. Its mentioned in Kubrick’s film a few times that he has not had a drink in five months, but it is not really used as an explanation for his bad behavior either, it is just a part of a larger puzzle that is Jack Torrance. Was he always crazy? Did he want to murder his family in the first place? In the novel we get the privilege of accessing Jack and Wendy’s thoughts from both their own and Danny’s perspective, so we know when he is fixating on drinking, how he recalls his worst moments as a parent in his moments of weakness to remind himself why he shouldn’t give in to temptation and how this is affecting his relationship with both Danny and Wendy. The mini-series also focuses on this, showing Jack at an AA meeting and the hotel’s attempts at providing him with liquor in an effort to weaken him, along with some good old melodrama with him and Wendy arguing in the past and the present. Wrestling with the “demon drink” seems to be a primary concern of King’s in his version of the story and while it adds a dimension to the story, I was not especially moved by its depiction in the mini-series. The novel seemed to successfully tap into what its like to have a destructive habit on occasion, but it honestly was not an element of the story that especially resonated with me so I’m going to move on to what I consider the biggest difference, the ending.
The endings of all three carry some unique elements that are worth a look. The hotel explodes in both the book and mini-series, but even the circumstances around that are a bit different. In the book, Jack is wrestling with the evil inside the hotel, managing to hurt himself rather than Danny with a croquet mallet and eventually runs off to the basement to contend with the boiler only to have it blow up. In the miniseries, Jack is clearly redeemed at the last moment, and battles the spirits of the hotel quite literally, fighting with a pair of ghosts in front of the valves on the boiler in an effort to ensure the hotel does explode, getting vengeance on the evil that nearly killed his wife and son using him as its vessel. This enables him to appear in spirit at Danny’s graduation a decade later. In the Kubrick film none of that happens, Danny runs into the hedge maze, Jack follows, gets lost and freezes to death. But there is one part of the ending that further schisms the conclusions of these three takes on the story so lets take a look at Dick Hallorann’s role in all this.
The character of Dick is fairly consistent across all three versions with a few minor quirks here and there, but the main differentiator is he dies in Kubrick’s film, he does not in the other two. Now, Dick’s death in the film seems justifiable to me on one hand as it certifies Jack is a credible threat. The mini-series kind of exemplifies the other way it could go as Jack seems more or less completely incompetent at being a murderous psychopath. He smashes a bunch of furniture, sure, but he is not very good at killing and that kind of mutes the scare-factor of his run-in with Danny afterwards. By having him horribly kill Dick as soon as he arrives, the stakes are raised and Jack becomes worthy of much more concern.
The trade-off is it makes Dick look kind of buffoonish. In the novel, Dick seems keenly aware that his trip out to the Overlook may well result in his death. He does have “The Shining” afterall, and what good is it if you can’t pick up a premonition or two every now and then? He prepares a will before he leaves and wrestles internally with the gravity of his quest constantly. The mini-series kind of rushes through Dick’s involvement in the final episode of the series, which is a shame as Melvin Van Peebles is quite likable in the role. His trip back to the Overlook seems a bit of an afterthought, as both book and film see fit to give the audience periodic updates on DIck’s Westward progress, giving us plenty of time to anticipate his arrival and hope he makes it on time. The tone of the journey is a little more comical in Kubrick’s film, however, with Hallorann providing the cover story of “they turned out to be completely unreliable assholes” to a friend of his as a means of explaining why he needs to visit the Overlook so urgently. Even the fact that he is listening to some music on the radio as he drives through the snowstorm makes his journey seem a bit more leisurely than his literary counterpart. Peeble’s mini-series character seems to madly dash across the country extremely quickly in comparison, getting hit with Danny’s psychic cry for help at a restaurant, running out to his car right afterwards and driving straight to the airport. He has to wait around a bit for a flight but its still a pretty frantic spin on Dick’s journey. The Dick we see in the book jumps through a lot of hurdles to get to the Overlook and is much more of a straight-up hero, battling hedge creatures and the elements to arrive just on time.
Perhaps the most meaningful contribution to Dick’s character the mini-series provides is that it shows us Danny a decade after everything goes sideways at the Overlook hotel and Dick is there, at his graduation, so it seems clear he was a stable figure in Danny’s life and perhaps helped him hone his Shining abilities more and more in that intervening decade. This could provide something of a snapshot of the Daniel Torrance we’ll see in Doctor Sleep as it is the closest thing we have to an update on how Stephen King felt about the character twenty years after the first novel and sixteen years before the second. Of course, this graduation scene also brings to light another key difference between the three, that invisible friend Tony.
Kubrick again elects to go with a “less is more” mentality in regards to Tony and never shows us what is exactly happening when Danny communicates with the boy that lives in his mouth. Danny’s voice gets creepy, he bends his finger in time with the words, but we don’t see anything beyond the effect these communications are having on Danny. In the book, our imaginations provide Tony with a form, but the ways he is described led me to always imagine him as something of a stalker, always appearing in the distance but never clearly defined. You’d sense he was there, turn and see a shadowy figure sticking his head out from behind a building a block away and then converse with him mentally. That worked for me as being extremely strange and compelling.
The mini-series decides to take away any and all mystery surrounding Tony and presents us with a bespectacled floating teenager that shows very clear signs of danger to Danny, at one point literally altering a road sign to depict a skull and crossbones. It is much more laughable than scary. Now, the rationale behind this ill-conceived depiction seems to lie in the ending when we discover in no uncertain terms that Tony IS Danny, his name being Daniel Anthony Torrance afterall. So Tony was Danny of the future communicating with his younger self to ensure he’d be safe during those dark days spent in the Overlook. Fair enough I suppose, but again, by over-explaining things it robs them of the their mystery and scare potential, so I feel the trade-off was not worth it at all. Apparently the book shares this take on Tony but I honestly must have glazed over that explanation. This seems like another idea Kubrick snipped out quite rightfully, though widespread opinions on that may differ.
On to the final minutes of each experience, the continuing existence of the Overlook is called into question. In Kubrick’s film it remains unscathed and full of mystery, but it is a stand-alone film that obviously won’t play a role in how King looks at things going forward, so we’ll leave it at that. The book ends with it being destroyed and us touching base with Danny, Wendy and Dick a year later. They are friends, Danny has grown a lot and continues to shine. As mentioned, the mini-series picks up sometime later but many of the same summations apply. However, the very end of the series shows us the burnt ruins of the Overlook and then we see a sign promising it shall be rebuilt. This makes me wonder how integral King feels the Overlook hotel is to Danny as a character. Will Doctor Sleep have us return to the Overlook? Does Danny need to face what happened in his childhood by returning to where it began? Or will the only links be the characters and the abilities they possess? I’d almost prefer something entirely new as a backdrop, but I’m very curious to see the state of Danny after such tumultuous experiences early in his life. The book and mini-series also allude to Jack’s father being something of a drunken tyrant himself, so a family legacy of abuse exists that may be something Danny has to contend with. Did he become a father himself? At any rate, and despite the overall failure I consider the mini-series to be, I still eagerly anticipate King’s return to this character. The introverted, sullen Danny with his very powerful psychic powers could have done a great number of things in the past thirty-six years and catching up with those exploits in September is an experience I shall surely relish.
For those more inclined towards Kubrick’s take on things, the documentary Room 237 is well worth a look, not so much for serious insight into what the film’s REALLY about (though the interview subjects may have you believing otherwise) but rather to deepen one’s appreciation for the importance of mystery and mood when crafting a film. Because of its ambiguities and vague points, people have filled in those blanks with some highly imaginative readings that are rarely applied to horror movies and hearing those stories told with such conviction was very interesting.
And for Steven Weber fans, maybe watch Wings again? His performance isn’t especially bad, its just a bit underwhelming next to Jack Nicholson’s off-the wall character, and due to scripting issues it didn’t really tap into everything that made the novel’s character intriguing either. I’ll also say, after watching this I’m now much more wary about The Stand mini-series as the same director, Mick Garris, helmed both and what I saw here does not exactly scream interesting film-making. The constraints of network TV undoubtedly played a role, but little things like the aforementioned CGI hedge animals to big things like changing Danny from a sullen 5 year-old to a very talkative 7-year-old make me less than confident in this gentleman’s abilities to produce something worth more than four hours of my time.
But I feel confident in saying the book is certainly still an interesting read, so now may be the time to crack it open in anticipation of the impending sequel. For me, Kubrick’s film still overshadows King’s original story, but that probably has more to do with when I first watched it and the legacy it enjoys as opposed to it being objectively better (though the “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” scene is unarguably iconic and unique to the film). They approach the story very differently, which this summary has hopefully expressed, so you are in for pretty different stories with different core preoccupations despite similar surroundings and the same solid concept of “winter caretaker goes crazy in a weird old hotel” at its heart.
I hope this and the accompanying video have been of some interest. If you have strong opinions on The Shining, be it book, movie or the series, sound off below. Or general thoughts on King’s work, hopes for Doctor Sleep, anything really. Thanks for reading, watching or both and see you next time some pan-media investigation strikes my fancy.