The Shining: Stephen King vs. Stanley Kubrick
29 Feb, 2012
Honestly, I don’t think I’m a qualified-enough reviewer of cinematic art to effectively critique the work of Stanley Kubrick. His films are so dense with technical innovation, subliminal messages, recurring themes and atmospheric novelties that a proper “review” of his movies could fill a novel. So instead, for this article, I feel far more interested in comparing the film to the original novel by Stephen King (which I just finished reading for the first time the other day)… and why I think Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation is better in practically every way.
Recovering alcoholic Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) has just taken on the job of winter caretaker for the century-old Overlook Hotel. Snowed-in for five months with his wife, Wendy (Shelly Duvall), and their five year-old son, Danny (Danny Lloyd), it doesn’t take them long to recognize a supernatural malignancy within the hotel, slowly creeping into their lives. Danny has a special gift called a “shine” that gives him certain precognitive and clairvoyant powers. The Overlook desperately wants Danny’s talents and uses Jack’s weaknesses to get him, gradually pushing Jack over the edge. As the hotel “comes alive” with the spirits haunting it, Wendy and Danny will have to face the very real threat of Jack and his axe.
I’ll concede that King’s The Shining and Kubrick’s The Shining had two very different goals. King’s original novel was his way of dealing with his own recovering alcoholism and frustrations with raising a young child and how those two qualities could lead a loving father to contemplate (or in Jack’s case, actually perform) horrible acts of violence. Kubrick’s version leaves in the alcoholism, but at the expense of the “loving father” angle. I think this is one of the few failings of the film adaptation, as Jack is never shown to ever have any love for his family. He begins the film being irritated and short with them, by the one hour mark he’s cursing at his wife at the top of his lungs and forty-five minutes after that he’s trying to kill them all. Jack’s character arc in the novel is a much more tragic downfall, whereas in the movie, he’s a guy on the brink who just needs the tiniest of nudges to lose it (and the Overlook provides such a nudge).
To get one more criticism of the film out of the way, I’d say that it absolutely squanders the character of Dick Hollorann, which is an especially considerable crime, as Scatman Crothers was the ideal choice for the character and plays his few scenes with an immense amount of heart. In the novel, Hollorann had a dueling narrative that acted as regular interludes away from the Overlook, giving him a much larger role. In a way, I can understand why Kubrick reduced his necessity to the plot, as he was trying to create a claustrophobic, trapped atmosphere for the viewer, which constant cuts to Florida would only impede. However, it makes Hollorann almost comical, in a way, as he’s dead seconds after making his big comeback. (The Simpsons did a great parody of this with Groundskeeper Willie in their “The Shinning” spoof.)
“I was also underutilized as Jazz in Transformers: The Animated Movie.”
But those major qualms aside, I’ll tell you why I found Kubrick’s version superior to King’s: Kubrick’s is scary while King’s is silly.
And I don’t believe King meant for his novel to be so goofy; that it was an unintentional result of some rather ill-conceived sequences, particularly during the climax, that are just so ridiculous no form of prose could make them not come across as hilariously absurd. Kubrick, meanwhile, takes sequences or set pieces that were accidentally humorous in King’s novel and reworks them to frightening and unsettling effect (or just drops them completely).
A good example would be the scene with the guy in the dog costume. In the movie, it is a short moment where Shelly Duvall sees a guy in a dog suit about to go down on an old man in one of the rooms. It’s very quick; lasting only long-enough to make the audience go, “What the HELL did I just see!?” The brevity gives it startling power. In the book, it’s a prolonged sequence where Danny is trying to leave his room but is blocked by the dog-man at the end of the hallway. The guy in the dog costume is walking around on all fours, saying “Bow wow ruff ruff woof” and talking about how he’s going to bite Danny’s penis off. Danny then runs away and hears the dog-man in another room, talking in a Big Bad Wolf imitation about how much he loves giving blowjobs, even going so far as to say lines to the effect of, “I’m gonna huff and I’m gonna puff and I’m gonna bloooooowww your dick in!”
I had to set the book down, I was laughing so hard.
So, does this classify as zoophilia, bestiality, or furry fandom? Not that we care or anything.
As for the hedge animals vs. the hedge maze, that’s a bit of a toss-up. The hedge maze is merely a set piece that offers an almost convenient resolution to Jack’s threat at the end, though it made for some great suspense. The hedge animals were a special effect that just wouldn’t work on film. For their first couple of appearances in the novel, they only move when the characters aren’t looking at them, and to King’s credit, he writes the scenes very well, ramping up the tension, as the animals are so spread out the characters can’t look at all of them at once. Unfortunately, at the end, the animals come completely to life and attack en masse, whether the characters are looking at them or not. No matter how King tried to describe them, my mind’s eye could not picture “evil man-eating bushes” as anything other than silly. The miniseries adaptation of The Shining, though I haven’t seen it in years, I don’t recall doing a very good job of realizing the hedge animals, either. So as a concession, I was satisfied with the hedge maze.
We suppose George Lucas could always go back and edit these in.
The real point where the book just completely falls apart, and where the two versions deviate the most, is the climax. The climax in the book is one of the stupidest things I have ever read and left a pretty foul taste in my mouth, even though I’d enjoyed most of what had come before it.
So Jack (armed with an oversized croquet mallet) corners Danny on a second floor hallway. It turns out that Jack is actually just possessed by the demons of the hotel and Danny manages to speak to his father inside. Jack tells Danny to “run” while he “fights” the ghosts inside him. Jack proceeds to start bonking himself in the head with the mallet, Looney Tunes-style, until he kills himself. The Overlook then takes control of Jack’s corpse, bringing him back to life as a zombie. Zombie-Jack is about to kill Danny when Danny reminds him of that god awful plot device, the boiler, and that it’s about to blow. The zombie screams “Oh shit, I forgot!” and then runs away.
As Danny, Wendy and Hallorann make their escape, they hear the zombie traveling down to the basement in the elevator basically screaming “FUUUUUUUUUUUCCCCKKKKK!!!!” all the way down. The zombie then pulls a Boris from “GoldenEye”, dumping the boiler “just in time”, then raising his arms into the air to scream “I am invincible” in triumph (okay, the zombie screams, “I won” but whatever) before having the boiler explode in his face, anyway.
After escaping just as the Overlook explodes right behind them like a bad Michael Bay flick (to which Hallorann remarks, “This must be what Superman feels like!” as the explosion propels him through the air), they watch the hedge animals run around on fire, trying to escape, then go the tool shed to get some blankets. Hallorann then looks at the exploding Overlook and sees what he describes as a giant manta ray ascend from the smoke before exploding into millions of wasps.
I made none of that up. That is how the book ends. And it is idiotic.
Conversely, Kubrick’s finale is far less bombastic and ridiculous, opting for a moodier conclusion that leaves the audience with a lingering sensation of dread (the Overlook is still up there… waiting…). I admit that I never quite “got” what Jack was doing in that photograph from the 20s. I always assumed that the Overlook merely “absorbed” him into itself, though I understand Kubrick’s intention was that Jack was a reincarnation of a previous employee? It’s better left up to interpretation, I suppose, and I’ll take it over giant manta rays and Bugs Bunny mallet-bonking, any day.
Still, there were some moments in the book I think Kubrick could have brought to life marvelously. Though the hedge animals had been cut, the scene from the book where Danny gets trapped inside the cement rings on the playground, with a creature in there with him, was one of the most genuinely heart-pounding moments of the novel; and something Kubrick could have done a great job with (you can even see the cement rings in the background behind the hedge maze in several scenes).
Kubrick’s version has incredible music and atmosphere and the constant movement of the steadicam (which was pioneered with this flick) really keeps you tense and off-kilter, as you round corners at the same pace as the characters, never knowing what you’ll find on the other side. It’s long and a bit thin on characterization, and the waste of Scatman Crothers was a major disappointment, but the end result is still something fantastic. Kubrick’s The Shining is one of those rare moments where the adaptation really exceeds the source material, “fixing” just about everything that didn’t work in the novel.