Thursday, October 31, 2013


I've just rewatched The Shining for the first time in about ten years.The first time I saw it I was a kid, and I didn't quite get it; it was my first Stanley Kubrick film, and I hadn't quite learned how to watch one yet.I gave it another go as a teenager, after having seen and loved Kubrick's other work, and warmed to it more.Now I've seen it a third time, and I'm ready to say it's one of the most terrifying films I've ever seen.

It's also the first time I've seen it after reading Stephen King's novel on which it's based.King is one of the film's toughest critics, had disagreements with Kubrick while it was being made, still insists that it does not represent his own vision, and scripted his own version (a TV miniseries starring Steven Weber) in 1998.

I've now read the book, seen the miniseries, and seen the Kubrick film fresh, and I've reached the conclusion that King is wrong.It's not that Kubrick has better ideas than King does, but the Kubrick film is a much more accurate representation of his book than the miniseries is.Kubrick does change certain plot details of the book, but it all adds up to the same thing.It's the story of a deeply disturbed man who is driven mad over one horrible winter, and a vast, empty hotel that brings out the worst in him.

Where Kubrick and King have differed most vocally is in the portrayal of Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson), a recovering alcoholic who's not far from falling off the wagon and into insanity.King, I think, saw Jack as a flawed but generally good-natured man whose alcoholism and violent tendencies have made it impossible for him to be the good father he wants to be.But what stands out about Jack is not his good intentions, but his failure and frustration.At the beginning of the film and book we learn that Jack has had many violent outbursts, the most notable of which is an "accident" which resulted in the breaking of his four-year-old son's arm.Well-intentioned or not, Jack is a dangerous force, and Kubrick seizes upon that as the crux of his film.

When Jack and his family move as caretakers into the haunted Overlook Hotel, a gargantuan castle abandoned for the winter months, the setting only exacerbates Jack's disease.It's not the story of a good man being driven bad by ghosts, but a dangerous man who's given permission to act on his most destructive instincts.

It's why Nicholson is perfect for the role.King has long criticized the casting of Nicholson, claiming that we know he's going to go berserk right at the beginning.But his performance is much more subtle than that; his restraint in early scenes depicts someone trying extremely hard to be nice and to avoid lashing out.As the film goes on, the hotel gradually unravels his facade and drives him to murder.

Shelley Duvall, as Jack's wife Wendy, is the picture of wifely support.She's unwaveringly positive until she begins to realize that her husband is fading fast.A scene in which she explains an act of domestic violence to a pediatrician is frightfully eerie: not because of the act she describes, but because of her optimistic dismissal of it.

The extrasensory ability of their son Danny (Danny Lloyd) is played obliquely by Kubrick, as it should be.His conversations with his "imaginary" friend Tony, who warns him to stay away from the Overlook, are just strange enough to be worrying.We have the occasional glimpse into Danny's mind: we hear a brief connection between him and Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers), the hotel cook, and we see bits of a horrific precognition early in the film, but for the most part we only see what an outsider sees.This is a better translation of King's book than the one he spells out in the miniseries, in which Tony is portrayed as a benign teenage ghost rather than the unexplained, possibly malevolent force that he is in the book and Kubrick's film.

What sets the film apart is the empty space.The running time is 146 minutes, long for a horror film, but not a moment of it is wasted.It's allowed to occupy its setting and take its time.Seemingly contentless scenes, like one in which Jack bounces a tennis ball off the wall in a huge lobby, set up a quietly maddening tension.The sounds, like the echo of Danny's big wheel rolling through a part-carpeted, part-hardwood hallway, enhance the isolation.

Slowly but surely Kubrick allows the tension to build.Jack hallucinates (maybe) a hotel bartender who gives him a drink.He has a terrible vision in the infamous Room 237.By the time he picks up an axe, we see how he has gotten there.Danny telepathically contacts Dick for help, in a scene that might have been impossible to film, but Kubrick does it, in one long shot of Crothers's face that is unforgettable.

I can see why King was dissatisfied with Kubrick's film.It doesn't bother with many of the elements of his novel.Much of the checkered history of the hotel isn't dealt with, though a scene of roaring-twenties excess is enough to give an idea.In the novel, King had the hotel guarded by large animal-shaped topiaries which moved, or maybe didn't; Kubrick replaces them with a labyrinthine hedge maze which is just as forbidding (in King's miniseries, the giant animals look a lot sillier than they seem when described in the book).The cathartic, easy ending of King's novel is also absent; Kubrick opts for something more ambiguous.

Much of King's work to date has been extremely cinematic, not terribly difficult to translate to film.But The Shining is the exception, since much of its action occurs within the characters' heads, in memories, in introspection, in conversations with ghosts who may or may not actually be there.That's why King's more literal adaptation is less effective, while Kubrick finds a way to translate it into the language of film.Look closely and you realize that Kubrick hasn't changed the novel much at all; he has merely converted it.Of the two screen adaptations of the novel, Kubrick's is actually the more faithful, in essence if not literally.King may know his own work, but Kubrick knows film better.
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