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Is Stephen King justified in hating Kubrick’s vision for The Shining?

In Page To Screen, we compare a movie to the book that spawned it. The analysis goes into deep detail about specific plot points—in other words, you’ve been warned.

Stephen King’s The Shining (1977), Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) and Stephen King’s The Shining, a miniseries directed by Mick Garris (1997)

Stephen King is one of the most frequently adapted authors of all time, with a staggering 199 credits to his name on IMDB—a number little inflated by repeat adaptations the way Shakespeare and Dickens benefit from the endless Romeo And Juliets and Christmas Carols. Filmmakers love him, and understandably so. His stories aren’t just commercially friendly, but are well constructed and start with great hooks. He may traffic in monsters, but the horror is founded in the real world and grounded in memorable characters, making them far richer than run-of-the-mill slashers or creature features.

Nevertheless, there’s a huge disconnect between how movie-friendly his stories are and how audience-friendly those movies end up being. Of those nearly 200 filmed works, only a handful are worth watching. When mediocrities like 1408 somehow wind up on the stronger end of the scale, you can imagine how bad the worst King adaptations are. Or, you can just watch Maximum Overdrive, directed by King himself:

Horror, unfairly, has never had the respectability of other genres, a reason big-time directors have largely avoided it, even though King’s popular-but-pulpier works probe the darkness beneath small-town facades as astutely as important films have done. (Some fantasy collaborations: Steven Spielberg’s The Tommyknockers. David Lynch’s It.) Only a few important filmmakers have taken on his horror; not surprisingly, those are the films to see: Brian De Palma’s Carrie, David Cronenberg’s The Dead Zone, the pre-shitty Rob Reiner’s Misery. (King has a commendable policy of selling short-story rights to aspiring directors for a buck, which may account for the amateur-not-auteur quality of many adaptations.)

As has been noted, dramatic King films have a better track record than horror ones. Still, the best King adaptation isn’t merely horror, but one of the scariest and most acclaimed horror films of all time: Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Its mark on pop culture has been indelible, from “all work and no play” to the visuals of cascading elevator blood and creepy-as-hell twin girls. Its iconic scenes have been the subject of endless parody and homage, and it has been analyzed with enough rigor to provide the backbone for an acclaimed documentary that explores far-fetched fan theories. It is a masterpiece of dread and atmosphere, and one of the best examples of Kubrick’s mastery of mood.

There is a notable holdout to the acclaim, however: Stephen King himself. The author famously hates Kubrick’s take on his story of the haunted Overlook Hotel and the Torrance family who spend a ghastly season there. “Too cold,” he described it to The Paris Review, “no sense of emotional investment in the family whatsoever on [Kubrick’s] part.” He does express admiration for the film’s visuals—how could you not?—describing it as “a Cadillac with no engine in it” because “you can’t do anything with it except admire it as sculpture.”

Though King’s not wrong in his analysis, it’s likely his connection to the material clouds his view of the film’s quality. (Rolling Stone asked whether it was possible Kubrick made a great film that also happens to be a bad adaptation. King’s response: “No.”)

The Shining is King’s most personal work. Not only has he referred to it as a “crossroads novel,” one that took his artistic ambitions to a higher level, but the horrors at the center of the book are drawn from his own life. “As a young father with two children, I was horrified by my occasional feelings of real antagonism toward my children,” he’s said. He has also spoken candidly about his struggles with alcoholism, and pairing that struggle with rage is incredibly potent—who isn’t scared by their own weaknesses? Writing the book was an “attempt to get it out of my system, but it was also a confession.”

The Shining’s key character is Jack Torrance, a former teacher and aspiring writer who, when the book begins, is a few months off the wagon. King doesn’t shy away from the realistic horror of Jack’s drinking or emotional instability, depicting the strain both put on his job and marriage. He has a few rock-bottom moments, all centered around endangered children: He grabs his son Danny and breaks his arm, he and another alcoholic drive drunk and hit a child’s bicycle in the middle of the road. Presumably neither would have happened if he had been sober, but even once he’s dry he’s unable to control his rage, attacking a student and losing his job.

That event leads to him becoming the Overlook’s winter caretaker, tasked with routine maintenance in the off-season. Once the family is in the hotel, King throws everything at them, scares both internal and external. Jack is driven mad by alcohol withdrawal, by his rage and guilt over his past sins, by his lack of money and skill as a writer (a factor that shouldn’t be discounted; any creative type will tell you there’s a huge correlation between self-worth and how well the work is going), by cabin fever and isolation, and by the very real ghosts and monsters that lurk in the hotel and are after Danny. Jack’s wife, Wendy, is threatened with domestic violence, her husband is relapsing into booze, her son is coming to harm, and her is family breaking up (and then the ghosts and monsters). Danny is wrecked by his parents’ thoughts of divorce, while his “shining”—a powerful psychic ability—means he sees the Overlook’s supernatural terrors in high-def.

The book is as much tragedy as horror. Jack is a threat, but a sympathetic and relatable one. King details the character’s history with his father—another flawed drunk whose life Jack is desperate to not recreate—and describes the “desperate love” he has for Danny. There are times when he has his demons under control and can be a loving father and husband; because we know they’re doomed to end, some of the most suspenseful scenes in the book are when the work is going well and the Torrance family seems able to move past the darkness of his drinking days. Jack is aware of his flaws and fights against them, and this struggle is absolutely key to the book’s tension and emotional impact.

Kubrick dumps it almost completely. His film, which stars Jack Nicholson as Jack, is more about cabin fever than anything else; the theme of alcoholism is downplayed, as is Jack’s creative impotence (the “all work and no play” reveal suggests he was never seriously trying to write, unlike his literary counterpart). The cinematic Overlook does have ghosts, including a terrifying apparition that rises out of a bathtub, but some have argued that these are visions brought on by madness, whereas King “always thought there were malevolent ghosts in the Overlook, driving Jack to the precipice.” The book’s most visible monsters, including a fire hose that attacks like a snake and animal topiary that comes to life, are dropped completely. There’s also a sequence involving a wasp nest that’s gone, though The Shining’s trailer seems to incorporate a threatening insect buzz into its sound design.

Nicholson’s performance, while monstrously intense, doesn’t reflect book-Jack’s self loathing or his love for Danny. Instead of weakness or vulnerability, Nicholson’s Jack merely powers down into blankness. There’s never a sense that he’s fighting back against the darkness, and as King puts it, “Where is the tragedy if the guy shows up for his job interview and he’s already bonkers?”

Kubrick also discards the emotion of the book’s ending, starting with the shocking death of Dick Hallorann, the Overlook’s chef who is summoned to rescue Danny by their shared psychic connection. Hallorann survives the book, but takes an ax to the gut the moment he enters the hotel in the film. The meaninglessness of his demise—though the vehicle he drives up gives Wendy and Danny an escape; Jack had previously sabotaged the hotel’s snowmobile—is reflective of the film’s lack of empathy, though it’s also a canny subversion of narrative expectations on Kubrick’s part.

More importantly, movie-Jack ends the film by going on a murderous rampage, hunting Danny through a hedge maze. Danny escapes and Jack freezes to death, making King’s “too cold” criticism literal. Father also stalks son in the book, but King makes it clear that the evil of the Overlook is using him as a vessel, to the point that he becomes physically unrecognizable. When Danny gets cornered he calls out to his father, who briefly regains a measure of control over his body, long enough to tell his son he loves him and give him time to escape. He then dies when the hotel’s boiler explodes, taking the whole place up in flames. The whole book is building up to that sacrifice, which is passionate and about as far from “cold” as you can get. (The psychic wounds Danny received by his father would be explored in Doctor Sleep, a little-liked sequel published in 2013.)

Considered on its own, Kubrick’s film remains powerful and thrilling, the coldness deliberate and used to strong effect. But King’s reaction is understandable, even if it’s not a reaction audiences without his connection to the themes will share on general principle. He poured his heart out on the page and Kubrick ignored it. When the point is this personal, of course it will be frustrating when someone is praised for missing it.

For most authors, there would’ve been nothing left to do except lick their wounds and hope the next adaptation is better. But King’s popularity is such that even a revered property like The Shining can be re-adapted, which is exactly what happened with Stephen King’s The Shining, a miniseries produced in 1997 that he wrote the teleplay for. If King is one of the few horror aficionados in the world to dislike Kubrick’s Shining, he is almost assuredly the only one who prefers the second version over it.

Mick Garris’ Shining was released as one of a number of King miniseries produced by ABC, along with The Stand, It, The Tommyknockers, Storm Of The Century, and Rose Red. The franchise was a great idea, but ahead of its time. Special effects—at least those possible on a TV budget and timeframe—weren’t advanced enough to seem anything other than goofy, and the constraints of network Standards And Practices neutered the material. You can’t be tasteful with such lurid material, though today it’d be a natural fit for HBO.

The TV version of The Shining has a bad reputation, deservedly, though that overlooks how close it is to being quite good. Change just a couple of things—and granted, they’re major things—and you’d have a satisfying and textured ghost story. That’s a testament to how strong King’s original book remains. Even in watered-down form, the story works.

Steven Weber as Jack Torrance in the miniseries, here possessed by the hotel

The first thing that would have to change is the acting. It is, in a word, awful. Nicholson’s deranged-from-the-start performance may have been wrong for the character, but at least Nicholson is convincing in the notes he does hit. Steven Weber in the TV version simply cannot go as far into his emotions, and though he conveys the struggle at the heart of Jack Torrance, it feels muffled. Far worse is Courtland Mead as Danny. While it feels wrong to beat up on child actors, it seems unlikely that Garris could have found anyone worse for the role. Nearly every word and gesture is unconvincing, and in his hands the character is so annoying that you actually root for his demise. Compare that to Danny Lloyd, who in Kubrick’s version seems genuinely disturbed.

As Wendy, Rebecca De Mornay emerges with some of her dignity intact, helped by the fact that she gets to play a more active role in the proceedings, as opposed to Shelley Duvall’s more victimized role in Kubrick’s film. (The Wendy character is King’s other big complaint about the first adaptation, deriding her as “insulting to women... basically a scream machine” rather than a complex character in her own right, a criticism far harder to dismiss than his dislike of the story’s changed emotional tone.)

The miniseries’ second fatal flaw is in the atmosphere. The Overlook is just not as menacing here as it is in cinematic version, and while that’s to be expected—again, budget constraints, shooting to tape rather than celluloid, Kubrick’s unparalleled visual genius—it’s hard to ignore. Additionally, Garris makes some directorial choices that are howlingly bad, as in the case of Danny’s imaginary friend “Tony.” Kubrick had Lloyd simply wiggle his finger and speak in a wrecked voice when Tony was around; Garris puts him on screen, to hilarious effect. Behold, the terror of the waist-high khakis!

Outside of the wardrobe, this is actually closer to what King described in the book, where Danny sees Tony in his mind. But reading the passages makes it easier to visualize it in a way that isn’t so blatantly stupid. (The miniseries invents an eyerolling epilogue where Danny graduates from high school and is played by Wil Horneff, who plays Tony, suggesting that Tony is speaking to him from the future.) The same goes for the firehose snake and malicious hedge animals. Maybe modern technology could make the latter terrifying now, but in the miniseries they look fluffy. Garris should have realized his limitations and found solutions that worked better. Fluffy ain’t frightening.

Still, it feels wrong to come down on the series too hard. By playing out over four hours it reproduces almost every beat of King’s story (except for when Jack calls his boss—played by Elliott Gould in the miniseries—and threatens him, a self-destructive moment also missing in Kubrick’s film). Even if it doesn’t do it great, it does create a world to get lost in, and the rise and fall of tension is effective from a narrative point of view.

Whenever there’s a fevered cult around a book, fans are adamant that it be translated to the screen intact; it would be unthinkable that a Hunger Games director, for example, would take the liberties that Kubrick did. But the two versions of The Shining create an interesting test for those super-fans: Do you opt for the film that is effective but “wrong,” or incompetent but “right?” For most, the lesson is clear: Unfaithfulness does not a bad adaptation make.

Start with: No version of The Shining is perfect. At his worst, King’s prose can be wildly undisciplined, overindulgent, and filled with bad jokes and awkward metaphors. The Shining is no exception, plus it’s hard to look past the racist and misogynistic slurs Jack uses as threats, which feel like a cheap way of goading the audience. Kubrick’s version has its own excesses, as with its depiction of Hallorann, who is definitely in “magical negro” territory.

Ultimately the book is the fullest and most fulfilling version of the story, thanks to the complexity King gives the characters. But unlike the miniseries, horror fans can’t afford to miss Kubrick’s version, which is a classic of the genre for a reason. There’s room for both hot and cold.