Screenwriter and novelist
King, Kubrick and the most expensive f**k-off note in history.
I've watched Channel Five's airing of the miniseries based on THE SHINING, and a very thought-provoking experience it's been. With Stephen King as screenwriter and executive producer, it comes a full eighteen years after Stanley Kubrick's feature adaptation of the novel. King disliked the earlier adaptation, and used to say so. He can't say so any more because in order to get hold of the remake rights he had to undertake not to.
I love THE SHINING. I think it's the definitive haunted-place book and it would have been my favourite King novel if he hadn't gone on and written THE DEAD ZONE. The night I finished reading it for the first time - actually at around two o'clock in the morning - I had to walk around the house putting all the lights on. The next day I started it again, something that I'd rarely done with a book before and never since.
When Kubrick's feature adaptation came out in 1980 my feelings about it were mixed, and continue to change over time. I probably like it better now than I used to. On a first viewing I remember my reaction being a big disappointment that he simply hadn't managed to get it, and that what we had before us was a magnificent toolkit for a SHINING movie but not the movie itself. Now I suppose it's merged with the book in my mind, and I find myself supplying the missing elements to make it work. It has an intellectual elegance, and it's made with enormous craft and skill. As cinema, it's still state-of-the-art nearly two decades later. All it lacks is the narrative integrity that sets THE SHINING apart as material and made it worth tackling in the first place.
And this is no small thing. There are two ways in which books can be adapted for the screen. They can be either honoured or plundered. They're honoured if there's a genuine attempt to use the techniques of cinema to make a book's unique qualities work in another medium. But all too often, a book is bought for the sake of some plot device or situation and the author is left feeling dazed and betrayed by the end result. It's like, this eager young man came to the house saying he wanted to marry your daughter, when what he really wanted was a chance to murder her and wear her skin.
On balance, Kubrick probably honours more than he plunders. But there's a saying that all us come to know the truth of at one time or another, which is There's only one thing worse than getting it wrong, and that's getting it nearly right.
This surely must be what lies at the root of King's dissatisfaction with the feature; otherwise, at twenty-three million dollars, his miniseries remake would be the most expensive fuck-off note in history. One only has to read some of his comments in DANSE MACABRE to see that King has - or at least had - a genuine respect and admiration for Kubrick. But his problems with the film are a matter of record.
Most writers don't even get a voice in such matters and if they do try to speak up, they can be marginalised in various ways - they're "too close to the book", they don't appreciate the different demands of a different medium, they're too unworldly, they just can't cut it in a higher-stakes business. Many people look in from outside and can't see what the fuss is about. You can always tell which ones they are because their first and only question, rhetorically meant, is whether the writer got paid.
Although it's a fatuous and irrelevant question - if something genuinely matters then money doesn't make it matter any more or less - it's King's drawing power and the economic clout of his name that made it possible for him to take a second swing at the story. Such chances are rare and, for the rest of us, the outcome is worth observing.
So, what do we have? Probably the one big weakness of the Kubrick feature is that when you get to the heart of it, there isn't much of anything there. The moral journey of Jack Torrance that provided the spine of the original material is the most conspicuous loss; in Jack Nicholson's portrayal, he's a latent axe murderer from the very first moment we see him and that entire rich stream of the book - Torrance losing the struggle to be decent only to realise that not only has he been seduced by the Overlook, but he isn't even the one that the Overlook really wants - goes to waste. I've never felt that Nicholson was miscast. Simply that his Jack Torrance is the great performance he never gave.
By contrast the miniseries sets out to 'do the book', even to the point of using the very hotel in Colorado that first inspired King to the story. But that kind of fidelity is no guarantee of success, and the result strikes me as, at best, a workmanlike bash through it. Where THE SHINING's natural cinematic equivalents are such under-the-skin oblique films as THE HAUNTING and LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD, its miniseries version embraces the aesthetic of a less troubling, show-the-rubber-monster kind of movie. Now, these may well be the kind of movies that King loves and grew up on, but in his fiction those elements undergo transfiguration by the act of being run through his imagination. They become subtle and powerful and new. In the miniseries, it's as if they've been taken back through the mirror to become the baser materials they once were.
Take the topiary animals that come to life. They're probably the scariest single effect in the book, and their elimination from the feature - to be replaced with a hedgerow maze - was considered by King to be a damaging omission. One can understand why, because they're immensely powerful. Described on the page, they seek out a trigger that resides somewhere within all of us and which makes a direct connection to the wired, hallucinatory state that is every child's view of the world. They're the statues that moved on your grandmother's dressing-table in the dark. They're the faces that grimaced in the wallpaper as you were trying to get to sleep.
But I have to say that when it comes to putting them on the screen, my heart's with King but my vote is with Kubrick on this one. The moment you replace that psychological trigger with a concrete realisation, it's like you get out of the lift on a different floor without making the full descent. The primeval terror inside your head can't be matched by a walking hedge on the screen in front of your eyes. The topiary creatures didn't look bad; I was expecting that they might, but they didn't. It was simply that their power to terrify had been replaced by something less.
What makes the notion in your head so scary is that you can't nail it down; what takes the scare out of it is having it nailed down for you. Exactly like a joke which depends on your following a thought-process through to its unspoken conclusion, direct statement kills it. It doesn't matter then how obliquely you direct the sequences or how quickly you cut away. The bubble's already been burst.
Kubrick's maze, by contrast, was a genuinely cinematic substitution. On the surface it belonged within the world as we were perceiving it, but it was also charged with mysterious potency. It was real and strange at the same time. Maybe it didn't work for King as a viewer, but I can't feel in this case that Kubrick was doing wrong by him.
Nor did Kubrick do wrong by King in his realisation of the Overlook, which still seems to me to be very much the place of the author's vision. Exaggerated in its interior scale, breathtaking in its exterior location… it seems perverse to say that it works better than the actual building that gave King the idea in the first place, but it does. After all, the Overlook is not the Stanley Hotel. The Overlook is the Stanley Hotel viewed through the distorting lens of King's imagination. Presented as itself, the actual Stanley can only be half of the story. As filmed, it's just a real hotel without that mythic sense of the Giant's Castle standing just behind it. The basement looks like a set and there seems to be only one corridor in the whole place. In fact, despite its cost the entire production looks exactly like you'd expect a television version to look - scaled-down, conceptually less bold, overlit, more easily recognisable in terms of things you've already seen elsewhere on TV. It's there in the casting, the acting, the cutting… TV is the place where nobody looks at a newspaper headline without reading it aloud for our benefit. In this case we can't blame the budget, we can only blame the medium. In television, there's a pressure to explain everything for the slowest kid in the class - if only because the slowest kid in the class holds a key position somewhere in the food chain of network executives.
For me the best thing in the show is Courtland Mead's Danny; a boy who's little bit odd, mostly just ordinary, and overall a natural presence. He never looks as if he knows he's in a movie. By contrast, Steven Weber and Rebecca de Mornay give what I think of as standard American TV-actor performances… by which I mean that they don't so much inhabit the characters, as model the scripted emotions to the most flattering effect. Weber I don't know at all. Rebecca de Mornay showed a nice streak of darkness in THE HAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE but didn't bring it along with her. Nicholson's Torrance may have been a roaring freak and Shelley Duvall's Wendy a strange and goofy turn, but… I don't know. Whatever the ultimate failings of their roles, they were players in a different league.
It's hard to watch the two versions without a sense of deja-vu as certain images and situations recur. For me, neither the movie nor the miniseries solved the problem of how to present Danny's phantom alter-ego Tony. Kubrick's Danny played ventriloquist to his own wagging finger whereas Mick Garris' version is a real teenager in a celestial vision, floating in the air or looking out of a mirror.
The wagging-finger solution looked silly back then, and time hasn't improved it. The only time I glimpsed the power of this element in either adaptation was in the TV scenes of Danny's distress and his parents' concern in the immediate aftermath of a 'Tony' conversation. Suddenly the distress felt real and because of that, I could believe in its cause; I'll go further and say that I'd have bought it totally without ever having seen Tony at all. There were several points like this, where I felt I'd have believed more if I'd seen less… the slamming doors in empty sets, the porch chair that starts to swing when the characters have left the scene.
But now I'm picking at technique. I suppose the general point that I'm trying to argue is that if the Kubrick feature had all the elements well-realised but fell down on the story, the miniseries has more of the story than is good for it and a much lesser set of elements to put it over with.
Kubrick is a front-rank film-maker and his cinema has the fluency of a first language. In many ways, his is a model adaptation; truly cinematic, indebted to its source. But only up to a point. When it comes to the heart and the humanity of the original, he seems to have hit a blind spot. And this, as I've said, is no small thing, because the heart and the humanity of THE SHINING are its underlying raison d'etre. Kubrick did a pretty good job of rethinking the form of the book; one only wishes that he hadn't tried to rethink King as well. If you want to adapt any work to another medium, you'd better be sure that your top priority is to be faithful to its spirit. It's a big mistake to assume that with a genuine piece of creation you can supplant the author's vision and then pick and choose from the remaining elements to serve some different vision of your own.
If Kubrick's SHINING had been lousy through and through, I imagine that it might have been less of a problem for King. Galling, yes. Annoying, certainly. But it would have been easier to set aside and would have left the field wide open for some later, definitive and faithful version. As it is - and I'm presuming here - he probably felt as if the best of his imagination had been strip-mined to service another man's creativity. When that happens, I suspect we all have the same response; we think Well if that's the story you wanted to tell, why didn't you write one yourself and leave mine alone? Knowing, of course, that the ability to raise a story from nothing is given to very few, and almost none of them are working in the film business.
It would have been a nice ending (for all writers, anyway) if the miniseries had blown the feature out of the water and then peed over the wreckage. But I can't say that it did. King's own version got closer to his story, but Kubrick's got closer to his art. The big plus is that with the existence of two variant screen versions, the status of the book is restored as the one, definitive original.
If you love THE SHINING and feel the need, you can always see both.
Life may be short… but it's not that short.
First published in Prism, the newsletter of the British Fantasy Society.