Jack Torrance (Steven Weber) and his family (Rebecca De Mornay and Courtland Mead) move into the sprawling, vacant Overlook Hotel to get away from it all. Away from the alcoholism that derails Jack’s writing career. Away from the violent outbursts that mar Jack’s past. But Jack’s young son Danny knows better. He possesses a psychic gift called the shining-a gift the hotel’s vile spirits desperately want.
In the hands of Stephen King the “dead” Overlook comes horrifyingly alive. Phantoms lurk, the message “redrum” appears with scary frequency and even garden topiary lurches into macabre existence in this atmospheric shocker scripted by King from his own novel and directed by ace King screen adaptor Mick Garris (Sleepwalkers, The Stand)
eyelights: it’s Stephen King’s vision.
eyesores: the weak casting. the unnatural dialogues. the horrible special effects. the entire third act.
“Hello, Danny. I’ve been waiting for you. We’ve all been waiting for you.”
Stanley Kubrick’s ‘The Shining’ is one of my all-time favourite films. It’s also probably my favourite horror film. But I’ve never read the book. I had started it once, many years ago when I was in full-fledged Stephen King mode, but, for reasons that escape me now, I never completed it. Honestly, after having seen the movie, I never felt the urge to go back to its source novel; it was absolutely perfect.
But I later discovered that Stephen King does not share my opinion: he openly discussed his dislike of the film, feeling that Kubrick wasn’t faithful enough to the material, cutting and adapting much of what he’d written. It’s understandable that King took this position: one naturally becomes protective of one’s creations. And yet I could barely wrap my mind around anyone disliking Kubrick’s interpretation.
I was less surprised when I found out that King decided to make his own version of it. In 1997, he got ABC to finance a three-part mini-series based on his book, which he would write, executive-produce, cameo in and even direct a third unit crew for. He would be so involved that the ensuing programme would be as tied to his original book and its creator as one could ever hope for it to be.
Naturally, I was excited at the notion. Although King is a piss-poor director (‘Maximum Overdrive’ is astonishingly painful to watch) and actor (his turn ‘Creepshow‘ is mind-boggling – so bad it’s good, or just plain bad?), my thought was that allowing him to fully translate his creative vision to the screen could only produce stellar results – especially since his book is considered a classic.
It took me years to get my hands on a copy of the series on DVD. I found one seven years ago and, although it was in horrible shape, by that point I was so desperate to see it that I picked it up anyway. Needless to say, I made a point of watching it very soon thereafter. Or dragged my way through it, to be more precise: it was just about unwatchable, a major, major disappointment.
I swore I would never watch it again. I even contemplated reselling my copy, but, given its poor state, there was no chance of that happening.
Fast forward to now, and as I was mapping out my line-up for this October’s Horrorfest, I decided to close it with Kubrick’s “The Shining’. I had recently acquired a copy of the documentary ‘Room 237’ and I was in a hurry to get to it. Plus which ‘The Shining’ fit what was turning into a recurring theme: spooky buildings with creepy supernatural happenings taking place in or around them.
I was looking for a third film to tie-in with these other two, and tried many options, doing my utmost to steer clear of this TV mini-series. Fact is, even though it crossed my mind, I couldn’t even contemplate spending another four and half hours of my time agonizing over this piece of crap. So I exhausted my options, until I eventually relented, figuring that my aversion couldn’t justify ignoring the obvious.
So what’s so damned terrible about this version of ‘The Shining’ that I would so violently resist watching it again like that?
Before I rant on, I’ll be the first to admit that it’s quite possible that the series’ failure is largely due to expectations. 1980’s ‘The Shining’ ranks in my all-time top 10 motion pictures. The TV version never stood a chance: it would have had to be flawless, and even then its vision would NOT have satisfied me. Sadly, it is anything but flawless, making it even more revolting.
1. Casting mistakes
Its first problem is in the casting. We have to spend the large part of the series with only three actors, so they have to be damned fine. They’re not.
Jack: In Kubrick’s version, Nicholson is maniacally brilliant; you can’t keep your eyes off him. Shelley Duvall is absolutely horrible, as only she can be, but it makes us accept Jack’s revulsion with ease. No wonder he hates her so: who wouldn’t, really, pathetic as she is? And the kid is what he needs to be: quiet, delicate, and creepy. Between the three of them, you’re good for two hours.
In King’s version, Steven Webber takes Jack’s place. I really like Webber: I’m immediately drawn to anything he’s in ever since I saw him in ‘Wings’. But he’s a B-lister: he’s not exactly the best actor one has ever seen. Under director Mick Garris’ hand he doesn’t exactly shine, either: a great director can make the most of weaker offering, but Garris is a solid yet not especially crafty director.
So the film’s central figure is good, but not great.
Wendy: In this version, Rebecca De Mornay replaces Duvall. Between her and Webber, they make a lovely-looking couple, whereas Jack and Shelley looked plain, maybe even unappealing. But for all her beauty, De Mornay can’t act herself out of a bag; I’ve only seen her in a few films and it was enough for me. Her Wendy is flavourless and entirely forgettable. At least Duvall’s was grating enough to burn a spot in your memory.
Danny: But the worst of it comes with Courtland Mead as Danny, their 5-year-old son. Firstly, he looks like he’s 9 years old. Had they changed the character for the show, that would be fine, except that he’s learning to read, which indicates that he’s much younger. It occurred to me that perhaps he was merely mentally challenged in this version, but his parents talk about how smart he is after practicing his reading.
So it comes down to a poor casting decision.
It gets worse.
The kid they chose, for some reason, can’t act worth !@#$. It’s not just that he can’t affect he correct emotional responses when it’s required of him, remaining mostly stunned, but he can’t deliver his lines naturally at all (admittedly, much of the dialogue is surprisingly unrealistic, but still…). This kid basically throws up his lines like an amateur baseball player lobs a ball. Ugh.
Now it gets personal.
I hate his face: he has a big gaping mouth that won’t close – literally, not figuratively. Somehow his mouth is shaped like a triangle, with the point part at the top. He can’t close it, which looks kind of freakish. And stupid: he looks like a drooling idiot. And, for reasons that escape me, it makes me want to punch the television where his face is. Every time he’s on screen I feel aggression bubbling up.
Sigh… he also slurs and sounds congested – for the whole four and a half hours. Kill me now.
2. Logic, or lack thereof
Its second problem is that it often doesn’t make any sense. Although Kubrick’s version is at times cryptic, it’s mostly believable. Not this one.
Firstly, there’s the fact that Jack was hired in the first place: he has no credentials to be a caretaker of building that size. Not unless he faked them, anyway. He’s the worst handyman ever: watching him tear a hole in the roof with a hammer when he was supposed to be doing some roofing was hilarious. Frankly, he should never have been hired to take care of that hotel. Somehow he was.
Now, if only he and Wendy were a team and, together, they were able to take care of the Overlook, that would be a different matter altogether. But she does nothing. Nothing. Of course, that’s typical of the character: Jack is abusive to both her and Danny, but she stays with him – she doesn’t leave even to protect Danny when he’s at risk. So she’s either useless, or an idiot. Or both. Yeah, I’d hire her in a blink.
Then there the fact that, by episode two, Jack suddenly becomes unstable. It’s not even a gradual descent into madness, either: one moment he’s normal, the other, he’s creepy and batshit crazy (and about to get batshittier!). Maybe it’s just me, but this didn’t make any sense to me whatsoever: You don’t go from zero to six instantly like that. But maybe he was in a hurry to get to ten.
Frankly, the whole third part was utterly nonsensical:
- Why was Wendy wandering about waving a knife at thin air (as though she could stab the hotel’s spirit or something) instead going straight to Danny? She knew he was in trouble, but decided to play stabby-stabby with the Overlook instead. Danny was a real priority for her, huh? Worst. Mom. Ever.
- Why would the cook walk into the Overlook knowing that there was danger, look at the bloodied Jack carrying a croquet mallet… and not even remotely be on his guard? Hey, chum, so nice to see you! Could you please, oh please, smash in the spleen? Thanks, you’re the best!
- How could everyone take massive hits from the croquet mallet and then get right back up again? On that note, why did we have to watch Jack brutalize Wendy with it? It dragged on, it was brutal, it was utterly, totally gratuitous. What was the point? Was this his initiation in the Hemanwomanhatersclub?
- Speaking of gratuitous, why was Jack smashing holes into the walls, bashing frames and crushing vases instead of just looking for Danny like he was supposed to be doing? If he’s doing the Hotel’s bidding, why would he be driven to destroy it? Worst. Employee. Ever.
- There was also the matter of the ghosts interrupting Jack just as he was about to complete the tasks they set for him; suddenly they would give another more pressing matter. Worst. Bosses. Ever. He was about to succeed, godammit, but they kept preventing him – which didn’t help them any either.
- How is it that the ghosts didn’t know that the boiler was not being looked at that day, that Jack had forgotten to release the pressure and that it was dangerously close to blowing up? That’s weird given that they know everything that goes on in the hotel – and even outside of it. I call it convenience.
- To make matters worse, why would Danny boast to Jack that the Overlook was about to be blown up by the pressurized furnace? You want to boast after it’s blown up, not right before, thereby reminding Jack to go fix it, you stupid dumb shit. Close that mouth and stop drooling. I hate you.
- In the final moments, what was the point of building up this imminent threat of the green CGI blob hedge monsters and then letting the cook, Wendy and Danny escape without a confrontation? Oh, look! Scary monsters coming! Bah.. just ignore them and drive away. Not that it was tension-filled, anyway, but what was the point?
Finally, whereas Kubrick’s version is all about atmosphere, this one completely eschews atmosphere to focus on the supernatural elements instead.
It starts off okay. The Overlook is starting to show signs of life: doors open/close by themselves, lights turn on, the fireplace lights up, all the chairs fall off the tables in the dining area (not that anyone goes to check, nor does anything come of it, but whatever…). An ominous mood is being created.
But it’s all squandered! Not only do the first two parts of the mini-series not build the tension very well, but the third one hobbles it completely! It would build momentum, then the characters would stop to talk. Or it would build and then Jack would get interrupted in the middle of his mayhem by the ghosts.
Or there would be commercial breaks. Although they aren’t on the DVD, the stupid programme faded in and out abruptly way more frequently in the third part, returning to 2nd unit stuff before going back into the action – instead of leaping right back in. Start, stop, start, stop. It was so annoying.
Scary isn’t the bump in the night. Scary is what you think made the bump in the night. Scary is in our heads. It’s in the shadows. It’s the shadows in our hearts. And you need to tap into that side of the equation if you want your audience to feel scared. Stephen King’s ‘The Shining’ doesn’t get that. Truth be told, Stephen King’s version of ‘The Shining’ doesn’t get much of anything right. There’s not much to recommend it.
One thing that is cool about the whole project is that it was filmed at the Stanley Hotel, which had inspired Stephen King to write his novel in the first place. I really enjoyed seeing the real thing. Although, to be perfectly honest, it lacked the grandeur and eeriness of the Kubrick one. Still, from a film nerd point of view, it’s quite a coup.
But that’s the only nice thing I can say about this baby. I started off watching the series wondering why I had hated it so much the first time around. The first two episodes weren’t great, but they weren’t horrendous either. I would even have rated them as highly as a 6.0. But then came the third episode, and I was brutally reminded why this mini-series sucks the fat one: Part three is a big load of dog poopee.
Still, fans of the book are well-served with this version of ‘The Shining’: it goes through pretty much every detail of the original work faithfully, including the clumsy dialogues. But fans of the Kubrick version need to brace themselves for an entirely different experience: it’s not as visionary and it feels so much like a television movie. For them it can be disappointing. but at least Stephen King finally got what he wanted.
For good or bad.
Dates of viewing: September 16+20, 2014