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Adapt This: ‘The Shining’ – Kubrick Vs. King

Written by on July 12, 2011 

Kubrick ignores most of this. He introduces the hotel, Jack and his family, their situation (Jack will be the Overlook’s winter caretaker, cut off from the rest of the world for months – and there’s no booze around), and almost immediately leaves them alone in the cavernous Overlook. Kubrick loves his gigantic interior set, enhanced by the then-brand-new Steadicam, which floats dispassionately around the hotel – most amusingly, as it follows Danny through the halls on his Big Wheel.

The King-scripted remake was shot at the Stanley Hotel, which inspired the novel. Watching the TV-movie remake and then re-reading the book is interesting. King’s vision of the Overlook’s corridors was not the yawning, palatial set of Kubrick’s world but a cramped, labyrinthine web of hallways (which were always so harshly lit from below), possibly meant to mirror Jack’s madness as the hotel burrowed itself deeper into his mind. It’s a good metaphor, but the hotel’s interior was never plainly laid out in the book… and Kubrick clearly required a lot of room. His version of the Overlook is a massive, imposing space, with cinematographer John Alcott‘s natural lighting rendering it almost museum-like in it’s emptiness. Kubrick lets this vast, spooky set dominate our imaginations.

King’s book has the Overlook focusing on Danny and his powers – the boy seems to be a powerful telepath with limited clairvoyant abilities. Fueled the hotel’s depraved past, the demented ghosts seize control of Jack’s mind, driving him to stalk his own family through the Overlook, promising to bash their heads in with a roque mallet (an oversize croquet hitting-thingy). Oh, and there’s a batch of freaky hedge animals carousing on the hotel’s expansive front lawn which come alive when no one’s looking and eat you!

Kubrick diplomatically claimed that the technology didn’t exist to make the hedge animals work, but since this was the man who revolutionized visual effects in 2001: A Space Odyssey, the filmmaker most likely wrote the hedge animals off as lame and unnecessary. Instead, an immense hedge maze was constructed (it was so big that even crew members would reportedly get themselves lost at times). Is it meant as a metaphor, reflecting Jack Torrance’s disintegrating mental state? The shot of a clearly half-mad Jack staring into the hedge maze’s model as his family is outside wandering through seems to reinforce this idea.

For all of King’s disapproval, he seems to have missed (or willfully ignored) just how much Kubrick appeared to have liked King’s language. The pivotal scene of Jack Torrance’s first real break with reality is the famous ballroom sequence. Pissed off at his wife, Jack wanders in and sits at the deserted bar, wishing for a drink. He looks up and begins a batshit-crazy monologue to an imaginary barkeep named Lloyd… and then, suddenly, Lloyd is there. Every word of this scene is nearly verbatim from the book, including Jack’s later exchange with Grady, after Jack looks around to discover a flapper-era masquerade party in full swing. In King’s remake, this was all completely re-written – it’s the one major deviation King made from his own book, and it’s clear he did so to distance his TV movie from Kubrick’s adaptation. And that’s a shame.

Maybe King was offended by Kubrick’s ultimate break with the novel, when Halloran, the old cook played by Scatman Crothers, is summoned by a terrified Danny via his “shine,” Jack kills him with an axe. For anyone who’s read the novel, it’s a shocking moment; Kubrick’s “this is mine, bitch!” moment. At that point, we’re in no man’s land. Danny leads his insane father through the hedge maze, backtracks, finds his mom and together they manage to escape. Our last image is of Jack Torrance, frozen in the snow, clutching the axe, having lost his life along with his family and mind. In the book, the hotel explodes after Jack, gripped by psychotic lunacy (which makes it tough to do one’s job, as any cubicle worker will tell you) forgets to dump the Overlook’s elderly boiler. Was Kubrick’s ending a rushed cop-out? Not necessarily, for as Roger Ebert points out in his terrific Great Movies essay on The Shining, (via critic Tim Dirk):

A two-minute explanatory epilogue was cut shortly after the film’s premiere. It was a hospital scene with Wendy talking to the hotel manager; she is told that searchers were unable to locate her husband’s body.”

So what the hell? Ebert considers this film to be an exploration of a narrative whose characters’ perspectives can’t be trusted. The film’s famous final shot is the framed photograph from 1921, with Jack in the middle of a New Year’s Eve party, smiling and at home, forever the Overlook’s caretaker. Can we trust anything we saw? Re-watching Kubrick’s The Shining with these thoughts in mind is like watching Fight Club once you know the ending: it’s a mind-warping puzzle of a film, cold and terrifying.

There have been dozens of film adaptations of Stephen King books. Many of them are flat-out awful. The Shining is an example of how do it right.

Have you read The Shining? Seen the movie? Which did you prefer?

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