Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Shin-n-n-ing

For a good chunk of movie audiences, Stanley Kubrick's 1980 adaptation of Stephen King's The Shining stands as one of cinema’s greatest accomplishments in terror. To its grandfather, it was (at least at the time of its release) blasphemy.

Thusly did we get Mick Garris’ extremely literal 1997 miniseries, written by King and filmed at the very hotel that inspired the tale. To experience all three tellings is a pretty fascinating exercise in the art--and sometimes, fingerpainted afterschool activity--of the adaptation.

It surprises some (okay, my cats) to learn that I haven’t read that much of Stephen King’s canon. I adore his essay work, but each of the handful of King fiction I’ve picked up continue to kill me with final act buzzkill (Salem's Lot is a pleasant buck of that trend). Lately though, I’m becoming more forgiving in my old age of literary criticism. I blew through Carrie with plenty of energy, so following it up with one of King’s most celebrated hits seemed like the best idea since buying Maximum Overdrive on DVD.

More refreshing than a soda can to the groin!
If you’re a horror fan who has never read The Shining, head to your nearest library/local bookstore/airport and give it a go. Though King himself acknowledges that some of his prose is on the messy side, the book moves like a fascinating nightmare. Wendy, Jack and Danny are all written with a firm ear towards character and their tentative hold on a fragile family unit is as devastating as the latter half is scary. Jack’s descent is inevitable, but as King astutely recognizes in his introduction to the book's reprint, Jack isn’t a one-dimensional monster anxiously awaiting his transformation. We care about these people, making every swing of the roque mallet hurt.

But let’s face it: most readers don’t travel 500 plus pages through The Shining for a family drama about the perils of alcoholism. Inside the ghostly holdings of The Overlook lurks some true terror, from an eerily macabre masked ball to the iconic Room 217. Most memorable is Jack’s, Danny’s and Dick Halloran’s meet-ups with the growling lion made of topiary. It’s truly remarkable how effective scenes of evil garden creations can be on the page...

And how damn silly looking they are when brought to life by 1997 era CGI. Kubrick famously omitted the topiary from his film, claiming special effects wouldn’t do it justice. Perhaps that’s true (considering how giggly the 1980s BBC version of The Day of the Triffids made me, I’d say yes). Or maybe, like so much else in his version, Kubrick didn’t think they worked according to his vision.

Can't imagine why...

An adaptation, you see, is just that. It’s an interpretation of preexisting material, not necessarily a direct translation of it. 

One of my biggest pet peeve comments I hear from movie viewers is the whine that “they changed it from the book!”  Why is this offensive? ‘They’ (evil filmmakers with their own ideas) didn’t change YOUR book. They didn’t rape its author and force it to birth this creation or chain him or her in a tower until the writer released a Galileo-like false confession that erased any original ideas. Books and movies exist on two different plains of the universe.

Sometimes, a close-to-the-page film breeds greatness (No Country For Old Men, Atonement) while others fall flat (The Road, Blindness). What I respect most is a film that honors its source material’s essence but understands well enough that the language of film can veer wherever it wants and still be great (i.e., Children of Men or The Sweet Hereafter, fine literary works that bred incredible filmmaking).

Kubrick falls into the latter category. His Shining plays quite a bit with its source material, retaining its skill but filling it with an entirely different substance. Does it work as a film? Certainly. As an adaptation? Yes. It’s just not the translation loyal readers (and one writer) may have been waiting for. 

Jack Nicholson’s Jack is, much to the annoyance of Stephen King, not the Jack on his pages. He starts with a Joker grin and ends with the same Joker grin frozen solid, and while it’s a terrifying character that has rightfully become iconic, it’s ultimately far less complex than the tortured recovering alcoholic of the novel. It’s probably Kubrick’s biggest deviation, and one that builds an immediate distance between the audience and characters. Sure, Shelley Duvall (say nothing negative; woman has a lifetime get out of jail free card for creating Faerie Tale Theatre) as Wendy comes off as a bit of a nag, but that doesn’t mean we ever really understand Jack wanting to plant an axe into her back.

It’s understandable that the casting would irk King, particularly since the author used the character as something of a metaphor for his own struggles with alcohol. For that reason alone, it's clear why the author would take such a strong position (executive producer and screenwriter) on the second stab at adapting his material. The problem, of course, is that he put it in the hands of someone who loved the novel even more than he did.

I have a lot of respect for Mick Garris. The man clearly adores the genre and would sell his kidneys and children to make horror even better.

But that doesn’t mean he’s a good director.

The Stand is a mediocre retelling of King’s epic, with lots of aspects (the ridiculousness of the sultry pill-popping Laura Sangiacomo as a virgin, the casting of Rob Lowe, and much more) that just don’t work. His Masters of Horror episode, Chocolate, has some interesting ideas with painfully awful execution. And Sleepwalkers...well...there have been worse adaptations of King pieces.

And yet, it makes perfect sense that Stephen King would watch him direct his adored text. I obviously don’t know what their working relationship was like, but I imagine conversations went as such:

MG: So Mr. King, I was thinking of cutting that scene where Halloran misses the plane to Denver. It seems a little unnecessary, don’t you think?

SK: No way. It’s important in showing how hard the dude’s trying. Also, I wrote it.

MG: Totally! Forget I ever said a thing. Um, what about the one that comes about ten minutes later, where Halloran lands and the car rental cashier kindly tells him she’ll call ahead to put chains on the vehicle? It kind of cuts into the action over the Overlook and, well, I don’t know that we need it.

SK: Did you hear me the first time?

MG: Of course! I mean, you’re right, 110% right. I guess that means I shouldn’t even ask about that scene later where Sam Raimi has a cameo playing the guy that lends him the snow mobile thing, right? I mean, the people need to see that he gets a snow mobile thing from Sam Raimi. And when Halloran arrives at The Overlook and gets out of the snow mobile thing to brush the snow off the sign that says “The Overlook” even though the audience already knows that, you know, that’s The Overlook, we need that right?

SK: Quiet kid. Just remember Uncle Stevie’s rule.

MG: If it’s on the page, it stays.

SK: Got it. Now print me out a new picture of that Kubrick dude and tape it over that dart board yonder. I got things to do.

As King and Garris discuss in the commentary tracks, the miniseries is indeed the ideal format for a dense novel’s filming. It’s not easy to tell a 500+ page story in two hours of screentime, so the extended running length makes perfect sense.

But what Garris and King don’t realize is that a book is its own thing, one that exists on its own dimension inside the readers’ heads. We bring our own aesthetic to what we read--for whatever reason, I cast Elizabeth Mitchell and Kyle Chandler as the Torrances and resurrected Scatman Crothers from the grave to revisit Halloran--and so a literal word by word adaptation will almost always fall flat. Watching a bizzarely dreadful Melvin Van Peebles discuss his travel plans does absolutely nothing for the narrative. Just because it’s in the book does not, in ANY way require it to be filmed.

Likewise, a film can use its facilities to enhance its source material, be it through music, visuals, performances, or random touches. You know, like how Crothers' Halloran decorates his Florida condo:

No reason for it exactly, but it's memorable and interesting, something that makes us wonder a little more about the character. The miniseries never dares to embellish.

There is good inside 1997’s The Shining. Rebecca DeMornay and yes, Steve Wings Weber are quite strong as a couple on the edge, and both the loving and abusive scenes together are believably powerful.

As for the rest of the miniseries...well..the last shot was neat. Of course, before that we deal with Haunted Mansion caliber ghosts and Peebles' terrible line readings, heavy-handed musical cues and laughable CGI, plus a fatal step in miscasting that makes Danny a precocious 8-year-old that doesn’t know how to read. I won’t insult child actor Courtland Meade’s performance, as it’s not awful...just not right. I may have missed the exact moment where his age was discussed (for silly reasons involving me not understanding how to read a double sided disc, I was forced to download Part 2 en espanol and channel my inner 8th grade honors student to understand the dialogue) but either Danny is WAY too well-spoken for a 6 year old (who then graduates two years early in the film’s painful flash forward coda) or an 8-year-old with a learning disability, which doesn’t fit his clearly bright and well-spoken character in the least. Either way, WHAT IS GOING ON?

Also, his hair looks stupid.

Then there’s the time period, or lack thereof. Danny talks like a child of the 90s while The Overlook uses rotary phones and Dick Halloran dresses like Willie Dynamite circa 1971. I’m confused.

Plus now I just want to rewatch Wilie Dynamite.

But enough bashing of a not necessarily terrible way to spend 4.5 hours. It made Stephen King and most likely, those who believe an adaptation should be a book-on-film satisfied. I can’t imagine it entertaining someone who didn’t read the novel, but as an example of (in my opinion) what an adaptation shouldn’t be.

Also, I spotted a goof (Part 3, flowers moving before Wings comes into frame) and I NEVER spot goofs.

Oh, and the miniseries features a Ghost Dad coda that's way more hilarious than Ghost Dad.

Also, did I mention Danny's stupid haircut?

I don’t think Kubrick’s film is perfect, though I do cite it as a brilliant horror film and even more brilliant, if almost unrelated interpretation of a great read. I also don’t think Garris or King were wrong to revisit the material in their own manner. I just wish they remembered what film can do and actually tried to do it.


  1. I never finished the miniseries. It's a bad habit of mine to get bored with "polished" material and change the channel. I've been doing that with the latest rendition of The Thing.

    But I get it. Weber gave Jack more of a softness in my opinion, which I guess, for effect, was meant to make him more terrifying because it was unbelievable in a believable way for a guy like him to snap. I'm not sure.

    I'm not a huge fiction reader but a few years ago I could not put It down.

    Oh, and that Courtland kid (his parents named him 'Courtland'?) was some soap actor I think. His hair and joker lips are difficult to forget.

  2. I don't think finishing the miniseries is necessary. The best aspect of it is the early scenes that establish Weber and Demornay as a troubled, but loving couple. Once the crazy sets in, Garris just has no idea how to the horror.

    Still haven't read It. I've been warned not to, but if you enjoyed it, I might put it on the long list.

    And yes, the Courtland kid (I knew a kid in elementary school named that too, poor dear) was ALSO in The LIttle Rascals movie. Apparently he was the It Kid of the mid-90s!

  3. Aaagh! That mini-series was like eating water-logged Wonderbread - quite filling but not too enjoyable. I'm not a huge Kubrick fan but his version of The Shining is the only horror movie I've seen as an adult that unsettles me from start to finish. The book didn't scare me nearly as much. I agree with you that adaptions don't have to be faithful to be good. I think where other director's have gone wrong with King's work is they're too afraid to make major changes in style, tone, story, etc. I'm currently re-watching six of Agatha Christie's "And Then There Were None" movie adaptations and the best two include one that's quite different in tone and style (from 1965) and another that's slavishly faithful, but quite dark (from 1987, and in Russian!). Three of the six adaptations failed, not because they weren't faithful enough, but because they weren't stylish enough or struck an off-key tone due to bad direction, acting and/or sets. Just sticking to plot, or deviating, doesn't guarantee a good film.

    And Sleepwalkers rules, how dare you!

  4. MOOOOhahahahaha Sleepwalkers! You know, I should actually revisit that one. I haven't seen it since it came out in the theaters when I was a kid, and truthfully, I remember being disappointed, but I have no idea why. And if memory serves, there's a lot of cat empowerment in there. I may enjoy it more in my crazy cat lady old age!

    "And Then There Were None" is the 10 Little Indians tale, right? Interesting. I think a fillm/miniseries CAN be completely faithful and be fine if it captures what worked in the book (prime example is No Country For Old Men), but I agree that directors ultimately need to step back and put the film first before the source material. Garris is a King fanboy and hence, everything he makes that's a King work is trying to satisfy the author first and audience second. That's not the way to make a film.

  5. Or 10 Little Niggers as it was originally called! haha! I hear the Russian version is awesome too!

    Speaking of King miniseries', how was the Carrie miniseries?

  6. The miniseries isn't really good, but it has somethings going for it. They updated it (to the early 2000s) rather decently, and Angela Betis is quite good. But Sue is played by that awful actress from the Children of the Corn remake, and the film has these police interrogations mixed in throughout that just make Sue and the other survivors seem angry. The ending is laughable, but you can excuse it if you know that the miniseries was originally intended as a pilot for a TV show. So not a total waste of time, but slightly below average on the whole.

  7. The Garris/King conversation was perfect. Well done.

  8. Hey Emily, I was just finishing off a review for Egyptian schlockfest Dawn of the Mummy, and I looked the movie up on your blog and found your review for it, and there was one part so cool that I quoted it in my review!