Shining Vs. Shining

I recently re-watched both film versions of Stephen King's The Shining, so in honor of Halloween, here's two reviews, comparing strengths and weaknesses.

Shining, The (C, 1980) Frustrating masterpiece didn't please Stephen King and it's easy to see why; Kubrick's own vision edged out King's and Kubrick doesn't seem to understand the book. But Kubrick's vision is still fascinating and results in some of the scariest scenes ever filmed. It's relentless and the atmosphere is tense and oppressive throughout. But there are some definite flaws, and the biggest is also the film's greatest strength: Jack Nicholson. Nicholson is sinister and terrifying in general (in fact, that's his entire range, even in straight roles) so when he gets to cut loose as a maniac, atomic magic happens. But in this adaptation he's hostile and crazy right from the start, so there's nowhere for him to go with it, and the idea of the hotel as a corrupting influence is negated. He seems itching to chop up his wife and kid during the drive up (notice how annoyed he seems when they even talk to him). This does make for some tension (the scene where he "reassures" his son that he'd never hurt him just oozes menace) but it guts the whole point of the story, since the hotel's no longer a major change-agent. Shelly Duval's acting is just awful whenever she's not terrified. She sounds like she's reading lines off a card and her character is such a dumb, awkward clod that it seems unavoidable that'd she'd become the target of domestic violence when paired with a guy like Nicholson; it's bunny and wolf. Kubrick seems to want to make her the target for the audience's animosity as well, dressing her like a Raggedy Ann doll and having her seem in a constant state of flinch. Kubrick may be intentionally inviting the audience to sympathize with Nicholson's predatory nature as a way of disturbing you at finding that in yourself. With her Margaret Keene-painting eyes and wide mouth she does do an incredible job of conveying sheer bovine terror, though, and so she's brilliant in those scenes. Iconic, even, since the second-most-familiar still from the film (after Jack's face grinning through a splintered door) is Shelly screaming as an axe crashes through the wall. Kubrick is probably most at fault for her weakness in the "normal" scenes; he reportedly treated her so badly on the set that he probably sucked all the confidence out of her, and there's no excuse for a director so notorious for multiple-takes letting those clumsy scenes go through. Scatman Crothers -- a guy I'm always happy to see -- is great as Dick Halloran, but the importance of his character is all but negated here; he's basically just a Snowcat delivery system. In fact, the whole importance of the "shining" power is no longer a real factor in Kubrick's story, just an excuse for extra spook-show scenes rather than a driving force behind the violence -- that doesn't seem to come from the hotel, but is something Nicholson brought with him. The creepy scenes are some of the most powerful ever filmed, though (the bathtub woman is almost unbearably nightmarish, the little ghost girls, the weirdness of the bear costume scene, Nicholson's catatonic states -- his face is genetically engineered for evil and he has a hard time doing anything else) and there are other bits of brilliant filmmaking (especially the tracking shots of Danny riding the Big Wheel down the hallways, making a symphony of carpet and hardwood). Even though it's not a faithful adaptation and kind of ruins some of King's points, it's good that Kubrick went off the reservation, because even though this is flawed it's a major classic nonetheless, and gets better with multiple viewings.

The very-severe original trailer (some of the creepiest music ever) :

This blowjob-bear scene seems to really freak people out for some reason:

Shining, The (C, 1977) Three-night miniseries version of Stephen King's horror classic. King was never happy with Kubrick's version so when the TV miniseries of The Stand got a good response, King got director Mick Garris to do this one. King scripted so it's much more faithful to the book, which is good in a way because it's a great book, but also has drawbacks, such as King's sweetness and corniness creeping in and weakening the horror, and a more conventional approach robs some power from the scares. Kubrick's version is easily the superior film (Garris is a good workman director but is no visionary), but this a truer adaptation. The cast is good; Steven Weber from the sitcom Wings is Jack, Rebecca DeMornay is Wendy, Courtland Mead is Danny, and the great Melvin VanPeebles is Dick Halloran. Weber is not quite as scary because he's not nearly as sinister as Jack Nicholson (but it's pretty unfair to expect any other human to be as sinister as Nicholson, since "sinister" is really all Nicholson can do), but at least he does transform from a good guy into an evil one, and the contrast packs in some power. Weber does a great job handling the changeover, from believably-lovable to believably-homicidal. The kid here is a better actor than Kubrick's, and has more to do, but they gave him a bowl haircut that makes him look too goofy. And DeMornay is nowhere near as annoying as Duval, but never seems as scared or threatened, either; she looks like she could go toe-to-toe with Weber and do him some damage, while Duval didn't even know how to hold a baseball bat. There's not nearly as much atmosphere, and the Overlook never really seems as isolated, and some of the scary bits are pretty lame. The topiary animals (which I thought sucked in the book as well) don't work, and too many ghosts disappear in puffs of smokiness, and the heavily-made-up party guests just look ... heavily made up. The bathtub woman isn't bad, though, and is one of the scarier done-for-TV makeup jobs I've seen. Stephen King's cameo (as leader of the Gage Creed orchestra - a Pet Sematary in-joke) is pretty Rocky Horror looking. Overall, though, this version does work and it's well-worth seeing, especially if you're a fan of the book (and if you're not, that probably just means you haven't read it).

Whole thing starts here:

Bathtub woman

Hilarious Conan interview with the kid, who seems to be on crank:

This was pretty damn funny... :)

Redone with Legos:


  1. An excellent and nuanced comparison. I haven't seen the miniseries version and probably won't because it just sounds bad to me, and also because I wasted far too long on the IT miniseries, which was pure bollocks except for the too-infrequent appearances of Tim Curry's Pennywise, who was creepy as hell (apparently, none of the cast wanted to be around him behind the scenes because he got into that role a bit too much).

    (Actually, I didn't really like the *book* of IT either - it has some promising elements and some scary moments, but it's long as shit, way too many loose ends never get tied up, and the ending/denouement sucks ass.)

    Here's where I am with The Shining: this is a rare case where I'm able to think of the book and the Kubrick film as two superb, near-seprate entities. I'd seen the film maybe 20 times before I got around to reading the book, and that film is one of my favorites in any genre. It has scenes I STILL want to skip when I get to them (now, at 41) because they scare the shit out of me, and they made me absolutely catatonic as a child, including the goodies you mention (bathutub, blowjob bear) plus Danny riding up to (and suddenly stopping at) the barely open door of 237, and also two with Scatman Crothers that are subtle and terrifying: (1) Danny's having ice cream, Dick's talking to him about shining, and Danny abruptly asks about room 237 - Dick's reaction is painfully realistic, shocked and halting nearly to the point of denial; and (2) the slow zoom in to Dick's face when he's on the hotel bed and Danny's shines are reaching him - again, Dick's metastasizing terror is fucking unbearable. Those scenes are true masterpieces.

    You make a valid point about Nicholson's lack of transition, but for me his lack of transition actually works better because I see it as an outward manifestation of the always-been-there internal insanity you get in the book's narration. When I first read the book (and then reread it), it made perfect sense to me as the template for Nicholson's portrayal. Jack doesn't seem to me like a decent dude who gets corrupted in some way by the hotel - he seems like a wacko in slight remission whose basic instincts find a home at the Overlook where they then flower and grow. It may be that my long relationship with the film has hopelessly tainted my newer view of the book, but I see them as neatly complementary of each other, even to the extent that some of what Kubrick left out of the film was a masterstroke in itself since it probably wouldn't have translated to film, like the hedge animals (which I like) and that scene in the book where Danny's playing in some sort of concrete tunnel and feels this amorphous but tremendously vicious presence trying to come after him (I think it even grabs his pants leg?). These scenes work like gangbusters in the book but probably wouldn't have worked in the film. There's a pretty imperceptible line between what will be more effective played out on screen and what will work better played out in your head using the novel text as a prompt, and for me the two versions of this story do a pretty peerless job of finding and observing that line.

  2. (Had to post this as two comments 'cause I'm running my mouth too much)

    And then here's the other thing: the book itself is fucking phenomenal. It's one of the few King books I've read that I think can stand up as snooty, sho-nuff literature. I think its pacing and character development and descriptions of psychological terror are brilliant, and I don't use "brilliant" to describe other King books - I like them, even love some of them, but they're mostly just entertainment, whereas The Shining is, to me, both entertainment and (I know, I know, but it's the point I wanna make) art. Most effective is the book's ability to frighten: I read it for the first time within the last two years, meaning I came to it as a seasoned horror vet who doesn't get scared by written material. Not so with this one, boyo. The tunnel scene I mention above is truly frightening. The scenes with Dick trying to get back to the hotel and being attacked by the hedge animals are scary in part for their chase-sequence nature and in part for their what-the-fuck-ness. The scene - hell, it's a whole brief chapter - where Danny goes into 237 and encounters the woman from the bathtub might be the single scariest thing I've ever read in a novel. It's right up there with the dinner's-in-the-cellar scene from McCarthy's The Road for sheer I-must-reread-this-right-now power. I don't take this feat lightly. I've read countless horror novels over the last several years (some new, some revisits of older books), and while I like and am wondrously entertained by the majority of them, few sunk steel hooks into my brain the way The Shining did. But I DO wish the book ended the way Kubrick's film does; King's ending is corny and feel-goody. Rumor has it that a deleted scene from the end of Kubrick's film shows sheriff's deputies or park rangers or whoever telling Wendy that they can't find Jack's body in the hedge maze. Not sure how I feel about that as a potential closing scene, but it's intriguing, certainly better than the book's treacly ending.

    Anyway, good stuff, man!

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  4. Great reply! Getting to talk Shining is worth writing the post, 'cuz I've been kind of obsessed with it this week. :) I wanted to go for a three-fer and discuss the book, too, but it's been several years since I read it and was afraid I'd goof it up. I've read it 3 or 4 times but the last one was about 8 years ago. I'm due for another re-read. That's definitely King's best book. He has a few others that I'd say also fit the literature/art niche (The Stand, Dead Zone, "The Body," and even Carrie and Salem's Lot would be arguable, and I'd probably let Pet Sematary and Misery through without too much arm-twisting), but most of his recent output has been bubble-gum pop horror. I liked Duma Key for the first 2/3rds and then he pulled an "It" on me and gave it the steeeee-yeeeew-pidist ending possible. Cell I quit in the middle of, and I was tempted to with Under The Dome. Probably his best "newer" work is the "Hearts In Atlantis" novella. That one's not horror, but it's almost literature.

    But, yep, The Shining is the King book I re-read most often (except maybe for On Writing, which is essential), because I try to read it like a mechanic. Because I try to write horror stuff, it's one of those books I read to try to figure out how he does what he does, to see how it all fits together, how he got the effects he did, etc. I like the end of it in a way, because the dad got a chance at redemption, but it does kind of verge into Hallmark-movie-of-the-week, too. It didn't work as well in the miniseries version, because it came off as cliche... which it kinda is, by now, but wasn't in '77 when the book came out. And I agree about the scene in the book where Danny's playing in the snow, thinking about the Secret Agent Man show and imagining that some dead kid forgotten on the playground was after him. And that room 237 (or 217 in the book) scene is classic. It makes me jealous 'cuz I want to write something that scary. It's what I shoot for.

    It's true that Jack has problems even before he gets to the hotel, having broken his son's arm and stuff... so, maybe Nicholson's not messing up the plot that much. I wouldn't trade him for anything, in any case - I love that movie as it is, flaws and all. :) Scatman Crothers was genius. Melvin Van Peebles also did a good job, but his character wasn't as nuanced in the film, due to the script. Scatman seemed haunted by stuff he'd seen there and really disturbed that a kid with "the shining" was going to have to be staying there. Van Peebles was more like the cavalry, just there to save the day.

    And Tim Curry creeps me out whenever he does anything.... :)

    Anyway, very good points! Thanks for the reply. :)

  5. Kubrick's movie was definitely creepy, but I remember being SO pissed off that they changed Room 217 (as it was in the book) to Room 237. The book scared me so much when I first read it, especially the bits in Room 217 with the bathtub lady and just changing that one digit in the movie spoiled something for me. Sigh. I know, I'm a freak. I totally agree that Nicholson was just WAY too crazy right off the bat and OH yeah, about Shelly Duval. I never understood that casting.

    The miniseries... Mick Garris is a pedestrian director and in every King adaptation he's done, from The Shining to The Stand, he totally misses the mark (for me) when it comes to creating atmosphere. In The SHining, casting his wife (who I quite like as an actress) as the creepy bathtub lady and giving her dialogue when she chases Danny in the room totally undercuts the absolute terror created in the same scene in the book. And the end with the whole Obi Wan/Darth Vader in happy blue light scene with Danny's father at his graduation. Ugh.

  6. Hi, Dana, thanks for the reply! :) Yep, the 217/237 thing is weird... I read somewhere that the hotel where they were filming that part was afraid no one would ever want to stay in room 217 again after the movie, so they changed it to 237 because the hotel didn't have a room by that number. As creepy as the scene was, I think there are enough scare-loving people out there to have made the room a tourist attraction instead, but... they don't listen to me. :)

    Oh, yeah, the dialogue from the bathtub woman in the TV version, I'd forgotten about that... it was definitely a bad move to have her talk. Nothing could be creepier than that thing being silent. (Although the laughing in the Kubrick version was damned unnerving). But, yep, the more ghosts "talk" the less alien they are... most times dialogue for the undead is a bad idea. :) Garris is a good meat-and-potatoes type director, but he doesn't get atmosphere. Kubrick nailed it, though... parts of that movie had the atmosphere of a late-night car wreck. Severe!