Stephen King has never made a secret about his distaste for two things: being asked where his ideas come from, and Stanley Kubrick's version of his novel The Shining. When speaking to Playboy in the early 1980s, here's what he had to say:
"...Kubrick is a very cold man - pragmatic and rational - and he had great difficulty conceiving even academically of the supernatural."
First, let me say that if there's anyone in the world whose opinion I'll listen to on how the book failed to materialize onscreen in the Kubrick version, it's King. I have a lot of sympathy for his viewpoint. The movie guts much of what makes his novel his novel; I've argued elsewhere it's just part of the book-to-film process (and I still believe this) but it's easy to see where King's coming from. He wrote the thing, for crying out loud. Still, this statement has always puzzled me. Isn't Kubrick's The Shining a definitive illustration of the supernatural "conceived academically?"
I can even see it being said dismissively of the film. (Though I don't think that's how King means it. Ironically, the version he adapted for the screen himself / the subject of this blog is very much an "academic" conception of the supernatural.)
Just saying, for better or worse, if there is a mathematical equation of "the supernatural rendered academically," it would describe Kubrick's The Shining, right down to his use of set design to convey the "wrong" geometric angles and proportions, etc.
But what makes King's statement even more puzzling to me is that if his beef with the movie is Kubrick's "inability" to warmly-convey the supernatural... how does bringing Mick Garris in as director improve the situation?
Before he directed the Shining mini-series from King's script, Garris brought both The Stand and Sleepwalkers to the screen. Do either of these scream "Master of Humanizing the Supernatural" to you? I suppose a case could be made for "personal taste," here, but this is like bringing a (legally unsound to begin with) case all the way to the Supreme Court and hiring Lionel Hutz to argue it.
Not that Garris doesn't have his defenders. Go to the threads of The Shining mini-series at the SK Forum for evidence of that. Or consider this enthusiastic blogger's take on Garris's visual style: "He has a very unique way of doing things, and it is evident when you are watching one of his films. He has such a talent for using music over scenes and making it effective. The man can craft so much from his visuals and he lets them tell the story, which is a great talent to have and I love him for it."
I gotta tell you - it disturbs me to read this. It's just... so off on so many points. I don't know where to begin.
Let's look at one example from The Shining. King's script flips the first and second chapters of his novel so that Jack's interview with Ullman takes place after Jack meets with Bill Watson (played by Pat Hingle). The camera (as accompanied by propagandist scoring) swoops over people playing "Denver Croquet" (more on that when I get to King's script) and moves across the lawn, showing the Overlook and the exiting guests. So far, so good. Then, it swings in so we have a moving shot of Jack and Stu talking, coming with them down the stairs and ending on this:
What is the point of this framing? The camera movement calls attention to itself as much as anything in Kubrick's version, but without any of the rationale. They are framed so that the Overlook has come between them. Is this really effective subtext for this scene? Or for anything that follows? Why even bother?
Garris shares the curious opinion his fans have about his filmography and approach: "The Shining is one of my favorite things I've ever done. First of all, the production values, we were in one place for most of it. Well, a couple of places - a stage, a hotel. So, I was able to really use some filmmaking that I wasn't (able to) in the The Stand. The Stand was guerrilla filmmaking, and I everything I could, but we were rushed and on a much tighter budget with so many locations and so much cast that we were trying to just get it and put as much art into it as possible. But in the case of The Shining, I was able to really build some dread. I think that some of the filmmaking in there was much more sophisticated in the like."
There's so much wrong in that paragraph/ perspective I don't know where to begin. (The Stand is guerrilla filmmaking?) I'll just stick with "building some dread." The most noticeable aspect of The Shining mini-series is its absolute lack of dread. Who on earth could possibly be moved to dread from watching this version of the story?
He also displays a troubling lack of understanding of how deals are routinely made in Hollywood when discussing getting the rights to make this:
"...Part of the deal was that Kubrick had the rights. Kubrick got paid a lot of money for the rights to that. He got a million and a half bucks for the rights for us to do this. And part of the Kubrick’s deal was that King could not say anything critical about his movie…"
I have heard that before re: "King can't bad-talk the movie," but I strongly suspect that's BS. I have no evidence of it either way, but until I hear Kubrick's side (which seems impossible, him being dead and all) I don't buy it. But yes, Kubrick paid a lot of money for the rights to the film, those rights appreciated in value, he got paid an amount commiserate with this. Is that underhanded? Or anything but routine? It might seem weird to someone not in the business, maybe, but it certainly sounds like standard business practice. Maybe Garris is just bitching about the money eating into his production budget. Whatever. Disney/ ABC has deep pockets.
One more thing before I move on to casting/ the script. As Karina Wilson noted in her book-to-movie-to-mini-series review: "It takes most of Episode One for the Torrances to get settled in to the Overlook, they don't get snowed in until partway through Episode Two, and Jack doesn't get anything but tetchy until Episode Three. Proceedings aren't helped by cheesy 90s special effects (the CGI topiary animals are particularly laughable...
|Indeed they are.|
|The decision to make them actually move rather than suggest movement/ dread with photography is so baffling to me.|
|As it is, onscreen, it's like being menaced by slow-moving, choppy broccoli.|
"...and low-grade Halloween make-up on the ghosts (which looks comic on a modern HDTV."
|It looked comic on my shitty-old-TV-from-1997, as well.|
Karina continues, "King wanted to shoot interiors and exteriors at the location that inspired him - The Stanley Hotel. While it's interesting to see the original, an actual physical location often has disadvantages over a specially-constructed set. A corridor is just a corridor. Unfortunately, from the opening moments, the fancy wedding cake architecture of The Stanley is too pretty to be sinister, lacking the low-lying menace of the Timberline Lodge in Oregon used by Kubrick. And the interiors... were never going to live up to Roy Walker's custom-designed sets."
Lets' move on from Garris and get back to King, who shares an equal amount of blame for this. (And if I seem too snarky, I apologize - God knows I love and support the man's work, nor am I"out to get" Mick Garris. But having watched all agonizing what-felt-like-fifty-five hours of this for the purpose of writing this blog, I at least earned the right to a little snark. Life is short.) Again, from his Playboy interview:
"(Kubrick) used to make transatlantic calls to me from England at odd hours of the day and night, and I remember once he rang up and asked, 'Do you believe in God?' I thought a minute and said, 'Yeah, I think so.' Kubrick replied, 'No, I don't think there is a God' and hung up. Not that religion has to be involved in horror, but a visceral skeptic such as Kubrick just couldn't grasp the sheer inhuman evil of the Overlook Hotel... This was the basic flaw. Because he couldn't believe, he couldn't make the film believable to others."
First, it is worth noting that King's story of these transatlantic calls/ Kubrick's questions has changed over the years. YouTube clips abound of King telling other variations of it, but usually it's that Kubrick called to say any tale that suggests an afterlife is fundamentally optimistic and that King responded "What about Hell?" and Kubrick said "I don't believe in Hell." Kind of a big difference/ implication in those two versions, if you ask me. But as with the rights-thing, Kubrick's side of the story is unfortunately not preserved.
Second, I agree that religion, whether God or the afterlife-in-general, need not be involved to make effective horror, but I'm not exactly sure what Kubrick is an alleged skeptic of, here. The supernatural itself? But Kubrick's film is such overwhelming evidence that the supernatural can be conveyed by a "visceral skeptic" and that audiences believed it, easily. Ask your parents.
|Or ask mine! "We believed it," say Dona and Farrell McMillan.|
The horrors of the novel share some key (one might say "the essential") borderlands with the horrors of the film, like some unholy Venn diagram, but they are offspring of different fathers, to be sure. So... again, Mick Garris? That's your solution? I mean, like him or hate him, his filmography simply doesn't merit him as the expert witness for the rebuttal King has in mind, here. Put another way, I like Jack Nicholson as an actor, but I wouldn't cast him as Nelson Mandella.
Also, for what it's worth, Garris is an atheist, i.e. the kind of skeptic King intimates about Kubrick, here. Which I wouldn't even mention - hey, more power to you/ atheists-everywhere, I don't care or think it has to have any bearing on how you direct - but since King brought it up, I mean, what is he seeing in Garris's work to persuade him Garris is a "believer?" It makes me wonder if King is even capable, I'm afraid, of properly evaluating these things when he says things like this.
Still, like I mentioned before, I do sympathize with where King is coming from on Kubrick's movie, so let's continue:
"The second problem was in characterization and casting. Jack Nicholson, though a fine actor, was all wrong for the part. His last big role was One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and between that and his manic grin, the audience automatically identified him as a loony from the first scene. But the book is about Jack Torrance's gradual descent into madness."
Far be it from me to disagree with the guy who created Jack Torrance, but... I'm going to. And sometimes, that's reasonable; a proud mother holding up her child's painting probably shouldn't be on the committee that decides whether or not it belongs in the Louvre.
As I mentioned last time, I think Nicholson's casting is if-not-perfect, then so close to it that the difference isn't worth mentioning. King underestimates the "angry dry drunk" aspect of his own creation. Jack Torrance is introduced as close-to-snapping from the very first, and we see him struggle with it. Most teachers don't attack their students and break their child's arm; these things alone mark him as borderline. Kubrick/ Nicholson picking up on that and translating it to screen simply shouldn't provoke these concerns. That they do is truly weird to me. Tho, perhaps understandable... he himself has said, "Alcoholics build defenses the way the Dutch build dikes," and since he's also on record as saying "I'm the guy who wrote The Shining without even realizing I was writing about myself," I think I see some denial in this comment (repeated over the years, but again from his Playboy interview, which, I should note, he gave while slamming beers back, as noted by the interviewer.)
But, okay. That's from where I'm sitting, and we're talking about from where King's sitting, right? So, his answer was (to paraphrase his own wording) to get... Brian Hackett from Wings? i.e. "though a fine actor, someone whose last big role was the smirking-other-male-lead on a laughtrack-sitcom, instantly recognizable to the audience of the time?"
|My friend Mark cracked me up by saying they should have got the whole Wings cast for this mini-series. That would have been something. Particularly if Thomas Haden Church has played Danny and David Schramm played Tony.|
Granted, King's first choice was Tim Daly, i.e. the other male lead from Wings. Let me just say - I was surprised in this re-watch to discover Weber's performance was actually better than I remembered. He never sells the "descent into madness" King mentions, but that's not really his fault. Garris and King structure the mini-series in such a plodding takes-forever-to-get-places way that by the time Weber "snaps," it's just very fake, very Lifetime-movie-esque.
Visually-designing the story as an ill-conceived rebuttal to Kubrick's film was bad enough. (And no matter what Garris/ King say, it certainly comes across that way. It's like Ray Manzarek's version of The Doors story - it might be closer to what he thinks/ knows about "what really happened," but Stone's version is a film, utilizing every aspect of the filmmaking process; Manzarek's is not.) Adding awful CGI and make-up further ruined it. But the unbelievable amount of time given to "dramatic tension" scenes between Jack and Wendy (which never once seem dramatic; in fact, Wendy never seems terrified of Jack at all, even after he snaps, and Courtland Mead is just playacting. Tough to criticize child actors, I know, but the difference between Danny's terror in Kubrick's movie and in Garris/King's version is very, very great.) and establishing Jack as "not a bad guy" and basically giving him a few too many hours to not be intimidating makes the transition something sub-par to Discovery ID crime-scene re-enactments.
King's script is definitely a huge part of the problem. It is simply a novel ill-transposed to screen. Novels require the kind of compartmentalization Kubrick and Diane Johnson performed (or any other number of examples); none is on display here. Characters spend four minutes saying what should be expressed in ten seconds, far too much time is spent on nothing-things, (like explaining the rules of Denver Croquet. Really? First of all, it's roque in the novel; why change it? Particularly something that also has no bearing on anything except putting the mallet in Jack's hand?) and R-rated material is shoehorned into PG sensibilities: all of which ensures it comes across as a very-special-episode of Beverly Hills 90210.
How about the other performances? Some aren't bad.
|Probably among the best things Rebecca DeMornay ever did, although I prefer Shelly Duvall's palpable-terror/ suffering-mother-archetype. Still, "AT LEAST SHE WAS BLONDE!" as someone wrote - yes, in all-caps - on the SK Forum.|
The less said about Tony, the better:
Particularly the God-awful decision to have him float like this, or this tacked-on ending where Danny is graduating from high school, as-smiled-upon by Dick Halloran and his mother in the audience, as well as a ghostly-end-of-Jedi-ghost of Jack Torrance:
|Holy dear God in heaven and/or Hell.|
And Elliot Gould has given some fine performances over the years, to be sure, (I for one grew up with The Devil and Max Devlin and enjoy his take on Philip Marlowe in Altman's The Long Goodbye) but his turn as Stu Ullman is bad with a capital "B."
|He over-enunciates each and every letter of every word he delivers as if he's trying to make sure his granddaughter in the back-row can hear Grandpa "play make-believe."|
Some of the cameos are fun, particularly Frank Darabont as one of the ghosts (a screen-shot of which I couldn't find, unfortunately), or
|Sam Raimi as the gas station attendant who gives Dick the snowcat, or|
|King as bandleader of the "Gage Creed Orchestra"|
But ultimately, this whole mess belongs in the same discussion as George Lucas's alterations to the original Star Wars trilogy. Both the novel and Kubrick's version of it are masterpieces, pure and simple; this Garris/ King version of the same tale is like Greedo-firing-first for five-and-a-half damn hours.