Kubrick vs King: The Shining (1980) vs The Shining (1997)

[This article contains major spoilers for both films.]

I worked in a hotel once, and I sometimes felt like running when I was walking down its corridors.  I always felt claustrophobic, and I didn’t like all those doors.  Was there anybody behind them?  If so, why was it so quiet?  What were they doing in there which was so quiet?  I didn’t like it, and on a couple of occasions broke into a little jog for no other reason than I got a bit scared.

I attribute this to three things: One, I’m a scaredy cat, and also do a little involuntary running sometimes when walking down country lanes or across fields by myself.  Two, hotels are creepy places.  Three, The Shining.

Stephen King hated Kubrick’s film version of his novel.  He didn’t like it that the director played down the supernatural element, instead making it seem the ghosts came from the characters.  He didn’t feel Jack Nicholson was suitable for the role, and portrayed recovering alcoholic and struggling writer Jack Torrance as nuts before he even got to the Overlook.

Struggling with alcoholism while writing The Shining, King’s book had a semi-autobiographical edge, focusing on the ravages of the disease on family life.

King’s criticisms are valid.  Kubrick’s characters are not sympathetic in any way, and without Torrance’s lengthy back story, he just becomes Jack Nicholson running around with an axe.

However much I agree with King’s points, I can’t help but think of a scene from Milos Forman’s Amadeus.  Court composer Salieri has been working on a “March of Welcome” for Mozart.  The young maestro rolls up, and claims to know it off by heart already, having heard Salieri playing it as he walked in.  He then insults Salieri by effortlessly improving the piece in front of the Emperor.

Kubrick kept the parts he wanted: Jack Torrance takes a job as winter caretaker at the remote Overlook hotel.  He hopes the isolation will help him finish his book.

However, the Overlook is not a peaceful place to stay.  The old hotel has its own spirits, and wants Jack’s son, Danny, for its collection.  Danny has psychic abilities, suffering from premonitions that manifest themselves in Tony, his imaginary friend.

The Overlook begins to influence Jack’s deteriorating mind, and he descends into madness, eventually trying to kill his wife and son with an axe.

In 1997, King produced his own version, a six-hour TV mini series starring Steven Weber, Rebecca De Mornay and Courtland Mead as the troubled family.

King’s teleplay reintroduced several key incidents and plot points dropped by Kubrick: the creeping boiler, the topiary animals, the wasp’s nest, Jack’s abusive father, the croquet mallets, and King’s original denouement.

Shot in no-nonsense made-for-TV style by regular King collaborator Mick Garris, the six-hour slog is pretty uninspired, but makes a few improvements over Kubrick’s version.

De Mornay is much better than Shelley Duvall as Wendy.  They share some of the same lines, but Duvall always seemed such a mismatch with Nicholson, and had little to do other than snivel and shriek.  De Mornay’s Wendy is more determined and balanced, a loving wife clinging desperately to her marriage and trying to help her husband overcome his destructive tendencies.

The lengthy running time allows Weber to build Jack as a believable human being suffering from a terrible affliction, although Weber’s performance is generally dislikeable.

The mini series’ epic length allows a lengthier prelude to Danny’s entrance to the cursed room 217 (237 in Kubrick’s version).  This builds up the chills by focusing on Danny’s encounter with the lady in the bath rather than Jack’s.  The shadows at the foot of the door suggesting someone standing the other side were particularly creepy.

One huge problem is King’s choice of lodgings.  Filmed at the Stanley Hotel in Colorado, the hotel that originally inspired King’s novel, it simply doesn’t look scary.  From the exterior shots, the hotel doesn’t look like it’s in the wilderness and could be cut off from civilization for months at a time.  It looks like it’s on the edge of a town somewhere, and there is no sense of isolation.

King’s desperation to reinstate the supernatural element means that almost every scene has ghostly whispers, doors closing by themselves, lights turning on and fires igniting by themselves.  From the first episode, it’s tempting to deduce that the Overlook’s ghosts don’t like draughts, are afraid of the dark and like to keep warm at night.

The two biggest mistakes are how King portrays Danny’s imaginary friend, Tony, and the topiary animals.

In Kubrick’s version, Tony was Danny talking to his finger, and putting on a croaky voice for Tony’s replies.  It was simple and unsettling, especially with the startling visions that followed.

King goes for a floating teenager with big round glasses, making him looking like Buggles, of one hit wonder Video Killed the Radio Star.  Not unsettling, just silly.

Kubrick dropped the topiary animals partly because of limitations in special effects at the time.  It was wise.  Having seen what 1997 CGI-for-TV can do, Kubrick was better off with his hedge maze.

The relentless ghosts, Buggles as an imaginary friend, and topiary lions running around make Stephen King’s The Shining feel rather childish.

Kubrick took what he wanted from King’s novel, and made fundamental changes to the story.  The murder weapon changed from a croquet mallet to an axe.  Forget cliches, axes work in horror films because it’s a scary weapon.  Axes work for murderers because they’re great for hacking up victims, which is why you don’t hear too many stories about maniacs going wild with croquet mallets, cricket bats or tennis rackets.

(Let’s hope Stephen King doesn’t attempt to remake any other established horror classics – The Texas Beard Trimmer Massacre, anyone?)

Crucially, Kubrick’s decision to drop the topiary animals introduced the hedge maze.  The maze is critical to the film’s logic, and allowed Kubrick to drop the nonsense with the boiler and King’s original ending, in favour of one of movie history’s most exciting horror climaxes.

King, sympathetic to Jack, allows him final redemption, as he dies with the Overlook when he allows the boiler to explode.  Kubrick’s Torrance doesn’t get any redemption as he pursues his son through the snowy maze, frozen to death by morning.

It is also significant that King shows Danny and Wendy with the hotel’s cook, Dick Halloran, after their escape.  In Kubrick’s version, the viewer, like Jack, never leaves the Overlook.

Kubrick’s Overlook is a labyrinth, and may be the film’s only reliable narrator.  Many critics have suggested the film has no reliable narrator, as the ghosts could all be hallucinations of Jack, Danny and Wendy.

However, someone or something lets Jack out of the pantry, so the ghosts must exist, and much of the film is shot from the hotel’s POV – maybe even the scenes outside its grounds.  After all, if Danny and Halloran can “Shine” and see what happens at the Overlook, what’s not to say it too can’t shine and see what’s happening in their homes?

Cut off from the world, the Torrances are lost in the labyrinth of the Overlook, a place of cavernous ballrooms and ominous hallways, gloomy corridors and dingy caretaker’s flats.  The hedge maze continues the visual motif on the exterior.  As madness and cabin fever set in, these physical labyrinths become a metaphor for the passageways and corridors of the mind.

As the Overlook’s ghosts emerge from their different eras, the Torrances also become displaced in time.  The title cards announcing periods of time become erratic, creating the impression that time in the Overlook has become dislocated and arbitrary.

Time loses meaning, and repetition drives the characters into madness.  There are a number of repetitive noises in The Shining – the high piercing noise that accompanies some shock moments.  The trundling wheels of Danny’s go kart over uncarpeted floor.  The rhythmic pounding of Jack’s baseball thrown against the wall.

Repetition, culminating in Jack’s manuscript – “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” – over and over, and Wendy realizes her husband has lost his mind.

King got to make his version of The Shining, and I’m pleased.  It was a great book and I’m sure fans will enjoy seeing both versions.  However, Stephen King is only a good writer, and Stanley Kubrick was a genius film maker.  He took what he wanted from King’s good book and turned it into a masterpiece of horror cinema.

Not a lot will stick in my mind from King’s version of his own book.  Like Grady tells Jack, “You’ve always been the caretaker”, for me, Kubrick’s version of The Shining will always be The Shining.  The Overlook keeps collecting its victims – once you’ve checked in, it’s unlikely you will leave.


Further reading:

Mise-en-scene in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining

Film Analysis – The Shining: Brilliant Film or Narrative Mess?

IlluminatiWatcher’s “The Shining” Symbolic Analysis


About leerobertadams

Lee is an English writer, blogger and film critic living in Brno, Czech Republic. When not watching and writing about movies, he loves football, reading, eating out, and enjoying his adopted home city with his girlfriend and two children.

Posted on 10/07/2012, in Entertainment, Film, Horror, Movies, Psychological, Reviews, S and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. For having three times as much, uh, time as Kubrick’s I didn’t think King’s version did enough. Perhaps that’s a fault of the made-for-TV pacing that worked so well on IT, but I thought it took a lot of wind out of the sails for The Shining.

    I also find it frustrating that King felt the need for this version to be made. If he was writing the novelization of a film, surely he would take his own artistic liberties?

    • I don’t think you can feel too bad about it. The Shining was King’s baby, and it obviously meant a lot to him, especially with the autobiographical side to it. The running time was excessive, but at least the Torrances resembled a normal family in the mini-series.

      As for artistic liberties, I don’t think Stephen King is that kind of guy! I think he wanted just a straightforward telling of his story. And when you’ve got Mick Garris at the helm, director of visionary masterpieces like Critters 2 & Psycho 4, you’re hardly going to get movie magic!

  2. I loved the movie and the book. I saw them as 2 different things so it didn’t bother me that the movie didn’t follow the book exactly. The mini series was a mistake. The special effects were so cheesy and while I like Weber, I didn’t like him in this role. But then, not too many people can step in Jack Nicholson’s shoes 🙂

    • I think that’s the way to look at things – people get so uptight when a film doesn’t measure up to the book, forgetting that they are two very different mediums. Thanks for your comments.

  3. Excellent piece. Thanks. I agree about Tony and the hedge animals but, other than that, I quite enjoyed the mini-series. Rebecca De Mornay really lifted it up a notch. Also, I love the way you introduced this review / comparison; made me smile.

    • Thank you! I didn’t want to just take a typically pro-Kubrick stance and automatically assume everything about King’s miniseries is inferior. And I was surprised to find certain things worked better, particularly De Mornay’s performance. So six hours wasn’t wasted…

  4. Wow saying that it’s a great movie based on good book and calling King just a good writer is a blasemphy!

    • Hey Someone, thanks for reading & commenting! I think King suffers from his populist writing style – when reading his books you almost forget you’re actually reading. That shouldn’t count against him, because he’s extraordinarily popular and he’s produced some of the 20th century’s most iconic horror stories. Time will eventually tell, but my feeling is that The Shining the book will continue to pale in comparison to The Shining the movie, as Kubrick’s adaptation seems to gather more and more strength as a masterpiece with each passing year. I think King’s popularity – rightly or wrongly – gives snobs the opportunity to write him off as a bit corny and vulgar. It probably doesn’t help that some of his later work, “Cell” for example, feels like it was knocked off in his lunchbreak. Time will tell, but right now I don’t think he falls into that pantheon of legendary horror writers like Poe, Lovecraft, and MR James. Although working in a different medium, Kubrick undoubtedly does have that genius status already.

  5. I do agree with King on the portrayal of Jack in the 1980 Shining. He was crazy before it even started. Nicholson performed well none the less. Am I the only one who loved Shelley Duvall’s performance? She was more interesting than Jack to me.

    Never saw the tv adaptation so I can’t have an opinion on it. It looks very modern and that’s not a good thing to me.

    I thought Cell was a good book but I hated the movie.

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