I have to admit that as much as I love Stephen King, I'm not the greatest at keeping up with his novels. It's kind of hard when he puts something new out every other day. Luckily, I have a boyfriend who pays attention to my hobbies better than I do, and was lucky enough to get Doctor Sleep shortly after it was released. I was really excited, having only just finished Joyland, and even more excited when I realized it was actually a sequel. King does this a lot, with my two favorite series' being the unofficial Castle Rock books, and obviously, the Dark Tower series (which I will be looking at in another post someday).
Anyway, I dove right in, picking up a copy of The Shining before following Danny (now a not quite respectable Dan) Torrence onto his next adventure and absolutely loved it. I hadn't seen the movie either, so I got myself a copy and would listen to it as I read. I have the worst habit of spoiling any book that's been adapted by about the 60 page mark. It's seriously the worst habit, but I like to see what's different and if my own imagination stands up to Hollywood's. I'm not the biggest Kubrick fan, but I knew what I was in for. After all, I can practically recount the Simpsons's 'The Shinning' by heart. I wound up watching the movie maybe four or five times in the background before finishing the book and then watching it for real. While I'd been comparing and making notes in a very casual way, when I finally watched the thing the whole way through, I ended up pretty annoyed.
To put it lightly, I think The Shining sucks. When the Simpsons can accurately sum up your movie in ten minutes or less, I think it's time to learn how to edit. The biggest issue I had with the movie (once I got over the fact that it could at best be called based on, not adapted from) was that Kubrick seemed almost oblivious to the fact that it's a story about an alcoholic. King is notorious for dealing with issues of addiction in his work, and the book and it's sequel are pretty much PSAs on the dangers of substance abuse. Jack Torrence spends the entire book literally struggling with his demons. I don't think a more obvious metaphor has existed. But let's take a closer look at just how much better 'The Shinning' does.
Simply using Homer instead of Jack already puts the parody miles ahead of the movie. We know Homer is an insatiable drunk. It's funny in the show because nobody ever really gets hurt, but he is a hopeless alcoholic. He loses job after job, calls in favors he definitely doesn't deserve, and is constantly abusing Bart -- which is a lot like the novel version of Jack Torrence. Kubrick for some reason chose to change the Torrence's circumstances, making the caretaker job seem almost like a holiday. He doesn't even try to add the little nugget about Jack having lost his teaching job for beating the crap out of a student, or deciding it was time to stop drinking because he couldn't be sure if he'd killed a kid with his car or not. The typewriter scene in the show really is insane and shows just how detached Homer (Jack) is at that point. It gives a much better insight into the hold the Overlook has on him than the movie does, as well as the duality he's experiencing. The turmoil in his head barely shows on the outside until he finally snaps. The movie has so little motivation for the personality shift besides not having a drink -- which works fine in a funny cartoon but leaves a movie to fall a little flat. Jack Nicholson does seem isolated in the movie and he definitely is craving a drink, but he seems to just sort of, flip out, going from "Stop bugging me" to "I WILL CHOP YOUR FACE OFF," just a scene or two after a whole movie of quiet family awkwardness. But then, Kubrick never was a master of pacing, or anything so pedestrian as making sense.
I know it's a stretch to say the Simpsons is poking fun at Kubrick in a literary way, but the show was in its prime as the masters of satire. I like to think the writers had read the book and maybe liked it a little better, as most who've read it do. It's very easy to parody a famous piece, but to do it so well takes just a bit extra -- and there are subtle differences that lead me to believe that they knew exactly what they were doing.
Marge feels a whole lot closer to the original Wendy Torrence than Shelley Duvall, for instance. I still don't know how I feel about Duvall -- she did the best with a character that completely morphed from being an independent woman about to divorce her piece of sh*t husband to the banshee of the manor -- but nobody can accuse her of doing a bad job with the movie. It just sucks that Kubrick has such a low opinion of women-- and before you argue, go watch Lolita. She's supposed to be a sexpot and she looks like a potato for most of the movie. Wendy was meant to be a bombshell who had stuck out a rough marriage because she believed there was good in her husband. She was supposed to be the rock holding him together, which is why he needs to kill her. The Overlook spends a good amount of time messing with her through Jack because she is literally too strong for it to get to her directly. If there's one thing I think King does really well, it's write women. He's not really about the helpless waif and that's why I like Marge. She's strong, she's fierce, and she's, well, Marge. She kicks butt and makes chili and barely bats an eye.
Finally, the running gag with Willy being axed in the back is absolutely glorious. In the book, Dick Halloran goes through hell to save Danny and his mom. The hotel is strong enough to actually impede his cross-country trip, but he still makes it. By the time he gets to the Overlook, he's half frozen, but he still actually helps get them out, even after being attacked. Yeah! He actually lives in the books. He could have been one of the only black men to actually live through a horror movie and well... I don't want to say Kubrick didn't like black people, but in the words of my people, that was some bullsh*t. They didn't even have to write a joke. They just had to get Dan Castellaneta to read Dick Halloran three times as a Scott. Ach!
Most of that can be forgiven. A good adaptation, like a good song cover, usually has flair of its own and will be different, and the movie doesn't lack for interest or entertainment value. But this is still my biggest qualm: Kubick's movie barely deals with any of the more serious issues raised in the book. Hell, it doesn't even end the same way! We don't get to see the Torrence family struggle as unit. We don't get to see Wendy suffer as she realizes that even though her husband is turning into a monster, he and her son share a closer bond. We don't get to see Jack fight for his son and his sanity. There's the alcoholism, but it's nowhere near as desperate and intense as it is in the novel (Moe is a great Lloyd). Stephen King tackles addiction, suffering, and chaos; the Overlook hotel is itself all of those things rolled into one -- there are no ghosts. The characters see what the Overlook projects through their own battered souls -- exactly what poor old Dick Halloran tells Danny after they pass by room 238. It's really too bad that Kubrick's Overlook is just an old building filled with eccentric, lonely ghosts. It's fun and scary if you don't know what you missed out on, but I think I'll stick to 'The Shinning' the next time I want to see a quick, simple retelling of what has become one of my favorite stories.
If you want to hear more about my take on Kubrick, check out my article on the re-release of 2001: A Space Odyssey.