AN ESSAY WITH VIDEO HEAD-TO-HEADS
[This is an adapted and expanded version of a talk I gave on September 21, 2017 at Kevin Geeks Out About Stephen King at Nitehawk Cinema in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Kevin Geeks Out is a monthly series of talks on geeky topics hosted by Kevin Maher.]
Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film The Shining is considered a horror masterpiece, and even one of the greatest films ever made.
Stephen King, famously, hated it.
He called it “a great big beautiful Cadillac with no motor inside,” and has said, “The real problem is that Kubrick set out to make a horror picture with no apparent understanding of the genre.”
In fact, King publicly disparaged the movie so often that when he decided to do the 1997 miniseries and needed Kubrick’s approval, since Kubrick owned the rights, King had to sign a contract promising he would quit trashing the movie in public.
King admitted that his motivation for doing the miniseries was to cor-r-r-rect the errors he saw Kubrick as having made. As King had repeatedly stated in interviews: “I would do everything different.”
And so he did.
I’ve met many people who like the miniseries. And I’ve noticed that most of the people who hate the Kubrick movie seem to be pissed off that it strays from the book. But we’re talking about a visual experience, whether in a theater or on a TV screen. Therefore the works of art should be judged on their merits as motion pictures. So what we’ll do here is have the Kubrick movie and the King miniseries go head-to-head, scene-to-scene.
It’s important to note that King wrote the screenplay for the miniseries and was executive producer. This was his baby as much as the original book was.
My thesis is that the King miniseries is problematic. And by “problematic” I mean “a great big ugly Sno-Cat with a motor inside smashed to bits by a psychotic hotel caretaker.”
PROBLEM #1: THE CASTING
King hated Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance, because he was perceived as crazy from the get-go, instead of a slow build from nice guy to brains-basher. So King rebelled by casting the vanilla-est vanilla of all sitcom-star vanillas, Steven Weber, who was in your mom’s favorite program, Wings.
In the essential role of Danny, he did another 180 by casting a kid who was not a thoughtful, quiet, inner-storm-of-a-five-year-old, as was Danny Lloyd, but a bowl-cut cutie-pie who, for some reason, does not have the physical ability to close his mouth all the way. Ever.
[NB: No sound in video.]
And by the way, that kid, Courtland Mead, was nine years old. He was actively dumbing himself down to play a kindergartener. Kubrick’s Danny Lloyd was five-and-a-half.
But this was clearly King’s own vision of Danny. In fact, I did some digging and found the casting director’s sheet of final selects from the months leading up to filming, which give us a lot of information about what he was going for.
(P.S. Courtland Mead turned out to be a perfectly handsome fellow who could close his mouth! And it wasn’t his fault he was cast! And he did the best he could under the circumstances of acting for director Mick Garris and with this particular script! Warm shout-out to Mr. Mead!)
PROBLEM #2: THE SCARES
It’s a horror story. So the scares are kinda important. Let’s just go ahead and take a look at how each Master Storyteller handled the scary parts.
[NB: Explicit! Nudity! Violence! Rated R!]
They definitely blew their wad on the bathtub lady. That’s where all the money went, and she’s actually pretty good, I think.
PROBLEM #3: THE SCRIPT
Kubrick wrote his own script, assisted by Diane Johnston, and King wrote his screenplay himself. Most of you know the famous lines from Kubrick’s version, so here’s a quick run-through of King’s bon mots.
PROBLEM #4: JUST EVERYTHING
The setting, the cinematography, the lighting, the acting, the costumes, the make-up, the special effects, the music, the situational choices.
One of the best examples of “just everything” is how the scary hedges are handled from the original novel. In the book, animal-shaped topiary come to life. Kubrick felt this would not come off well on film, so he reinterpreted that in the form of the giant hedge maze.
Let’s see how all of that worked out.
And I’ve got to show the party scene, because to me the centerpiece of Kubrick’s film is Jack talking to Grady in the red bathroom. I honestly think it is one of the greatest scenes in film history. In King’s miniseries version, we have no Lloyd (as was in his own book), Grady is the bartender, and Grady hasn’t even killed his family (again: King leaving out his own idea). And it comes out like this:
PROBLEM #5: THE END
Kubrick changed the ending, from the hotel exploding, as happened in the novel, to Jack freezing to death. In the miniseries, of course, King retains his inferno finale.
But he also tacks on an epilogue not found in the novel. An epilogue so what-the-fuck?, so why-god-why?, that I’m just going to go ahead and rest my case.