I was eleven years old when The Shining happened to me.
Stephen King had been a fixture of my life for years, though I barely understood why. I had watched cooler classmates tote around black paperbacks emblazoned with some impressionistic symbol—a bleached skull with stars in the sockets and a clown’s nose; a red spray of flame with a wide, frightened eye at the center—the titles always a few sizes smaller than his name, clearly the true selling point. Just the sight of one of those books aroused an urgent curiosity that was only stoked by my parents’ refusal to let me read them for myself.
But with the start of middle school, the ban was lifted. And when I selected my first Stephen King from the library, it wasn’t one of the alluring black paperbacks my peers had traded. This one was battered and old, its sickly yellow cover held on with scotch tape. The text on the cover was big enough to hold an eerie, pointillist image of a terrified face, and the smaller, red text above promised me that this book was a masterpiece of modern horror. And it promised me something else: there was a movie.
I took down The Shining in breathless gulps, not reading it so much as absorbing it deep into the core of me. I had never connected with a “grownup” book like this. Reading Hemingway for school, I’d felt like I was grasping at an appreciation for something just beyond my understanding. Yet here was a book written with all the unpretentious propulsion of my favorite young adult novels, but with subject matter so mature that I could sense future concerns somewhere on my own horizon—fear of being unable to control your worst impulses; fear that this selfishness could destroy your family—and horrors so severe and forceful that my mind, trained on Goosebumps and Scary Stories to Tell In the Dark, reeled almost to the point of intoxication.
As soon as I finished the book, I begged my parents to let me rent the movie. But when I was granted permission to bring home the VHS, I was too frightened to watch it alone, so I enlisted my dad to join me in what I now think of as method viewing: we watched the tape in my grandparents’ big, lonely house, deep in the pine forests of western Maine, late at night during a heavy snowstorm.
I was awake for the next fifty hours. Any time I closed my eyes, I saw a maniacal grinning corpse shuffling towards me across a bathroom, or two young girls lying at the end of a brightly lit hallway, wearing blue dresses drenched in their blood. Sleep wasn’t even an option.
I didn’t read The Shining, and I didn’t see The Shining. This story, in both its iterations, happened to me.
And then I found out about the other version.
With any reimagining of beloved source material, the operative question is: why? Why bother with a new version of Arthur or The Magnificent Seven when we already have perfectly good ones?
In the case of the 1997 miniseries Stephen King’s The Shining, however, there’s a clear answer: Stephen King hates Kubrick’s movie.
It’s rare for a writer to have this level of disdain for an adaptation, let alone for that disdain to be so out of step with public opinion—Kubrick’s take on the Torrance family’s very bad winter at the Overlook Hotel was ranked the 29th greatest horror movie by the AFI; The Guardian placed it 5th, and Rolling Stone readers placed it 2nd. But King classified Kubrick as “a visceral skeptic,” which he believed caused the director to focus too much on the Torrance family’s relationship rather than the haunted hotel. “Because he couldn’t believe,” King sniffed in 1983, “he couldn’t make the film believable to others.”
“I’d like to remake The Shining someday,” he mused in the same interview, “if anybody will give me enough rope to hang myself with.”
That’s exactly what ABC invited King to do 20 years after his novel’s publication. They provided him, and frequent collaborator director Mick Garris, as much rope as he wanted, offering full creative control. Whether he hung himself is open to debate.
Few people remember Stephen King’s The Shining 20 years on, and those who do tend not to remember it fondly (in a 2013 piece for The Dissolve, Tasha Robinson described the miniseries as “tame, plodding…cheap and obvious”). But King’s adaptation was received warmly—more warmly, in fact, than Kubrick’s film was on release. The Shining was nominated for no Academy Awards, and two Razzies; Stephen King’s The Shining was nominated for three Emmys and won two. Variety’s review of the film accuses Kubrick of “destroy[ing] all that was so terrifying about Stephen King’s bestseller” while their review of the miniseries describes it as “a far more unsettling and compelling piece of filmmaking than the megahyped original.”
It took great restraint to write all of that with journalistic detachment, so now I’ll allow myself to say: bullshit.
I usually cite The Shining as my favorite novel. So I admire King’s commitment to seeing his vision brought to life, and in many ways he accomplished his goal. The miniseries is much more faithful to the novel’s story and themes. But replicating the book’s events came at a price. King lost something essential to the novel’s effect, something Kubrick and his cowriter Diane Johnson had the good sense to recreate without replicating.
The Shining is a story about the mind, about its power and its vulnerability. Danny and Halloran both have extra-sensory perception, and the hotel infects Jack’s psyche, rotting his brain until he is capable of attempted murder. And to tell a story that takes place so much inside the characters’ heads, King makes use of a tool that’s simply not available onscreen, a tool he’s so adept with that by now he might take it for granted: he puts us directly inside the characters’ interior perceptions.
One central character is completely internal. Tony is described as Danny’s “invisible playmate,” and the book plays coy with what exactly Tony is. To Danny, Tony is an older boy who exists “at the very limit of his vision, calling distantly and beckoning.” He’s responsible for the visions that warn Danny of coming danger, and in his first appearance, Danny sees him “far up the street,” speaking in stylized, italic dialogue—Dannee.
In that scene, Tony pulls Danny into a disturbing montage. Through Danny’s childlike perspective, we see traffic warnings that he can somehow read, an alarming experience for an illiterate six-year-old, unfamiliar rooms that have been violently overturned, and an encroaching, bellowing shape described only as a monster. We can infer plenty about the scene, but King keeps us within Danny’s perspective, describing the scene with all the chaos and confusion of a six-year-old’s viewpoint.
But subjective perception is impossible to create onscreen. Prose can allow an audience to share a character’s headspace, but onscreen, even surreal events are depicted with a degree of objectivity that leaves it up to the audience to interpret on their own. And that kind of impressionistic trickery is the route King and Garris pick—rather than a mirage, Tony is now an in-focus actor floating above the ground, and rather than Danny’s hectic interpretation of the images, we essentially see previews of coming events. As readers, we infer that the monster represents what Jack will become. Onscreen, King and Harris just distort Steven Weber’s voice and throw a Weber-shaped shadow on a wall. It all feels small, familiar, and pedestrian.
Kubrick devises a workaround to keep Tony present as a character without ever showing him onscreen. In the film, Tony is described as “the little boy that lives in [Danny’s] mouth,” and he speaks through Danny with a guttural croak accompanied by Danny wriggling his finger with no explanation beyond child logic. This Tony speaks to Danny’s parents, allowing his eerie, distressing presence to be external rather than stuck in Danny’s head, and Danny’s visions are turned into brief, static flashes broken by smash cuts, using film grammar to create edge-of-your-seat tension more effectively than any stock sound and lighting effect. Tony is painted in an entirely different style, but Kubrick brings us right back to the enigmatic creepiness of King’s vision.
One of the biggest differences between King’s story and Kubrick’s is the topiary. In the novel, the Overlook is surrounded by hedge animals, which become increasingly animate as the story goes on. Kubrick nixed the topiary creatures, which would have been difficult to render convincingly in 1980, replacing them with a hedge maze, which became one of the most recognizable icons of the film.
For the miniseries, King and Garris brought the topiary roaring back to digital life with the aid of the finest CGI available on a 1997 TV budget. Once again, though, they sacrificed a psychological effect in the process.
In both novel and miniseries, the topiary’s first significant set piece features Jack getting a sinking feeling that something’s not right as he gives the hedges their first trim. After he turns away, he looks back and notices, “the rabbit was down on all fours, cropping grass. Its belly was against the ground. But not ten minutes ago it had been up on its hind legs, of course it had been.”
The crucial effect here is that Jack is beginning to doubt his own perceptions. The sequence essentially places us inside Jack’s mind (and his body, with King making use of physical details including some slightly odd references to what’s happening to Jack’s testicles). We can’t view the events from any perspective but King’s descriptions of Jack’s thoughts, and Jack spends the sequence telling himself he’s either hallucinating or losing his mind. We know what kind of book we’re reading, so we can be pretty sure what’s going on, but King leaves us stranded in Jack’s confusion, unable to confirm or deny his suspicions for ourselves.
When the sequence is recreated in the miniseries, we’re once again confronted by the limitations of bringing the psychological onto the screen. King shifts Jack’s encounter with the topiary to after the first snowfall, which allows him to use snow falling off the hedge creatures to emphasize Jack’s fears. It’s a useful trick to demonstrate what’s bothering Jack, but it destroys our ability to share his unease. Now that we can assess the situation ourselves, we can confirm the animals are changing position, and when the sequence ends with the animals returned to their original spots, we have to decide whether Jack was officially hallucinating, or the hotel is officially magical, rather than leaving us stranded in the novel’s uncanny distress.
Theoretically, it seems like the audiovisual nature of film should be able to offer more storytelling possibilities than any other medium, but Stephen King’s The Shining shows that there are some effects that just can’t be recreated, even with deft problem-solving. Sometimes, you need a more global solution, such as the ones Kubrick dreamed up. He invented a hedge sculpture that served the psychological effects available onscreen—when Jack has fully lost his humanity and his grasp on reality, he traps himself in a cold twisted purgatory. Rather than scrambling to preserve the novel’s details, he found a way to preserve its impact.
Of course, that’s presuming King would even agree with my understanding of his story’s impact, and that seems fairly unlikely. One of King’s most frequent complaints about the film is that Kubrick couldn’t capture “the sheer inhuman evil” of the Overlook, and an inanimate hedge maze would seem emblematic of that issue. To King, the hotel is a living being, and he surrounded it with living hedge animals, an idea he took even further in the miniseries when the topiary scene climaxes with the playground coming alive, empty seesaws flailing wildly, a swing leaping up to smack Jack in the face. He anthropomorphizes the hotel at every turn, even introducing an unseen “manager” apparently pulling the strings. This hotel has a kind of soul, apparently one similar to our own.
In Kubrick’s film, the hotel is apparently neither autonomous nor self-aware. In the novel, a ghost tells Jack, “You’re the caretaker, sir. You’ve always been the caretaker. I should know, sir. I’ve always been here. The same manager hired us both, at the same time.” Kubrick uses these lines verbatim, one of the rare occurrences of deferring to King’s language, but crucially, he leaves off the last sentence. Kubrick’s Overlook has no consciousness that we can recognize or connect to. It’s a detached locus of unknowable evil, and that strikes me as quite a lot more inhuman, and more frightening, than one that can play pranks with a swing set.
In the end, King’s complaints about Kubrick’s film seem to boil down to one issue: it isn’t scary.
After fifty sleepless hours, I would certainly have begged to differ, and the film has never lost any of its alarming hold over me, even as films that used to chill me have dulled over time. To King, though, this film is not true horror, and we may just have to agree to disagree.
King has a fondness for unambiguously happy endings in his work, particularly as he’s grown older. When criticizing Kubrick’s film, he often insists horror should “grab you by the throat and not let go,” but when he set the record straight with Stephen King’s The Shining, he added a flash-forward epilogue in which Jack’s ghost—apparently redeemed and set free—attends Danny’s high school graduation and shares a tender moment with his son. It’s so mawkish it’s almost breathtaking.
In 1981, just as he simmered in resentment towards Kubrick, King wrote Danse Macabre, a work of nonfiction discussing horror and fantasy, in which he cited the EC horror comics of the 1950s as his own standard for horror. And while those stories are often gruesome and creepy, they’re only a few degrees removed from other boy’s adventure stories of the era. The prototypical horror story, King writes, exists “for one reason and one reason alone: to scare the shit out of little kids.”
Even to the undisputed master of 20th Century mainstream horror, the genre should be a little bit fun, and a little bit therapeutic. “We take refuge in make-believe horrors,” King wrote in a 2010 essay, “so the real ones don’t overwhelm us.” But Kubrick made a movie that provides no comfort and no relief. While Stephen King’s The Shining traffics with familiar images and tropes like darkened corners and jump scares, Kubrick’s The Shining takes place almost entirely in brightly lit rooms, and its horrors tend to relentlessly approach in agonizingly long shots, from the shambling corpse in room 237 to Jack slowly entering the frame behind an unsuspecting Wendy. A jump scare is abruptly intense with a cathartic cool-down, but as Jack creeps towards Wendy, the intensity mounts and no relief is offered until the credits roll, if not days later.
I’m not enough of an iconoclastic bastard to try and argue King’s books aren’t scary. They’re often terrifying—Pet Sematary in particular is among the bleakest novels I’ve ever read. He’s spent nearly a half-century burrowing into our minds and wreaking havoc. But he is, in the end, a prose craftsman, and his books tend to require reinvention to work onscreen. Lawrence Kasdan’s Dreamcatcher fails for any number of reasons, but chief among them is the screenplay’s fidelity to King’s folksy patois. On the page, it can seem charming enough when characters exclaim, “What a fuckarow! I mean, Jesus-Christ-bananas!” But saddling an actor with those words is cruel and unusual punishment, and given that the script was written by legendary screenwriter William Goldman, the blame unfortunately has to fall on his reluctance to deviate from King’s language.
There are plenty of varied exceptions to this thesis. King adapted Pet Sematary very faithfully, and the film is effective and timeless—though, significantly, it’s a book of external horrors rather than the mental ones of The Shining. And Goldman has written one very faithful adaptation, Misery, that’s among the stone-cold classic King movies, and one that took a lot of liberties, Hearts in Atlantis, that still mostly falls flat. When you’ve written as many popular books as Stephen King, there will be case studies for every type of approach, and few novelists have yielded films with a wider spread in cultural appreciation, from The Shawshank Redemption (currently sitting pretty with a 91% on Rotten Tomatoes) to the recent Cell (currently just barely in double digits with an 11%).
Maybe there’s just a magic to a good storyteller firing on all cylinders, one that can’t quite be quantified. It’s pretty rare for two classic works in different media to share the same title; in a world of, “The book was better,” how rare is it that you can mount a strong argument for both sides?
The Shining is one of my favorite books, and The Shining is one of my favorite movies. They’re two totally different stories about mostly the same things happening to mostly the same people. And neither has stopped happening to me for twenty years. I have a feeling both will be playing with me forever.
Featured Image: Warner Bros.