The Shining, the notably-out-there Stanley Kubrick 1980 journey into the realm of horror, has captivated and thrilled audiences for over three decades. A river of blood cascading from inside a majestic elevator, two little girls holding hands in twin blue dresses and Jack Nicholson’s crazed and haunting call of “Here’s Johnny!” have gained the film infamy in the cult realm. But the screenplay adaptation, written by Kubrick and Diane Johnson, lacks the same punch as Stephen King’s 1977 novel of the same name. Kubrick’s version of The Shining, while weird and sometimes stomach-twisting, just lacks the scare factor.
Jack Torrance (Nicholson), a down-on-his-luck school teacher with no job, a temper and an ongoing battle with alcoholism, accepts a job at the Overlook Hotel as the winter caretaker, a job that will leave he, his wife and his young son all stranded on the side of a mountain once the Colorado snow rolls in. But soon after arriving, Jack begins a descent into madness that rocks the whole family, none more so than Danny, his son, who has a strange ability known as “the shining.” And in the end, death appears to be the only escape from the hotel’s angry grasp.
The main problem with the book-to-movie adaptation is that Kubrick took the formulaic notions of horror in a young King’s novel and twisted them into a character study on madness and ambiguous evil. Gone was the fascinating journey of a hotel taking over the mind of a weak, yet understandable man. Instead, The Shining gets boiled down to a confusing plot line with weak characters and imagery solely for the sake of shock value.
The appeal of King’s novel rests in the historical mystery that is the Overlook Hotel, based off the real Stanley Hotel in Colorado. Readers discover tantalizing snippets of information, not through deductions made by the Torrance family members, but rather by the hotel itself leaving clues and thoughts for the easily-influenced Jack. The hotel, and it’s ghostly inhabitants, are in control. But in the film, the only background given is that there was a caretaker in 1970 who murdered his entire family and that the Overlook may or may not have been built on a Native American burial ground. It’s confusing, slow and downright lazy.
Wendy Torrance, played by Shelley Duvall, is the total embodiment of a damsel in distress in Kubrick’s film, perfecting the screech honed by every Scream Queen. She’s meak, foolhardy and annoying, providing no color to the story unless you like watching someone cry. But the Wendy of King’s imagination is full of color, demanding and take charge in a way that one would hope a true heroine of any story might be. Once her character realizes just how far her husband has fallen, she doesn’t beg and plead for her life. She takes charge, fights back, and keeps fighting through some pretty serious injuries.
That’s not to say that the lack of passion towards Wendy comes from anything Duvall had done, but rather the poor writing and interpretation that Kubrick and Johnson brought to the character. Such a shame.
And just like the rest of the movie, the ending of the versions of The Shining enter on complete opposites of the scale. One ends in fire, the other ice. One with cunning trickery, the other with solid truth and intuition. Each leaves a different impact, the novel version being much stronger and satisfying.
Kubrick’s version of The Shining lacked the strength of character that makes you root for the protagonists. Instead of hoping for the ultimate demise of a man fallen victim to the psychic control of the Overlook’s long-dead guests, the only thing you can hope for is Nicholson will swoop in, in all his axe-wielding glory (and it’s not even supposed to be an axe), and make the hysterical and overly dramatic Duvall be quiet. So even though the film itself is in no way forgettable or less-than-brilliant, it can no way be compared to the originality and horrifying circumstances of the original story.