by John S
Ah, the wondrous wonders of winter…
They utterly blow. Frigid temperatures. Short days. Gray skies. Cranky people on the bus coughing and passing their lovely flu germs onto you. What’s not to love? But, hey, it could be worse. You could be spending it snowbound in an empty hotel deep in the ass-end of the Colorado Rockies, contending with a freaked-out wife, a kid with the Sixth Sense, and dozens of alcoholic ghosts ready to boogie in the ballroom and want you to join them – badly.
Such is the sad fate of the Torrances, the family in the The Shining, the very popular 1977 Stephen King horror novel. Papa Bear Jack makes the rather stupid decision to isolate himself and his brood for over sixth months in a remote mountain resort so he can earn some extra cash as its winter caretaker and also work on his novel. Because, apparently, absolutely no other job in North America that qualified as sane was available. You don’t have to be a Rhodes Scholar to figure out not all of the Torrances make it to Spring in mint condition. And so the Darwin Principle keeps on proving itself.
The Shining was first adapted for the big screen in 1980 by acclaimed director Stanley Kubrick. One person who definitely wasn’t a fan of that version was King himself. Let’s just say Kubrick wasn’t all too concerned with being faithful to the novel. This particular bee must have been such a colossal pain in King’s bonnet, because he eventually penned and executive-produced a 1997 TV mini-series version (directed by Mick Garris) that was, ahem, much more in line with his book. How did it turn out? Well, for a start, very different from Kubrick’s version. Which one of them is the better horror flick? Ay, papi, this is going to get bloody.
Let the battle begin:
In this corner, running 144 minutes long, directed by the dude behind obscure flicks no one cares about like 2001 and A Clockwork Orange and Dr. Strangelove, and starring some guy named Jack Nicholson and Olive Oyl: The Shining 1980!
In that corner, running 273 (wait – what?) minutes long, directed by the creator of Criterion-worthy classics like, uh, Critters 2 and Psycho IV: The Beginning, and starring the non-Tim Daly brother from Wings and the hot psycho nanny from The Hand That Rocks The Cradle: The Shining 1997! Also known affectionately or not as Stephen King’s The Shining!
Round One: Jack vs. Jack…
One of the gripes some folks have with Nicholson’s turn as Jack Torrance is he pretty much looks nuts from scene one. Can’t really argue there: the guy does always look like he’s just waiting for the right moment to go all Joker/Cuckoo’s Nest on you. However, it actually kind of makes the movie unsettling from the get-go. Watch Nicholson/Jack’s face when the hotel manager tells him the story of the previous caretaker who murdered his family then killed himself. It looks like he’s thinking: “What is this f***er’s point? Blood washes out with the right solvents.”
By contrast, we have Steven Weber in the 1997 version, all real and normal and just-taking-it-a-day-at-a-time. Weber/Jack is so very likable and nice, but by the 100th minute of him being all very likable and nice (remember – this version is 273 friggin’ minutes long and we’re comparing which is the better horror movie) you just wish he would pick up an axe or mallet and hunt someone down already. And when Weber/Jack finally does go ape-shit, it’s like he’s goofily channeling Nicholson/Jack anyway. So, I’m sorry… what was the whole point?
Winner, this round: Nicholson/Jack in The Shining 1980!
Round Two: Wendy vs. Wendy…
In the novel, Wendy Torrance is blonde, curvy, feisty, tough, and all girl-next-door. In the 1980 movie, she is Shelley Duvall. It goes without saying that Duvall/Wendy is softer and quite quirky, bringing an endearing vulnerability to the role that elicits concern. You genuinely want her to make it through this ordeal in one piece. Each time she gains the upper hand in the various freaky situations she finds herself in, you cheer for her. Largely because she doesn’t seem like she can handle herself or take care of business, but she often does and proves herself to be more than the clueless dingbat that is our first impression of her.
Now, we have Rebecca DeMornay’s Wendy Torrance in the 1997 version. DeMornay/Wendy is every bit what King created in his novel. She’s capable. She’s tough. She’s assertive. She’s no-nonsense. Is all this very admirable? You bet. Does it make us worry about her survival? Not for a damn second. Sometimes, when your character is too pulled together and self-assured, the suspense sags because you know he or she will be just fine. I call it “The Martian Syndrome.” Anyway, this is the kind of chick who wouldn’t think twice about braving a blizzard in the middle of night. Her balls are pretty much bigger than her husband’s. Speaking of testicles, near the end when DeMornay/Wendy kicks Weber/Jack in the family jewels when he (finally!) attacks her, the first thing I thought was: “Why’d you wait this long, lady? You look like you’ve been waiting for any reason to knee his ‘nads from frame one.”
Winner, this round: Duvall/Wendy in The Shining 1980!
Round Three: Danny vs. Danny…
Most 6 or 7-year old boys are as smart as a box of rocks. Oh, sure, most of them grow up to be quite intelligent and valuable members of society. But as tykes, we’re only really concerned about video games, when our next PB&J sammich is coming, and tearing down the street in our Hot Wheels tricyles, biyatches! Which is what’s great about Danny Lloyd as Danny in the 1980 flick. Lloyd/Danny is a very believable kid: adorable, sweet, but kind of dopey. Which, as with Duvall-Wendy, is what keeps us concerned for him. Also, anyone who remembers their imaginary Grand Prix adventures on a Hot Wheels tricyle as a kid (moi) will appreciate Lloyd-Danny’s bad-ass journeys through the endless maze of the hotel corridors.
And then there’s Courtland Meade as Danny in the 1997 version. Never before or since has a kid actor’s performance in a film or TV series been met with such near-uniform shade (the IMDB boards are a brutal place). I didn’t want to add to the uproar, especially since the script is also to blame. However, I realized Mead is all grown up now and almost 30 so he should be able to deal. So here goes: sorry to say, but unlike Lloyd/Danny, Meade/Danny never comes across even once as a believable child. Rather, he’s like Yoda fused with a carnival fortune teller and a very large chipmunk. He knows the future. He has all the answers. He can see dead people. He has gigantic front teeth. However, I should add a disclaimer: the adult Courtland Meade is quite good-looking and, apparently, those teeth are normal-sized now. So don’t weep too much for him because the Universe blessed him in the end. I mean, after his role in The Shining 1997, it kind of had to.
Winner, this round: Lloyd/Danny in The Shining 1980!
Round Four: Halloran vs. Halloran…
In the book, Dick Halloran is meant to be the sort of keeper of the Overlook’s secrets and kindred spirit to Danny (Halloran can “shine” too), as well as serve as the cavalry that comes to the rescue at the end. In the 1980 flick, he is played by Scatman Crothers. Because of the compressed nature of that movie, Crothers/Halloran doesn’t really get to do much at the outset but pass on some quick warnings to Danny and bond with him a little over ice cream before heading out (wisely) to Florida for the winter. Next time we see him for more than a few seconds, Crothers/Halloran is rushing back to the Overlook (unwisely) after getting a mental email marked “urgent” from Danny. Let’s just say the cavalry doesn’t exactly accomplish its mission. Which makes the 1980 version scarier, because if you can’t depend on the Virtuous Knight Riding In On His Horse, er, Snowcat To The Rescue, then what can you depend on?
In the 1997 version, Halloran gets a bigger showcase and has more personality. He is played charmingly by Melvin Van Peebles, and gets to spend more time with Danny prior to leaving the Overlook. Essentially, Van Peebles/Halloran gets more room to breathe which is not surprising since this version is about seven years long. Unfortunately, he also gets saddled with some of the most on-the-nose, subtle-as-a-sledgehammer foreshadowing dialogue this side of an Italian Giallo. Also, while it’s nice that he survives and provides a sort of “father figure” for Danny and Wendy later on after their ordeal is over, it doesn’t exactly make the situation at the Overlook itself more desperate. Still, he’s one of the bright spots of the 1997 version.
Winner, this round: Tie!
Round Five: Overlook vs Overlook…
King has often shared the experience that sparked the writing of the novel: he and his wife stayed at the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado in 1974. It was the end of the season and the Kings were the only ones in the whole huge place, and they stayed in Room 217 which was reputed to be haunted. If he couldn’t get an idea for a horror story from all of that, then he wouldn’t be the highly-talented writer he is. The rest is history. For the 1980 flick, however, Kubrick used the Timberline Lodge in Mount Hood, Oregon as the Overlook for exterior shooting, while having extensive sets built in England for interior shoots. The Timberline’s rustic architecture and location, situated just under the peak of a mountain, is somehow stark and unsettling. Ditto the high-ceilinged, minimalist, almost impersonal interior sets which would be more appropriate to a corporate headquarters. The contrast of strange goings-on in such a cold, clinical-looking place is an effective one.
Then there’s the 1997 version, which actually uses the Stanley Hotel itself and its surrounding environs. While the place may have been the actual birth place of the story, that doesn’t necessarily mean it makes for an effective horror setting. The Stanley is so grand and ornate and beautiful that is becomes a bland backdrop. Ditto the interiors which look too cozy and inviting rather than sterile and intimidating (as in the 1980 version). You never get a sense of the Torrance family being truly isolated and alone in a huge empty hotel (as in the 1980 version). Instead, you can almost feel the dozens of crew members just offscreen, either impatiently counting the minutes until the craft services table is laid out for lunch or simply ogling Rebecca DeMornay’s ass (or Steven Weber’s) as the scenes are shot. Yawn.
Winner, this round: The Overlook from The Shining 1980
Round Seven: Spooks vs Spooks…
Robert Wise’s 1963 classic The Haunting spins a haunted-house tale but keeps the ghosts ambiguous for much of the film, casting shadows of doubt instead on the sanity of its protagonists and their perceptions. Such is the tactic that Kubrick takes with the 1980 flick: for much of the movie we are not sure if Nicholson/Jack is being influenced by malignant supernatural forces, is cracking from cabin fever, or is simply finally embracing his true colors and wants to find a Batman/Nurse Ratched to whale on. Wise and Kubrick were, uh, wise enough to know that while you can explicitly describe ghosts and spooks on the written page and let the reader spin their own visions in the theaters of their minds, to actually try to accurately transfer those images on the big screen is asking for big trouble.
Instead, they leave it up to us to imagine what is going on inside the Overlook. Even the scenes with Nicholson/Jack moving through crowds of reveling hotel guests that shouldn’t be there feels like it could be one big hallucination. And when Kubrick does go explicit, he does it in quick flashes that don’t overstay their welcome and are all the more disturbing because of their brief nature. These are mostly the scenes of Duvall/Wendy, near the end, desperately running through the hotel to find Lloyd/Danny – and instead coming face-to-face with a slew of manifestations: a lobby shrouded in cobwebs and skeletons, a tidal wave of blood emerging from the elevators, a phantom hotel guest raising his glass in a sinister toast. These fleeting images turn the last minutes of The Shining 1980 into a surreal and frighteningly relentless slide to its creepy ending. Less is definitely more.
Not so in the 1997 version, where the motto seems to be more is more and bigger is better, and those same spooks are no longer ambiguous and subtle. These undoubtedly spectral mo-fos are literally dancing through the halls of the Overlook and practically doing high-kicks up and down the lobby, gargling tequila and pouring vodka through every available orifice. Unlike Kubrick’s version—which presented the phantom hotel guests as normal-looking (the easier to interpret them all as a hallucination in Nicholson/Jack’s mind), the 1997 version presents them in full-on Dia De Los Muertes death paint. So. Stunningly. Stupid. The real low point is Stephen King himself showing up as a ghostly singer onstage. Whatever tension the movie has built up by this point (not much) goes right out the window. If the 1980 flick’s ghosts are similar in style to the original The Haunting with their eerie, enigmatic quality, the 1997 version’s spooks are exactly like those in The Haunting‘s misguided remake from 1999: overblown, obvious, and about as frightening as a Scooby-Doo episode.
Winner, this round: The barely-there spooks from The Shining 1980!
Final Round: The Shining 1980 vs. The Shining 1997…
This smackdown is meant to determine which flick is the better horror movie. That prize, unequivocally, goes to the 1980 version. The 1997 version functions more effectively as a solid Lifetime drama about a recovering alcoholic and how it impacts his family during one long, terrible winter. Weber and DeMornay give creditable performances along those lines and deserve praise for trying to be “real.” However, adding the ridiculously flamboyant ghosts and ungraceful supernatural elements just capsizes the whole thing and sabotages their well-intentioned efforts. Boo! In both senses of the word.
The truth is the novel is one of the best horror novels ever written. However, it is also one of those stories that is better read than faithfully translated to the screen. Kubrick might have somehow sensed this and made the changes he did. King, on the other hand, was hell-bent on making an ultra-faithful rendering onscreen, and he might have been just a tad too close to the project to regard it objectively and realize some of its elements would not look good cinematically.
Accordingly, The Shining 1997, AKA Stephen King’s The Shining, goes down for the count.
AND THE WINNER IS: The Shining by Stanley Kubrick!
Crowds of Kubrick/Nicholson fans go wild. And in the front row, the ghost of Stanley K. materializes in front of a pissed-off Stephen King and sweetly whispers in his ear: “Shine this, bucko.”
John S. is a Scarecrow volunteer who loves James Bond, Jason Bourne, Italian Gialli, Dario Argento, Hitchcock, Ridley Scott, Peanut M&Ms with popcorn, Julia Roberts in PRETTY WOMAN, Theo James in anything, HALLOWEEN (movie and holiday), Scarecrow Video, Russell Crowe as a villain, strawberry soda, and Karaoke – not necessarily in that order. He also thinks he was a Bond Girl in another life, maybe a cross between Dr. Christmas Jones and Dr. Holly Goodhead.