March 28, 2012

THE SHINING: What? No Hedge Animals?

Starring Jack Nicholson, Shelly Duvall, Danny Lloyd, Scatman Crothers. Directed by Stanley Kubrick. (1980, 144 min)

I’m pretty certain that The Shining is the first film I ever saw where I had read the book first. That being said, it was also my first introduction to the enormous liberties filmmakers take when adapting novels to the big screen. Sure, I’d read Jaws, Airport and The Poseidon Adventure, but only after I'd seen the movies, which is not the same thing, mainly because I already had someone else's visualization of how events are depicted. 

Ever since ninth grade, I’ve been a huge Stephen King fan. His first book I read was The Stand, an apocalyptic, 800-page epic I managed to finish in a single day, partially because I was grounded over the weekend, but also because I simply couldn’t put it down. Of all of King’s eight billion novels, it remains my favorite, and I’m still waiting for a truly great movie adaptation. The 1994 miniseries was pretty faithful to the book, but in my humble opinion, it was kind of cheap and watered down. And I still can’t take Molly Ringwald seriously. I really wish someone in Hollywood would have the balls to do for The Stand what Peter Jackson did with The Lord of the Rings...a big-ass story which can only be told over the course of three movies.

But by the time I read King's The Shining, I still wasn’t really selecting books based on who wrote them, even though The Stand was uber-awesome. The only reason I chose to read The Shining was because, during my parents’ annual ritual of sending me and my sister off to my grandma’s house for a week every summer, it happened to be on her shelf (a free gift from her book club).

And the damn thing scared the shit out of me. The Stand may be King's best book, but to me, The Shining was his scariest. To this day, it is the only novel which made me afraid to turn out the lights at night. It also confirmed in my mind that Stephen King was the greatest writer ever.

So imagine the thrill I felt when I later learned it was going to be a movie. I just knew it was destined to be the scariest thing ever made, even scarier than The Exorcist. I couldn’t wait. The movie was especially a big deal in my hometown of Portland, Oregon because the exterior scenes of the Overlook Hotel were shot at Timberline Lodge, a ski resort only an hour’s drive away.

At that time, even though I loved movies, I didn’t know Stanley Kubrick from the Stanley Cup. The only Kubrick movie I’d seen at the time was 2001: A Space Odyssey when it played on TV, and all I could think about before changing the channel after 20 minutes was, “What the hell do these angry monkeys have to do with space?” Of course, when I got older, I learned to appreciate him as a genius, but as a 15-year-old who’d seen Star Wars but hadn’t yet discovered weed (which is still the best way to enjoy 2001), I was monumentally disappointed that I wasted so much time watching primates beat each other with bones.

Stanley Kubrick was an American director who lived in England and made a movie once every 600 years or so. He chose his projects very carefully and, like Alfred Hitchcock, he was the true star of his movies. Kubrick movies were celebrated events whenever he eventually chose to make one, which wasn’t often. Following Dr. Strangelove (my personal favorite) in 1964, Kubrick only made six more movies before he died in 1999. The guy was notorious for taking forever to set up individual shots, requiring tons of takes for every one of them. It has been well-documented that, during the making of The Shining, he rendered Shelley Duvall to tears because of the sheer number of takes he made her endure for a single scene. Then again, Shelly Duvall looks like someone you could render to tears just by looking at her cross-eyed.

Still, his films have a look and tone like no one else’s. They are epic and claustrophobic at the same time, slow-moving yet fascinating, beautiful to look at but sometimes (in the case of A Clockwork Orange) really disturbing. Kubrick tackled a lot of different genres, but somehow his movies all felt the same. When you’re watching a Stanley Kubrick movie, you know you’re watching a Stanley Kubrick movie.

Which is why he was totally the wrong guy to direct The Shining. Stephen King thought so, too, who once famously equated The Shining with a beautiful car that had no engine.

But I didn’t know all that at the time. All I knew was the scariest book I ever read was gonna be a movie, and I was gonna be first in line to get the bejeezus scared out me yet again. I only hoped I wouldn’t feel the need to crawl into my parents’ bed later, like I did after I first saw Jaws. At 16, that would be pretty weird.

That didn't happen, because the movie was a total letdown. Not scary at all. It was slow, long and stripped of nearly all the supernatural elements of the story that made it so scary in the first place. I couldn’t believe how much the movie strayed from the book. Where were the hedge animals? Where was the backstory that explained the Overlook Hotel’s dark past? Where were the phantasms who contributed to Jack Torrance’s descent into madness, or maybe even took possession of him? Kubrick took out all that stuff and more, leaving just the title, the initial premise and the characters. All of the scariest parts of the novel were taken out!

What we got instead was Jack Nicholson slowly going apeshit (which, admittedly, is pretty cool), with a few supernatural elements almost randomly crammed in towards the end. As a movie fan, I’ve got no problem with filmmakers making changes or taking liberties with the source novel to create a better movie experience (thank God Spielberg did so when making Jaws). But come on, why would you suddenly include a single random shot of a guy in a dog costume blowing someone if you aren’t going to explain why it is there?

Additionally, it’s one thing to make sweeping changes to an obscure novel, or one that wasn’t very good to begin with (like Jaws). But The Shining was already a huge, critically-praised bestseller by the time Kubrick got his hooks into it. One would think anybody involved in adapting a story like this would want to remain as faithful to the source material as possible (like the Harry Potter movies) just to please fans. I think if the movie was directed by someone with less clout than Kubrick, he or she would have done that very thing. Instead, Kubrick took an author’s story and used it as a springboard to make another Stanley Kubrick film, which is really its own little genre.

He’s done this before. Dr. Strangelove was based on the dead-serious novel of nuclear brinkmanship, Red Alert, by Peter George. By the time Kubrick had his way with it, Dr. Strangelove became a vicious satire and is still generally regarded as one of the greatest comedies of all time. But almost nobody remembers George’s novel.

Maybe that was Kubrick’s intention with The Shining, too. And maybe he succeeded, because his version is considered by countless viewers, critics and historians to be one of the greatest horror films ever made, most of whom probably never read the book. And even though I cried foul at the liberties Kubrick took with The Shining, I never actually read Red Alert, but think Dr. Strangelove is a great film. Maybe I'd think the same about The Shining if I hadn't read the book first, because Kubrick’s version of is indeed loaded with hypnotic scenes which often have little or nothing to do with the original novel, especially the endless use of Steadicam tracking shots.

Steadicam was a fairly new technology at the time, which allowed a cameraman to smoothly follow the action, no matter what the terrain. Kubrick utilizes the Steadicam like it's a new Christmas toy, so much so that these scenes dominate the viewer's attention. Yeah, it all looks really cool, but it is obvious Kubrick was far more in love with the setting in which he could play with his toys than the story, its characters or his actors.

Regarding the latter, the acting is awful, with two exceptions. One is Jack Nicholson’s totally unhinged performance as Jack Torrence (pretty much the same thing he did when single-handedly saving Tim Burton’s version of Batman a few years later). But even then, that was Jack being Jack Nicholson, not Jack Torrence. It’s pretty safe to say Jack's one-liners ("Heeere's Johnny!") are another reason The Shining is held in such high regard, though I personally think Jack's disturbing conversion in the bathroom with the ghost of Delbert Grady is by-far the best scene in the movie.

I’m also still pretty amazed at little Danny Lloyd’s performance as Jack's son; for a kid that age to hold his own against Nicholson…remarkable for a six-year-old kid. Once you get over Jack being Jack, Lloyd's might actually be the greatest performance in the whole film. The same can't be said for Shelley Duvall, as Jack's mousy wife, who truly sucks. Her performance in the early scenes border on amateurish, and as for her overwrought hysteria in later scenes, I still myself wishing Nicholson really would bash her brains “right the fuck in.”

It wasn’t until years later, after developing an appreciation for Kubrick, that I was able to detach myself of the source novel and at-least appreciate the movie for what it is…a great-looking piece of cinema that manages to feel epic and claustrophobic at the same time. Kubrick probably never meant for us to draw comparisons between the book and the film. I still don’t think it’s very scary, but it sure is fun watching Kubrick’s Steadicam chase little Danny around the hotel halls.

As a film, I still think The Shining is pretty overrated, far-more in love with style over substance, and I am still stunned by the number of highly-regarded critics who continue to rank it among the scariest movies ever. To those critics, I have to ask whether or not their assessment is swayed by their love of Kubrick, Nicholson's scenery-chewing or its technical virtuosity.

Is it creepy? Yes. Does it create a sense of dread in the viewer? Yes. Is it at least interesting enough to justify its 144 minute running time? Yes, but that's faint praise for a movie based on a book that once scared the living hell out of millions of readers. Although I must admit I like the movie for what it is (a deliberately-paced, hypnotic descent into madness), I can't help but think how truly scary this film would have been if it had simply stuck with the original story.

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