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Movie Review - Stephen King's The Shining (1997)

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January 12th, 2013 | 04:23 PM


It would almost seem unthinkable to make another version of The Shining after Stanley Kubrick's 1980 film had ultimately become an icon of the horror genre, but that's exactly what they did. Author Stephen King had never been shy about voicing his dissatisfaction with the film and talked over the years about the possibility of one day redoing it. In 1996, King got his chance. Having already had great success with adaptations of his novels It (1990) and The Stand (1994), ABC approached him about working on a third project, and King saw it as the opportunity to finally do justice to his novel. The Shining began production in mid-1996 and aired in the spring of 1997 as a three-night mini-series event. I was still in my horror infancy at the time and had not seen the film yet (although I certainly knew about it), but this was back when television mini-series were still kind of a big deal, so I was very excited for it. Last month I finally got around to reading the novel and really loved it, so I decided to watch the mini-series again since I hadn't seen it in sixteen years.

You probably already know the premise, but here's a quick recap. Jack Torrance (Steven Weber) is a former alcoholic whose explosive temper has cost him a teaching job at a Vermont prep school. After breaking his son Danny's (Courtland Mead) arm in a drunken rage, he is horrified to realize what he has become and vows to his wife, Wendy (Rebecca De Mornay), that he will never drink again. A few months into his sobriety, Jack takes a job as winter caretaker of the Overlook Hotel in the Colorado Rockies, where he and his family will live for six months. Jack hopes to use the isolation to complete work on his first play and reconnect with his wife and son. Unknown to the Torrances, the Overlook has its share of dark history, and young Danny's psychic powers begin to stir its ghosts. They want Danny but cannot reach him because of his abilities, so instead they turn to the person closest to him: Jack. The Overlook begins to influence him, exploiting his demons to drive him into a murderous rage. Snowed in and cut off from the outside world, the Torrances are menaced by the hotel's supernatural powers as Jack becomes increasingly more aggressive, and there may be no hope for escape.

On the surface, it sounds basically the same as the Kubrick film, but in staying truer to the source material it is a lot more detailed and nuanced, with more focus given to the characters. Jack and Wendy's relationship is really fleshed out, and as a result it feels like a much more intimate and personal story. That's not to say that the film isn't good, of course. It's a great movie, but the mini-series is just a better adaptation. Stephen King wrote the teleplay himself, and while there are still some small deviations here and there, it's as faithful to the book as a television mini-series of the time could possibly be. The wasps, the visits to town before being snowed in for the winter, the topiary animals, the hotel boiler (a perfect metaphor for Jack's mental state) are all included. It also touches on Jack's relationship with his abusive father, and his battle with alcoholism is featured more heavily. It does leave out a plot detail with Jack remembering a past car accident, in which someone may or may not have been killed. I found that kind of an extraneous element of the book that never seemed resolved, so it's not missed.

Following in the footsteps of Jack Nicholson would be intimidating for anyone, but Steven Weber tackles the role of Jack Torrance with absolute devotion. Comparing the two is apples and oranges, because Weber's Jack is the book version. Nicholson's descent into madness is a lot more sudden and unmotivated, but Weber's is more heartbreaking because we see him gradually going from family man to homicidal maniac. Just coming off eight seasons as the goofy, lovable Brian Hackett on the NBC sitcom Wings, Weber showed a range most audiences were probably surprised by. (King originally wanted his Wings co-star, Tim Daly, for the part, but Daly was busy and suggested they offer it to Weber instead.) He gives a sympathetic performance as a loving husband and father, then does a 180 degree role reversal as he becomes a raving madman, eventually outright attacking his wife and stalking his son through the winding hallways of the hotel. He is appropriately scary and intense in these scenes, without ever being over-the-top. I'd hate to find myself being chased by him.

I like Shelley Duvall as Wendy in the movie, but I do find her a little too manic and overbearing at times. Rebecca De Mornay makes Wendy a lot stronger and more emotionally rounded, whereas Duvall looked like she was just going crazy dealing with Jack and the hotel (which, in a way, is understandable for that version). But De Mornay fights hard to maintain her sanity, even as things start looking really bad for her and her son, and physically she better resembles the attractive, blond, all-American cheerleader type that King originally envisioned her as. Courtland Mead as Danny gets a lot of grief from fans. Was he one of the best child actors ever? Probably not. He has some scenes where I'd admit his acting was iffy, but overall I liked him and thought he did a good job. He's a little older than Danny of the book and the movie, but I think that helps in better accepting his ability to deal with the situation. Melvin Van Peebles as the Overlook's head chef, Dick Hallorann, is good, although not as good as Scatman Crothers in the film. His performance sometimes feels a little stiff. Elliott Gould as Overlook manager Stuart Ullman is kind of annoying. Like I saw someone say once before, it's almost as if he's on a stage and trying to make sure his granddaughter in the back row knows he's just "play acting."

Unlike the Kubrick film, which used Oregon's Timberline Lodge, this version shot exteriors at the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado, the same hotel that inspired King's novel in the first place. Kubrick's sets were epic and sprawling, but this version's are smaller, giving it a great sense of claustrophobia, which only adds to the suspense and terror. Speaking of suspense and terror, just how scary is it? Well, it was made for television, but that said I think there are some fine moments. There are many "boo" scares that are so simple and cliched yet still work, but it's really more eerie and unsettling that anything else. ABC surprisingly let them push things pretty far. The sequence toward the end where Jack confronts Wendy in the lobby and first attacks her with the mallet was pretty intense and unnerving for television at the time, and it's still kind of difficult to watch. The make-up effects (which won the mini-series one of its two Emmy Awards, the other being for Sound Editing) are great. The ghosts look more like ghouls, and the make-up on Steven Weber in one of Danny's psychic visions is scary. And as far as I'm concerned, the ghost in room 217 is far more frightening in this version thanks to the terrific make-up. The shot of her sitting up in the bathtub is a moment that gives me goosebumps just thinking about it.

Even with all of this, it's not without some flaws. Mick Garris is hardly the cinematic visionary Stanely Kubrick was. It's shot in a pretty straight-forward manner, although cinematographer Shelly Johnson brings a sense of mood to the proceedings with some nice lighting, and there's a palpable sense of isolation. The score by Nicholas Pike is kind of dull. It has its moments, but mostly it seems like just the same "ahhh"ing female chorus repeated over and over. Some of the CGI is pretty dodgy, particularly the topiary. They haven't dated well, but then again most television CGI of the time was never that great to begin with. And for as faithful as the rest of it is, the ending is completely different. It exchanges the book's ambiguous epilogue for one that shows us the survivors ten years later. It's corny and bluntly spells out what we already know. After four-and-a-half terrific hours, it almost closes the whole thing on a disappointing note. I'm not sure why King made such a drastic change at the very end. I wish he had just kept his novel's original epilogue instead.

Although reaction among fans (those of Kubrick, King and horror) was mixed, critical praise was generally positive. TV Guide even gave it a 10 out of 10 the week it premiered, which reportedly was the first time they'd even given that high of a rating. It was shortly after the mini-series that I finally saw Kubrick's film. Upon my first viewing I didn't care for it. Although visually impressive and atmospheric, I thought it was too slow and boring. A few years ago I watched it again for a second time, and I've since warmed up to it a great deal. Re-watching the mini-series this past week, I was pleased to find out that it still holds up pretty well. Fans seem to remain torn, but I can appreciate both versions. Kubrick's film is a roller coaster ride of a horror movie truly deserving of its iconic status, whereas the mini-series is King's novel brought to life as best as we're ever likely to see. It's much more rounded and detailed, and on an emotional level it absolutely works. It's long, but well worth watching.

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