Archived Comments for the Shining Post

Nice post. "The Shining", along with "The Exorcist", is the gold standard of horror filmmaking, as far as I'm concerned. Those films are so formidable that I guess I shouldn't be surprised that no one these days seems to want to try to match them.

A couple things: King, who I like for the most part, has never been more wrong in his life than he was and continues to be about Kubrick's film. King said something to the effect that Kubrick has no idea how the horror genre works, and every frame of "The Shining" is proof of that. Excuse me?? I think as evidence he pointed to the scene where Jack approaches Wendy, after she's found out what he's been writing all this time. King apparently believes that scene doesn't work because, essentially, Kubrick didn't film it to be a jump scare. It's really dispiriting to a fan like me when one of horror's leading writers has such a narrow view of what the genre can do, and what works within it.

But I like the book more than you do. At least, I think I do. I haven't read it in many, many years, but I don't remember there being anything about the ghosts needing Jack to work on the boiler. When I say it's been many, many years since I've read it, I mean just that (I don't think I was even in my teenage years when I read it) so I'm probably wrong, in which case your point about that element of the book is a good one. I just don't remember that.

Finally (for now) you wrote this:

"When the protagonist walks up to an outwardly beautiful woman who is inwardly cold and hateful, the writer can tell us, 'As he walked up to her all he could see was a miserable, wretched woman, not the beautiful face she showed the rest of the world.'"

Yes, the writer CAN do that, but they really, really shouldn't. That's sort of the equivelant of having the guy in the film version of this scene say to the girl, "You're very pretty, but you are unhappy and mean." Both film and literature can do what you're saying film is better suited for.
bill | | Email | 12.28.07 - 11:22 am | #


Bill - Thanks for the great reply. In the book the ghosts have to remind Jack about the boiler as he deepens into madness so that their sanctuary will not be destroyed.

As for King, I completely agree that he has never quite "gotten" what Kubrick did with The Shining. When King had his "revenge" by writing his own version for the miniseries a few years ago I watched it and found it underwhelming to say the least. He followed his own book to the page (he was on a mission) so if you watch it you can see a lot of what I was talking about with the boiler.

A funny thing about the topiary animals. They went with a maze in Kubrick's version because supposedly they couldn't realisticly portray the topiary animals coming to life but in the mini-series they only show them moving for a brief glimpse at the very end anyway. Before that they simply show Jack (Stephen Weber - the guy from "Wings") staring at them, then turning away, then turning back and they are mysteriously closer or in different positions. So no special effects needed. I think Kubrick used the FX complaint as a way out because he found the idea stupid and wanted to go with the maze. I have to agree. How far can one take a haunting? The plants too?!? I mean, take away the hedge trimming that makes it look like an animal and it's a bush. So, the Overlook's bushes are haunted? Is the grass haunted too? Do the fir tree's pine combs hurl themselves at Wendy and Danny when they're not looking?

And as for the writing example, I agree, that's what a bad novel would do. It was a poor attempt to elaborate on the benefits of first-person or third-person omniscient where imagination is not required.
Greg Ferrara | | Email | Homepage | 12.28.07 - 12:17 pm | #


I watched some of King's mini-series, but I couldn't get through it. I thought it was just awful. King has no instincts when it comes to filming his stuff. I know he didn't direct the series, but he was the boss, and his own tastes in other people's adaptations can be pretty suspect, as well.

I have that series "Storm of the Century" (featuring Tim Daly, another "Wings" alum!) on DVD, but I haven't watched much of it. What I have seen isn't so hot; I hang on to it just so I can finally watch it, and then listen to King's commentary, which I'm betting is more entertaining than the actual show.

And you're right about the topiary animals. Even reading the book as a kid I didn't think that really worked, and my tastes in horror now favor, even more, pulling back on that sort of thing. The maze is far more ominous. "Indifferent" is a good word for it.

I have to wonder what King thinks about the fact that he's pretty much all alone in his opinion of Kubrick's film. He very reasonably used his experience and success with the horror genre to bolster his argument, but nobody agrees with him. Has he reconsidered? Does he think everyone else should just piss off? I'm curious.

Another thing, regarding what books or films can do that the other can't: without relying on actual narration, can a film pull off the whole "unreliable narrator" bit? There may be obvious examples of this in film, but I can't think how it could be done.

I like this book-to-film comparison idea, and I hope you do more soon. Are there any others you have immediate plans to tackle?
bill | | Email | 12.28.07 - 12:35 pm | #


Bill - Storm of the Century, It, The Langoliers, The Tommyknockers - I've watched 'em all. As for Storm I had the same problem I've had with much of King's work: He sets up a mystical, almost philosophical premise then wraps it up with the mundane. With Storm we get Linoge repeating, "Give me what I want and I'll go away" without elaborating further. I'm intrigued as are the townspeople: What does he want, who is he, can he really make entire towns disappear? Then we find out the answer. He wants one of their kids. Oh boy. He can send entire towns into the netherworld but he can't knock up a woman?

Same with It. Who is this demonic clown, why does he terrorize these children, from where did he emerge? Then we find out. He's a big spider in a cave. Arrrrggghhhh!

Over and over King seems to paint himself into a corner. He has an inspired idea but can think of nothing but the absolutely ordinary with which to complete it.

As for "unreliable narrator" the very next book/film I want to do deals with that very thing, but I wouldn't want to ruin it by saying which. Only that in this case, I like the book much more although the film is very good (but it drops the unreliable narrator). Kevin Spacey's pretty unreliable in The Usual Suspects and Orson Welles even tells the viewer that he will be unreliable in F for Fake. The first time I saw it I completely bought the Picasso story. Maybe I'm just gullible.
Greg Ferrara | | Email | Homepage | 12.28.07 - 1:53 pm | #


I bought the Picasso story, too! What a great ending. "F for Fake" is hard to get into, though. I tried watching it again recently and I couldn't get interested, with all that hopping around. I know that's part of the point, but still...

As far as "It" goes, there's a spider in the book, too, but that's not what IT is. It's...a bunch of lights? I don't remember. The ending of the book is a bit of a letdown, too, but far more complicated.

Anyway, the problem you describe is exactly the problem I have with the vast majority of horror fiction, whatever the medium. That's why I like writers like Thomas Ligotti and Robert Aickman, writers who leave out a lot, and make the horror more insinuating. That's also why I don't really get tired of zombies, as long as they're handled well. Zombies just are. And they want to eat you.

Spacey is certainly unreliable in "The Unusual Suspects", but that's the twist. I'm talking about an unreliable narrator in the sense that the audience clues into something amiss with the guy telling the story well before the ending, and there isn't necessarily a big reveal to confirm this. It's set up by clues, things the narrator says, or the way he interprets something that played far differently to you, but the clues aren't paid off in any traditional way. The Gothic writer Patrick McGrath makes his living writing about these kinds of people.
bill | | Email | 12.28.07 - 2:06 pm | #


Oh, and I keep forgetting to mention that I like the "Talking Finger" in "The Shining". It strikes me as a very realistic, childlike way for this kid to try and deal with this thing in his head he doesn't understand.
bill | | Email | 12.28.07 - 2:11 pm | #


It's an interesting question, about the unreliable narrator in film. Maybe in film, it works only in the case where the camera is the narrator. For instance, something like Pan's Labyrinth. There's no twist to reveal whether or not everything happening to Ophelia is real or not. The Captain doesn't see the faun so maybe only she can see it or maybe it doesn't exist except for in her imagination. The walls of the labyrinth look like they open up for her but maybe she just imagined that too as she made her way to it's now familiar center for her.

Or maybe No Country for Old Men with it's story is an unreliable narrator. How does Chiguhr bounce about so much (always on the tail of Moss yet makes forays into Texas Office Buildings to kill Stephen Root, then finds his way to Moss in Mexico without the aid of the transponder)? For that matter, how does Harrellson find him? And judging from the virtual indestructability of Chiguhr and his ingenuity, how exactly does that deputy at the beginning of the movie arrest him in the first place? Maybe stories like these two films represent unreliable narrators in the movies.
Greg Ferrara | | Email | Homepage | 12.28.07 - 2:35 pm | #


great post--i am fascinated by film adaptations from books & agree with you--i've got some similar posts here: adaptations
annie | | Email | Homepage | 12.28.07 - 2:56 pm | #


Annie - Thanks for stopping by. I thoroughly agree on Last of the Mohicans. Michael Mann did a terrific job with it. As for the link on your page to other notable book to film adaptations I did not read through it for fear that I would then abandon any plans to write my own due to paranoia that I was not being original.

However I've visited your site on more than a few occassions thanks to links from Sheila and you do terrific work there.
Greg Ferrara | | Email | Homepage | 12.28.07 - 3:03 pm | #


Oh yeah, and as for your take on the talking finger. I never really thought of it in that way before but that's a good way to look at it.
Greg Ferrara | | Email | Homepage | 12.28.07 - 4:07 pm | #


But "No Country for Old Men" isn't really trying to mislead you, which is what an unrealiable narrator does. "Pan's Labyrinth" is closer. I think there is ample evidence that the fantasy elements are actually there, but that kind of ambiguity is what I'm talking about, because that film is from Ophelia's point of view. Not every scene is, but most are, and ALL of the fantasy scenes are. If the fantasy wasn't real, we would only be seeing them because she imagined them, and she would have been unconciously misleading us (and herself, which is another thing unreliable narrators do a lot).
bill | | Email | 12.28.07 - 5:03 pm | #


Good point. I can take Pan's Labyrinth either way and I think it is to the film's credit that it can work either way.
Greg Ferrara | | Email | Homepage | 12.28.07 - 5:08 pm | #


glad to find your blog (via sheila) & am subscribing--
annie | | Email | Homepage | 12.28.07 - 5:12 pm | #


Thanks Annie. Sheila's just terrific, isn't she?
Greg Ferrara | | Email | Homepage | 12.28.07 - 6:48 pm | #


One of these days I really will give that movie another chance. There are things I remember liking about it.

I completely agree with you about King's trouble steering himself toward endings that don't really work. It's definitely his weakest point. And yet somehow his ability to create characters nearly always causes me to forgive it. "It" being a prime example. I think that ending is worse even that you describe, and yet I'd not only describe it as among my favorite King books but my favorite books.
Neil | | Email | Homepage | 12.29.07 - 3:07 am | #


Neil, sorry to keep linking you to posts but lately I seem to be choosing topics where I remember a strongly voiced opinion from your blog on the topic.

As for IT I haven't read the book so I can't speak with authority there, I just know that I found the clown character (Tim Curry) frightening and intriguing throughout before the end ruined everything.
Greg Ferrara| | Email | Homepage | 12.29.07 - 9:27 am | #


Great analysis! Especially concerning King's own cluelessness about what works in his stories.

I read lots of King in high school, but I have to say my taste in literature has grown a little too sophisticated for me to enjoy him anymore. A few years ago, I read the first 4 books of The Dark Tower series on a friend's recommendation. It was a good break from my grad school reading, but I gave up on the series when I realized King was making it up as he went along with no idea what it all meant or where it was all headed. Not that I'm against writing as an act of exploration, but you really have to have SOMETHING you're trying to say - you have to be doing more than filling up 7 books with random incidents.

FYI: Though I haven't read it myself, someone in a comments section somewhere pointed out that it's made clear in the book that Chigurh lets himself be taken at the beginning of NCFOM just to see if he can escape - he's testing himself. Apparently, he passes with flying colors....
W. Australopithecus | | Email | 12.29.07 - 4:05 pm | #


Interesting post and happy holidays!

I usually only have problems with movie adaptations when the director clearly just didn't understand what the original book author was trying to do. It often just comes down to the director's abilities. Good directors like Kubrick, Cronenberg and DePalma have all made fine adaptations of King's work. Each director was somehow able to bring their own vision to King's original work and sometimes even improve on the material (Dead Zone comes to mind).

I think the same can be said for film remakes really. A good director like Cronenberg can remake something like The Fly and do a brilliant re-imaging of the material bringing an intelligence and deep understanding to his film. Then there's Neil LaBute's remake of The Wicker Man, which clearly shows he had no understanding of the original material at all. Someone needs to take away his movie-making abilities for that monstrosity.
Kimberly | | Email | Homepage | 12.29.07 - 7:17 pm | #


Greg - I know it can be obnoxious when someone tells you YOU HAVE TO READ THIS BOOK - so I'll take that risk and say: You must read It. It's not just one of King's best books - but it's one of the best books I've read, period. It's not just about the monster. What it is about is friendship, and childhood connections ... how those bonds we form when we are young are sometimes more primal and more right than those when we are adults and suppposedly "know better".

Great great book.
Sheila | | Email | Homepage | 12.29.07 - 8:49 pm | #


Hey, don't take me as complaining about free links! And I'm always glad to hear the things I write resonate with people. That's just great.

Suffice it to say, in my humble opinion, the set-up for Pennywise is much, much more frightening and intriguing in the book and the ending is only slightly less disappointing, but definitely even wonkier. There's no rational reason why I rank it so highly, in that case. Certainly there's no solid literary reason.

But I do.
Neil | | Email | Homepage | 12.29.07 - 10:06 pm | #


W. Australopithecus - Well I haven't read the Dark Tower series either (sorry everyone for being so unread with King - I've read the really big early ones Shining, Stand, Carrie, etc.) so I don't know about those either. As for now it seems IT is the book of his I should read that I haven't.

As for NCFOM - Letting himself be arrested is the only possible explanation I can come up with for that beginning. Everything else in the movie points to this being an impossibility unless he actually allows it to happen.
Greg Ferrara| | Email | Homepage | 12.29.07 - 11:49 pm | #


Kimberly - Dead Zone is probably my favorite of all King adaptations. I think Kubrick's Shining is a masterpiece and the better movie of the two but I love Dead Zone more. I think everything in that adaptation is done just right and the Gregg Stillson character seems to be an absolutely prescient work of genius on King's part. That character scares me more now than it ever did then.

I avoided the remake of The Wicker Man. I just didn't want that original ruined for me. I see from your opinion that I was wise in my choice.
Greg Ferrara | | Email | Homepage | 12.29.07 - 11:53 pm | #


Sheila - Okay, okay stop being so obnoxious!

Just kidding. I don't think it's obnoxious at all. Besides, you and Neil both seem to acknowledge the almost superflous nature of the reveal at the end which makes me think the film version gave too much weight to it and not enough to the character development.

I shall give it a read. Thanks.
Greg Ferrara | | Email | Homepage | 12.29.07 - 11:56 pm | #


Neil - When I read something that sticks with me I link it (and I know you're not complaining). I remember you being the only person posting on how you didn't like the movie that much and how the finger thing bothered you. I of course love the movie but kind of agree with you on the finger thing although Bill's take on it makes sense to me too.

As for Pennywise - Since I haven't read the book and only seen the movie I can say that if he's creepier in the book that's quite an accomplishment because Tim Curry's take was downright freaky. Every time I walk past a sidewalk drain I think of his face looking up telling me, "Everything floats down here."
Greg Ferrara | | Email | Homepage | 12.30.07 - 12:00 am | #


Hey Greg! Great read, this. I'm endlessly fascinated by the subject, since my own angle on the film has changed radically over time. I used to be on King's side, until the mini-series convinced me of how brilliant Kubrick's adaptation really was.

I've made my own comparison in an essay called "Building a Better Bomb: The Alternatives to Suspense." You can find it on , but I'll paste the relevant excerpt here (sorry for cluttering up your comment section):

The next step in the evolution of cinematic tension came in the form of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980). That may seem a bold statement now, but it was completely in line with expectation at the time. Kubrick, the genius director who redefined science fiction, black comedy and just about any other genre he cared to touch, was to adapt a bestselling novel by the new King of Horror, Stephen King. What could possibly go wrong?

Boy, were some people in for a disappointment. Sure, there was plenty to marvel at in Kubrick’s The Shining - the gliding Steadicam shots, the larger-than-life production design and a bone chilling score are the vivid marks of a master filmmaker working at the top of his game. But all the technical and artistic joie de vivre in the world can’t revive a graveyard of missed opportunities. Or can they? Critics called the film stagy, muddled, heartless, wordy, deliberately paced and poorly contrived; while many fans of the book simply found Kubrick’s adaptation not scary enough. Stephen King himself accused Kubrick of having no apparent understanding of the genre, and not entirely without reason. Here was a horror film with no suspense hooks, no cheap thrills, no gratuitous gore, no snappy editing, no catharsis--what in bloody hell was Kubrick thinking he was adapting: Jane Austen? King compared the film to “a great big beautiful Cadillac with no motor inside. You can sit in it, and you can enjoy the smell of the leather upholstery - the only thing you can’t do is drive it anywhere.”

It makes you wonder what kept the engine running in King’s relentless page turner. The answer isn’t hard to find. As one of the finest practitioners of literary suspense, King never made a secret of it how much he values characterization. To use his words: “You have got to love the people... that allows horror to be possible.” Such a notion goes right back to the principles of Hitchcock, who frequently stressed that “fear depends upon the intensity of the public’s identification with the person who is in danger.” Audience identification: quite possibly the most fundamental ingredient for suspense.

Identification? With THESE people? Kubrick makes it almost impossible for us to connect with the characters in his version of The Shining. Jack makes a pretty bonkers impression from the moment we lay eyes on him (not surprisingly, since Nicholson inhabited Milos Forman’s Cuckoo’s Nest five years earlier), and there isn’t a great deal to admire about his s
Peet Gelderblom | | Email | Homepage | 12.30.07 - 4:16 pm | #


Oops, I have exceeding the word count of a single post. Here's, I hope, the rest of it:

and there isn’t a great deal to admire about his spouse Wendy either, who is neither pretty nor clever, and curiously devoid of female intuition. Sure, we care about the kid, but Danny’s split personality conversations with Tony - the boy that lives in his mouth - freak us out just as much. It’s not for nothing that King chose to portray Danny’s imaginary friend as a separate entity; that made his youngest character easier to like. And as far as the instantly sympathetic Halloran is concerned, well, you remember what happens to him...

It is evident that Kubrick had no intention to conform to expectations. He was following his own compass and waved a lot of the novel’s scare tactics good-bye. The question is why he seemed intent on poking fun at the rules of the genre, when he had such a fine example at his disposal. Such was King’s frustration that he initiated a four-and-a-half-hour TV mini-series that stayed faithful to the source material, aptly called Stephen King’s The Shining (1997). Nevertheless, even though King’s traditional emphasis on myth and psychology worked wonders for the novel, the same approach made the mini-series remarkably unremarkable. In fact, it only testified to the brilliance of Kubrick’s adaptation. Sometimes a different medium benefits from a different approach.

Since its initial lukewarm reception in 1980, the reputation of Kubrick’s film has steadily improved. Two decades after its release, British movie magazine Empire called out The Shining as the Scariest Movie of All Time, describing it as “the only horror film that gets scarier the more you see it.” The magazine had a point there: Repeated viewings of scary movies usually suffer from the Law of Diminishing Returns, but The Shining’s fear factor tends to grow with age.

True innovation always takes some getting used to: Kubrick’s film so drastically deconstructed the genre in which it operated that it falls flat when judged by conventional standards. That doesn’t mean it is a failure; it just means Kubrick once again altered the form to fit his idiosyncratic sensibilities. In this particular case, he moved the horror film beyond the primarily visceral level to the cerebral. What he ended up with in many ways represents the antithesis of King's fiction. Taken on their own terms, though, the film and the book are equally frightening in a diametrically opposed fashion. Whereas the novel built suspense by means of interior monologue, Kubrick externalized the conflict and let his images do the real talking, the way a true visual stylist should.
Peet Gelderblom | | Email | Homepage | 12.30.07 - 4:19 pm | #


Peet - That's a terrific analysis of King and Kubrick's views and understanding of horror. You know, earlier in the comments, Bill was talking about King mentioning how Kubrick didn't provide a jump scare moment when Jack comes up behind Wendy as she's reading his book. Bill wondered as I do why King thinks inserting visual cliches makes for a better horror film?

Kubrick's Shining did indeed take horror in a different direction in all of the ways you wrote. For one thing, he played on a sense of dread more than a sense of fright, which made for a much more chilling result than jump scares and a million cats jumping out of pantries ever could. Although I do so love cats jumping out of pantries.
Greg Ferrara | | Email | Homepage | 12.30.07 - 6:14 pm | #


Yes, Bill's example really points out the difference between these two masters (I admire both tremendously in different ways). King passionately embraces the rules of the genre, while Kubrick felt restricted by them. Kubrick once said: "I think that a preoccupation with originality of form is more or less a fruitless thing. A truly original person with a truly original mind will not be able to function in the old form and will simply do something different." I think this perfectly describes his approach to horror conventions in The Shining.

It's tempting for me to copy-paste the rest of that article (read the damn thing, already!), but allow me to quote one more paragraph:

When Jack finally goes after Danny and Wendy, it''s not the sudden crush of his axe splitting through the door that forces an emotional response in us, and it's not so much the apprehension of the kill or a lust for blood that gets us excited. Trivialities like these would only distract from what Kubrick sees as the real horror of the situation: the very idea of a father fucked-up enough to murder his own family. This Cadillac can drive alright; we just didn't notice it moving.
Peet Gelderblom | | Email | Homepage | 12.30.07 - 7:17 pm | #


Peet - Fear not, I have now read it. It's a terrific piece. I especially like the sections on Hitch and suspense and how it's used. But back to The Shining, when you discuss the "frozen in time" aspect of Kubrick's ending that was (obviously in my opinion) what separates the book and film most dramatically. But something you wrote that struck me as something I hadn't thought of before, and I hope I'm not misreading it, was where you ask the question of basically, was Jack reincarnated at that moment, so to speak. Does he become the 1921 caretaker upon his death? When the new caretaker shows up in a few years to provide the hotel with fresh blood will that new caretaker appear in the photo? Obviously Torrance and Grady don't look alike so does the spirit of the caretaker simply take the form of the new person? It's fascinating and it's what the boiler subplot takes away from us. It takes away the eternal timeframe.
Greg Ferrara | | Email | Homepage | 12.30.07 - 10:03 pm | #

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