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Monday, November 16, 2015

The Shining

Oh dear. Oooooooooh dear.

It is with some degree of trepidation that I write this post. If you're reading this blog, chances are pretty good that you're a horror fan. Chances are even better that you've seen Stanley Kubrick's film version of The Shining, and assuming that's true, you likely really enjoyed it.

The Shining isn't just one of the better known and best appreciated films based on King's work that's ever been made. It might actually be the one film that many feel surpassed King's effort. It's certainly a name that most people know, even if they've never seen the movie or read the book.

Next time you're at a public gathering, see if you can find an appropriate way to work in phrases like "all work no play makes Jack a dull boy" or "come play with us...forever...and ever..." or "Heeeeeere's Johnny!" In all likelihood, most of those gathered will know the reference. The funny part is, all of those phrases are from the movie, not the book. The movie has supplanted the novel in terms of pop culture awareness.

And there's a reason for that. It's a damn good movie. It makes every list of "greatest horror movies of all time", it contains one of the most iconic performances of Jack Nicholson's career, and we're talking about Jack Nicholson. You know, 12-time Academy Award nominee, three-time winner? Forget memorable lines, this is a movie with so many well-known scenes that even if you've never seen it, you're still familiar with it. Every sitcom on television has spoofed it at some point.

And yet, Stephen King hates it.

You probably knew that. The King/Kubrick feud was pretty well publicized. King has waffled a bit on that, saying that it's a very well-made horror film, but all the same, it's not his story. And he's right.

I'll give you my own personal history with this book before I go too much further. I read The Shining well before seeing the movie, and I loved it. This is a novel that goes beyond mere "scares" and really gets under your skin. There's a creeping dread that builds gradually but inexorably that starts on page one and just gets bigger, and you keep hoping against hope that the inevitable can be avoided, even as you begin to realize that no, it won't be.

Then I watched the movie. And I hated it. I hated it so badly it made me angry.

Gone was the character development. Gone was the creeping dread, replaced by scare chords and an unhinged performance from Nicholson that started with the dial at nine, cranked up to 11 barely an hour in and broke the knob off. Gone was the palpable struggle each of the main characters were going through, replaced by standard horror movie cliches.

I've grown up a lot since then. I watched the movie more recently and had to admit, if I'd never read the book, I wouldn't care a whit about it being so different. The movie, as a horror movie, just plain works, and that's okay. No, it's not King's story, and there is no question in my mind that Kubrick was intentionally telling a different one.

But here's my problem; the movie may be excellent, but the novel is still a great novel, and unfortunately in the last decade or so there are people who have started trash-talking King and this book as though it's a piece of garbage and Kubrick came along and "fixed" it. I don't know how many people I've seen advising others to just watch the movie and skip the novel, which they describe as "lame" and "boring". As proof, they point to the far-less-well-known mini-series that aired on ABC in 1997.

Yeah, I've been kinda wondering how to bring that up. The screenplay for that one was written by King himself, and allegedly adheres much closer to the original novel (it doesn't, really), and fans almost unanimously found it to be awful. The problems with the mini-series are multitude, but they didn't stem (much) from being overly faithful to the novel. The problems were mostly due to director Mick Garris (a hack if I've ever seen one) and his production team, the glacial pace, the absurd length and the little wiener who played Danny, that I wanted to smack the entire time (note to casting directors: if you want us to sympathize with child characters, don't hire a kid with a deviated septum).

And, yeah, the screenplay was a little off, as well. It was too long, too many scenes went by where nothing was really happening, and for whatever ridiculous reason, King decided to have Danny's parents, at least Wendy, not only seemingly aware that Danny is psychic, but totally at peace with it.

Then there's Tony, Danny's imaginary friend who is actually a manifestation of how Danny perceives his abilities. In the novel, he's a distant figure that Danny never sees close up (until the very end). While it's clear that he's not evil, he's also a little scary, and what he shows Danny plays a part in the young lad's emotional scarring.

In the movie, Danny thinks of him as "a little boy who lives in my mouth", and when it's Tony speaking instead of Danny, Danny puts on a more raspy voice and quirks his finger like a mouth. I'm honestly okay with this change. It works in the context of the movie. But King's version...

King had him as a nerdy teenage dude floating in mid-air. Oh dear lord, no.

Let's not even talk about the special effects.

So, yeah, the mini-series was bad. Really bad. I'm willing to go that far. The movie was great. I'm willing to go that far. But was the movie better than the novel? I would argue no, and as far as I'm concerned, if you truly believe that, you either haven't read the novel, or you read it expecting it to be a scare-a-minute fest like the movie was. It isn't, but it isn't meant to be.

For that matter, I still have a problem with how the movie handled the character of Jack Torrance. This is likely what King's problem stemmed from as well. The subject of alcoholism is one that King returned to many times in his writing career, and for good reason; he was dealing with it himself. He was so far gone that he doesn't even remember writing the novel Cujo and in fact wrote many of his early novels while screaming drunk. The first novel he wrote entirely sober was Needful Things in 1991. Very often he tried working out his addiction issues in his characters, and I don't think any character was more Stephen King himself than Jack Torrance.

Book Jack is a scarred man, raised by a drunken, abusive father, who found himself a much slave to the bottle as his father had been. Despite this, and his anger issues, he wants nothing more than to be a loving husband and father. At least, he wants to want it. But he wants drinks more, and he makes excuses for himself that send him careering into a living nightmare in which he realizes he's turning into his father. When he finally realizes he's gone too far, after an incident where he drunkenly breaks his son's arm and then runs over a bicycle, realizing he might have killed someone, he goes sober and, by the time the story starts, has been for over a year. His anger management issues are still there, evidenced by him beating the shit out of a disgruntled student who slashed his tires, ultimately costing him his job, but at the start of the book, he's seemingly ready to be the man he's always wanted to be. He's stone cold sober, he and his wife, who found themselves facing divorce, are happy and in love again, and his relationship with his son, five-year-old Danny, couldn't be stronger. He's even found a temporary job as winter caretaker for the remote Overlook hotel, a job that will keep him and his family fed and cared for, and give him time to finish a play he's working on, while he tries to get back into the school's good graces. But then a combination of isolation, his own inner demons and the physical demons within the hotel start working on him, driving him slowly mad even as he fights it.

Movie Jack is an insane, abusive husband and father who can't stand his family and spends his job interview displaying a slasher smile. When it's mentioned in the interview that the last caretaker went crazy and killed his family with an axe, you can practically see Movie Jack thinking "Oh, an axe! That's perfect! I was gonna use a Roque mallet but an axe would get the job done much faster!" No sooner has he gotten his family up where nobody can get to them than he turns on them, first just speaking to them like the evil abusive man he is, then chasing them with an axe and trying to do the same thing the last caretaker did, something he was clearly capable of well before he got to the hotel.

Oh, and he's an alcoholic as well.

The movie sort of glosses over this critical aspect of his character. It's present, but it's made pretty clear that he doesn't need it to be evil. We're barely 45 minutes in (the movie itself is two and half hours long), and Jack hasn't had a drop to drink, when he browbeats Wendy for interrupting him using horrendously abusive language that Wendy, apparently used to it, takes in stride, and does her best to keep from bothering him again. Book Wendy would have slapped him, called him a bastard, and locked she and Danny away from him. It's like Kubrick's take on Jack's drinking problem was "Yeah, sure, why wouldn't an abusive monster also be an alcoholic?"

Just how much of a non-factor is Jack's drinking? It's not even brought up in his job interview. In the book, hotel manager Ullman is hiring Jack because the hotel owners (one of whom Jack is tight with) ordered him to, but makes it clear that if it were up to him, he wouldn't do it. He doesn't trust a drunk. It's the first chapter of the novel, showing that Jack's struggle to put his demons to rest will always be dogged by the fact that no one will let him forget the man he's trying, and mostly succeeding, to stop being. Movie Jack and Movie Ullman get along fine, and if anything, it's Jack who's more hostile during the interview. More creepy, at any rate.

We also only get one, maybe two, scenes of the hotel trying to force Jack to drink, and the way it's presented makes it seem like it's all in Jack's mind. In fact, there are still discussions today among fans of the film about whether or not the ghosts were real or whether they were just Jack's inner demons being given visual form by Danny's powers.

And speaking of those powers, they're sorta shunted to the side as well; definitely present, but by no means the focus. I mean the freaking title is The Shining, so named because Danny has a very bright "shine" (incredibly strong psychic ability), and the hotel wants to absorb him into itself so that it can use that ability to physically manifest the ghosts and demons that infest it. In fact, just his being there makes the demonic force behind the hotel stronger, and its purpose is to get Jack to go mad, prodding his alcoholic nature and violent temper, so that he will kill Danny and the hotel can have him forever.

In the movie, Jack wants to kill Danny because Jack's a crazy bastard.

Then there's Wendy. I used to hate Shelley Duvall's performance as Wendy, just like I hated Nicholson's psychotic take on Jack, but this Wendy, a shrinking violet clearly used to her husband verbally and perhaps physically abusing her, whose response to being abused is to walk on eggshells and still put her husband's needs ahead of hers...well, this Wendy is the only one that could be married to Movie Jack. Book Wendy would never marry this guy.

Now, some of the book's critics have accused King of wanting to have his cake and eat it too. He wants Wendy to be a strong woman, but she stays with an abusive husband. He wants us to like Jack, and think of him as a loving father and husband, but he makes him abusive as well.

Sorry, but if this is your take-away from the book, you clearly don't have anyone you love struggle with alcoholism. I can't say I've ever struggled with it myself, but several in my family have, and I know that alcoholism is not just something that happens when someone decides they like to drink too much. It's a medical condition, one that it's damn near impossible to get over once you realize you have it. It's a mental disorder; something in the brain that's supposed to make you understand when you're losing control of yourself, but it doesn't work, and you just keep going. It takes over, and you become someone else.

This is the key to understanding Jack. When we meet him, he's realized what his problem is, and while it's still bothering him, he feels like he can beat it, and he is. He's finally ready to be the man he wants to be, rather than the man he has been. He's not an asshole who beats his wife and kid while stone cold sober. He's a man who desperately wants to be the man his wife and son need, but who just once let his drinking rage so far out of control that he ended up hurting his son.

As for Wendy, there's the criticism that if she really was the "strong woman" King wants us to believe she is, and if she was any kind of mother, she would have packed Danny up, moved into a women's shelter and divorced Jack before Danny's arm had time to knit. These people don't remember the 70's. In the 70's, a divorcee, and more importantly, a single mother, was an immediate pariah, much like a deadbeat dad today. Back then, strong women tried mightily to hold their families together, and used divorce as a sort of last resort. One thing the movie doesn't make clear that the novel does is that Wendy was ready to hand Jack divorce papers until he showed her he was serious about getting on the wagon. The scene was handled realistically, and I had no trouble believing Wendy was a strong woman and a good mother.

What I'm saying is, would it be a terrible thing to try one more time to make a movie that is as good as, or better than, Kubrick's version, but actually contains the character development and creeping sense of dread that the novel contains?

My take on how to make this a great movie is this; focus on the characters and their issues. Focus on Jack struggling to keep his alcoholism and temper in check, how much he really does love his wife and son, his struggle to not be what his father was to him, and how his growing obsession with the Overlook is slowly turning him into the monster he was always afraid of becoming. Focus on Wendy's desire to keep her family together, her fears over whether or not she can trust her husband, her need to keep Danny safe vs. her strong wish that he won't lose his father. Focus on Danny and his ability to see what's going on with his parents more clearly than even they can, his childlike wish that everything will be okay, coupled with his knowledge that it won't be. Make all that the film's true focus. Include the horror aspects, but keep them muted, to the side, until the end when it all comes apart, and market this as a straight drama. Take it on the film festival circuit, take it to Cannes, all that.

Also, unlike other King adaptations, where I'm okay with it being a bit modernized, I want this one to stay a period piece. This is for several reasons. First, there's all kinds of modern conveniences around today which would make the utter isolation the Torrances experience impossible. Second, as I've already pointed out, values dissonance would be very strong. In 2015, Wendy would have left her husband long ago. Thirdly, King wrote a distant sequel, Doctor Sleep, with an adult Danny in 2013, and for this all to make sense, this movie has to take place in 1976, when it was written.

I decided Derek Cianfrance can be our director and screenwriter, because he does very well with movies about relationships that take a wrong turn. Watch Blue Valentine if you need an example. In fact, it was with Cianfrance in mind that I thought of Ryan Gosling taking the role of Jack. But I don't think Gosling will work. He's too smooth, too suave. Try as I might, I can't picture him being "good" Jack, who's a bit of a nerd, or "bad" Jack, totally taken over by the hotel.

I wanted an actor that audiences would instinctively like, someone who usually plays the hero, or the nice guy, but who could also play pure evil if called upon. I admit that I spent about half the book imagining Bradley Cooper in the role, and while there's no question he could play Jack, I worried about him aging out of the role well before another director decides to try and take a crack at this. Cooper is nearly 41, which would make him eleven years older than Jack of the novel (not a huge problem), a year older than Nicholson was when he played the role (again, not bad, especially since Cooper's a bit of a babyface, while Nicholson looked somewhere around 50 from ages 29-65), but, would probably be 45 plus years by the time a film gets made. That's just too old.

Then it hit me. Tom Hiddleston. We know the man can act (and yes, he can do an American accent), we know he can do creepy and scary, and we know that he can play nice guy, as well. The guy's got a huge online following of men who want to be his best friend and women who want to have his babies. Someone audiences instinctively like? He's got that covered and then some. He'll sell the loving husband and father quite well. It will devastate viewers to their core when he goes truly bad.
For the role of Wendy, it was a no-brainer. Somehow, the face of Claire Danes immediately attached itself to the character, and I never went back. Danes is an actress of more range than we give her credit for. From Temple Grandin to Shopgirl to Homeland, she has fit herself into more roles than many actresses ever have, and has gone criminally under-recognized for it. I have no doubt that she can convey every level of Wendy's struggles.
Danny is going to be a difficult role to cast. I have already said I won't be casting preteen roles, and I'm sticking to that here, especially because finding a young actor who can really convey everything Danny is going through is going to be a challenge. Of the two kids who have already played him, Danny Lloyd did a pretty good job, despite several mumbled lines, while Maitland Ward was unbelievably annoying. Book Danny tugged at my heartstrings something fierce. I kept wanting to reach through the page, scoop him into my arms and tell him he was safe now, and finding a child actor who can pull that off on screen is going to be very, very difficult.

Then there's Dick Hallorann, the old black cook who has a fairly strong ability to Shine, but nowhere near Danny's level. It's Hallorann who lets Danny understand that he has an ability most don't have, and who comes to the rescue when Jack goes off the wagon and off the rails. King was well ahead of his time having a black man be the Knight in Shining Armor (remember, this was the 70's), and I still think it was unforgivable that Kubrick decided to kill him. I've heard the counter-argument as to what Kubrick was trying to do, which is make Danny realize he has to save himself, but I'm not sure I buy it. It really does feel more like yet another "black dude dies first" scenario, and yes, that did already exist in 1980. This is especially true because Hallorann in the film dies as soon as he walks into the hotel, without anything resembling a heroic rescue. If he had fought Jack before dying, I might believe the counter-argument, but no, he was killed senselessly and violently, and while Danny does take some steps to save himself, ultimately it's his mother that saves him.

This will be an opportunity to do Hallorann right, and I think I've got the right man to play him. I went with a lesser-known actor this time, but if you're familiar with this guy's work you'll have no trouble believing him as Hallorann: Clarke Peters. That is all.
Hotel manager Stuart Ullman isn't a large role, but he looms large over the story, and I want to keep the antagonistic relationship with Jack that he has in the book, as well as scenes of him meeting Jack's family, and the scene where Jack calls him. In the book, he's described as a short, fat, officious little prick. No sooner had I read those words, when an image of Toby Jones rose in my mind. I like Jones, and I almost want to give him a bigger role somewhere down the line, but this is a role that was almost written for him.
Summer caretaker Bill Watson, a one-scene-wonder character whose rambling, profanity-laced monologue sets up nearly all the story's Chekhov's Guns, is another I'd like to see played by a recognizable character actor. Couldn't go with a huge name this time, but instead I chose an actor who's achieved a sort of "hey, it's that guy!" level, Brent Briscoe.

I also want Al Shockley to have a physical presence in this movie. Al is Jack's buddy from when he was a teacher. He's actually a member of the school's board, and the one who got Jack the job as caretaker of the Overlook. He used to be Jack's drinking buddy but is now sober, apparently more sober than Jack, and he plays a sort of reasonable authority figure. I pictured him as Mark Moses.

That's it for the big roles, but I like the idea of there being a quartet (or sextet) of ghosts who are the main personal antagonists for Jack, popping out of the woodwork to send him further down the hole of insanity. They would take the form of Horace Derwent, the most notorious owner of the hotel (whose backstory we would see; I even thought it might be cool to open with some old newsreel style footage of him buying the hotel), as well as Mrs. Massey, the woman from Room 217 (movie fans, do not correct me; in the novel it's Room 217), Roger, the gay man dressed as a dog and finally, Jack's father himself, Mark Torrance, who would be introduced in a dream sequence where we'd see him playing Elevator with Jack, flying into a rage, beating his mother almost to death, and then appearing at random to demand his Jack kill Wendy and Danny.

In order, John Lithgow will play Derwent, Nina Hellman will play Mrs. Massey, Robin Lord Taylor will play Roger and Pruitt Taylor Vince will play Mark Torrance.
John Lithgow

Nina Hellman

Robin Lord Taylor

Pruitt Taylor Vince
But we're not done with the ghosts. There's also Lloyd, the bartender who first gets Jack to take a drink and who seems to turn into a ghoul the longer Jack waffles, unsure if he should. I want a gaunt, hollow-eyed face to play this role, someone we know can be scary, scary, scary if need be. We need a character actor who doesn't seek the spotlight, since his role is kind of a one-scene wonder. Such as Christopher Heyerdahl.
Delbert Grady, the ghost of the previous caretaker who went crazy the same way Jack did, is another important character. Now he's part of the ghosts in the hotel, and when Jack meets him, he thinks it sounds odd to hear clipped English coming out of "that thug's face". In Kubrick's version, he's just a standard English butler. But "clipped English" seems more like what we're used to hearing from David Hyde Pierce, only with the face of a brute. I think Mark Pellegrino both looks thuggish enough and has the talent to adopt the clipped tones of Niles Crane.
Finally, and here's a bit of controversy, I'm changing things up a bit from the novel for the role of Tony. If you've never read the novel, I'm about to spoil things for you. Tony, you see, manifests as an older version of Danny. He basically looks like Danny as a teenager. This isn't future Danny time-traveling, or anything. It's more like Danny's power is more mature than he is, and therefore takes the form of an older version of himself. We don't see this about Tony until near the end, and I figured this would be a very cool way of tying it into the distant sequel, Doctor Sleep.

See, I figure if we're doing this Shared Cinematic Universe, we could film The Shining one year, and film Doctor Sleep at or near the same time, since they wouldn't share the same cast. But you could preview Doctor Sleep for the audience by having the same actor who plays the adult Danny in that film play Tony in this one. I chose Ryan Reynolds, an actor with way more range than nerds who hated Green Lantern give him, and one of the men I considered as Jack (I tossed him out because he's both too old and because he played a very similar role in The Amityville Horror). I can easily see Tom Hiddleston and Claire Danes's son looking like Reynolds.

So that's my take on The Shining. The second full novel on this blog and the second to have had two previous adaptations. I'll be honest, I don't expect this remake to actually happen, but I hope some filmmaker somewhere sees this and decides it deserves a remake.

Now, for the next bit here, I'll be entering truly uncharted territory. I have eleven short stories to read, and one full novel, before I get to the next post that I know for sure I'll be blogging about. If you're curious, the reading order is Children of the Corn, One for the Road, The Cat from Hell, The King Family and the Wicked Witch, The Man Who Loved Flowers, Rage, Jerusalem's Lot, The Last Rung on the Ladder, Quitters, Inc., The Woman in the Room, The Night of the Tiger and Nona.

I've never read any of them before.

Out of that selection, Rage is the only full novel, the first novel he ever wrote, in fact, and the first one published as Richard Bachman. I won't be blogging about it because, as I'll explain better later, I know there won't be a movie version. Children of the Corn has been adapted twice directly, and there have been umpteen sequels that King had no hand in writing. The Cat from Hell was adapted as part of the film Tales from the Dark Side: The Movie, Quitters, Inc. has been adapted as a part of the film Cat's Eye and as a Hindi film called No Smoking, while The Woman in the Room became one of the better-known "Dollar Baby" short films, this one directed by The Man Frank Darabont himself. It launched his career, and for a long while was available on home video.

I don't know if I'll be casting any of them. I don't thing we need more Children of the Corn, and the others are, from what I can tell, probably too short.

So it's likely that the next full post will be a casting of The Stand, but in the meantime I will do another post about stories I'm skipping, and why, and honestly, there's enough of them this time it might even be two posts.

Until then, constant readers (oh, dear, what delusions of grandeur), I shall bid a fond "see you soon."


  1. I find no fault with any of these decisions (with one possible exception). Hiddleston might actually be inspired casting; Danes definitely is. Moses too, for that matter.

    I love the movie, and I love the novel, and I totally agree that the latter is strong enough that it deserves another adaptation that is more faithful to the source material. Don't even get me started on the miniseries; it's got occasional decent moments, but on the whole is dreck.

    I'm not entirely convinced by the idea of Reynolds playing Tony/Danny. He's a good actor, and he'd play it well. But I'm not sure I'd want that "character" (if that word applies) to physically appear in the movie at all. That works on the page, but the second you visualize it, it becomes cheesy. A great director MIGHT be able to make it work, but I don't take it as a given. It's the sort of thing that could and would bring the movie to dead halt unless it was done perfectly; and the odds of that happening are always weak.

  2. The Tony idea entered my head before I re-read the scene where Tony finally walks up to Danny and reveals what he looks like. This is the only scene I would want Reynolds for.

    In the novel, Tony looks about 15. My take on it is that he would look like a grown man, who would gradually walk forward from the distance he usually appears from, kneel down and tell Danny "I'm a part of you", give the little speech he gives, then walk out of Danny's mind.

    I agree that it would have to be filmed properly. A skilled director (Cianfrance has skill, but does he have that much?) could make it work, though. It would certainly be better than a floating nerdy teenager.

  3. It'd be hard to be worse!

    I'm thrilled to have a fellow fan who is on the "Mick Garris is a hack" bandwagon. Seems like a nice guy; can't direct his way out of the grocery store.

    1. Yeah, I didn't watch most of the Stephen King movies until I had read a number of the books. I wondered why his name showed up so often when I would look the movies up, and I figured he must be the director King liked the most or something. After watching several of his films, the most complimentary word I can think of for Garris is "pedestrian". There are TGIF sitcoms with more inspired direction than anything Garris has put out. Somehow he manages to take the most profound, soul-rending work King has produced and turn it into the cinematic equivalent of a McDonald's hamburger.

      Now, Frank Darabont, on the other hand, he just plain gets King. For a while I thought he preferred to direct straight dramas, as all three King-related films he'd produced were non-horror, non-supernatural stories, but then he made The Mist and proved just how great he can do King horror as well.

      If my King Cinematic Universe ever comes to fruition (about as likely as King asking me to co-write his next novel with him), Frank Darabont is my choice to run the whole damn thing and direct the more prominent films.

  4. The Shining is likely next on my reading list. I'm familiar enough with the storyline that hopefully what you wrote here won't spoil it. Not having read it, I can't contribute much, but I agree completely about Ryan Reynolds being much better than his reputation. If he found the right indie movie and a good TV series, he could have a McConaughey-level rocket launch.

    1. For some reason, the fact that Reynolds has done comedy has made some people feel that he's more of a Jim Carrey type, despite the fact that he's done probably as much drama as he has comedy and is equally good there.

      Sorry if I inadvertently spoiled anything, but honestly, this one's good even if you know what's going to happen. I think I enjoyed it better on my latest read than I did on my first.

  5. Reynolds is nowhere near as showoff-y and slapstick-y as Carrey. He even got some sleeper Oscar talk for Buried, which nobody saw.

    At this point I don't think you spoiled too much, since I was already familiar with the story. If anything, it actually might have spoiled some of Doctor Sleep.

    1. I've always like Reynolds, and I agree that he's nowhere near a Jim-Carrey type, but he seems to get painted with that brush.