I have some major crow to eat when it comes to The Shining. For the longest time, I had ripped unmercifully on Shelley Duvall. I chalked it up to some of my smart ass “charm,” to point and laugh at the woman who stood with her mouth agape at every turn for a good hour of what felt like a long movie. After reading an article on what happened to her during the filming of The Shining at the hands of Stanley Kubrick, I feel like the ass I so rightfully am. That woman went through hell, and she deserves all types of apologies for what that sadist subjected her to all those years ago.
I’ve long held Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s novel as a mixed bag. On one hand, it’s a good horror movie. On the other hand, it’s got two bad things going for it: it deviates from the main theme of the source material, and it’s, well, unintentionally funny. Today, I don’t want to rehash why this film gives me an inappropriate case of the giggles. No sir. I’m going to focus on something else. You see, I’m one of the people that’s firmly in Stephen King’s corner. We need to talk about how this one managed to completely screw the pooch in terms of the adaptation of stellar source material.
In the novel, Jack Torrence is a sad, broken man. He’s an alcoholic that has hit bottom and had a major scare in his life: his drinking has caused him to break his son’s arm, which rightfully causes a massive amount of guilt and exacts the promise from him to his wife Wendy that if he drinks or uses again, she has full permission to leave. Wendy, for her part, does not take this incident lightly, and lets Jack know that he’s on thin ice; she’s not exactly a doormat, but a woman that wants to keep her family safe first and intact second. This isn’t an easy task considering the circumstances: he’s lost his job as a teacher and can’t seem to get anyone interested in his writing, which strains his ability ot provide for the family in a traditional role. He accepts a job from a man he doesn’t particularly like, doing something he doesn’t want to do: working as a caretaker at a remote, deserted resort because no one else will have him. In this respect, you have to feel for Jack: he has clearly fucked up, and the impact this has had on his life is staggering. His marriage is on shaky ground, his career is in shambles, and he’s trying to rebuild a sense of trust with his son. He has flashbacks of his brutal father abusing the family as a child, which makes him a more sympathetic character because we can see from where he learned this behavior. This guy is a textbook example of the perpetual cycle of abuse, whether it’s verbal, physical, or chemical. To top it off, Jack isn’t even the first possession choice for the ghosts of the Overlook Hotel – the spirits want Danny, who is a much stronger psychic. He then gets manipulated with all of his shortcomings into a position where he’s twisted against his wife and son by forces that want something else. We feel badly for this. This is a guy who is stuck in a nasty pattern and can’t seem to shake himself free. As much as we want to hate him, we get a chance to see an entire person, and it makes him all the more human.
Kubrick’s characters, though, are a far cry from this. We get hints of insanity on Jack’s part long before the winter chill sets in. Wendy is portrayed as a simpering weakling, and Danny – who is close to both parents in the novel – seems cold and detached from all around him. In fact, this is the major sticking point for me: no one in this cast seems to enjoy being around each other, which is in sharp contrast to the book. Jack Nicholson looks like he needs to be bribed in order to interact with Danny Lloyd; Shelley Duvall, for her part, looks glazed as she stares off into space, which makes perfect sense when you think about the psychological torture she endured for the role. I can totally see where King was disappointed – the characters on screen are nothing compared to the amazing folks he created in the novel. There’s no resemblence between Nicholson’s bonkers Jack and the man who is desperate for a second chance; in fact, Nicholson appears cocky and disconnected, which is at complete odds with the book’s characterization. Gone is the take-charge Wendy, who gets replaced with a woman forced to cry for hours on end, who we watch wilt in front of us as the horror builds. We don’t even get to see the wise-beyond-his-years child that tries to reconnect with the dad he loves that abused him – we only get the open-mouthed silent screams of the pale shadow of Danny. It’s a loss for us, because this world of King’s novel is so rich and deeply human. We feel for these people, and we can see where they’re all coming from.
At its core, this is a story about what addiction does to a family. King made strides to present the different facets of human beings who have made mistakes and are trying their best to move forward in a less-than-ideal situation. There’s the confrontation of your own failures, the cycle of abuse, the need to protect one’s child, and the desperate struggle to find oneself in the face of abilities that you feel no one understands. Kubrick, in my opinion, created a story about the way a horribly unhappy man is allowed to let go. It’s not that the 1980 film adaptation of The Shining is all bad – it’s that it has the chance to translate something that is nothing short of profound and elects instead to give us a decent into madness while stripping away the humanity of the characters. The loss of humanity is indeed a horror story, but one that could have proven far deeper had the audience been exposed to the things that made them more human at the beginning.