Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Book Learning' #4: The Shining - Stephen King Vs. Stanley Kubrick


Given the current critical consensus, it probably sounds strange to hear anything other than uniform praise concerning Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. Its easy to forget that when it originally premiered back in 1980, it wasn't so universally regarded as the classic it is today, representing one of the few Kubrick films to garner no Oscar or Golden Globe nominations and two Razzie noms (for Worst Director and Worst Actress, back before the tyranny of Sandler when that actually meant something). Of course, opinions have changed, with many considering it one of the best horror movies ever made if not one of the best movies in general, with even fans of the book forgiving its many transgressions despite Stephen King himself citing it as the only adaptation of his work he vehemently hates. Had you asked me my opinion before I recently re-read the book and re-watched the film, I might have ended up in that last group (loved the book, still liked the movie), but now, I can't even give the movie the charity of "decent for its time." Frankly, I'd go so far as to say it might be one of the worst movies ever made. Yeah, its that bad.


How do you make a two and a half hour movie with no story? How do you spend two and a half hours in a secluded environment with only three main characters and not bother to develop them as people at all beyond the most basic archetypes of unrepentant killer and innocent victim? How do you tell a story about dark supernatural forces exploiting an otherwise noble man's alcoholism without the nobility, while suggesting the supernatural forces might just all be in his mind? And how do you make it all so mind numbingly slow and boring? These are among the questions swirling around in my head as I watch Stanley Kubrick shit all over a book he must have almost certainly hated quite a bit in order to bastardize it this much for the sake of his weird autistic vision of a what a horror movie should be. Kubrick's process was famously exacting to the point of madness, and I can't help but wonder if many fans assume that because of this, there must be something here, and so they've just imagined greatness where it clearly isn't. Memes being what they are, the idea that this movie is good has gone viral, infecting far too many otherwise sensible people.


Okay, sorry, I'm getting ahead of myself again. First, I should talk about the book. Stephen King's The Shining has never been one of my favorite King books, though that's not to say I don't thoroughly enjoy it. Though he's so well known as a horror writer, I've always appreciated him more as a dark fantasy guy, enjoying the way he's built a shared universe over the years to reward long time fans. The Shining was written before he really got serious about that, but as a story on its own its still a great read that deserves far more respect than Kubrick ever gave it. King has famously suggested that elements of the story are somewhat autobiographical, written at a time when he was struggling with his own alcoholism and the effect it had on his own family. Whether he saw himself as the father or the son or both (not sure of the history there) is unknown, but its easy to see why he might have been offended by the treatment of these characters in the film knowing how much he identified with them. At its heart, the novel is about the tragedy of a loving family coming apart, but the film never bothers to invest in the characters emotionally so that you care about that, beyond the sudden visceral attack at the end of it.


It would be a valid criticism of the book to say that King perhaps identifies a bit too much with his characters, so much so that he sometimes tries too hard to excuse Jack’s alcoholism. The book often comes across as blaming the drink more than the addict who chooses to drink it, and the whole premise is in a way all about externalizing the damage alcoholics cause by introducing ghosts as a metaphor for life’s pressures that can send a good man off the wagon. Still, if King cares too much for the Torrance family, Kubrick doesn’t care nearly enough. He obviously has no sympathy for any of these characters, removing Jack’s redemptive arc to turn him from a man struggling against an urge towards monstrosity into a monster struggling to conceal itself under the veneer of humanity. By extension, Kubrick seems to assume that no self-respecting woman could ever stay with a man like Jack (having removed all of his redeeming qualities), and thus sees Wendy as having no self-respect whatsoever, despite her novel counterpart being an exceptionally strong female character, which is honestly sort of rare for a King book. And then there’s Danny, who you might be surprised to find out is actually supposed to be the main character of this story, considering how little he matters to it in the film version.


Of course, I suppose I can’t really complain about the lack of more scenes with Danny Torrance, considering just how fucking terrible the actor is. Yes, I know its kind of dickish to say that about a child actor, but its not like there aren’t enough good ones out there, and I only single him out first because as bad as he is, he’s the best of the bunch. That’s right, Jack Nicholson is even worse. The joke about Nicholson later in life was that he was always very good at playing Jack Nicholson, but he’s clearly trying to do that here and somehow can’t even pull that off. Seriously, watch either of the ballroom scenes where he’s talking to the bartender (or really any scene he’s in, but especially those two). He’s bobbing his head around like a fucking cartoon! Throughout the whole movie he alternates between goofy cornball antipathy to this blank stare that I guess is supposed to be creepy or foreboding, but just looks like he’s shat himself. His famous third act meltdown is, I’m sorry, ridiculous, and perhaps enjoyable for its camp value, but certainly not the legendary performance it is heralded as.


Oh, and maybe this is a bit picayune, but it seems to me that if you’re going to make a movie called The Shining, about a little kid who has a magical gift called the Shining, you might actually want to have this thing called The Shining in it. The titular power, crucial to practically every moment of the book, is completely superfluous in the film, not to mention incredibly silly in execution (yes, I’m talking to you stupid Tony voice and spittle seizure!). This is all only compounded by the shift in focus from Danny to Jack, as in the book it is Danny the Overlook wants because his powers amplify their own, whereas in the movie, the ghosts want...what exactly? Oh, its ambiguous, which I guess automatically means good. Fancy that. You could completely take out the supernatural elements of this movie with absolutely no consequence, which you might think is a clever thing if you’re a film nerd who reflexively sides with a filmmaker against the author, but if you’re going to do that, then just make an original movie about a psycho dad in a hotel and call it something else, like The Shitting, which is what this movie does in all of our mouths.


And you know what, frankly, it’s not even really all that well made on a technical level (yeah, I know, sacrilege!). Sure, there are a few great iconic moments like the bleeding elevator and the twins, but for every clever tricycle dolly shot there are about ten or so close ups of boring nothing that slowly pan out into wide shots of boring nothing. Yeah, we get it, its a big empty hotel, move the fuck on! The pacing in this movie is absurdly slow and it was a struggle to stay awake half the time. Maybe that was another brilliant Kubrickian trick, making the audience fall asleep so that when a loud noise wakes them up in the third act when stuff starts actually happening, you just fill in the gaps with a better movie in a dream like haze. Hell, the famous bathroom scene alone was so poorly directed I started to think I was watching a Tim And Eric movie, designed to be terrible on purpose. Hmm, wait a minute...


One of my favorite reviews I’ve ever written for this blog was for the Shining inspired documentary Room 237, and you can go back and read my previous opinion concerning the Kubrick film that I wrote at the time, having not actually re-watched the movie in quite a few years. I didn’t really buy into any of the crazy theories presented in the doc (except the one about boners, that one’s spot on), but if I could proffer my own after a more recent viewing of the subject film, I get the feeling that The Shining might just be Stanley Kubrick’s massive joke on his own fanbase. Could it be that he intentionally made a movie so bad just to see if his sycophantic film nerd fans would love it anyway just because he made it? Maybe not, but if that were the case, he certainly succeeded. This movie is as awful as it is overrated, too intellectualized, which isn’t to say too smart for dumb material, but rather too intellectual at the expense of any discernible emotional core. He took a story about the perversion of love and family, took out the love and family, and left nothing but the perversion. Though it has its flaws too, the novel clearly deserves its recognition as a classic of its medium. The film, not even close.
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