A Pair of Jacks

I’ve put this off for a while, but I think it’s time to give my thoughts on two actors portraying the same role.  I’m speaking of Jack Nicholson and…you’re expecting Heath Ledger here, aren’t you?…Steven Weber.  No, I’m not going to wade into the Jack Joker vs. Heath Joker…yet anyway.  Instead, I’m going to talk about a tale of two Jacks, and I don’t mean Nicholson.

The Shining is one of Stephen King’s early works.  It was published in 1977, King’s third published novel after Carrie and Salem’s Lot, and it’s arguably his most famous work, due in large part to the Stanley Kubrick film released in 1980.  Set in a remote mountain hotel in winter, The Shining tells the tale of Jack Torrance, his wife, Wendy, and his young son, Danny.  Danny has special gifts, psychic powers that the old cook Dick Halloran calls “the Shine”.  His father, Jack, has the Shine too, though he doesn’t realize it.  The hotel Shines as well, but it’s a dark place that wants to corrupt Jack and Danny and use them to fuel its own ghostly inhabitants.

In the book, it’s clear that Jack Torrance is a good man, though he has a number of faults.  He was a drinker, a full blown alcoholic, a trait he inherited from his own abusive father.  While drunk he hurt Danny, breaking the boy’s arm, and this shocked him into getting sober.  He still had anger issues, however, and assaulted a student at his teaching job in Vermont, leading to him being fired.  To keep his family together, he accepts a job at the Overlook Hotel in Colorado as the winter caretaker.  It will be Jack, Wendy and Danny all alone all winter long in a luxury hotel.  It sounds like a great job and a great way for Jack to spend time on his writing, but he doesn’t know about the Overlook’s dark past, or the fact that the hotel itself is essentially alive.

Jack begins the book as a father struggling to keep his family afloat.  The job at the Overlook is, as he says, all that’s keeping them from picking lettuce in California.  He desperately wants to see it through.  Wendy, for her part, is supportive of her husband but not very trusting after the incident with Danny’s arm.  And she worries for Danny, who has an imaginary friend named Tony and occasionally suffers from black outs.  Still, the family makes the best of it and arrives at the hotel where they meet the last of the employees leaving for the winter, including Dick Halloran.  Dick is the Overlook’s chef, and he recognizes Danny’s power and the danger it might pose in a place like the Overlook.  He warns Danny about the things he might see, telling him they are like pictures in a book, not real unless Danny lets them be real.

Jack and family get off to a good start, and everything is going well until Jack discovers some of the hotel’s history in newspapers and albums in the basement.  He starts to become obsessed with the hotel; meanwhile Danny is fascinated by Room 217, a room that Dick Halloran was afraid of.  Eventually Jack begins to see things, like the topiaries outside moving, and he hears his father on the radio, causing him to smash the CB, cutting the family off from the outside world.  Jack slowly sinks into insanity brought on by the spirits inhabiting the hotel, spirits that are not quite ghosts and not quite Jack’s imagination.

Eventually, Jack falls completely under the hotel’s spell, drinking a bottle of whiskey that the spirits provide him (which was not there before).  He attacks Wendy, but she manages to lock him in a pantry.  The spirits then help him escape, and he tries to murder his wife and son, nearly kills Dick who comes back from Florida to try to help the family, and eventually corners his son, whom the house wants dead so it can soak in all his power.  Danny then reminds his possessed father that he hasn’t dumped the boiler, and that the hotel is going to explode.  Danny, Wendy and Dick escape, but Jack, coming to his senses, stops the spirits from saving the hotel and dies in the huge explosion that rips the Overlook apart.

That’s the novel in a nutshell.  But most people who know the Shining do not know the novel’s version of events.  They are far more familiar with the Kubrick film version, and while Kubrick’s vision is frightening and a classic, it’s certainly not the same story at all.

Kubrick’s film casts Jack Nicholson, who was known primarily for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and Easy Rider (1969), as Jack Torrance.  From the very first scene it’s clear that Jack Torrance is a man on the edge.  He puts on a very false veneer when dealing with the hotel manager, which might be expected, but when he picks up the phone to call home, he has that same false sound.  He’s presented as a man who seems to be fighting to control himself.  The way he talks to his son on the way to the hotel, for example, makes it very clear that there’s something else going on with this man than just a guy looking for a job.

This is just the first of many diversions from the original plot.  In the novel, Jack is a good man driven insane by the hotel.  In the film, Jack is a crazy man hanging on to sanity by his fingernails, and he finally loses it.  Seeing the film version of Jack finally snap…well, when does he?  It’s difficult to really tell.  The change is a matter of degrees, and certainly not the clear change that comes over the Jack of the novels.

King himself has been critical of the film, stating it’s one of the few adaptations he “hated.” He felt that Kubrick broke far too much from the central tenets of the story, which was really intended to show the dangers of alcoholism and how it can disintegrate a family.  Instead, Kubrick created a film that showcased the dangers of spending a winter snowed in with a maniac.  Well, lesson learned, Mr. Kubrick, but I’m not sure it’s really a lesson most people needed.

While Kubrick did bring a lot of scary visuals, including the twin girls (who don’t actually appear in the novel), the elevators full of blood, and the axe (which was supposed to be a croquet mallet) smashing through the door, the film is really little more than a horror film about a man going nuts and trying to kill his family.  A man who was clearly already on the edge.  Maybe it’s a cautionary tale for women who are married to abusive men, but that wasn’t the point of the novel, and if that was the angle Kubrick was aiming for, he just barely winged the target.

Kubrick even failed to close many of the plot loopholes: Why did Jack go insane?  Who was Tony, Danny’s imaginary friend?  Why does Jack suddenly appear in the picture at the end?  What happened in 217?  It’s all sacrificed for long helicopter shots and cameras chasing a kid on his Big Wheel.  That plays well in film school, where the students are more interested in their shots than telling a proper story, but it sure as hell isn’t the way to present a complete package to the viewer.

In 1997, King got the chance to set the record straight, as it were, with the release of a three night TV mini-series version of The Shining.  This version, based on King’s own teleplay, starred Steven Weber as Jack Torrance.  The mini-series was much more closely tied to the novel, and Torrance comes off not as a madman barely holding on to sanity, but as a good man, a father, trying to provide for his family even though he’s made some bad mistakes in his life.

Danny’s role is also much better fleshed out, and he seems more like a disturbed little boy trying to deal with forces he cannot comprehend.  Over the course of the mini-series we come to learn exactly who Tony, Danny’s vaguely disturbing spirit guide, really is: it’s a grown up Danny (Daniel Anthony Torrance) trying to warn his younger self about the dangers he’ll face in the hotel (or at least a projection of himself).  In this version we get to see how Danny eventually thwarts the hotel’s attempts at controlling him and harnessing his immense powers by trusting in his father’s love for him.  Can you find that in Kubrick’s version, anywhere at all?  Nope.

Another big bonus point for the mini-series is that they filmed the exterior shots at the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado, the exact hotel King stayed in at the end of the season that inspired the novel.  Gone is Kubrick’s hedge maze, replaced with the proper moving topiaries, done with a combination of CGI and good camera work.  Seeing a snow covered bush in the shape of a lion in one shot, then a look away and the sound of heavy snow dropping, and a look back to see the lion completely cleared off, is scary as hell.  Every time Jack takes his eyes off one of the beasts, they move, only you don’t see them move.  This might not have been the exact inspiration for Doctor Who’s Angels, but it certainly works the same and is just as scary.

You get a lot better understanding of the Overlook in the mini-series as well, including its history and ghosts, though you come to understand that they aren’t so much ghosts as the lingering after-images of the people who once partied at the hotel.  The only ghost is the one in 217, and we get to see just how nasty she is, not to mention an explanation for why she is there.  You get the real sense that the Overlook is alive and hungry, and it wants to feed on Danny.  The ghost woman, who does capture him at one point, only gives him a kiss and sends him on his way.  Perhaps she knows what the hotel wants, being its only true permanent resident, and fears it will push her out if it gets Danny.

The mini-series is just an all around better presentation than the original film, and quite honestly the respect Kubrick gets for The Shining is much better deserved heaped upon the mini-series instead.  Those who would praise Kubrick for his “vision” need to understand that it seems to have been quite blurry when he read The Shining, as he only got the barest of points from it.  The Shining is a story of a fall from grace and an eventual redemption through sacrifice.  Kubrick’s The Shining is a look into the face of madness, with most of the film’s glaring flaws polished after the fact by “Kubrick scholars” making their icon look good.

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