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(Welcome to The Unpopular Opinion, a series where a writer goes to the defense of a much-maligned film or sets their sights on a movie seemingly beloved by all. In this edition: an argument that the 1997 television adaptation of The Shining is a worthy companion to the iconic Stanley Kubrick film.)

Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film adaptation of The Shining ranks right up there with The Exorcist as one of the greatest horror films of all time. One person who has always been less than enamored with Kubrick’s film, however, is author Stephen King.

The Shining was King’s third published novel, released while he was on a hot streak in the 1970s, writing some of his most popular page-turners, like Salem’s Lot and The Stand. Over the years, King has been vocal in the press about his dissatisfaction with Kubrick’s adaptation. But in 1997, around the time of the book’s 20th anniversary, he was finally able to “correct” the problem, as Delbert Grady would say, penning and producing a much more faithful mini-series adaptation for television.

We are now about as far removed from the original airing of that mini-series as the mini-series itself was from the novel’s publication. Indeed, this year marks the 40th anniversary of the tale of the Torrances and the Overlook Hotel. And with two more high-profile King adaptations on the immediate horizon (namely, The Dark Tower and It), perhaps the time is right for a reevaluation of Stephen King’s The Shining, the 1997 TV mini-series.

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Cinematic Television

While Stephen King’s The Shining has its flaws, it is also imbued with a touch of TV greatness. At the time of its release, TV Guide gave it a 10 out of 10. Ken Tucker of Entertainment Weekly called it “the most frightening TV movie ever made.” It was nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award in the Outstanding Limited Series category.

From a technical standpoint, this four-and-half-hour TV movie (sans commercials) cannot hope to compare to the 1980 version of The Shining, of course. The director, Mick Garris, a journeyman known almost exclusively for his TV adaptations of King stories — most notably, The Stand — is certainly no Stanley Kubrick. And while Garris is outclassed and the movie still has a televisual look in places, the lighting and other aspects of the production design do give it a sheen like something you would see on HBO nowadays.

In terms of well-framed shots, this adaptation is not without its moments: the way the camera pulls back, for instance, to reveal two men walking forward in front of the Stanley Hotel, the real-life place that served as the inspiration for the Overlook in King’s novel, is an inspired scene. When we meet the woman in Room 217 (King went back to his original number for this version, as opposed to Kubrick’s Room 237), the sequence is expertly staged.

Stephen King’s The Shining also won an Emmy for Outstanding Makeup, and it is easy to see why once you get a look at Cynthia Garris (the director’s wife) in her makeup as “the 217 lady.” Give the woman credit: the reveal of her rotting face in close-up remains one of the more terrifying things to have been shown on network television in the past 20 years. One glimpse of her and Kubrick’s cackling green grandmother corpse is quickly forgotten.

An underrated score by composer Nicholas Pike helps give certain moments of the movie an appropriately haunting effect. In the context of horror, choral music is always spooky. Like Interview with the Vampire, the main titles here conjure a gothic feel.

That is not to say Stephen King’s The Shining is without its cheesy moments. The decision to give visual representation to Danny Torrance’s imaginary friend, Tony, as a levitating khaki ghost, seems sorely misjudged. Dialogue is occasionally stilted, and despite its superb make-up effects, the movie uses some dodgy CGI to bring to life its monstrous fire hose and topiary animals. But like the dragon-riding on Game of Thrones, this can perhaps be forgiven as one of the limitations of a TV budget.

In 2017, we are at the point where TV adaptations of famous film properties have become de rigueur, with other horror movies, like From Dusk Till Dawn and even King’s own The Mist getting the series treatment. This was a fairly new notion in 1997, however. In that way, Stephen King’s The Shining was ahead of its time. It predicted the trend of using television as a medium for long-form retellings of familiar stories.

In doing so, it gave the story more leeway for character development. And that is where the meat of this defense lies: in the issue of characterization.

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Wendy and Danny Torrance

There is no getting around it. Courtland Mead, the little boy who plays Danny in The Shining mini-series, can be annoying at times. But in some ways, his spunky child-acting can be seen as a counter-measure to the catatonia of Danny Lloyd, the original boy who played Danny in Kubrick’s film.

Lest we forget, Shelley Duvall was nominated for a Razzie Award back in 1980 for her portrayal of Wendy Torrance. For a lot of people, it’s probably a trade-off between her and Courtland Mead. Which of them is really less bearable?

For King, the answer has always been Shelley Duvall. This is something /Film reported on back in 2013, when King made the following comment in a BBC interview:

“Shelley Duvall as Wendy is really one of the most misogynistic characters ever put on film. She’s basically just there to scream and be stupid, and that’s not the woman that I wrote about.”

In other interviews, King has dismissed Duvall as “a screaming dishrag.” In the mini-series, Rebecca De Mornay rectifies this with her embodiment of Wendy Torrance as a normal, level-headed woman.

This version might not pass the Bechdel test (it is a little hard to do that when you are isolated at the Overlook), but this take on the character is at once more likable and relatable, not to mention self-assured, than the poor blubbering mess that Duvall’s character was.

It has been well-documented how Kubrick waged a war of attrition on Duvall’s psyche, breaking her down, bullying her, even to the point of subjecting her to a record number of takes (127) for a movie scene with dialogue. For Kubrick, staging such psychological warfare during filming was no doubt a means to an end—the equivalent of William Friedkin slapping an actor. As recently pointed out, Kubrick’s whole idea was that Wendy Torrance needed to be “mousy and vulnerable.” He once said:

“I think Shelley Duvall, in addition to being a wonderful actress, perfectly embodied the kind of woman who remains married to a man like Jack Torrance, even though she knows he has brutally assaulted their son. You certainly couldn’t have Jane Fonda play the part.”

Rather than misogyny, comments like these betray more of a misanthropy on Kubrick’s part. That same misanthropy played into his handling of the story’s main character, as well.

Continue Reading In Defense of the Much-Maligned The Shining Miniseries >>

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