With the Stanley Kubrick masterpiece getting a re-release for Halloween, I thought the time was ripe to revisit the TV miniseries of The Shining. Written by Stephen King (who was famously disappointed in the cinematic adaptation), the script for this version sticks religiously to the novel of which it’s based. For those that haven’t read it, but are familiar with the Kurbrick version, this means a number of memorable scenes won’t be appearing. There’s no elevator blood. So’s the maze. And all work and no play no longer makes Jack a dull boy. With this prior version being so prolific, and very much a well-established classic (up there with Halloween, Night of the Living Dead and The Exorcist as being an untouchable horror), then the TV adaptation is already fighting a very up-hill battle. Coupled with the four and a half hour running time, and the buttocks of Mick Garris sat in the director’s chair, then it is umlikely to be the preferred version of The Shining for any but the most ardent constant-readers of Si King.
That doesn’t mean it’s terrible though. Far from it. In some ways it uses its source material to correct some of the issues with the Kurbrick film. First off, this time we get to see Mr Torrence; the family man. Instead of the constantly unhinged looking Nicholson, Steven Weber is cast in the role of an everyman. If the heart and soul of the story has always been a fear of violence at the hands of a family man, then a core strength of the miniseries is how much more relatable this element becomes. Torrence is played as being very much the sort of guy you could picture sharing a beer with – an ironic outcome considering how prominent the theme of alcoholism is in the writing (something that was semi auto-biographical for King in the novel). This time the descent in to madness is protracted, and Torrence’s role as a father is given room to breathe. Consequently, the destruction of the family unit as in some ways more emotionally involving that in the film, since said unit appears more realistic to begin with. Danny is also given time to shine (no pun intended) with his gift actually influencing the plot and his role is greater than merely being a pint sized victim. Furthermore, the gradual build up across the first two thirds is very effective. The background to The Overlook is given some attention, and as night falls there are some enjoyably creepy sequences of the house coming to life, whilst the oblivious characters sleep. If your concept of The Shining has always been a perspective horror –wherein the existence of the ghosts is entirely ambiguous – then seeing such a traditional haunted house narrative may be off putting. On the contrary though, for me it legitimises King’s grievance with the film and gives the miniseries a separate identity. The ghosts are there this time. And while it may begin small, with a few items moving or a fire turning on, but it’s not long before they are pulling the strings.
It’s not all succesful though. While Weber makes a greater family man than Nicholson, he is definitely a lesser maniac. Whereas Jack played Torrence as a brutal force of nature, not unlike a werewolf with the scent for blood, the miniseries Torrence seems so horribely restrained. To be fair, this is likely a result of network constraints; this was not exactly made with HBO in mind. But there’s no getting around how boldly unscary he is. Smashing a croquet mallet down a hall, warbling on about his son needing a taste of medicine, it’s hard to take Weber’s threats entirely seriously. He’s not the only part that gives this vibe. Through sticking to the novel so rigorously, all the problems with the third act become very apparent. After a surprisingly tense first scene, the hedge animals become a little ridiculous when we actually see them move and simply don’t compare to the intensity of the maze chase. But arguably the worst element of the miniseries, and the novel of which it is based, is the redemption aspect of the story. Without spoiling it, the final half hour becomes so very awash with sentimentality and clichés that you could almost mistake it for parody. As with a previous King and Garris collaboration, The Stand, it seems a keenness to deliver a faithful adaptation exposes a significant weakness of King’s part; that he can’t really write endings for shit. Sure, sometimes he gets it right (The Dark Tower series, in particular, leads to an unforgettable climax). But in a lot of cases the scale simply gets a little too big, and the take-home message is made embarassingly transparent or all too literal. Furthermore, when the ending of one of his books falls flat, at least King can redeem it with his generally solid prose style; wherein a cliché isn’t necessarily presented like the cliché it is. Mick Garris is not such a craftsman. And rather than presenting performances, music and angles that knowingly dull or defy conventions, he fully embraces them. The result is not a heightened drama, but rather a bloated melodrama that it’s hard to imagine a team of editors persistently watching, to get them right, and not shaking their heads at. Accordigly, as with The Stand miniseries, the considerable time investment that you put in goes largely unrewarded.
So all in all is it recommended? Depends who you are. If you haven’t read the book, but want to see what all this stuff about wasps, croquet and hedges is, then it is perfectly passable entertainment – particularly the first two thirds. Just don’t expect the definitive version. If you are a fan of the book, and not the film, then you will most likely get a lot out of this since it omits very little. However, if like me you enjoyed the film and thought the book was fun, but deeply flawed, then this is only going to draw out comparisons to the superior version. As with One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (of course also featuring Nicholson) the Kubrick production goes to show that the best films are not always the best adaptations. The miniseries compliments this notion by showing that when the adaptation is strong, the final piece can’t be entirely successful unless the source material is. Think about this one next time you hear someone complain about changes from a book, and I hope you take time to enjoy the classic film again when it gets rereleased next month.