ABC, April 27 and 28 and May 1, from 9:00 to 11:00 p.m. EST
Don't smirk: A genuinely potent idea for a story lurks in The Shining. Hotel turned ghost ship on an ocean of Colorado snow; "winter caretaker" assaulted by alcoholic hallucinations of the American past; history springing to life as a masked ball--Stephen King's metaphors have a dumb, thudding power. Whenever I stay in some older, creakier hotel on a road trip, my mind invariably drifts toward King's phantasmagoric Overlook Hotel. "If these walls had ears"--King imagined walls with ears and eyes and total recall. He captured the menace that can grow out of something as allegedly comforting as a "sense of place." Fittingly, The Shining now has its own long, curious past. It appeared as a novel in 1977, was obliquely but majestically filmed by Stanley Kubrick in 1980, and is now given a more literal treatment in an author-produced, author-scripted miniseries running this week on ABC. The thrice-told tale has crossed over to become the best kind of pop-culture myth.
Those who missed The Shining in previous incarnations will need to know that the Overlook is an expensive summer resort that cannot be reached during snow season because of an unplowable stretch of road. Jack Torrance, a recovering alcoholic writer, arrives to tend the place for the winter; he brings his wife, Wendy, and son, Danny. Little Danny has the "shine," a gift of telepathy that reaches into the past. He awakens the hotel's spirits, speeding their advance but also fighting them off. His father, on the other hand, gives in. Drunkenness returns, then drink itself, in the hands of bartender ghosts. The corridors are suddenly full of decaying party-goers of past decades, aristocrats and decadents in animal masks. They command Torrance to kill his wife and son. He is stopped short by Dick Hallorann, a clairvoyant black cook, who hears Danny's pleas from afar and makes a long journey to the hotel to save him and his mother. ("Shine," as it happens, is also the name of a character in African-American folklore who survived the sinking of the Titanic. King, writing in the '70s, depicts the Overlook as a monster vessel of American patriarchy that a child, a woman, and a black man destroy. In the centrist '90s, he makes the story a less provocative allegory of family dysfunctionality.)
King, the maestro of terror, actually has trouble sustaining the uncanniness he achieves in the first scenes of both his novel and his lavish new miniseries. (Mick Garris is named as its director, but he can safely be regarded as a King lackey, having previously directed an endless version of The Stand on ABC. King seems to have carte blanche at that network.) The ingenuity of the conception lies in its circularity: The Overlook is both haunted and haunting. Guests fall to its curse, dying in baroque ways; after death, they become agents of the haunt, the hotel merely their place of business. The Overlook--like any good American place--can always claim a fresh start after the most recent horror departs. King comes up with a disappointing resolution to his supernatural Catch-22: He has a boiler blow up in the basement, a boiler that has "built up too much pressure" with "no safety valve." (Metaphors, too, buckle under strain.) I also fail to be freaked out by the hedge animals that come to life and attack people. I'd have preferred to read and see more of the hotel's background--its stories of Howard Hughes-style millionaires, Hollywood debauchees, and gangsters--a crowd euphemistically described by the hotel manager as "all the best people."
Stanley Kubrick, needless to say, made King's conception his own in a 1980 Kubrickification. The Overlook, perfectly poised between Alpine splendor and bourgeois kitsch, does not explode at the end. It becomes an eternal, soul-crushing labyrinth of the kind that so often appears in Kubrick's films. The topiary animals are replaced by a high-walled, dark-green maze through which Jack Torrance stumbles to his death. You don't see much of the hotel's history, but you sense it lurking behind walls of photographs and arid patterns of Native American decor. The Torrances bring with them the flotsam and jetsam of '70s American culture: Roadrunner cartoons, Apollo rockets, "canned fruits and vegetables ... hot and cold cereals, Hostess Toastees, Corn Flakes, Sugar Puffs, Rice Krispies." As the theorist Fredric Jameson has written in a deliciously overworked essay on Kubrick, "The Jack Nicholson of The Shining is possessed neither by evil as such nor by the 'devil' or some analogous occult force, but rather simply by History, by the American past as it has left its sedimented traces in the corridors and dismembered suites of this monumental rabbit warren."
K ubrick's Shining is also more concerned with the ambitious "writing project" that Jack Torrance brings with him to the hotel. In the novel, it's said to be a play, mostly finished; once at the hotel, he conceives a different project, a nonfiction account of the Overlook. In the miniseries, the writing is mentioned often at the beginning, rather less after that. The omission is understandable, for no filmmaker--not even a Mick Garris--could hope to challenge Kubrick's Writing Scene, the best such scene in the history of movies: Jack Nicholson smashing on his typewriter, recoiling violently from the slightest interruption, leaving on his desk a texte that brings a unique look of awe and fear to the face of Shelley Duvall. (For fear of ruining the effect for anyone who hasn't seen the film, I won't say any more, except to note that Kubrick stages the climactic shot as a self-parody--the camera is on the floor, and Duvall's unearthly features loom over the typewriter like the sun emerging from behind the moon in 2001.)
King always used to voice his dislike of the film, citing its fitful pacing, omission of beloved bric-a-brac (the topiary animals, some deadly croquet equipment), over-the-top performances, high-cinematic flourishes. He's been noticeably quieter about it lately--according to TV Guide, he agreed to stop criticizing Kubrick in exchange for the return of film rights. What's curious, though, is how much Kubrickiana lingers in the remake. King and Garris seem to have remade what they didn't like and kept what they did. The camera again glides down the corridors in eerily poised Steadicam style; Nicholas Pike's score is full of avant-garde orchestral textures, often copied from the very works of Bartók, György Ligeti, and Krzysztof Penderecki that Kubrick put on his soundtrack; and, after the boiler explosion, the hotel now appears in a rebuilt state, resuming its haunt. Actor Steven Weber, meanwhile, struggles to find a way to limp down a hotel corridor screaming "Danny! Danny!" without reminding us of Nicholson. Best known as one of those aw-shucks guys on television's Wings, Weber does his best to deliver an understated, realistic impression of a man going crazy in a haunted hotel.
King was right about one thing: Kubrick should not have omitted the Scrapbook, that pasted-together Overlook history that Torrance discovers in the basement and finds fatally mesmerizing. Sitting down to watch the remake, I was eager to see more of Horace Derwent, the Hughes-style millionaire, and other nefarious characters from the book. But I should have known that History, like the Writing Project, would be pushed aside in this Clinton-era remake in favor of Family Problems. Some early scenes with an edgy, alcohol-starved Weber work well; Nicholson, in these same scenes, never convinced you he was remotely normal. But Weber loses to the competition when Jack is required to converse with a nonexistent bartender or to dance on an empty ballroom floor. Nor did I feel much concealed threat in the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colo., where the ABC series was shot. Kubrick, who had vast interiors constructed in England, was able to give a sinister twinge to something as minute as a pattern in a carpet. Garris resorts to clunky-spooky shots of doors slamming shut as he tries to stir supernatural life into his swanky location. Everything is shiny; nothing shines. It's as if the hotel people said, "Sure, fill the place with moldering ghouls, but you have to use the same lighting we use when shooting our brochures."
Still, King and Garris engineer an entertaining six hours--and six hours is a good long stretch of entertainment. Weber's performance seems solid if you try hard to shut Nicholson out of your head. Rebecca De Mornay, as Wendy, gets only so far with her "What's got into my husband?" material, but she frightens the viewer with her resemblance to Hillary Clinton circa 1992. Elliott Gould has a delightful walk-on as the Overlook's imperious, queeny manager in the opening scenes. The whole opening is shot in full, bright color, like the faux-friendly beginning of Blue Velvet: In both cases, we're told that terror lurks in a middle-class paradise. But if you turn then to the opening shots of Kubrick's Shining--a solitary Volkswagen bug wending its way up a two-lane road under the snowy peaks of Glacier National Park--you feel that a bigger theme is being broached: terror in nature, terror in an ancient place. For me, reacquaintance with The Shining has become another stage in the tense wait for Kubrick's return to moviemaking.
The Overlook's manager (Elliott Gould) questions whether Jack Torrance (Steven Weber) has really parted "company with the bottle" (56 seconds):
Volkswagen bug en route to the Overlook in Kubrick's The Shining (42 seconds):