In all honesty, I’m not sure how unpopular this opinion is these days. I mean, Stephen King himself famously disliked the movie made from one of his classic novels. But for a long time, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining has been a landmark horror film and has given pop culture at least one iconic moment. Even if you’ve never seen the movie, you’re probably familiar with “Heeeeere’s Johnny!” or “All work and no play make Jack a dull boy.” Maybe you instinctively shudder whenever you see identical twin girls in blue pinafores.
Anyhow, let’s get to it: Lots of people love Kubrick’s adaptation. Not me. I watched it for the first time when I was 14, and I was underwhelmed. And for a long time, I couldn’t figure out why. It has genuinely frightening moments—it knocks the Room 237 sequence out of the park, for example. And I love the soundtrack. Wendy Carlos’s “Dies Irae” on the synthesizer is a chilling opening piece, and the sound effects are so much more interesting than the usual “Jumpscare!” musical stingers.
True, the film deviates quite a bit from its source material. But that hasn’t been a deal-breaker for me in other cases. I love Blade Runner, which bears very little resemblance to the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
For a while, I thought I disliked it because I found the movie horrendously miscast. I read the novel before seeing the film, and although I realize now that Kubrick’s take was basically an alternate-universe version of King’s story, I couldn’t open my brain up and remove the character impressions I’d already formed from the book. That was a stumbling block.
Jack Torrance in the novel has a volatile temper and a drinking problem he’s fighting hard to overcome but he genuinely loves his wife and son, and he doesn’t start going murderously insane until he’s in the Overlook. Jack Torrance as played by Jack Nicholson seems like he’s two seconds away from driving his family off the cliff during the opening credits. He plays a great maniac, but I don’t think the story works as well if Jack is menacing right from the start.
And while I like Shelley Duvall and appreciate that Kubrick cast her to play a woman described as a stunning blonde in the novel (Hollywood usually does that the other way around), I didn’t like her passive, weepy Wendy. The novel’s Wendy is a tougher, far more assertive character.
Finally, after all this time, it hit me:
I don’t like the movie because it rarely seems as if the Torrances love, care about, or even particularly like each other. Even before things start getting bad, they mostly seem cold and stilted when they have to interact, something they avoid doing whenever possible. There’s some warmth between Wendy and Danny, but that’s about it. Jack’s always secluded in his den with his typewriter, Wendy’s cooking or doing housework, and Danny’s riding around the Overlook’s halls on his Big Wheel. They mostly behave like three strangers who just happen to be inhabiting the hotel at the same time. I know this was a deliberate choice; I just don’t like it.
I don’t necessarily need my characters to be good people. I greatly enjoyed the HBO series Barry, where every single main character was some flavor of appalling. But those characters all had things and people they genuinely cared about and real chemistry with each other, and that made them engaging.
I’ve watched The Shining dozens of times. I cannot think of one moment in that film when Wendy and Jack appear to be either a believable married couple with history between them or particularly loving parents. Scatman Crothers’s Dick Halloran seems far more fatherly towards Danny in the brief screen time he gets. (And do not get me started on what the film did to Dick. Just don’t.)
And when I don’t care about the characters, it’s hard for me to get invested in what happens to them. That, in a nutshell, is why Kubrick’s adaptation has never really worked for me.
Then again, I watched King’s attempt to adapt his own story for a TV miniseries in the 90s. That didn’t work either, to put it mildly. Maybe The Shining is one of those books that’s basically unfilmable.