Book vs. Movie: The Shining

I read Stephen King’s novel The Shining in the late 1970s, not too long after its publication. It scared and thrilled me like no other work of fiction. I still remember the frustration of not being able to physically turn pages faster.

This past Friday night I finally saw Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film adaptation at the Pacific Film Archive, where it was screened as part of the PFA’s current series, Eyes Wide: The Films of Stanley Kubrick. Before the screening, I reread the book and loved it just as much as I had some 35 years ago. I liked the movie, especially the second half, but unlike my book vs. movie experience with Jaws, the original book version of The Shining really is better. Much better.

Warning: This essay contains spoilers for both the book and the movie.

The Real Heartbreak Hotel

When you come right down to it, The Shining is a haunted house story. Economic imageproblems force a family to live in a residence filled with ghosts and other supernatural evils. By turning the house into a large resort hotel, King created a larger canvas for the familiar story. You’ve got hundreds of rooms, long hallways, a huge kitchen and ballroom, and dark stories of homicidal mayhem.

Not only is the Overlook filled with evil, undead beings. The hotel is, in and of itself, evil. What happens in the Overlook–especially when it involves death–stays in the Overlook, presumably for eternity. And the hotel orchestrates that evil. The ghosts are merely minions of the Overlook Hotel.

But the Overlooks’ evil, supernatural nature has little direct effect on the natural, physical world. The book contains only three small incidents when the hotel’s evil directly effects the physical world. It’s real power is psychological. It can tap into  people’s brains, find their weaknesses, terrify them, or turn them into violent killers.

And the hotel finds a perfect stooge in the story’s principle character, struggling fiction author Jack Torrance. As King paints him, Jack is a loving husband and father, but he’s also an alcoholic with serious anger issues. Over the course of the novel, the Overlook plays with these weaknesses, amplifying his anger and sense of persecution, slowing turning him into a psychotic killer bent on destroying his family, now trapped with him in the snowbound hotel.

What Kubrick Did Wrong

And this is where Kubrick blew it. The movie never shows Jack’s loving side. He comes off as terse, self-centered, and borderline crazy right from the start. The sense of a good man struggling with his inner demons entirely disappears.

Both the book and the film open with Jack’s interview for the job of winter caretaker for a hotel that’s open only in the summer. In the book, the manager interviewing Jack is a jerk, an "Officious little prick" in Jack’s thoughts. The manager, Ullman, rakes him over the coals and lets Jack know that if it was up to him, he’d find someone better qualified. We’ve all had dreadful and humiliating job interviews. Your sympathy goes to Jack from the book’s first sentence.

Kubrick’s version of Ullman (Barry Nelson) is friendly and outgoing. It’s Jack (Jack Nicholson) who seems remote. When he says that he would never do anything to hurt his wife and son, you can’t help but laugh. There’s already a dark twang to his voice. While King uses the interview scene to provide exposition and make us identify and sympathize with Jack, Kubrick just uses it for exposition.

By not showing us Jack’s good side, Kubrick gives him less space to fall into evil. That makes it a less effective story.

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I understand that it’s almost impossible to watch a film adaptation of a beloved novel. No matter how good the film is, it can’t possibly contain the detail or the interior monologues of a book. And if it tried to do that, it would become a mess. While watching the film, I tried very hard to push King’s version out of my mind.

Jack’s five-year-old son, Danny (Danny Lloyd) has powerful psychic abilities that play imagea very important role in the novel. He still has them in the film, but they seem less powerful, and less important to the story. That’s a legitimate adaptation choice on Kubrick’s part, but I had a hard time accepting it.

But Kubrick made other, very serious mistakes. Consider the music. As he did in 2001, Kubrick used mostly existing classical recordings, usually of little-known pieces. But here he picked scary-sounding passages, and played them too loud, as if to remind us that we’re supposed to be scarred. That worked very well in the scenes where the audience really was scarred. Otherwise, it got annoying.

What Kubrick Got Right

But Kubrick also added brilliant touches.

In the film, Jack spends a lot more time at the typewriter; you never really see him doing the repair work that’s supposed to be his job. As things begin to get really scary, his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) picks up and looks at the thick manuscript he’s been working on all this time. It says only "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy," over and over again. Sometimes it’s formatted like a screenplay. Other times, it’s just plain text. Often it has typos.

Remember that the film came out in 1980, before personal computers and printers were common. Jack (and, in reality, someone in the prop department) had to type it over and over again. That’s a great way to discover that your husband, who is trapped with you and your son in a snowbound hotel, has gone completely bonkers.

Then there’s the matter of topiary objects. In the book, the Overlook has plants in the front yard cut to look like animals–including a dog, a rabbit, and two lions. They seem to come alive at some very scary moments. This works extremely well in a book; I doubt it would have had the same effect in a movie.

So instead, the film’s Overlook has a topiary maze. Before the snow comes and before things get really scary, Wendy and Danny have a fun afternoon in the maze. At the climax, set on a snowy night, it makes a great setting for the final chase.

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It wasn’t until I left the theater that I realized that the film’s maze, unlike the book’s animals, is in no way sinister. It provides fun and then safety. I had expected its walls to move like the novel’s plant animals.

Although the film starts weak, it gets better as it goes along. As the danger and fear ratchets up, the overbearing music began to work. The second half is as scary as the novel, and that’s about as scary as it can get and still be fun.

Kubrick provided one scare, I suspect, to make fans of the book jump out of their seats. Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers), easily the most heroic character in either version, dies a sudden and horrifying death in the film. He survives in the book.

Unfortunately, Dick’s death brings in a very unfortunate Hollywood cliché: The black man who dies to save white people. I guess some people find that comforting. I don’t.

Kubrick’s ending, quite different from the book, works very well in its own terms. But it seems an odd choice. King’s ending, where the Overlook goes up in flames, would be far more cinematic. On the other hand, Kubrick’s ending must have been a lot cheaper to shoot.

Why I waited so long?

Why did it take me 34 years to see The Shining? I was intrigued the moment I read that Kubrick was making the film version. I had recently read the book, and at that time, 2001: A Space Odyssey was still my all-time favorite film.

However, A Clockwork Orange had disappointed me somewhat. And I hated Barry Lyndon with a passion. That and bad reviews kept me away from The Shining. I’m glad now that I’ve seen it.

The PFA screened The Shining of a DCP from Warner Brothers. It looked excellent, like a brand-new 35mm print, only steadier.

Book vs. Movie: Jaws

The cliché tells us that the book is always better than the movie. Except when it isn’t. I know. I just read Jaws.

Most people associate that title with the blockbuster hit that put Steven Spielberg on theimage map. But before Spielberg got his hands on it, Peter Benchley’s novel was a blockbuster in its own right, staying on the bestseller lists for 44 weeks. Today, the film’s considered a popular classic. And while the book remains in print, it’s remembered primarily as the source for the film.

And that’s as it should be. Benchley’s novel isn’t bad. But unlike the movie, it doesn’t hold up as a classic.

There’s nothing special or engaging about Benchley’s writing style. In the first part of the book, he digresses far too often into uninteresting exposition.

The story is still Enemy of the People meets Moby Dick, but the emphasis is far more on the people and community, with the three-men-on-a-boat story delayed until the final chapters. Much of the time, Benchley writes like he’s worried that the book will be too short. There’s an adultery subplot and a mafia subplot. Neither of them add anything to the story.

A novel can give you more detail than a film, and some of the detail in Jaws works for the story’s benefit. We learn much more about the island’s economic problems, which helps explain why everyone is so reluctant to close the beaches. The 1,000 people who live in Amity year round make all of their money in the summer, when the population balloons to 10,000, most of whom are money-spending tourists. Close the beaches, and by next spring everyone will be on welfare. Much is made of the economic differences between the summer and year-round folk.

Benchley describes some early scenes from the shark’s point of view, making it clear jaws2that this is an unthinking, instinct-driven eating machine. But these scenes, while scientifically accurate, contradict later ones, where the shark seems capable of strategic thought.

Several of the characters changed significantly on the way to Hollywood. Hooper, the young scientist played in the movie by Richard Dreyfuss, is a rich snob in the book, untrustworthy, arrogant, and not all that competent. Chief Brody’s wife is also a snob in the book, one who married below her class and now resents her lower society status.

Aside from making these characters more likeable, the film sacrifices realism for suspense. For instance, in the last part of the book, Brody, Dreyfuss, and Quint leave in the Orca every morning looking for the shark, then come home every night. That actually makes sense if you’re looking for something in the immediate waters off your home. The film implies that they sailed out one day and won’t come back until they’re done. Realistically, that’s ridiculous. But it makes better story-telling sense.

For more on the movie, read my Blu-ray Review.

Leonard Maltin’s 2013 Movie Guide

Is this book even necessary? That’s the question I wanted to answer when I agreed to accept a review copy of Leonard Maltin’s 2013 Movie Guide: The Modern Era. Once an indispensible reference for every cinephile, Maltin’s annual reference seems quant today. After all, if there’s anything that the Internet can do better than paper, it’s reference.

Maltin himself suggests so in his introduction. "I suppose it seems strange…that anyone would be publishing such a book in the Internet age, but my colleagues and I still think what we do is relevant…"

I’m not so sure. For $15 on Amazon ($10 for the ebook), you get a 1,640-page leonard_maltinpaperback (how long before that falls apart) containing a fraction of what you’d find on the Internet Movie Database. You’ll get the director, stars, and running time, but not the screenwriter, complete cast, or who wrote the music.

On the other hand, in place of the multiple and often badly-written descriptions on IMDB, the Guide offers pithy and intelligent micro-reviews by Maltin and his staff. For instance, the book describes Fred Willard’s character in A Mighty Wind as "a showbiz promoter and ‘idea man’ whose ideas could sink a continent." If there are spoilers here, I haven’t found them. These descriptions are the best (and pretty much the only) reason to buy this book. It’s fun to browse through, just to find comments written and edited by professionals.

Physical books, even those running more than 1,600 pages, have limited capacity. That’s why Maltin’s reference is now split into two volumes; the other one being the Classic Movie Guide. Most of the films made prior to 1966 land there, yet this Modern Era edition is hardly classic-free. Most of the old movies I thought of can be found in these pages, including several that I would just as happily forget (Caligula, anyone?).

In some ways, the book seems almost intentionally out-of-date. For instance, it uses three simple icons to tell you if a title was released on video cassette, Laserdisc, and DVD. But there’s no indication of its availability on Blu-ray. I imagine that that would interest far more people today than Laserdisc.

I hate to say it, but Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide is a bit like a Laserdisc. It was great in its time, but that time has gone.

The book becomes available next week.

Pandora’s Digital Box: David Bordwell’s Book on Films, Files, and the Future of Movies

Even cinephiles who embrace the look of digital projection (and I count myself among them) have plenty to worry about. The current digital transition threatens independent theaters, independent distributors, the accessibility of older movies (especially those outside the canon), and the long-term survival of yesterday’s, today’s, and tomorrow’s motion pictures.

No one has contributed to the discussion of this transition as well, or as thoroughly, pandoras_digital_box_coveras university professor/film blogger David Bordwell. In the last few months, Bordwell has written several long, extensive blog posts about every facet of the digital transition. Now he’s gathered up these posts, reorganized them, added new material, and released them as a self-published e-book called Pandora’s Digital Box: Films, Files, and the Future of Movies. The book costs only $4 and comes as an unprotected, read-anywhere .pdf. It’s only 238 pages, and worth every penny.

Bordwell touches lightly on esthetic issues, giving arguments for both sides and noting correctly that unlike sound and widescreen, digital barely alters the movie-going experience–at least not directly. But he shows the grievous effects the transition has on the industry.

Six major production/distribution companies dominate today’s movie industry: Disney, Twentieth Century-Fox, Paramount Pictures, Warner Brothers, Columbia, and Universal. These companies will significantly benefit from the transition. Major theater chains like AMC will probably come out about even. Everyone else will lose.

Just one example of the problems: Small theater chains and independent theaters can’t afford the expensive digital projectors and the servers needed to control them. Many will go under because of this. Others will upgrade via a financing schemed called Virtual Price Fee (VPF). Here, a third party finances most of a theater’s conversion cost. Every time a film is booked into that theater, the distributor pays a fee–usually about $800–which is a little more than half of what the distributor saves by not making a 35mm print.

This works for the big studios, because their pre-digital business model comes pretty close to one print, one booking. Instead of spending about $1,500 to make a print that will only screen in that theater, they send a hard drive and pay a $800 VPF. But small, independent distributors make a handful of prints that move from one theater to another. They’ll have to pay multiple VPFs for every print they don’t make.

What’s more, the financier may prefer to deal only with companies with whom they already have a relationship.

Bordwell also discusses the stifling copy protection rules built into the Digital Cinema Package (DCP) standard used for theatrical projection. A theater needs permission to move a picture from one auditorium to another in the same multiplex, and the distributor can control how often a film is screened and at what times.

I wish Bordwell had covered a few topics that he doesn’t touch on. I would have liked his opinion on to what degree 4K improves on 2K; I’ve heard conflicting reports, and my only true 4K experience was inconclusive. Nor did he cover the environmental issues–one area where I assume that digital has the advantage.

Nor did I agree with Bordwell on everything. As someone who follows digital technology for a living, I doubt that obsolescence will be as much of a problem as Bordwell and others predict. Yes, Moore’s Law marches on, seemingly unstoppable, but market forces rule its effect on the real world.

True, filmmakers like James Cameron are already pushing for projector upgrades, but they don’t have the final word. The big six do. Right now, the major studios have a strong incentive to force theaters to go digital–it saves them money. They won’t have a similar incentive to push them to 4K or 8K, and they don’t want to have to pay VPFs forever. Consider, nearly 20 years after the introduction of digital sound, today’s 35mm prints still come with backward-compatible analog soundtracks. The studios will have no trouble sending out 2K DCPs for a very long time to come.

I suspect that the newer, fancier digital projectors will serve the function of full orchestras in the 1920s and 70mm in more recent decades. They will give the larger, better financed theaters a competitive edge without knocking out the smaller ones..

Despite my disagreements with some of Bordwell’s conclusions, I came away from Pandora’s Digital Box with far more knowledge and appreciation of digital projection’s strengths and problems than I had before–and I had already read his blog posts and have written on the topic myself. If you’re interested in the business or technology of motion pictures, this is $4 well spent.

Film Books I’d Love to Read (Now If Only Someone Would Write Them)

I read a lot of books about cinema history. But I’m picky. I’m seldom interested in movie star biographies, or anyone’s autobiography. But I love a good overview of an era, the story of a major transition, or a scholarly biography of a producer, director, or screenwriter.

Here are a few books that I would love to read. The problem: No one has written them yet. I’d write them myself if I had the time.

Powers Behind the Thrones: The Careers of Joseph and Nicholas Schenck
Throughout the heyday of the Hollywood studio system, MGM president Louis B. Mayer was widely considered the most powerful man in Hollywood. Yet he served at the pleasure of Nicholas Schenck, president of MGM’s parent company, Loews, Inc. Meanwhile, Nick’s brother Joe married a movie star, produced Buster Keaton’s best work, served as president of United Artists, then of 20th Century Fox, and spent time in prison. They weren’t artists, but they made a lot of art possible. At least one Schenck brother turns up in just about any book about Hollywood’s first half century, but to my knowledge, no one has written a book about them.

Film With No Freedom: The Art of Cinema in Oppressive and Totalitarian Societies
One could reasonably assume that great art requires freedom–especially when the art also requires industrial-scale production. But against all expectations, we’ve seen some extraordinary exceptions. Consider the Soviet Union, which gave us Potemkin, Mother, October, Man with a Movie Camera, The Cranes are Flying, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, Andrei Rublev and many others (although all of these came before or after the worst years of Stalinism). Iran has been producing great cinema for years. Yet I’d be hard-pressed to name a great film that came out of Nazi Germany or Maoist China. I’d love to read an intelligent discussion on this.

From New York to Hollywood: The American Film Industry in the 1910s
In 1910, the American movie industry is based in New York, all movies were one-reelers, actors went unbilled, and the major companies were Edison, Biograph, and Vitagraph. No one took movies seriously, either as an art or an industry. By 1920, everyone had moved to Hollywood, feature films dominated the market and were built around specific movie stars, and the major companies were Paramount, Universal, and Fox. One of my favorite film history books, Otto Friedrich’s City of Nets, covers Hollywood in the 1940s, year by year. Someone should use the same structure for this important decade.

The Color of Dreams: How the Movie Industry Slowly Abandoned Black and White
You can find good books on the talkie and widescreen revolutions (The Speed of Sound is an excellent choice), but I have yet to find one on the much slower evolution from black and white to color. I’ve covered this briefly in a blog post, but someone else should cover it in more detail.

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