The Shining Movie vs. the Miniseries: Comparing the Stephen King Book Adaptations

The film based on Stephen King’s classic novel is considered a horror masterpiece. The miniseries…not so much. How do they compare?

The Shining
Photo: ABC, Warner Bros./Getty Images

When it was announced in 1978 that legendary director Stanley Kubrick was adapting Stephen King’s third novel, The Shining, for the big screen, interest in the project immediately skyrocketed. The book, in which an alcoholic writer and his family (including his psychically gifted son), are tormented by supernatural forces in a snowbound hotel was considered a horror masterpiece almost as soon as it was published. King’s career was taking off like a rocket. The success of The Shining and his two previous novels, Carrie and ‘Salem’s Lot (as well as the hit movie version of Carrie), had crowned the young author the “king of horror.” To have Kubrick, one of the most renowned filmmakers in the world, tackle his latest book–and with Jack Nicholson, one of Hollywood’s most popular actors, set to star–was extraordinary.

Kubrick’s The Shining came out in 1980 but was met, at least initially, with mixed reviews. However, the harshest criticism perhaps came from King himself. While critics took the movie to task for being too slow, too ambiguous, and lacking in scares, King was upset at the many ways in which the movie deviated from his text and was particularly disappointed in the casting of Nicholson, arguing that viewers would identify him as insane from the start. By contrast, the character of Jack Torrance in the book is a sympathetic character who gradually descends into madness. Since then, Kubrick’s The Shining has been reappraised, with many critics considering it one of the greatest horror films of all time. But King’s displeasure with the film never wavered. He wrote years later, “Parts of the film are chilling, charged with a relentlessly claustrophobic terror, but others fall flat… Kubrick just couldn’t grasp the sheer inhuman evil of the Overlook Hotel.” That’s why, after King had partnered with ABC for two successful miniseries based on his novels It and The Stand, he told the network that he wanted to do his own version of The Shining next. ABC agreed.

Adapted and produced by King, and directed by Mick Garris–the same team that made The Stand–the three-part and (with commercials) six hours The Shining premiered on ABC in late April 1997, starring Steven Weber as Jack Torrance, Rebecca DeMornay as his wife Wendy (played by Shelley Duvall in the movie), and Courtland Mead as their son Danny (Danny Lloyd in the film). It was a ratings and critical hit, with some preferring it to the Kubrick film. Decades later, how do the two compare?

Which version is more faithful to the novel?

While both the film and the miniseries preserve the bones of the novel–the Torrances are snowed in at the Overlook as mayhem ensues–Kubrick makes many changes, both tossing incidents from the book and dreaming up his own, while also making some critical choices. The miniseries is far more faithful to the book, at times almost beat for beat, which on one hand is fun for hardcore fans but on the other hand serves as a warning that being slavishly faithful to the text doesn’t always work on the screen.

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Kubrick devises incredible images like the twin little girls confronting Danny in the hallway, or the elevator spilling out a torrent of blood. There are no such moments in the book, nor are they in the miniseries. On the other hand, the miniseries does include the scene in which Danny brings a seemingly dead wasp’s nest into his room only for the wasps to regenerate, it does include Wendy finding mysterious streamers and party favors in the elevator, and does show a firehose in the hallway coming to life.

Other details are restored in the miniseries as well: the room in which Danny meets the dead woman is 217 again (it was changed to 237 in the movie, sparking a conspiracy theory cottage industry); we see Danny meeting the dead woman like in the book (in Kubrick’s movie, Jack just hears Danny’s story, then meets her himself); and during his final, Overlook-induced rampage, Weber’s Jack also uses a roque mallet in the miniseries, as he did in the book. Conversely, Kubrick and Nicholson opted to give Jack an ax instead.

Three critical plot points from King’s book, altered by Kubrick, are likewise restored in the miniseries. Jack and Danny are haunted by a collection of topiary hedge animals, which gradually come to life. Kubrick of course discarded those entirely, preferring to utilize the chilly image of a labyrinthine hedge maze instead. The Overlook’s head cook, Dick Hallorann, meanwhile survives in both the book and miniseries (where he’s played by Melvin Van Peebles), as opposed to the movie, where Hallorann (Scatman Crothers) is slaughtered by Jack.

Finally, the subplot about the hotel’s shaky old boiler, which must have its pressure released several times a day to avoid overheating and exploding, is dropped entirely from Kubrick’s version (more on that below). In the end, the miniseries is clearly much more faithful to the book, although the movie certainly stands on its own as a different interpretation of the source material.

Are the ghosts of the Overlook Hotel real?

When you get past plot mechanics, this is one of two fundamental differences between the movie and miniseries versions of The Shining. In the movie, Nicholson’s Jack Torrance is clearly already far down the road to insanity, if not already there when the film starts. With that in mind, it’s interesting to note that Kubrick did not believe in anything like an afterlife, so he was skeptical about the idea of real supernatural manifestations. And while Dick Hallorann does warn Danny that he might see things in the Overlook thanks to his “shine,” most of the manifestations we see in the film, until we get toward the end, are through the eyes of Jack. The movie is structured to suggest that everything could be viewed through the lens of Jack’s psychosis. And even Danny’s visions of them may be what Dick suggests are psychic “photographs,” as opposed to literal ghosts.

That is until we get to the final act of the film, in which the ghosts of hotel guests past begin materializing for Wendy as well. Is Kubrick suggesting that something in the hotel is actually causing the manifestations in Jack’s head to take physical form? If that’s the case, then the movie seems to suggest that it’s Jack that the hotel, or whatever lives there, wants all along.

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That’s a radically different reading of the source material. While the hotel does batten on Jack, driving an already weakened but fundamentally decent man over the edge of sanity, he’s merely a means to an end; the hotel is likely to discard him or make him a permanent resident once it’s done using him. What the hotel, which in the book is essentially a living supernatural entity, really wants is Danny, whose psychic power is strong enough to supercharge the Overlook and allow it to spread its malign influence even farther.

That makes the manifestations in the book and the miniseries very real, indeed. Kubrick never delves into what the hotel might want with Danny or why his “shining” is so critical to the story. Again, until the closing scenes, Kubrick is cagey about what is real and what’s not. Not so in the miniseries; the Overlook and its terrifying denizens are very real and very hungry for a little boy’s immense gift.

How is the ending different in the two versions?

In both the book and miniseries, as mentioned earlier, one important subplot is the need for the Overlook’s ancient boiler to have its pressure released several times a day, otherwise it could overheat and explode. Well, that’s exactly what happens. In the final section of both the novel and the TV production, the Overlook takes complete possession of Jack in order to kill Wendy and absorb Danny. But in its bloodlust, the hotel forgets that the boiler needs dumping.

In a final act of will and redemption (at least in the miniseries, if not the novel), Jack regains control of his body just long enough to give Wendy, Danny, and Hallorann time to escape and delay the Overlook from using him to release the boiler’s pressure. Even then, it almost makes it, but it’s too late: the boiler explodes, taking Jack and the hotel with it in a flaming cataclysm. This is notably more heroic an ending for Jack than even King’s original novel wherein the long-suffering writer is completely possessed and subsumed by the spirits.

In Kubrick’s film, the boiler is never an issue and is barely addressed. Instead, the film ends with a deranged Jack chasing Danny through the hedge maze in the middle of a freezing night. Hallorann is dead, but has left a snowcat parked outside. As Danny outwits his father and escapes the maze, his mother emerges from the hotel and they drive off in the snowcat. Kubrick then cuts to a brief shot of Jack sitting frozen to death in the maze, and then dissolves to a hotel hallway where he pushes slowly in on a photo of a New Year’s Eve celebration at the hotel in 1921. At the bottom of the photo, grinning up from the crowd of revelers, is Jack.

The book and miniseries are quite literal in the way they end; the hotel possesses Jack, it fails to relieve the boiler (a metaphor for both Jack’s crumbling mind and the hotel’s increasing lust for Danny’s power), and the hotel explodes. But Kubrick’s ending is far more ambiguous, although he actually offered up an interpretation of it to French film critic Michel Clement. Kubrick suggested that Jack Torrance was a reincarnation–of who, he doesn’t say, but we can perhaps guess that it’s either of a previous hotel guest or someone on the staff–which is why some of the ghosts seem to know who he is.

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Which version has the better performances?

Nicholson’s performance as Jack Torrance in Kubrick’s film is nothing less than iconic. His grinning face peering through the broken door frame, saying “Here’s Johnny!” and leering maniacally, is one of the most recognizable images in all of cinema. And Nicholson delivers nothing less than 100 percent throughout the film, only he’s playing a man who is already teetering on the edge of psychosis, and the isolation and influence of the Overlook nudges him into the abyss.

“Jack comes to the hotel psychologically prepared to do its murderous bidding,” Kubrick told Clement. “He doesn’t have very much further to go for his anger and frustration to become completely uncontrollable. He is bitter about his failure as a writer. He is married to a woman for whom he has only contempt. He hates his son. In the hotel, at the mercy of its powerful evil, he is quickly ready to fulfill his dark role.”

That’s not the Jack Torrance of the book, which is one of the reasons King so passionately dislikes the film. The literary Torrance is very much a personal reflection of King at the time he first conceived the novel: unsure if he could make it as a writer, financially insecure, saddled with three kids, and a full-blown alcoholic. Jack is in an even worse place, but one thing is certain in the book; he loves his wife and adores his son, even if his anger issues caused him to harm Danny. He is frustrated with his career, but he’s not “quickly ready to fulfill his dark role.”

The Jack of the novel is the one that Steven Weber, previously known for far more wholesome roles, plays in the miniseries. His Jack Torrance is a deeply flawed man, a broken man, but a man who still loves his family and wants to overcome his demons and be a husband and father they can be proud of. His alcoholism, his issues with anger management, his frustration with himself and his life, all of these are present, but he’s not already seemingly psychotic, like Nicholson’s version of the character. In the miniseries, these are all cracks through which the Overlook infiltrates Jack’s mind (and eventually his body), driving him into lunacy. It thus makes him far more sympathetic and tragic.

Having said that, Weber is primarily a TV actor. There’s something about his style that misses the mark just a bit, and would probably not translate well to the big screen. Nicholson is an actor who fills any screen, no matter how big, and his sheer presence alone could often make up (at his peak, anyway) for deficiencies in his character or material. Weber’s performance is the more nuanced and empathetic; Nicholson’s (which, to be fair, came first) remains the more memorable.

As for the rest of the cast, we’ll call it a draw between Scatman Crothers and Melvin Van Peebles as Hallorann: both are warm, engaging actors who pretty much personify the courageous, protective, and spiritual man of the book who risks (and in the movies, loses) his own life for others.

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Rebecca DeMornay, on the other hand, is clearly a more faithful version of Wendy Torrance than the spindly, greasy-haired, hysterical, not very bright “dishrag” (to use King’s own term) portrayed by Shelley Duvall. DeMornay’s Wendy, like the novel’s, is intelligent, pro-active, and attractive, which apparently made it difficult for Kubrick to understand why she would stay with Jack. But with no disrespect to Duvall, who was reportedly tormented throughout the shoot by her director (a claim that has been debunked in recent times), the movie’s version of Wendy can now be seen as exceptionally misogynistic, which King has also accused it of being.

We’ll swing back in the movie’s favor, however, for little Danny. The film version played by Danny Lloyd is perhaps borderline autistic, or least withdrawn (which you can hardly blame him for, seeing the trauma he’s already been through before getting to the Overlook), but Courtland Mead’s more chatty, obnoxious version in the miniseries is one of the most annoying child performances ever put to film. His overwrought facial expressions and line deliveries make it clear that Garris had no idea how to guide this kid.

Which version has the better production values and direction?

The miniseries of The Shining was made in 1997, a few years before the modern Golden Age of Television was ushered in by shows like The Sopranos, The Wire, and Six Feet Under. Before TV began to take on a more cinematic look and feel, before major movie stars began crossing over to work on TV series, most made-for-TV productions still had that kind of low-rent, half-baked feel to them, whether in the lighting, the visual effects, the acting, or the design.

The miniseries of The Shining had that TV “sheen” to it, even though it has its share of effective moments and visuals–the makeup in the woman in room 217 and on Weber during Torrance’s final takeover by the Overlook was quite good, for one. But other aspects of King’s story brought to literal life in the telecast fell far short, including the fire hose that comes to life and most egregiously, the hedge animals, both of which were done with CG that simply draws laughter today (let’s not even talk about Danny’s floating friend Tony, who’s handled much more eerily in Kubrick’s film).

Kubrick in fact did create test footage to see if he could get the hedge animals to work for the movie, but he quickly saw that it would never look good–and this was the late ‘70s!–and abandoned the idea. In fact, Kubrick’s The Shining downplays almost all visual effects for the most part. Jack Nicholson does not destroy his own face, the ghosts are relegated largely to a few people in costumes, and his most showstopping effect is that gusher of blood from the elevator.

Both versions do offer fascinating settings. Kubrick shot the exteriors of the Overlook at the Timberline Lodge on Oregon’s Mount Hood, creating the interiors at EMI Elstree Studios in England. The interiors of the hotel were based in great part on the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite Park (a fact that stunned this writer when he unknowingly walked into that hotel on a family vacation a few years ago and realized he was standing in the Overlook).

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Garris, on the other hand, shot most of the miniseries at the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado–the very hotel that was largely empty and nearly closed for the season when a young Stephen and Tabitha King checked into a room there in late October 1974. It was there, during their brief stay, that King first got the inspiration to write The Shining, a fact that the hotel proudly promotes to this day.

As fun as it is to see The Shining set in the very place that helped inspire it, the fact is that Garris, a decent, workmanlike TV director at heart, is no Kubrick. Working with a Steadicam in the very early days of that camera’s existence, Kubrick made his Overlook into a totally immersive, constricting, and brooding presence–and did not have to worry about a commercial break every 12 minutes or so.

In the final analysis, the miniseries has its strengths, including a fuller, more sympathetic portrayal of the Torrance family, a more faithful reading of the story, and a few genuine scares. But it’s hampered by its TV origins, a bad performance from Courtland Mead, and an overly sentimental, cheesy ending, with the ghost of Jack appearing to congratulate Danny at his high school graduation years later, that almost retroactively ruins the rest.

Kubrick’s movie takes extensive liberties with the source material, drops out most of the rationale for what is occurring, and features both a mesmerizing if one-note performance from Nicholson and shrill, also one-note work from Duvall that elicit virtually no sympathy. It is cold while the miniseries is… warmer. But Kubrick’s The Shining is ultimately more cinematic, often visually stunning, and drenched in a miasma of dread and terror. Both are worth seeking out as variations on the same themes, but Kubrick plays his concerto of horror better.

The film version of The Shining is streaming on most major platforms, while the miniseries is not. The latter can be found on DVD, while the movie is available on 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray.