Jack Attack: Contrasting Versions of Jack Torrance in Two Renditions of The Shining

Overlook One
The Overlook Hotel — Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining

Shhh.  Wanna get sued? 

That’s Groundskeeper Willie’s response to Bart when Bart says the name “The Shining” in the canonical Tree House of Horror episode parodying the film, instead of replacing the title, “The Shining,” with the slightly more comical title the episode adopted: “The Shinning.”  To be honest, every time I hear the title, The Shining, I immediately want to shout, “Shhh.  Wanna get sued?”  So I may have been fishing for an excuse to use Willie’s quotation in the opening of this piece.

But in all reality, after the film’s release in 1980 by Director Stanley Kubrick, another bold screenwriter did endeavor to take King’s story and make it his own – for television.  He didn’t particularly like Kubrick’s version of the story’s events, and he sought to remake the film in a way that more closely adhered to the book.  Have you guessed who this audacious artist is yet?  If you guessed King himself, you are correct!  He created the script for the six-hour made for T.V. version of The Shining, which aired in 1997, when I was a wee lass of 13.  You best believe I’d already seen Kubrick’s version, and I was eager to see the made-for-T.V. version, which I ended up liking more than most people did.  Though not as captivating as Kubrick’s film (in my humble opinion), it has more merit than the somewhat critical general public gave it, as a drama/horror depiction of one man’s struggle with alcoholism, sobriety, sanity, and his family, while he takes care of a deeply secluded hotel during a harsh winter.  Oh don’t worry; though it’s not as consistently terrifying as Kubrick’s version, there are still some very scary parts to the series.

The 1997 series nearly lept at me from the racks of FYE last weekend, so I had to pick up a used copy for $5.99 and re-visit King’s own cinematic version of his story, which I’d not seen for almost 20 years.  I am not as interested in critiquing this piece as I am in comparison; King’s on-screen version of his own story is just that, his version, and in many respects it’s not as substandard as its critics claim.  I’ll also add, as a disclaimer, that I read the book – probably also 15 or 20 years ago – and I don’t remember it in detail, so it doesn’t serve as much of a benchmark for me in this piece.  But what I’m really interested in his how two different adaptations of the book conceive of Jack Torrance, the main character and simultaneous protagonist and antagonist of the story.  How one views Jack significantly effects the vibe and message of different incarnations of this Great American Myth (for truly, I do regard the story as such, and would love to see yet another film version of the story).  Then, let the comparisons begin!

The Beginning

There’s nothing particularly redeeming about Jack in Kubrick’s version.  Prior to being possessed by the hotel, he appears cold and distant around his wife, Wendy, and his son, Danny.  He has a vaguely sinister smile and a penchant for mild sarcasm.  Frankly, he’s quirky, but his quirk fits the film well.  We are immediately uncomfortable with this character, who is five months sober but, when drunk, pulled his son’s arm out of its socket.  He emits a vibe of distrust.  As such, we never really get a chance to connect with him.  I don’t think Kubrick wanted us to connect with him because that wasn’t part of Kubrick’s story.  Jack Nicholson’s acting is undeniably brilliant, but Kubrick’s Jack Torrance is not a particularly sympathetic character.  In fact, if I may be so bold, he’s kind of, well, a weirdo.

Jack Torrance 1
Photo Credit – The Shining – Stanley Kubrick

Jack Torrance in King’s version has a similarly dark, if not darker, past.  He pulled Danny’s arm out of the socket, then tried to sober up without the help of Alcoholics Anonymous.  As a so-called dry drunk, he kicked the ass of a prep school punk who slashed his tires when Jack had to ask him to leave the debate team.  But in conversation, Jack seems laid-back and self-assured.  He appears to be a relatively normal guy who’s actively working on his sobriety – which factors much more heavily into this story – and treats his wife and son warmly.  (Danny, by the way, is hilarious in this version.  He has much more personality than the somewhat sullen, detached kid in Kubrick’s version and says the most humorous, oddly adult things in conversation.)  We feel like we know Jack, and we like him.  He’s a generally good guy struggling with his own demons.  If he’s our inverted Tragic Hero, his tragic flaw is a temper he has trouble controlling, which threatens to end his marriage and gives the hotel something to ignite when it wants to complete its conniving schemes via his body.

Jack Torrance 2
Photo Credit – The Shining – Stephen King

The Middle

In the Simpson’s rendition of The Shining, Homer yells, “Go crazy?  Don’t mind if I do!”  Jack’s response in Kubrick’s version could be considered fairly similar.  He succumbs to the hotel fast.  And while his outright violence and malice escalate as the film progresses, he stands, staring intently into space with a malevolent look in his eyes, early in the film, and when Wendy sifts through the novel he’s been writing, a huge stack of papers are filled with the words, “All work and no play make Jack a dull boy.”  There is no novel, meaning ever since he started working – at the beginning of their stay in the hotel – he’s been significantly off the deep end, typing the same sentence repeatedly in different patterns on the page.  He is basically obsolete as a complex, rational human being in the film.  Notably, he seems to drink some mysterious “ghost liquor” at one point – we don’t know if it’s really liquor, or if the glass is a figment of his imagination – but this isn’t the primary impetus to his behavior.  We get the sense that the hotel is powerful, and Jack has been going and will continue to go insane, with or without the liquor from another dimension.

In King’s version, Jack’s psychosis, near-psychosis, and erratic behavior ebbs and flows until it culminates into a concluding scene with a madman (Jack) wielding an oversized croquet mallet (Jack’s weapon of choice in the made for TV version of the film, as opposed to Kubrick’s ax).  And let me tell you, he smashes the shit out of that hotel in a way that’s really ironic; he professes to care for the hotel above all things, yet he makes his way through the building, destroying it.  As for liquor, it’s important to note that his wife, Wendy, at one point sees the bottle of Jack Daniels that the ghosts provide – suggesting the liquor tangibly exists, courtesy of creepy ghosts – and Danny remarks at the end of the film that Jack would have never gone after them with a mallet if the ghosts hadn’t gotten him to drink that liquor.  Jack persists as a sympathetic character, and the hotel – while powerful – isn’t quite as powerful as it is in Kubrick’s version.  The hotel alone cannot possess Jack, but must prey on his weaknesses – not only his anger, but his alcoholism.  The disease of alcoholism, which can be its own insidious animal, helps the hotel fully possess Jack, so that he’s propelled toward violence.

The End – Stop reading here if you’d like to avoid spoilers!

Jack has been a seemingly aloof father to Danny throughout the film in the Kubrick version, and their relationship only deteriorates.  By the end of the film, Jack is chasing Danny with his ax through a hedge maze.  He is a raving lunatic, completely overtaken by the hotel, which has him in its grips even when he’s outside the building.  Thankfully, Danny brilliantly outsmarts his father, who, though not technically drunk, seems drunk off the evil of the hotel, and significantly incapacitated psychologically.  Danny and Wendy ride away on the snow cat, and at the end of the film, we get a glimpse of Jack’s frozen body; he froze to death trying to kill his son.  If the hotel wanted Wendy and Danny, it didn’t get them, but it was powerful enough to overtake Jack completely.  While it’s somewhat uplifting that Wendy and Danny escape, the ending is otherwise grim.  Interestingly, Kubrick didn’t see his own film this way: to Kubrick, such obvious presence of darkness was proof that the same amount of light must also exist – albeit not at the Overlook during the winter – so this incredibly depressing movie is really a proclamation of good in the world.  Chew on that!

In King’s version of the script, Jack corners Danny with a croquet mallet after injuring Wendy significantly.  Two ghosts – a former owner of the hotel, and last winter’s caretaker, who killed himself – have been continuously convincing Jack to kill his son, but when Jack has the opportunity, he doesn’t.  He manically smashes objects all around Danny, but – bloody and crazed as he is – he hesitates to kill Danny.  We get the sense that he would have, eventually, but Danny reminds him that he hasn’t adjusted the boiler today, and the hotel’s about to blow.  When Jack goes to the basement to turn down the boiler, Danny reaches him, mentally, and they share a touching father-son moment in their minds before Jack decides to blow up the hotel – with himself inside – to save Wendy and Danny by giving them a better chance to escape once they exit the door.  Wendy and Danny escape with Dick Halloran, the hotel’s cook who braved the blizzard to help them, and the film ends with Danny at his high school graduation, blowing a kiss to the ghost of his father, who is standing on stage smiling.  It’s very sweet, if not all that sinister, and because I’m a sucker for touching moments, I’m kind of getting chills just writing about it.

My Thoughts:

                King probably disliked Kubrick’s version for many reasons.  Chief among them, the characters he created are not fully rounded human beings in Kubrick’s version – at least not Jack and Danny.  Or, if they are “round” characters with their own set of complexities, they’re not as warm and uniquely human as the Danny, and, especially the Jack of King’s screenplay (a screenplay which I assume mimics the book).  Especially if you’re a King fan, I’d suggest seeing how he envisions his book on screen – although you might want to take it in two hour segments, instead of watching the entire six-hour episode at once.  You’ll see, if nothing else, two very different sets of characters and considerably different stories!

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Jack Attack: Contrasting Versions of Jack Torrance in Two Renditions of The Shining

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