You all know by now that Teresa and I are both big Stephen King fans, and The Shining is one of his best novels. But to be honest, with a couple of exceptions (The Shawshank Redemption) movie adaptations of King’s work seldom fare well. Why is that? Are his books too long to be cut down successfully? Maybe it’s telling that the best of them have been based on short stories or novellas. Does his skillful focus on character not appeal to audiences who want to get jump-scares and gore (though certainly there’s plenty of that in his books, too)?
Anyway, I finally convinced a friend to watch The Shining with me. For the reasons I’ve just discussed, I was doubtful about how much I was going to like it, but I was excited to watch it. If you haven’t read the book or watched the film, you probably don’t want to read any further, because I’m going to discuss both here.
Kubrick’s The Shining is a visually fascinating movie. It’s got some unforgettable images, from the opening long tracking scene to the repeated tidal wave of blood. But it’s not an adaptation of King’s novel. At most, you could say it was “inspired by” Stephen King’s book. For one thing, Kubrick takes out a big chunk of King’s supernatural horror — the deadly elevator, the topiary statues, the ghost in the playground, etc — and substitutes a couple of repeated, eerie images that never appear in the book. For another, the ending is peculiarly and unnecessarily different.
The biggest change, perhaps, is Kubrick’s direction of Jack Nicholson’s (brilliant, brilliant) performance. In the book, Jack Torrance arrives as a normal guy who loves his wife and son. He has some troubled history, of course — he’s been fired from his job, and he’s trying to stay sober, and he needs this job. The way the hotel slowly creeps into his mind and makes him vulnerable to insecurity, alcoholism, writer’s block, anger, and eventually total madness and possession is the true terror at the heart of the novel. The supernatural stuff, genuinely creepy though it is, doesn’t compare to the horror of addiction, abuse, and loss of connection and love. In the film, however, Jack Torrance arrives crazy. In every quirk of those famous eyebrows, in every snap at Wendy, in the way he’s reading a Playgirl in the lobby before his interview, we know he’s ripe for the hotel’s guidance and eventual REDRUM.
Both the book and the film are deeply male-centered (King wouldn’t take on his issues with strong women for another couple of decades.) But the book’s Wendy Torrance, as frightened and desperate as she may be, is nothing like the grotesquely-directed Shelley Duvall in the film. She essentially hyperventilates for two hours. It’s such an odd choice.
One of the things I noticed most about the film — and Kubrick fans can tell me if this is typical of his movies — was the wave structure. There would be a scene of climbing, claustrophobic tension and dread, and then a flat scene with no tension at all. Another scene full of dread — then a scene where you could relax. It kept repeating, right up to the end of the film. This, of course, is not true of the nail-biting novel, and particularly not of the climax, in which King springs something on you that you’ve been reminded of many times but by that point have probably forgotten all about. (I had.)
I was glad to see a horror classic, though I’d argue this is more a Kubrick film than a horror film per se. But if you are interested, read the book! It’s among King’s best, and I find it very satisfying, especially in nice weather…