The Shining (film)

shiningYou 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…

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14 Responses to The Shining (film)

  1. indiefan20 says:

    I actually love this movie, it’s one of my favorite horror films. I haven’t read the novel, but everybody tells me it’s very, very different. The only book I’ve ever read by Stephen King was “Pet Semetary,” which I thought was just okay. :O

    • Jenny says:

      I think Pet Sematary doesn’t rank among King’s very best novels, but it absolutely ranks as one of his very scariest. It’s one of the most frightening endings of his books, all-time.

      The movie and the film are indeed quite different. The outline is the same — family goes to supernatural hotel for the winter, dad is possessed, child can see visions — but a lot of the inner workings are different, and the ending is as well. I do recommend the book.

      • indiefan20 says:

        Yeah, I just thought the writing of “Pet Semetary” was a little bit repetitive. I would recommend “Handling the Undead” by John Ajvide Lindqvist though, for something that’s slightly similar but is in my opinion is better written. :)

      • Jenny says:

        One of King’s biggest writing flaws is that he can be repetitive, and the longer the book, the worse that can get! Under the Dome, for instance, was quite repetitive. (The Stand, on the other hand, might be his longest and was really excellent.) I love King anyway, though. When he’s good, he’s really good.

        Thank you for the recommendation! I will definitely look for that.

  2. Dear Jenny, Re: this movie and a couple of others, I sometimes wonder what goes on in men’s minds when they are trying to court a woman. You know that famous silent film made in Russia, or about the Russian revolution, I’m having a senior moment and can’t remember a title I should have by heart as a film buff–the one wherein a woman pushing a baby carriage down a flight of steps outside gets shot directly in the eye? Well, it wasn’t enough that my first serious college boyfriend took me to that film as part of his courting windup. My main serious boyfriend in graduate school insisted that he needed me to go see “The Shining” with him because he was scared silly by one of the scenes, and while wanting to see the film again, didn’t want to see the scene alone. The scene turned out to be the one in which the two little girls, the twins, appear in the hall in a sort of total silence of effect, though there may have been theme music or something. I sensed the supernatural chill of the moment, and yes, it was frightening, but not what I would’ve thought of, therefore, as a prelude to romance. Setting aside the fraught question of how weird men sometimes are, I wonder if this is one of the moments in the film that you would think of as a peculiarly Kubrick moment, whether or not it’s in the book, which I don’t know because I haven’t had an opportunity to read the book. I haven’t seen much Kubrick, but that scene seemed to be full of a certain motionlessness, I’d call it, a frozen attention, maybe, which seems characteristic.

    • Jenny says:

      I agree that men can be very weird, and Kubrick as weird as any of them.

      The use of Steadicam and the long takes (following Danny on his Big Wheel all around the maze of corridors, for instance) was a typical Kubrick move. The striking visual shots (the tidal wave of blood, the jump-cuts between twins and dismembered family, etc) are another. It’s a very interesting film, visually.

    • aparatchick says:

      Battleship Potemkin? Huh. A cinematic classic, sure, but not exactly conducive to romance! ;-)

      • Yes, that’s the one. It was back in the mid-70’s, so maybe it was just an attempt on his part to impress me with his movie knowledge; and I think that was in the days before the noxious term “chick-flick” for the sort of courtship movie men often take women to had entered the language. Anyway, isn’t “Dr. Strangelove” also a Kubrick film? It has some of the same moments of sort of frozen attention in the midst of motion that I think “The Shining” had.

  3. Annabel (gaskella) says:

    Funnily enough I’ve just read the book for the first time. I’ve seen enough of the film (although I’ve never sat all the way through) to know how different it is. Although I read lots of King’s novels ages ago, I haven’t read any since your Dark Tower readalong! I very much enjoyed the book though, and hope to read Doctor Sleep sometime soon.

    • Jenny says:

      I’m glad you enjoyed it! I do think it’s a very satisfying and interesting book, with a lot to think about in it. Doctor Sleep is quite different thematically, but I thought it was pretty good.

  4. Michelle says:

    I will admit that I was a bit disappointed with the book version after having seen the movie version so many times. There are scenes in both that will stick with me forever – the tidal wave, the twins, crazy Jack, the topiary trees, Jack descending into madness and his final desperate attempt to save his family. Both are good in their own ways, but I agree that both are not King stories. The movie is definitely more a Kubrick novel with King influences.

    • Jenny says:

      It’s funny how we get attached to one particular narrative version, isn’t it? But I’m glad I finally saw the film!

  5. The first thing I think of when I recall this movie is the scene in which the little boy is riding his bike through the carpeted hallways. That part, in its sinister simplicity, never fails to make the hair on the back of my neck stand up.

    As for King’s novels… I have hunch that you are right. His stories, I think, are often epic in theme and in length, which can make it difficult to effectively translate them to the screen.

  6. Red Metal says:

    Of Kubrick’s filmography, I’ve only seen Full Metal Jacket. That said, I do have a copy of this laying around, and I am interested in checking it out at some point. There’s something to be said for a director who can take a book, go off the rails with it, and make it work.

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