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 problems 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.
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 a 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.
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.