Tis’ the season of damp pumpkins. The days are getting darker and leaves are starting to fall. As Halloween approaches what better time is there to look over this 1980s classic?
Stanley Kubrick’s iconic horror film has seeped into modern culture to the point of parody (e.g: that Simpsons Halloween episode). The pop-cultural osmosis is strong enough that most people can quote or recognise the phrase “Here’s Johnny” or “All work and no play make Jack a dull boy”, with little understanding of their narrative significance.
The Shining is known for its beautiful cinematography, with long tracking shots and smooth pans around the hotel, and its disturbing imagery. I was quite impressed the first time I saw it, (partly due to the lack of jump scares in what’s known to be a horror film) but when I re-watched it with my family I felt more bemused. The visuals are gorgeous, but the storytelling is hardly subtle or nuanced. The viewer is literally told everything at the start of the film. There’s even a throwaway line about the hotel being built on an ancient Indian burial ground.
In light of this, I decided that it was time to read the book and, by its end, I thoroughly understood why Stephen King himself had been so disappointed by the film adaptation. So, without further ado, here are my top 3 reasons why King’s novel is better than Kubrick’s film. Please be warned: spoilers below!
1. The characterisation is better.
King’s novel helps the reader to understand exactly why the characters are the way they are. I cared enough about them to feel unnerved that I was reading the literary embodiment of their doom. Kubrick, in comparison, neglects King’s characters.
King’s novel introduces Jack as a smart, loving husband/father, who is fighting to overcome personal demons in the form of anger issues and alcoholism, a far cry from Jack Nicholson’s performance of the infamous nutcase father. Book Jack is more than a writer subject to cabin fever; he’s a complex, flawed individual whom spooky forces get the better of. Jack downing a ghost-drink has a much more emotional weight in the book.
Book Danny also “shines” more as a character (it helps that he gets more lines). His sweet, childish perspective acts as a tonal counterbalance to his father’s descent into hotel-related madness. Alcohol is referred to as “The Bad Stuff”, “DIVORCE” is always capitalised and his confusion over a horny woman’s thoughts (“why does she want his pants?”) is an amusing aside in the middle of a horror-thriller.
In addition to Danny’s portrayal as a fully fleshed out child character, the Overlook itself practically becomes a character in its own right. It has its own wants and needs, and it wants Danny. Badly. Already, readers of the book have a better idea of what exactly is going on compared to viewers of the film.
2. Dick Hallorann survives!
Dick Hallorann is a cook with a shine who comes to the rescue when all else is lost. Although the film does do justice to the narrative tension of the book, I would argue that the same cannot be said for this vital character.
Hallorann is one of the few characters of colour in The Shining book and film. In the book however, he is quite different to the kindly, grandfather-like cook of the film. Book Hallorann’s kindness is directed specifically at Danny. There’s a hardness to the man which you never get to see in the film. He continually loses his patience with the people and circumstances that impede him from reaching the Overlook; he’s fiercely determined instead of amiably bumbling, and he’s not too fussed about Danny’s parents; he’s deliberately risking his life for the child.
I was convinced that book Hallorann was going to die like he did in the film, King even drops in a little red herring foreshadowing in the form of Hallorann making his will before going to the hotel, so you can imagine my surprise when the character lived to the end of the story. That’s right, the film kills off the black guy, not the book (don’t get me started on representation in the media or this review will never end).
3. The hotel explodes. Yes, really.
Part of Jack’s job maintaining the Overlook involves managing the creaky old boiler. On his last day there he forgets to do that vital thing and, as a consequence, the whole place goes up in malevolent-hotel-destroying flames. Danny, Wendy and Hallorann are forced to make a run for it.
This was brilliant on several levels; it subtly hinted towards the complex nature of Jack’s moral character (even when possessed by an evil hotel he manages to sort of save the day, albeit through self-sabotage), and, well, it’s a pretty cool moment that I think would look great on the big screen. I wish that it had happened in the film, although it might’ve changed the genre considerably. Can you imagine The Shining as some sort of action-thriller?
To some extent, the differences between The Shining film and the book are inevitable consequences of different storytelling mediums. A book allows its reader to get inside the head of various characters so some changes for screen were undoubtedly necessary, such as a visual depiction of Jack’s sanity going downhill. But, on the same note, there was no need to have the man make out with a dead bathtub woman. I’m pretty sure that didn’t happen in the book.
All in all, Stephen King’s novel and Kubrick’s cinematic masterpiece are two different pieces of iconic media. One tells the tragic tale of a family being ripped apart by forces beyond their comprehension, the other shows Jack Nicholson having a whale of a time. The film simply doesn’t do the original story justice.