The Shining – Kubrick vs King

In 1977, Stephen King published his third novel, a horror story that helped define his position in the world of horror literature. The title is inspired by the song “Instant Karma” by John Lennon, which contains the line “We all shine on …”. King confirmed that the book is based on his own experience with alcoholism and his fear of not hurting his children.

Jack Torrance, one of the main characters, is an alcoholic writer compelled to accept the job as a caretaker of the Overlook Hotel during winter break, in order to provide for the family. The three, Jack, his wife Wendy and their son Danny move into the isolated hotel in the Colorado Rockies just as the summer season comes to a close. But their five years old son has psychic powers that allow him to see past events that happened in the hotel. Any link with the outside world is compromised due to a storm, while the hotel grasps Jack’s mental health, which puts the whole family in danger.

Three years after the book, the Stanley Kubrick film comes out in theaters. The movie has a slightly different structure than the book. Many aspects are omitted or completely changed to 180 degrees, which sparked controversy among fans of the book and annoyed Stephen King. The American writer admitted that he had high expectations of Kubrick’s adaptation, being a big fan of the director, but was disappointed, accusing him of transforming the story in a simple case of domestic abuse, ignoring almost completely the supernatural aspect of the story.

For a comparison between the book and its adaptation in film form, we need to consider several aspects: the construction of the characters and their motivation, the structure of the events and the different approaches by each of the two authors.

First of all, the biggest difference between the two is the construction of the characters. The book provides information on the Torrence family history, which explain to a certain extent their current situation: the three recently moved to Boulder, coming from Vermont, where Jack used to teach at a school. One day, he lost his patience and acted violently upon a student, this accident causing them to move and find a new way to make a living. Moreover, while still being a temperamental alcoholic, one evening, Jack accidentally broke his son’s arm, when he destroyed some important documents while playing. As we go on reading, we learn more about Jack’s and Wendy’s families, about how her mother was never satisfied with Wendy’s choices in life, and about Jack’s abusive father. The film, unlike the book, omits this information, showing us only Wendy’s concern and Tony’s imaginary friend that we don’t actually see, but only hear through the boy, in a low, rough voice.

The book portrays Jack as being very close to his family, despite their issues in the past. There is also a very strong relationship between father and son, but not neccessarily a perfect one. Jack’s love for his family is mentioned several times throughout the story, usually through episodic and secondary characters. The film, on the other hand, reveals a cold father- son relationship right from the start. The interaction between them is minimal even throughout the film, and most often, Wendy plays the messenger between the two. A key moment of Jack and Danny’s relationship is when the boy asks his father if he will harm him and his mother. Subconsciously, they both knew exactly what was going to happen, making their private conversation to become an important moment, in which Danny manages to do what his mother failed until then: to confront Jack, which was already under the influence of the hotel.

When it comes to Wendy, in the book she is a beautiful woman, blonde, who’s always afraid of the possibility that Jack could hurt Danny, and she sometimes expresses this verbally. Although Danny loves her very much, Wendy feels that he and his father have a special relationship where she does not belong. On the other hand, in the film, Wendy is brunette and naive, has the courage to confront her husband only towards the end, when she locks him in the pantry, and even then, she continues to deceive herself that it is all a misunderstanding, that the father of her child will fight off his madness. Stephen King has expressed his disagreement regarding Kubrick’s approach to Wendy’s character, accusing him of misogyny, because on-screen Wendy is a weak, vulnerable character. When the doctor asks about Danny’s dislocated shoulder, the boy’s mother, with an ashamed look and shy smile, tries to excuse her husband, saying it was just one of those accidents that happen, and now Jack stopped drinking. She has the courage to attack Jack verbally only when she realizes that Danny is in danger and she blames her husband for the bruises on the boy’s neck. But, once again, she runs away from a possible confrontation, and later she returns to Jack for help when Danny claims that in room 237 is a woman who tried to strangle him. However, although she is unstable and frail, her maternal instinct saves the boy in the end.

As mentioned above, the novel is inspired by King’s own life experience. He says he and his wife spent one night at Hotel Stanley. During the night, says King, he had a nightmare in which his son was running through the corridors of the hotel, followed by a fire hose (event also present in the book, but not in the movie). That night, after he woke up from the nightmare, King already figured out the main points of the story that would later become “The Shining”. In that way, the novel is a confession, filled with surreal phenomena: ghosts, the hotel spirit, moving hedge animals, bees that appear out of nowhere. Perhaps one of the reasons King always accused Kubrick’s adaptation is because of the autobiographical dimension of his novel, which the film failed to deliver.

King is close to the characters, which are constructed so that the reader can empathize with them. Although Jack is an alcoholic, he is not evil by nature, but becomes possessed by the spirit of the hotel. In the end, King „saves” Jack’s image, in that brief moment of lucidity when his character tells Danny to flee, and he sacrifices himself, burning along with the hotel. Kubrick, on the other hand, has a different attitude towards his characters. He doesn’t invite us to empathize. On the contrary, he is cold, objective and doesn’t put so much emphasis on the alcoholic past of Jack. I personally believe that the film format does not work that well with a classic literary retelling of one character’s past. The use of close-up shots and the expressive face of the actors are enough to tell a story that the viewer can imagine himself, adding also a touch of mystery to the whole situation. The only thing that could be criticized is the director’s choice to hurry up into the action: the three can barely accommodate before Jack goes crazy. Thus, the viewer may feel the need for more time to get used to the characters, maybe by seeing more daily events in which the spirit of the Hotel plays with their minds. The book succeeds in developing the idea of Jack’s inner conflict: he gradually becomes paranoid and begins to convince himself (actually the spirit of the hotel convinces him) that Danny, his loving son, has betrayed him, and is now plotting against him together with Wendy.

Despite the different approach, the film remains a masterpiece that explores the devastating consequences of the psyche of those who fall victim to alcohol, or any kind of addiction. Kubrick’s choice to change the hedge animals that come to life with the never ending maze was a good decision, since the chase in the labyrinth became a memorable scene in the history of cinema. It is also very clear that Kubrick opts for the realistic version, while King uses supernatural elements.

While King adopts the classic (fairytale) structure of good overcomes evil, Kubrick saves the two, Wendy and Danny, but the hotel remains intact, and Jack remains frozen in the snow. Halloran (the chef of the hotel who also has the shining and communicates with Danny) is also killed, almost ironic: he barely reaches the hotel after having a premonition, only to be killed after two minutes by Jack.

The photograph on the wall showed in one of the last scenes raised many questions among the viewers and critics, developing two assumptions: Jack has always been the hotel caretaker, as the waiter Grady tells him (“You’re The Caretaker, Sir. You’ve always Been The Caretaker”), or, the hotel took hold of Jack and his soul, swallowing it in his history. Although Kubrick declared in an interview that Jack was a reincarnation of an earlier official at the hotel, speculations still were developed. Film critic Jonathan Romney sets out an interesting aspect: „But if his picture has been there all along, why has no one noticed it? After all, it’s right at the center of the central picture on the wall, and the Torrances have had a painfully drawn-out winter of mind-numbing leisure in which to inspect every corner of the place. Is it just that, like Poe’s purloined letter, the thing in plain sight is the last thing you see? When you do see it, the effect is so unsettling because you realise the unthinkable was there under your nose – overlooked – the whole time.”

There are major differences between the book by Stephen King and Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation, which is why it is difficult to opt for one, as both writer and director have treated the same subject according to their artistic style and preference. They both have to be appreciated in their category, and, when comparing, one can pick his favorite, book or movie, based on personal preference and the influence the artwork had on him. For me, it’s difficult to choose, but I think I prefer the movie, because I admire Kubrick’s work in general, and I still think „The Shining” is one of his best movies

This post is mostly based on what I wrote in an essay on the same subject in year two of film school. Since “The Shining” is one of my favorite movies, I wanted to write about it. Since this is also a blog about books, I thought, why not combine them?! So, here it is! A little bit long, but I still feel like there are so many things I left out… If you would like me to talk more about the movie or the book in the future, let me know. 



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