A Look at The Shining by Stephen King

The Shining by Stephen King Hodder & Stoughten, 1977

Believe it or not my mother is the chief impetus for my decision to finally read Stephen King’s The Shining; it also doesn’t hurt that the sequel, Doctor Sleep, also just recently released. My mother has told me, repeatedly, that the book is much better than the Kubrick film so I figured now would be the time put that claim to the test. Over the years my stance on “the book is always better” has softened and all but melted away. Truth be told I’m more inclined to say (in 99.9% of all cases, I’m looking at you World War Z) simply that “the movie is different from the book.”

Film, as a primarily visual medium, has an entirely different set of requirements than prose fiction and concessions must be made to reflect that difference. While my friend might complain about the “atrocious” differences between Jackson’s Lord of the Rings Trilogy and Tolkein’s masterpiece I am hard-pressed to fault Jackson for his decisions and I will argue, until the end of my days, that a direct translation of Tolkein’s work into film would not necessarily make the most compelling of films (I shudder at the montages of singing hobbits that would plague the film long before we’ve even left the Shire).

Stanley Kubrick is a seminal director whose touch and vision have influenced the world of film for generations to come. As such, his vision of The Shining is deeply meshed with the world of pop culture and the film’s visual style ring’s true to this day. I say this because that fact makes coming to The Shining as a novel after having experience the film a bit strange. In, On Writing, Stephen King equates writing to telepathy. The author sets an image or thought down on the page and you the reader read it and, depending on the author’s skill, receive and envision that very same thought or image. With The Shining the Kubrick film is interference with that communication. Given my experience with the film, and its prominence as a cultural icon, it difficult to divorce King’s words from Kubrick’s imagery.

Reading The Shining now my brain has two competing visions with the images from Kubrick’s film often superseding the words of King’s fiction. That being said their are considerable difference between the movie and the book. King’s book leans far more heavily on the supernatural and the presence of the Overlook looms far greater than in the film. King conveys a sense of malicious intelligence to the old hotel and the presence insinuates its way into all of the character’s in the story. The Overlook is a character in and of itself and King easily and masterfully conveys the sense of the hotel as a living, breathing, entity.

The glimpse inside the internal live’s of Jack and Wendy, thanks in part to the narrative structure as well as Danny’s own childish interpretation of his parent’s thoughts and emotions, offers greater insight into the personal demons that they are both struggling through. The novel examines Jack’s corruption by the hotel as a much more gradual process than in the film. While Jack is certainly troubled when he arrives at the Overlook there isn’t quite as much tension from the start as there is in the film. The novel portray’s both Jack’s and Wendy’s outlook for the future as hopeful. Jack’s interactions with the ongoing party at the Overlook definitely take on a more fevered tone in the novel and take a decidedly more supernatural air than in the film.

The titular shining is also of greater importance over the course of the novel. Danny’s gift feels like a bit of a throwaway in the film but in the novel it is Danny’s connection to those around him that helps hold the novel together. King even manages to create and interesting parallel between Jack’s need for alcohol and the Overlook’s need for Danny’s powers; both represent ultimately destructive desire which leads to their downfall.  King stays remarkably focused on the character internal and external struggle to the point where the science fiction and fantasy fan in me was a bit frustrated by the lack of explanation behind Danny’s abilities and the Overlook’s malicious power. There were some other irregularities that bugged me: the lone bike that Jack and his friend ran over at night but with no child’s body, and the lingering questions regarding Jack’s beating of his student (there seemed to be some implied mystery there that I was missing) or maybe I was just infected by Jack’s own confusion towards the novel’s end.

There are differences between the Kubrick’s adaptation and King’s novel. At first glance these differences are superficial but the cumulative result of these changes is that The Shining as a book and film are work with vastly different tone. If you’ve not seen Kubrick’s The Shining I honestly recommend you read King’s novel The Shining first. The film’s distinct visual styling and well-known actors have left an indelible mark in popular culture; to such a degree that its influence is hard to ignore while reading the novel. While I have no doubt that individuals will have a unique, and likely visceral, reaction to The Shining as both a book and a film I would argue that both versions of The Shining, King’s original novel and Kubrick’s adaptation, stand well on their own.

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