Alright, I know Halloween time is over and yummy turkey time has begun, but I only just finished reading a horror classic and re-watching its movie adaptation, and the differences between the two are so striking I just have to talk about it. I’m talking about The Shining, written by Stephen King and adapted for film by Stanley Kubrick. Both are considered masters of their respected medium, making the differences between King’s work and Kubrick’s adaptation of it that much more intriguing. I’ll be focusing more on the overall thematic and big picture differences, not the nitty-gritty details, but I’ll still be spoiling both the book and movie in these upcoming paragraphs, so be warned, decades old spoilers coming up.
I read a horror classic every Halloween. I also like to watch a couple of scary movies every October as well. I figured I’d kill two birds with one stone and take a look at the Shining, a movie I’d seen before but a book I had not read yet. Having seen the movie already, though, didn’t spoil the book for me at all, because the two are SO different I was blown away by the time I finished the book, just like poor old Jack Torrance (a joke referencing the book’s infinitely more bad-ass ending.)
The thing is, the film The Shining does a lot of things film adaptations usually do to their book sources. The blacks become blacker, the whites become whiter, everything is streamlined and less complicated. That’s what really weirded me out. Stanley Kubrick is regarded as a master of cinema. If someone with his meticulous attention to detail does the same thing that the hacks who butchered your favorite YA novel a couple summers ago did, is there any hope for film as a medium? Let’s see.
Poor daddy Jack Torrance suffers the biggest split personality in the film/book divide. Everyone remembers Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of Mr. All work and No Play. He’s an already kind of crazy-eyed guy that becomes utterly unhinged and violent after falling victim to the Overlook Hotel’s power, and his own alcoholism and bad temper.
The Jack Torrance in the book is a far more sympathetic character. He does ultimately turn into the same monster as Jack Nicholson, but in a much less simple story arc. Book Jack feels incredibly guilty about his drinking and temper, not to mention the situation he’s brought his family to.The only reason he takes the job is because he was fired from his job as a teacher after he attacked a student vandalizing his car. He struggles to actually work on his writing while at the Overlook, never once devolving into repeating over and over the famous “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” lines in the movie.
He fights the dark influences of the hotel for a much longer time, not wanting to hurt his son or give into his past demons he’s been trying to kick for the longest time. Even in the end, he lets Danny escape in the book, trying to beat himself in the head with his own weapon and shake away some of the hotel’s control rather than kill his son. The book is much more about the tragic pains different family members must go through to try and prop each other up, and the love that makes them feel compelled to do it. The timeline of the whole thing feels much more drawn out, with each little struggle growing bigger and bigger to make a much more tragic ending.
Stephen King is generally known to have disliked the Shining movie, and everyone’s pretty sure it’s because of this loss of that tragic struggle and the amped up demon-ization of Jack Torrance. Jack Torrance’s struggling with drinking are clearly taken from King’s own drinking problem and personal demons at the time. Kubrick kind of slapped a scary Jack Nicholson face on all of King’s personal baggage and turned a the author foolish enough to write himself into his own book into an unsympathetic madman.
Wendy, Jack’s wife, suffers lesser but still noticeable changes. I note these changes here because they frankly kind of make me angry. Mister master of cinema Stanley Kubrick committed the age old sin directors always do against female characters. He simplifies her and makes her weaker. There’s a theme in the novel that talks a bit about how Wendy had a nasty mother and she struggles not to fall into her mother’s own vindictive possessive-ness and guilt tripping. I can regrettably understand that being cut for time, but Kubrick also significantly takes away the power Wendy had in the novel. Mainly, while movie Wendy hysterically screams and ineffectively waves a bat or knife at Jack, only knicking him a few times, book Wendy hysterically screams (slightly less) and then jumps onto her husband and stabs him to death to keep him from killing her and their son Danny. Yeah. She means business. Technically, the hotel just kind of brings Jack back to sort-of alive murder machine, but that’s sadly sort of a given in a murder ghost hotel, and Wendy’s actions still hinder Jack much more than her terrified screaming in the film, as iconic as that “Here’s Johnny!” scene is.
Finally, the ending of the book was, in my opinion, far more metaphorically resonant and generally satisfying than the movie. It’s ironically a bit more “Hollywood” than the film ending as well. At the book’s end, the hotel’s dysfunctional old furnace, which has been neglected while Jack runs around going crazy and trying to murder everyone instead of carefully tending it like he was being paid to do all winter, explodes and engulfs the hotel in a fiery ball of death. Jack dies, properly this time, with the hotel itself and the nasty ghosts too, but Wend Danny and Halleran (the magic black guy who totally doesn’t get a hatchet to the chest and die in the book) escape, riding a fireball of awesome on a snowmobile to safety. I know, right? Way cooler. Also, there’s the sort of wink-wink nudge-nudge notion that Jack Torrance’s anger issues finally did make him “blow his lid.” The evil, all-powerful enemy being tripped up by forgetting a small, basic chink in its own armor is also a pleasant trope I found rather satisfying. I get that horror movies always like to leave the bad guy, in this case the Overlook itself, alive, but if Kubrick was willing enough to stoop to Hollywood tradition and turn Wendy into an ineffectual, simpering fool and Jack into a simple crazed slasher, then he could’ve surely bowed to Hollywood tradition and his source material in giving everyone a nice satisfying explosion at the end. Just use some sets and model Kubrick! Boom Pow Bam! Instant better ending. Whatever.
In the end, I really enjoyed The Shining in its print form, better than the film even. Honestly, I’m still willing to call Kubrick’s film a horror classic. There are just too many iconic moments and brilliant cinematic choices to completely disregard the movie. Kubrick changed the story, but had enough skill to make those changes create a classic horror film. Still though, as an ever suffering book nerd I had to learn, yet again, that a book is always better at being a book and a movie is always better at being a movie, with all the variations in storytelling and complexity that entails.