Columns > Published on June 26th, 2012

Book vs. Film vs. Mini Series: The Shining

Stephen King’s third novel, The Shining, was conceived after a late–season visit to The Stanley Hotel in Colorado.  King and his wife found themselves in a near-empty building, the only diners in the dining room, the only footsteps echoing down the corridors, the only ones riding the elevator.  After King took a solo turn around the empty hotel and had a long chat with the bartender, Grady, inspiration wasn’t far from knocking.  Most people experience a resort hotel in peak season, thronged with staff and other holiday-makers.  How would it feel for an already fractured family to pass through the looking glass and spend a winter in such a place in snowbound isolation? By the time King checked out the next day, he said, “I had the bones of the book firmly set in my mind.”

Any comparison between the three is a King vs. Kubrick smackdown, a battle between the gut and the brain. It’s an opportunity to compare supernatural to psychological horror.

The Shining went on to become a bestseller, a Stanley Kubrick movie, a TV mini-series scripted by King, and an indelible reference point in popular culture (REDRUM! REDRUM!).  King famously hated Kubrick’s intellectual approach to the material (castigating it as “a film by a man who thinks too much and feels too little”) and, uniquely, managed to wrest the rights to his own work back from Warner Brothers in order to write and executive produce what he felt was the definitive screen version of the book.  According to King, “Kubrick just couldn't grasp the sheer inhuman evil of The Overlook Hotel. So he looked, instead, for evil in the characters and made the film into a domestic tragedy with only vaguely supernatural overtones... it never gets you by the throat and hangs on the way real horror should.”

Yet Kubrick’s movie has been hailed as a masterpiece, a horror movie that transcends the genre rather than conforming to conventions.  In Kubrick’s hands, the tragedy at The Overlook is most definitely domestic, involving the psychotic breakdown of a husband and father and the terrified flight of his dependents.  It’s an unfortunate coincidence that this happens at The Overlook – the isolation certainly accelerates Jack’s slide into insanity and blocks Danny’s and Wendy’s escape – but the location becomes an aesthetic, rather than a character.  The carpeting, the corridors, the blood-gushing elevators, the hedge maze, the elegant expanse of the lobby or the Lloyd Wright-inspired men’s bathroom exaggerate existing madness, but they don’t cause or control it the way they do in the novel.  The way Kubrick tells it, Jack Torrance’s downward spiral could almost occur behind the closed drapes of a suburban house – but that would be much less fun to watch.

Any comparison between the three is, therefore, a King vs. Kubrick smackdown, a battle between the gut and the brain.  It’s an opportunity to compare supernatural to psychological horror.  It’s also a good vehicle to explore the differences between scares on the page and scares on the screen, and why novelists aren’t automatically the best choice when it comes to adapting their work into another medium.

The Book (1977)

King’s original narrative is a multi-perspective tale that switches between the interior monologues of newly sober Jack, his beleaguered wife Wendy, and their five year-old son, Danny, as they embark on a winter of splendid isolation at The Overlook Hotel. 

King sets the stage for the Torrances’ arrival at The Overlook very carefully, detailing the series of bad choices that a smart, educated and imaginative man like Jack Torrance has to make in order to end up as caretaker in this elaborate last chance saloon.  He writes with (we now know) personal insight into Jack’s drinking binges, and the destructive alcoholic behaviors that continue even after Jack kicks the habit.  It’s very telling that the incident that gets Jack fired from his teaching job (he attacks a student in a bout of rage) occurs after he’s technically sober.  There have been many literary portraits of drunks, but it’s unusual to see a dry drunk in all his glory.  Jack’s a textbook case: full of anger, denial, self-pity, blame, grandiose ideas of his worth to society, and prone to secrecy, self-isolation and blaming others for his failure, all without a drop of liquor having passed his lips in fourteen months.

Wendy bears the brunt of Jack’s mood swings, loyally clinging to the memory of a love that’s long gone.  King suggests she stays with Jack because her only other choice would be to run back to her hated, controlling mother, and even at his most abrasive, Jack is the better option.  Stuck between the two of them is sweet, psychic Danny.  He’s too young to understand much of what he picks up from his parents’ thoughts, but he knows that he wants Mommy to forget about DIVORCE, and that his father is obsessing about the Bad Thing even though he’s no longer permitted to do it.

Just a nice, regular all-American family then - except for the fact that, thanks to the omniscient narrator, we can read their minds and access the frustration, misery, and even naked fear of one another that lies behind their eyes.

Once the Torrances take up residence in their winter quarters, King works the interior monologues of his characters deftly, switching between viewpoints and even looping back in time so the reader can get more than one perspective on an event.  The Overlook gradually takes shape as a malign presence, going to work in different ways on Jack, Danny and Wendy. 

King is deliberately vague about what the evil entity actually is and does.  Although he suggests that The Overlook’s power comes from the negative psychic events that have occurred there in the past (mainly murders and suicides among the hotel guests), he doesn’t foreground the possibility (as Kubrick does) that the hotel was built on bad land.  Instead, The Overlook’s iniquity is the consequence of twentieth century degeneracy, the evil that greedy, wealthy, modern men do.

There are physical, poltergeisty manifestations of its power (for instance, the ‘bombed’ wasps’ nest that buzzes back to life in Danny’s bedroom) experienced by all three Torrances as an actual event that causes tangible damage.  Then there are traditional hauntings, the shades of past guests and staff (the party-goers in the ballroom, the corpse in the bathtub) that again, all the Torrances experience, but they’re just ghostly images.  Beyond that, however, King takes the haunted house trope a stage further, via the character of Delbert Grady who appears to Jack alone, giving him specific instructions on behalf of the hotel which, it transpires, is intelligent enough to want Danny’s shining abilities for itself and is prepared to push Jack over the brink of insanity to achieve its specific ends. 

So far, so good.  The best parts of The Shining deal with Jack’s disintegration, as he crosses over into the psychic briar patch of the hotel’s past.  While Danny and Wendy are able to maintain the distinction between reality and hallucination and scream loud enough to get the specters to vanish, Jack embraces the spirit world.  It’s easy to buy the idea that a supernatural entity might whisper into a man’s ear long enough to get him to attack his wife and child with a roque mallet, especially if that man already exists within a cloud of delusion and lies.  Jack’s inner demons are perfectly capable of taking him down, even without The Overlook’s assistance. 

What’s more problematic – and the main weakness of the novel – is the inconsistent ways in which The Overlook is able to manipulate physical reality.  Early on, Halloran tells Danny that the hotel can’t hurt him, that any bad things he sees are “like pictures in a book… just look the other way and when you look back, it’ll be gone.”  Halloran, who can also shine, has been working there for a while, so he should know.  Yet, from the wasps’ nest onwards, the hotel does more than show the Torrances pictures.   Perhaps the least convincing aspect of the book is the army of topiary animals that the hotel uses to threaten, then attack Danny, Jack and even Halloran on his way back up the mountain.  Halloran ends up with physical scratches as proof they exist.  Then there’s the way Grady frees Jack from behind a locked door.  Can ghosts do that?  If they can, why doesn’t The Overlook just drop a chandelier on Danny’s head?  Job done. 

Then there’s the happy-sappy ending.  Not only does Jack have a moment of clarity long enough to tell Danny “Run away. Quick.  And remember how much I love you” but there’s also the coda, with Halloran and Danny fishing off a dock together in some other tranquil resort, watched by a smiling Wendy (whose smashed vertebra is healing very nicely, thank you).  It’s nice to see an author so emotionally involved in his characters that he wants to give them a HEA, but this is horror, not romance, and the final chapter strikes a false note.

The Movie (1980)

Artistically, Kubrick is at the opposite end of the spectrum to King.  King’s stories are all about instinct and emotion: his characters feel their way in and out of horrifying situations.  Sometimes it seems as though he’s writing with his eyes wide shut.  For Kubrick, if it can’t be seen, it doesn’t exist.  His storytelling turns on visual symbols. Characters are often only a minor part of the elaborate mise en scène, their dialogue sparse and contrapuntal to action or meaning.  He communicates with the audience via symmetry – or the lack of it – rather than sympathy.  Where King is all about the emotional manipulation of the reader, Kubrick likes to mess with his audience’s spatial awareness.  Unsurprisingly, Kubrick’s take on The Shining is wildly different to the novel.

If you take away the compelling emotional and moral commentary that fills the pages of the novel, The Shining is the tale of three people wandering around a deserted building.  That’s what it looks like to an outsider, and that’s the story Kubrick wanted to tell.  The movie is an exploration of the ways in which external space affects state of mind. There’s nothing supernatural about Jack’s mental decline, it comes from staring at the carpet for too long.  The Overlook, as imagined by Kubrick, simultaneously causes claustrophobia and agoraphobia.  His use of steadicam and wide lenses (plus some artful set-building) has the audience floating through corridors that are too wide, at the wrong height and speed.  The large rooms, the ballroom, the lobby are represented as empty expanses bound about by harsh geometrical lines.   Should you run, or hide?  Put your back to the wall or stay out in the open? Accept the nothingness around you or populate it with your own imaginings?  This discombobulation is unique to the audio-visual experience.  It’s almost impossible to achieve this kind of sensory impact via words on a page.

Kubrick (with co-writer Diane Johnson) went for a stripped-down existential narrative: man chooses to be mad.  He rejected King’s carefully constructed backstory almost in its entirety, along with the nuances of Jack’s alcoholism, and the initially strong family ties between the Torrances.  From the opening scene, where he nods and grimaces his way through an interview with the manager, Ullman, Jack Nicholson’s Jack is a man with his thumb already jammed into his self-destruct button.  There’s no chance he’s going to make it out alive.  Therefore, as an audience, we’re neither invited to engage with him, nor to root for his redemption.  Kubrick wants us to watch from a distance as he implodes, and Nicholson plays along, hitting crass, comic notes along with constantly rising levels of aggression that make it impossible to empathize with the man. 

The same distance is created between us and the other characters.  Wendy (Shelley Duvall) is a whiny wreck of a woman, dismissable as a fool for not grabbing her son and running a long, long time ago.  Danny (Danny Lloyd) is one seriously disturbed kid, whose sole coping mechanism seems to be his Tony ‘voice’ (“Danny’s not here, Mrs. Torrance”).  Once isolated within the funhouse expanses of The Overlook, it’s no wonder they start seeing tricks of the light. This kind of derogatory characterization does not make for a good reading experience.  However, Kubrick frames these people on screen so that it’s impossible to look away.

It’s interesting to note that the most memorable aspects of the film – the ones that have become embedded within popular discourse – are not in the book.  It tends to be the brief, wordless shots that resonate most:  Danny’s tricycle navigating rattling wooden floors and silent rugs; tides of blood washing out of the elevator; the twin girls; Jack leering over a model of the maze his wife and son are lost in; Wendy staring in horror at the pile of manuscript pages filled with “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” typed over and over again; the final shot of a young, healthy Jack at a Fourth of July party at The Overlook in 1921.  Kubrick also showcases Native American art within the soft furnishings and stained glass windows, and in some initial dialogue hints that the hotel is built over an ancient burial ground.  This gives the story a more mythic subtext: Jack is the careless white man, riding roughshod over symbols and forces he fails to understand, destroying his family and sanity in the process.

Fans of the book often hate the movie.  This is mainly because Kubrick doesn’t care about the characters.  Kindly Dick Halloran journeys all the way from Florida in the biggest storm in living memory in order to rescue a kid he once met for a half hour and gets an axe through his heart as recompense.  Wendy and Danny endure seven levels of hell to get away from Jack, and all we ever know is that they got the snowmobile to start.  Whether they managed to make it down the mountain alive (with Wendy driving? In said snowstorm?), Kubrick deems of no consequence.  And Jack gets no moment of redemption, no “I love you”, going to his icebound grave in the grip of full-on crazy.  Kubrick’s version is story as spectacle.  Emotional participation not required.

The TV Mini-Series (1997)

Almost twenty years later, after the success of many more novels and the TV mini-series version of The Stand, King was asked what he would like to do next.  He wanted to reclaim The Shining.  One most unusual deal with Warners later (where King agreed never to say anything bad about the movie version again), King set to work on a 3 x 90min adaptation that he felt would tell the story he wanted onscreen.  By 1997, he was as respected and important a figure within the industry as Kubrick had been back in 1979-80, and could have much more control over the transition from page to screen.  He wrote the teleplay, and was a hands-on Executive Producer.  He even appears as one of The Overlook’s ghosts (he’s the band leader in the ballroom scenes).

The result is an adaptation that is faithful to the point of pedestrian.  Even for a TV mini-series, it’s slow moving.  King seems determined to cram in all the bits Kubrick missed out, which means going over Jack’s disgrace at Stovington in mind-numbing detail.  King transposes lengthy expository speeches (and streams of consciousness) from the novel and tells us way too much in dialogue.  When an actor the caliber of Elliott Gould (who appears very briefly as Ullman) starts to chew the scenery in order to get the lines out, there’s too much talking.  It takes most of Episode One for the Torrances to get settled in to The Overlook, they don’t get snowed in until partway through Episode Two, and Jack doesn’t get anything but tetchy until Episode Three.  Proceedings aren’t helped by cheesy 90s special effects (the CGI moving topiary animals are particularly laughable) and low-grade Halloween make up on the ghosts (which looks comic on a modern HDTV).

King wanted to shoot interiors and exteriors at the location that inspired him – The Stanley Hotel.  While it’s interesting to see the original, an actual physical location often has disadvantages over a specially constructed set.  A corridor is just a corridor.  Unfortunately, from the opening moments, the fancy wedding cake architecture of The Stanley is too pretty to be sinister, lacking the low-lying menace of The Timberline Lodge in Oregon used by Kubrick.  And the interiors, while they possess Edwardian grace and style, were never going to live up to Roy Walker’s custom-designed sets.  It’s all too easy to believe the claim on The Stanley’s website, that this hotel only has “happy ghosts”.

There is one new angle: Alcoholism is front and center in this version.  By 1997, King had fought his own demons and won, and wanted that reflected in the story-telling.  He wanted to be much more sympathetic to Jack’s attempts to become sober, not just through stopping drinking, but by working on himself as a person.  Therefore we’re shown Jack attending AA meetings down in Sidewinder before the snows come, and reading from his AA books after The Overlook is cut off.  Jack’s struggles with the dark side of himself are much more up-and-down than they are in either the book or the movie.  Unfortunately, soap star Steven Weber isn’t quite up to the challenge of delineating Jack’s moods, and often comes down on the wrong side of the line between nuanced and inconsistent.

Nasal, bowl-haircutted Courtland Mead is also a disappointment as Danny.  His age has been raised to seven years old, and he spends a lot of time whining to and about his parents.  In both the book and the movie, Danny says very little out loud - always a good strategy for a child character.  We also get to meet Tony, Danny’s imaginary friend, in the flesh, which strips all the mystery from Danny’s visions.  Tony’s an earnest, bespectacled high school senior who delivers most of his lines from a clumsy green screen set that’s meant to represent Danny’s imagination. 

By contrast, Rebecca De Mornay is great as Wendy.  She uses her ice-blonde qualities to great effect to convey a steely core to the character that’s entirely absent from Duvall’s performance.  De Mornay gives us a woman of quiet desperation, acutely aware that this stint at the hotel represents the last chance for her to keep her family together.  If it was The Overlook versus De Mornay, the blonde would come out swinging.  But the hotel uses Jack, the man she once loved dearly, against her, and her keen survival instincts take a fraction too long to kick in.  When she finally fells her deranged husband with a precisely aimed roque ball between his eyes, there’s no triumph, just a painful moment of loss.

The ending is also new.  King goes by the book as far as Jack’s redemption, the boiler exploding, and Halloran (Melvin Van Peebles playing the Magical Negro angle to the max) recovering in time to drive Danny and Wendy away in the snowmobile.  Then we fast-forward ten years to Danny’s high school graduation, where we discover he’s turned into bespectacled Tony, Wendy and Halloran are still friends, and that the spirit of Jack Torrance still loves him and watches over him.  Awwwww!

King was obviously very wounded by the Kubrick version of his book, and much of the TV mini-series feels like formal rebuttal rather than entertainment.  It’s also an excellent illustration of why the more literal adaptations of Stephen King’s work tend not to work onscreen: King is not a visual thinker, he loves to tell, rather than show.  A director like Kubrick (or Frank Darabont or Rob Reiner) can take a King story and distil its meaning into visual symbols, trimming the exposition and glossing over a lot of the emotional fluff whilst still communicating the psychological subtext that gives the story heart.  A lot of people have tried to do that, tied themselves up in plot knots, and failed.  It will be interesting to see how the next round of King adaptations currently in various stages of development all work out.

So, when it boils down to it, which version of The Shining is the best?

This one:

About the author

Karina Wilson is a British writer based in Los Angeles. As a screenwriter and story consultant she tends to specialize in horror movies and romcoms (it's all genre, right?) but has also made her mark on countless, diverse feature films over the past decade, from indies to the A-list. She is currently polishing off her first novel, Exeme, and you can read more about that endeavor here .

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