Fittingly enough for October, I spent a last weekend at a cabin in the woods. And while there were more loons and squirrels than ghosts and ghouls, I took the opportunity to re-read one of my all-time favorite horror novels, The Shining by Stephen King. It is considered by many to be one of his best works, which is saying a lot considering he is one of the most popular and prolific authors still writing today.
While King’s The Shining has definitely earned its place in the higher echelons of the horror genre, I have never quite understood the esteem given to Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 adaptation of the novel. While I was re-reading the book over the weekend, it only served to remind me how utterly superior it is to the movie version.
In no specific order, here are my thoughts on The Shining novel version the film. Spoilers abound for both.
1.) The film is horribly miscast. I might be in the unpopular opinion crowd here but I absolutely hate Jack Nicholson’s interpretation of Jack Torrance. He plays Jack as a mentally unstable semi-psychopath straight from the beginning. The novel version of Jack is a flawed individual who loves his family and is eventually worn down by the dark forces of the Overlook. Nicholson instead chose to glower and menace from the very first scene, and spends the entire running length of the film chewing the scenery.
Shelley Duvall, as Wendy Torrance, is almost unbearable to watch. She is meek and whiny and shrill. Book Wendy is certainly submissive to her husband, but she fights for the safety of her son and it is her fierce love that has kept her family together. Wendy fights her own demons throughout the course of King’s novel, but she is never reduced to a mewling puddle on the floor.
2.) Kubrick basically tortured Shelley Duvall throughout the course of filming. It could be that part of my dislike for Shelley Duvall in Kubrick’s film is the fact that he put her through such psychological strain that she would frequently collapse from mental exhaustion. She was kept isolated from much of the cast and made to perform takes hundreds of times all while Kubrick was screaming at her. Apparently the stress was so great that her hair began to fall out. Kubrick’s interpretation of Wendy Torrance is utterly misogynistic. She is just there to make stupid decisions and scream a lot.
3.) Jack Torrance is supposed to be an imperfect but dedicated husband and father. In my opinion, one reason why Stephen King’s work is so difficult to translate onto film is that so much of the tension takes place in the minds of his characters. The reader spends so much time sharing headspace with the Torrance family that we grow to understand and appreciate their various strengths and flaws. So when I’m reading The Shining, I identify with Jack’s struggle with alcoholism as much as I respect his fervent desire to better himself for his wife and son. The reader feels that mixture of guilt, pain, sadness, and love. But because the battle for the soul of Jack Torrance takes place within the mind of Jack Torrance, it’s difficult to convey without resorting to voice-over narration which would have been equally ineffective. So instead, we’re left with Jack Nicholson who tried to convey that inner turmoil by acting like an overly toothy nutjob.
4.) Points must be given for setting and cinematography. I personally do not believe Stanley Kubrick deserves his place in the higher rankings of film directors. However, I will say that he was capable of delivering some truly stunning visuals. Horror films in the last decade rely too heavily on quick edits, jump scares, and screechy music to ramp up suspense. Kubrick understands the creepiness of the long shot, and his use of twisty hallways, looming staircases, and the general grandeur of the hotel set are all gorgeous to look at. His use of bright, primary colors contrasted with the gloominess of other set pieces is another reason why this film is mentioned so often in conversations about amazing visual effects.
5) THE ENDING Stephen King himself has tried to distance himself from Kubrick’s film, citing many of the same reasons I’ve mentioned in this post. Nicholson’s Jack Torrance has almost no character arc whatsoever, and even the final sacrifice of “book” Jack is left out of the film. In the novel, Jack Torrance manages to fight off the evil spirits that have consumed him long enough to say goodbye to his son and allow him a chance to escape. He then smashes his own face in with a roque mallet, destroying himself but saving his son. In the film, Jack Nicholson’s character basically becomes Michael Myers, a maniac with an axe who gleefully attempts to murder his entire family. In the end, he gets lost in a hedge maze and freezes to death.
Where’s the sacrifice? Where are the last words of a broken man to his son? It’s as if Kubrick didn’t see Jack Torrance as a person with a conscience of his own, but merely as an empty receptacle for the evil spirits that inhabited the Overlook. So the ending consists of one drawn-out chase scene, complete with an idiotic woman who runs up the stairs when she should be running out the front door. Even in 1980 this was beginning to become a cliche. Kubrick had the opportunity to show his audiences a truly unique monster, the monster that lives within all of us waiting for the chance to take over. Instead, we were given yet another soulless psychopath. What a shame.
What are your thoughts? Are there any other film to book comparisons you’d like to see? Let me know in the comments!
Happy reading everyone!