Raise your hand if you are a Stephen King fan. If that hand is raised, you will definitely want to join in the conversation today about one of King's most well-known books: The Shining. All of this is courtesy of Dinara Tengri.
Stephen King's The Shining is one of my favourite books. I have read it more times than I can remember. A Stephen King fangirl I am not. But this book has something that keeps me coming back to it time and again. And with each re-read I discover something I didn't notice before. Reading this book is like peeling layers off of an onion. A scary bloody onion.
What's interesting is that with each re-read I also become more convinced that Stanley Kubrick's take on The Shining is a very poor adaptation of a very good book.
My main complaint about the movie is not that Kubrick changed many key plot points of the book, or that he changed Wendy Torrance's hair colour from blond to black. My main issue with the movie is the characters. The people whose stories we are following. This is where King's book wins, while Kubrick's movie... Well, it gets a participation trophy.
I should warn you beforehand, that at some point in this essay, I will get angry, and things will get messy. Let's go!
The characters in The Shining are living breathing people. Throughout the book, they reveal themselves as the people they are - beautiful, flawed, plagued by their own insecurities and driven by their addictions and fears.
We relate to Wendy and Jack and Danny because we can see ourselves in them. In their vices and in their love for each other. Which makes Jack's gradual descent into madness all the more tragic. We get to witness him trying to fight the awesome force of the Overlook Hotel as it's slowly taking over his mind and his free will. And because we know him and can relate to him we don't want to loose him.
In the book, it's not Jack who is the monster, it's the Overlook. Far from being an archetypal haunted house, the Overlook becomes a character in its own right. It uses Jack as a disposable napkin, pitting his own alcoholism and his ego against him and his family, in its attempts to get to Danny and his psychic powers.
And while the Overlook is manipulating Jack like a macabre puppet master, Wendy and Danny choose to be active players in this game. They don't simply react to the situation that they have found themselves in. They don't stand by and watch helplessly while their husband and father is loosing his marbles. They don't let themselves be defined by their archetypes.
Just like the Overlook, alcohol is an omnipresent force in the Torrance family life, hanging above them like a storm cloud. Whether Jack is drunk or sober, his alcoholism is affecting every aspect of their lives. I think that in its core, The Shining is a book about alcoholism and domestic violence and how it can affect a family. The Overlook might as well be a bottle of whiskey. And Jack just isn't strong enough to fight it.
Even the supporting characters are strong and well-developed. King doesn't settle on surrounding the main characters with one-dimensional extras.
The problem with the characters in the movie adaptation of The Shining is not the actors' portrayal of them, but the way Kubrick has changed them and the direction in which he's taking them.
These characters don't have a history that we as the audience get to explore. We don't know anything about them. How did they get to where they are now? What's motivating their actions?
The truth is, the characters' actions are motivated by the purpose that they serve in the movie. They each have a job to do, and that is to move the plot from point A to point B, without growing, without changing their own environment.
These characters exist in little boxes, and stay in them throughout the entire film. They don't evolve towards anything. You may say, what about Jack? Doesn't he evolve from the loving father to a homicidal monster? Well, no, not really. And King has put it perfectly in his interview with The Rolling Stone:
"In the book, there's an actual arc, where you see (Jack) trying to be good and little by little he moves over to this place where he's crazy. And as far as I was concerned, when I saw the movie, Jack was crazy from the first scene."
In the book, the Overlook is the monster. In the movie, the monster is Jack. As the audience, we know that at some point he will snap and pick up that axe. It's not a matter of if, it's a matter of when. Gone is the unpredictability that makes the book so realistic. Jack's descent into madness is not tragic, it's simply inevitable.
And if in the book, alcohol becomes the major catalyst for Jack's insanity, in the movie it's just one of those details that make a better scene. The major themes of alcoholism and its consequences are downplayed to a point where they become insignificant to the plot.
As it is Jack's job in the movie to be crazy, it's Wendy's job is to react to her husband's growing insanity. King himself, in the same interview, has called the movie "misogynist", because,
"I mean, Wendy Torrance is just presented as this sort of screaming dishrag."
While I don't agree with King that Kubrick's movie is misogynist, Duvall's weeping and shivering version of Wendy is definitely a step down from the strong and determined woman we see in the book, who fearlessly protects her son from the forces of evil.
The supporting characters are one-dimensional and they only exist to serve a purpose. Where King takes time to give the supporting characters personality and a voice, Kubrick takes that all away and turns them into extras.
My final thoughts
What I take away from King's horror novel and its famous movie adaptation is that unlike King, Kubrick was not a storyteller. After reading the book, I know what kind of story King was trying to tell, but after seeing the movie so many times, I still struggle to understand what message Kubrick was trying to convey in his film.
While the characters in King's book are living breathing people, Kubrick's characters become a part of the setting, blending perfectly with the cold and gloomy atmosphere of the film. And where King injects humanity and warmth in his characters, Kubrick sucks the life out of them.
If the book is a character study, the movie appears to be a study of light and sound effects.
If the book is a story about people, then the movie is a story about ghosts.
And if I'm allowed a few more pretentious metaphors before I'm done with this rant:
King's The Shining is like a living organism, that's always changing and evolving. Kubrick's The Shining is like a gothic painting: beautiful and mesmerising but in the end lifeless and static.
How about you? Do you agree? Disagree? What's your favourite vs. least favourite book to movie adaptation? My two personal favourites are The Martian and John Carpenter's The Thing.
And thank you Caro, Tif and Tasha for letting me vent some of my frustrations about The Shining on your awesome blog!
You can also read:
Stephen King: The Rolling Stone Interview, by Andy Greene
What Stanley Kubrick got wrong about "The Shining" , by Laura Miller