The film The Shining is beloved by many, but how many of them have actually read the book? Turns out: hardly any. One fan even said he heard that films adapted from Stephen King’s novels are better than his actual books. While I can’t categorically attest to that, I can say that the film The Shining pales in comparison to the novel The Shining. It is one of King’s best novels, combining brilliant imagery with complex psychology for a truly haunting experience. It’s no small wonder that this is the only of his novels to land a spot on The List.
The story focuses around Jack Torrance who is so desperate for a job that he becomes the off-season caretaker for the secluded Overlook Hotel. He, along with his wife Wendy and 6-year-old son Danny, will spend 8 months alone in the hotel, preventing the pipes from freezing over and the boiler from overheating. Wendy is frail and fearful of her husband whose previous history of alcoholism led him to break their son’s arm (and attack a student); yet she loves him enough to follow him to the Overlook in the hopes that a secluded season of writing will rehabilitate him. It is only little Danny whose “shining” premonitions of the horrors within the Overlook give him trepidation for this venture.
The chapters shuffle through the main characters’ perspectives, giving striking point-of-view perceptions of what is occurring in the present while also imparting insight into the characters’—and hotel’s—backstories that help frame their deteriorating psychological states. While this helps provide the framework for the story, it’s the recurring imagery used throughout that elevates this novel into profound horror. Iconic images and phrases like the roque mallet, the topiary animals, Room 217, and, of course, “REDRUM” enhance the eerie mood and building tensions of the story. Thus establishing King as a renowned horror genre writer.
As iconic as the novel is, the film is equally iconic in its own regards. Stanley Kubrick’s film is considered one of the best horror films, and that’s a worthy assessment. The film sets an uneasy mood with flashes of horrific images that Danny (Danny Lloyd) can see combined with Jack’s (Jack Nicholson) descent into mania—not to mention a creepy score by Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind. The overall look of the film is brilliant thanks to help from Roy Walker, for production design; Les Tomkins, for art direction; and John Alcott, for cinematography. These elements combine to make a visually appealing and eerie film.
But, as great as the film is, it seems to miss the point of the book. In King’s Shining the Overlook itself is an important, menacing character. It has motivations and manipulations that slowly become central to the story. In Kubrick’s Shining the Overlook is just an expanse of open rooms with mismatching color schemes spread throughout. It acts as the playground for Jack’s psychotic breakdown but has very little influence on his actual mental state. The film also eliminates nearly every piece of character backstory; sacrificing story for languorous shots of the empty hotel or Danny pedaling around in his little tricycle.
There are smaller things that are altered or lost in the adaptation as well. Would it have been so hard to have Jack chase Wendy around with a roque mallet? (A baseball bat makes an appearance, however.) The sound of the clock chiming still rings in my ears from reading the book, yet that inciting moment for the climactic chain of events is missing from the film. The overheating boiler and creepy topiary creatures are swapped out for intense outdoor blizzard shots and a hedge maze chase scene (presumably for budgetary reasons). Even the haunted Room 217 is changed to 237 in the film (presumably for superstitious reasons). It seems that only the slight alteration to how “REDRUM” is written (with the inverted letters) manages to add the visual punch needed for its reveal.
All such changes make for a disappointing cinematic experience (when read in close conjunction with the book). King’s novel is rife with delicious visual imagery that yearns to be depicted onscreen, yet the film fails to capture much of that. An inevitable remake of the film may be able to capture these, but without Nicholson’s ingenious and iconic performance will it be as effective? Even Shelley Duvall as Wendy, with deeply hideous costumes, perfectly captures the intense anxiety of the character. Only the depiction of Danny and his imaginary friend Tony was a major acting disappointment. When Danny first spoke as Tony through his finger, the film nearly lost all sense of believability. A new adaptation would better capture Tony as the distant figure who subconsciously speaks to Danny.
It should come as no surprise that the book is overall better than its filmic adaptation. (When, if ever, has the reverse been true?) The film is a visually stunning piece that has impacted pop culture for decades, but the novel is much more effective at telling the story while greatly engaging the reader. So this is one case where I can safely advise that you see the film first before tackling the novel—yet I certainly recommend that you do both.