Retro Review: The Shining (1977)

Ah, see. Mm-hmm. This.

The Shining is–let’s be clear about this up front–a brilliant novel. It’s so much–SO MUCH–better than Kubrick’s film that I’m genuinely surprised that the latter became the huge giant obsessive cult whatever that it did.

To be fair, yes, King’s original story does have more than a bit of the surreal time-bendingness that so characterized Kubrick’s adaptation. And there is a guy in a dog suit, though we’re never treated to a view of him mid-fellatio as we are in Kubrick’s version. But King has subtlety, and he has emotion, and so much of his story unfolds in the minds of the three main characters–especially Danny, the clairvoyant little boy who is arguably the protagonist–that the film actually seems almost incomplete by comparison.

The bones of the story, of course, are basically the same as in the film: the Torrance family moves to the Overlook Hotel in Colorado, where daddy Jack has taken a winter job as caretaker. Jack is a mostly-recovered alcoholic, he writes, he has a violent temper, he broke his son Danny’s arm one time; he’s a freakin’ mess. Danny is telepathic and he speaks to an “imaginary” (totally real) friend named Tony, but he does not wiggle his finger and speak in a needlessly annoying squeak when he does so. Wendy, who shares much of the protagonist spotlight with Danny, is a character. Like, she has feelings, and also thoughts, and she does a great deal more than run and scream.

There are a significant number of other plot points that are different or missing altogether in the film, to its detriment. First and foremost–and this is a major spoiler–Dick Halloran, the telepathic chef who tells Danny about the “shining” and is far and away the most likable character in the novel, does not die. This is super important. We also learn who Tony actually is. There are no spooky twin girls or big-wheels, no blood elevators; there are several large and important scenes involving the topiary animals outside the Overlook coming to life and trying to kill people. (Only Stephen King could make a freaking shrubbery frightening.) The ghost woman in Room 217 is far more important in the novel than she is in the film, though Jack definitely does not make out with her. Finally, the novel contains a whole slew of flashbacks that reveal how the characters came to this point, primarily involving Jack’s descent from promising writer to hopeless, violent drunk, which round out the character nicely.

These flashbacks, along with the characters’ inner monologues in the book’s present, are completely absent from the film. The result is that, in the film, the characters are barely characters at all. In the novel, Jack isn’t just an abusive drunk: he’s a guy with hopes and plans who sincerely wants to be redeemed but can’t get over the deep suspicion that the world has deliberately screwed him over. Wendy is a woman who deeply loves her family and has to reconcile that deep love with the growing conviction that her husband, despite quitting the drink, is actually sinking deeper and deeper into a dark and dangerous place. Danny is a precocious little boy with a frightening ability–he reads minds, he sees ghosts, he shines, as Halloran puts it–and his struggles to make sense of the dark realities it reveals border on tragic. He’s just five years old, and when he reads people’s thoughts–especially his parents’–he doesn’t necessarily understand the words and images which are revealed. All of this comes through to the reader in narration, from the point of view of each of the characters (Hallorann gets a fair bit of time, too). None of that critical narration–not one drop–is expressed in Kubrick’s film.

The point is, there’s depth here. In my Pet Sematary review I linked to King’s own criticisms, via Salon, of the film version of The Shining. In that article King highlights how “cold” Kubrick’s adaptation is, how Jack Torrance is too whacked-out from the beginning, how Wendy is a victim instead of a hero; and naturally enough, King is absolutely right. These are people, and if they’re likable or hateable, they earn it.

Some of the monologues are a bit stilted and artificial, but given the situations they address, this is understandable. It’s not super scary, but it actually does have a few genuinely creepy moments, like the first appearance of the woman in 217, or the time Danny, playing outside by himself, crawls into an old cement pipe and discovers that there’s something very unpleasant in there. Anyway, whatever flaws it has are minor. The book is very, very good.


5 thoughts on “Retro Review: The Shining (1977)

  1. I’m in total agreement here that the book far excels the movie in character development. I will say though, that I really really immensely enjoyed watching “Room 237” and hearing all the conspiracy theories people have developed about the film adaptation of “The Shining.” I found it fun (because I am a massive nerd) to watch “Room 237” and then “The Shining” back-to-back.

      • Oh, man. Yeah, you need to watch it immediately, if not sooner. Pretty sure you can stream it on Netflix. It’s a documentary where a guy recorded phone interviews with about half a dozen different people who all have passionate theories on what “The Shining” is REALLY about. While he’s playing back the audio from the phone interviews, the video is clips from “The Shining” (and other Kubrick films) that demonstrate the person’s point. I will reserve the rest of my commentary on what I love about the film until after you’ve seen it, but suffice it to say I’m a huge fan.

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