I have sat myself down in front of my computer a dozen times over the past week, trying to come up with a new angle to write about 1980’s The Shining. It’s impossible. This film has been written about, analyzed, and over-analyzed (see the documentary Room 237, and you’ll agree) to the point that everything that has needed to be said about the film has already been said. There are 6,000 articles about The Shining from writers much more talented than me that can be accessed on the internet at any given time.
Everyone is aware of the shooting details of the film, how Kubrick emotionally terrorized Shelley Duvall yet coddled the psyche of little Danny Lloyd. We have heard about the set dressing, the outfits, the extra takes and the apologies for faking the Apollo 11 moon landing. We’ve been told these stories over and over since 1980, and, frankly, it’s boring at this point. So, what I would like to do, instead of running through the film and commenting on its merits or faults, is take a look at why the story’s creator despises the it so much and determine whether or not his points are valid.
We all know that Stephen King famously hates Kubrick’s adaptation of the story, and that he has gone on record dozens of times since 1980 to let us know exactly why. His latest book, The Outsider, even has a small dig at the film, introducing a character who is watching Paths of Glory because it’s “better than The Shining“.
I think we can all agree that The Shining is the most technically proficient, beautiful and frightening adaptation of a Stephen King work of fiction. So why has he held on to these disgruntled feelings for so long? Let’s take a look at three of his biggest issues with this film adaptation and see if King’s version, or Kubrick’s, resulted in the better story.
#1- “Jack was crazy from the first scene.”
In an interview with Rolling Stone from 2014, King went on a short rant about why he disliked Kubrick’s version of The Shining. In it, he states:
In the book, there’s an actual arc where you see this guy, Jack Torrance, 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. I had to keep my mouth shut at the time. It was a screening, and Nicholson was there. But I’m thinking to myself the minute he’s on the screen, ‘Oh, I know this guy. I’ve seen him in five motorcycle movies, where Jack Nicholson played the same part.’
It has been noted several times that the character of John Daniel Torrance (Jack in the film) is King’s most autobiographical creation. He’s a schoolteacher (check), a writer (double-check) who has a drinking problem (triple-check) and is genuinely afraid that his vices will cause him to harm his family (quadruple-check). I completely understand King’s anger about the change in motivation for the character. The book follows this man’s decent into madness at the hands of the Overlook Hotel, with it’s demons and ghosts worming their way into his mind and forcing him to try to hurt his family. The film, on the other hand, doesn’t explicitly state that the ghosts of the Overlook are having any effect on Jack at all. Instead, it seems like Jack began his mental disintegration long before accepting the caretaker position.
You can see from the short conversation between Jack, Wendy and Danny in their tiny yellow Volkswagon that he is not necessarily fond of his family situation. He resents them for dragging him down and stifling his creative process. Writer’s block rules the world around him, and it’s their fault that he has it. He hurt little Danny once, in a drunken rage, and instead of showing any true remorse for having hurt his son, Jack blames it all on the boy for throwing his papers around the room. He doesn’t blame himself or take any responsibility for it, instead claiming that it was a “Momentary loss of muscular coordination” (which, I admit, will probably be the title of my memoir). To please Wendy and to keep the family together, he vows that he will never take another drink, forcing him onto a wagon that he never wanted to be on, and therefore into his perceived state of mental block. This planted a seed of resentment for the two of them deep within his mind that the isolation and continued sobriety of the Overlook fed until it bloomed into the hallucinations and rage we see at the end of the film.
King wanted his character to be the victim of an evil force so that we could all see ourselves in his shoes. He wanted Torrance to be a good man, trying to be good and do good for his family, that is swayed by the spirits of the hotel. In the book, John has a moment of clarity during his rampage through the halls of the lodge, telling Danny that he loves him, and to run. This didn’t translate to the film version. There is no moment of humanity peeking through the curtain of red madness. Jack has transitioned into a grunting maniac, and there is no coming back from it.
So, which has the greater effect? I believe Kubrick’s version is a much more impactful iteration of the John/Jack character. The moment of clarity John has in the novel suggests more of a “possession” rather than a true break in psyche. This doesn’t make me see myself in his shoes, like King wanted. As time goes on, I see Jack as a more realistic character, a man who loses his mind and tries to kill his family. Possession takes the blame away from John in the novel. It’s not his fault, it’s the hotel that is doing it. Also, there is more finality to Kubrick’s version of the character. A possession can be beaten, but madness coupled with isolation, cannot. You can’t stop the train of psychosis once it has left the track and you’re 25 miles deep in the snow-blocked mountains. So, when it comes to the difference in central motivations for John/Jack, I have to side with Kubrick. The film’s version of the character is more believable, understandable, and downright terrifying.
#2- Wendy’s Role
In his novel, Stephen King describes Wendy Torrance as beautiful, blonde and smart-as-a-whip. In Kubrick’s version, Wendy is reduced to a lank-haired mother-only in Shelley Duvall (Side note- I dare someone to besmirch Shelley Duvall’s name in my presence. She is a unique, beautiful woman that has had her world ripped apart by mental illness. She was incredibly good in this movie, and to call her “ugly” or “dumb” is a sure-fire way to make sure you receive these hands.) In the same interview with Rolling Stone from 2014, King tells Andy Greene that Kubrick’s film:
…it’s so misogynistic. I mean, Wendy Torrance is just presented as this sort of screaming dishrag. But that’s just me, that’s the way I am.
This is the most valid of King’s criticisms. Wendy doesn’t do much to save her family. Instead, she stands there and takes Jack’s verbal abuse about interrupting his work and nods as if she is a dog cowering in the corner. She fails to act when Danny is attacked in Room 237, instead she smokes and paces her bedroom, swearing to get them out of there. Then she, um, goes to bed. This gives Jack enough time to sabotage the SnowCat (their only means of escape), destroy the radio (their only connection to the outside world) and descend further into his psychosis thanks to the spirit of Mr. Grady.
Near the end of the film, she does stand up for herself, and tries her best to stop Jack from hurting them. She hits him in the head with a bat (although with terrible form… come on, Wendy), slashes his hand with a knife, and screams an awful lot. This all comes way too late, and a smart woman who truly cared for her family would have gotten out of there at the first signs of paranormal interference or murderous rage. In other words, she is “presented as this sort of screaming dishrag”.
I agree with King that Kubrick devolved Wendy into a prop for Jack to rage against, but I don’t agree with many people’s assumption that she is a wasted character. She takes Jack’s verbal assaults, deflects his anger, tries to keep Danny from making his father mad, allows him his privacy and continues to hope that he will not hurt them. In other words, Wendy is in a abusive relationship and can’t find a way to break the cycle. It is impossible for me to get into the headspace of someone who continues to be with a man who abuses them or their children, but this film is a glimpse into that world. She stays by his side through the drinking, the fighting, the screaming, and the hitting, holding onto this tiny sliver of hope that she will someday see the Jack that she fell in love with again.
So, while I agree with King about how Wendy is portrayed in the film, I still feel as if it is a good representation of the emotional terrorism that Jack has subjected her to over the years. She doesn’t know how to react because Jack has taken away her free will. She is completely dependent on the man who is now chasing her with an axe. She is not a “dishrag”. She is an abused woman trying her best to protect her son from the monster she married.
#3- The Overlook
In the novel, the Overlook Hotel is the source of the evil tearing at the family. It has haunted hedge animals and possessed fire hoses that attack and try to claim Danny’s powers for it’s own vile vortices to contain. In the film, the hotel is just that: a hotel. Sure, it’ss probably haunted by overly-bloodied elevators, disintegrating nudie women, and fellating dog-men, but it doesn’t have the powers over the physical world described in the book. So, which is more effective?
I believe Kubrick’s version of the hotel is, by far, the most horrific version of the secluded setting. This harkens back to the argument about Jack/John’s motivations, where the Overlook is seen as a possessive force. Possessions, I say again, can be beaten. They can be thwarted by good men with good intentions. The hedge animals were terrifying in the book and they gave 10-year-old me nightmares, but they’re an example of how the hotel manipulates the physical world for its own gain. It’s a sentient character in the novel, but only a setting in the film.
“[The Overlook] is simply a conduit for the chaos created by Jack and his insanity.”
The true evil of the film comes from Jack Torrance, and not a scrapbook in the boiler room. There is a sentience there, I admit, because the hotel tends to attract men with hate in their heart to its caretaker’s quarters, but it doesn’t cause their actions. In the film, the hotel itself has no grand scheme. It doesn’t want Danny’s psychic powers or anything else from the Torrance family. It is is simply a conduit for the chaos created by Jack and his insanity. There are spirits there, sure, but there are spirits in many hotels across the country. What the Overlook does in the film is simply push and prod Jack toward his rampage. It takes a damaged man and allows him to follow his own path to murder.
As we all know, Wendy and Danny escape in the novel because the hotel explodes. In the film, they escape because Jack freezes to death in the hedge maze. As a horror fan, which version is more terrifying for you? In one scenario, the evil is defeated. It forgets about its own faulty boiler and is destroyed. In the film, the hotel still stands. Its spirits still walk the halls and sashay around in Room 237. They’ll still be there the next time a family wants to spend the winter roaming its halls. This permanence is why I tend to side with Kubrick’s version of the Overlook. In the novel, a haunted hotel is blown up and the threat is over. In the film, the hotel stands, its ghosts haunt, and its axes are still in the shed for the next caretaker.
King describes the main difference between his work and Kubrick’s film like this: “The book is hot, and the movie is cold; the book ends in fire, and the movie in ice”. This may sound like a straightforward statement, seeing as the book ends with the Overlook being destroyed by a boiler explosion and the film ends with Danny luring Jack into the hedge-maze to freeze to death, but it’s much more than that. He is describing the difference between Kubrick and himself. King is the warmth, the humanity in the story, while Kubrick is the cold artist who distances himself and his characters. This is a fair metaphor for their different artistic styles, but in my mind it’s not a condemnation of the film. For me, fire burns out. Smoke settles and flames turn to embers. The sun may come up and winter may turn its pages into spring, but cold will always return. Cold always comes back to continue its feast, making it the more permanent adversary.
“In the film [..] the hotel stands, its ghost haunt, and the axes are still in the shed for the next caretaker.”
Let me get this out in the open, I love Stephen King. He has gifted me with the characters and villains that I love most in the fictional world. He is the source of my passion for the horror genre and is one of the finest horror author that has ever lived. That being said, I think it’s foolish to dismiss Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining simply because King hates it. I have seen arguments online coming from people in all walks of life saying that The Shining is not a horror film, that it isn’t a true King adaptation, or that 1997’s miniseries is the superior version because it sticks more closely to the novel. That, I’m sorry to say, is nonsense.
The Shining is one of the finest horror films ever made and it belongs on the top-tier of King adaptations. On the film’s 38th anniversary, let’s let bygones be bygones and allow ourselves to disagree with The King for once. We can love both the novel and the film for what they are, and rejoice in the fact that we have two different stories about the Overlook Hotel that we get to enjoy.
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