Halloween is just around the corner, and what better way to get into the mood than to look at one of the greatest horror writers of all time, Stephen King. His creepy, haunting writing style has a way of seeping into the darkest sections of readers’ minds and just sitting there, stewing away, just like all good horror does. Many of King’s works have been adapted for either TV or the big screen, and to varying results. One of the best, both in the written page and on the silver screen, is “The Shining.”
Published in 1977, “The Shining” tells the story of the Torrance family, who spends the winter taking care of the Overlook Hotel up in the mountains of Colorado (yes, a Stephen King story can, in fact, take place outside of New England), isolated from the rest of the world. The story follows father Jack as he is consumed by madness, both of his past demons and the evil aura of the hotel itself; mother Wendy, who struggles to hold the family together and keep everyone alive; and 5-year-old Danny, who is blessed — and cursed — with telepathic abilities. The book delves into each family member’s psyches and troubled pasts, building strong connections in each of them and internalizing a lot of the fear and terror lurking throughout the Overlook.
The movie, released in 1980, was directed by the legendary Stanley Kubrick, who knows a thing or two about horror himself. The movie follows much of the same plot, though with much more of a focus on Jack. This takes away from making Wendy and Danny as intriguing character studies as they were in the book, but once the audience witnesses Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of the tormented main character, it all makes sense.
Nicholson embodies and embraces the psychotic Jack, going all in on his journey into insanity as he delivers maybe his signature performance. He begins as merely a frustrated writer, trying to use his isolation to his advantage but still coming up empty. He lashes out at his wife, who is only trying to help, but the audience can still see he is trying to keep it all together. In a movie with a time limit, this can be difficult to pull off, but Nicholson is simply superb.
In both versions, the Overlook has a supernatural power to it, in which horrible events from its past can come back to haunt the visitors over the long winter months. The book, however, makes this force the main antagonist, which turns Jack into a vessel for its destructive purposes. The hotel wants to use Danny’s psychic abilities to expand its own power, and the only way to do that is to have Jack murder him and become one of the ghosts. The movie keeps the Overlook’s aura as its antagonist, but instead of the hotel using Jack to serve its ends, it serves rather as an agent of chaos, feeding Jack’s anger and twisting it beyond the point of control. This makes the movie’s events seem more believable than the book’s, especially considering the numerous implausibilities that occur in the book’s final act (one character survives getting mauled, burned and bashed over the head, then survives a great explosion all in the course of a few short minutes).
The book and movie build horror in distinctly different ways, but both are perfect for the medium. Kubrick’s camera work and strange cuts make the audience uneasy and at times claustrophobic, as though they themselves are trapped in the hotel. King uses odd cuts of his own; a character’s thought will cut off mid-sentence, jumping to a new paragraph that either states their true fears of what is going on or bring up a running motif (my favorite being references to Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death”), then cut right back and finishing their thought. It’s a strange juxtaposition that if done by anyone else probably would come of as awkward or amateurish. The Torrances in the book also have a much more strongly constructed backstory, and the details add a lot in making the horror more than just a good scare; it becomes tragic. King shows that Jack and Danny have an incredibly strong bond, which makes the events at the Overlook all the more gripping and moving.
As a whole, I slightly prefer the movie version for its consistent tone and Nicholson’s performance. However, the first four acts of the book are much more engaging, fascinating and suspenseful than the movie’s overall product. If the novel had finished in a similar style instead of devolving into such heavy and nonsensical action, my choice would likely be changed.