Category Archives: King, Stephen

The Shining: Read from October 01 to 13, 2014

I can’t count how many times someone has told me to read The Shining because of how much better and different it is than the Stanley Kubrick film. For years I’ve wandered around with the memories of people saying how Kubrick ruined the book, how he changed everything that was important to the book to create a film that resembled the book in title only. “Oh, you’ll understand so much more”, and “the book is way scarier”, and “there is good motivation for what Jack does in the book”, people have said to me. And so I’ve been curious about this book for a long time. I’ve wondered what exactly it is about this book that causes people to, quite emphatically, state that arguably the greatest filmmaker in the history of motion pictures, not to mention one of humanity’s greatest artists had someone botched the whole thing.

Good horror is created by not knowing all of the pieces of a dangerous puzzle: “What’s around the corner?”, “Who’s screaming in that graveyard on this stormy night?”, “Is there a killer alien with acid for blood on-board this old mining ship?”. Combine not knowing important information with the chance of death (or worse) and you’ve got the basic formula for horror. And often a thing ceases to be scary when we see it, when the lights come on, or when we understand it – fear is born of the unknown.

In this novel, King attempts to create fear and terror by setting us up in a fancy hotel with a mysterious past for a few months of winter isolation; it’s basically his take on the old haunted house story. The problem, however, is that he really does wind up explaining too much or tries too hard to give us two plausible interpretations of what is going on – are they just hallucinating, is Jack just going through alcohol withdrawal, or is the hotel really haunted. And if the hotel is haunted, who is haunting it? Old Hollywood mobsters and a rich old lady who killed herself?

I can see why Stanley Kubrick was attracted to this book because there are a lot of good ideas, but Kubrick trimmed all of the fat and turned a fairly shaggy book that, frankly, isn’t that scary into one of the greatest horror films ever made. And all Kubrick did was not explain everything that King went into great detail about. Kubrick pretty much went through the book, crossed out everything that even smelt like an explanation, reconfigured a few scenes to be more efficient (having Hallorann give them the full tour instead of it being broken up into two parts like in the book).

Now I’ll admit that in a book where we are supposed to live inside the character’s heads King couldn’t just give us limited information otherwise the book would have been about 150 pages long, at best. And King is at his best when he’s creating characters and having them interact, though this book largest weakness is that there are so few characters that it sort of goes against King’s strength as a popular writer. Books like The Stand, Tommyknockers, and It work well because the characters have a lot to do and it wasn’t until later with Misery and Pet Cemetery that he could do more with fewer characters because by then he’d become a better writer.

So in a way this book really can only ever be a good template for a great film because it just doesn’t work that well as a book. The characters a thin, Wendy in particular is useless and flat – in fact she’s so bad that not even Kubrick could do anything interesting with her outside of making her life miserable in the film. Danny is pretty good, as is Hallorann, but they don’t feel very fleshed out, they exist only to keep things moving or to make things weird. I do, however, much prefer King’s Stuart Ullman to Kubrick’s. Why Kubrick made Ullman so likable was a missed opportunity because Ullman is our introduction to the hotel, it’s spokesman so-to-speak, and Kubrick should have made him more menacing.

My biggest gripe I reserve for the hedge animals. In small doses they would have been fine, but by the end I just could not take them seriously. The second you actually try to visualize a hedge animal attacking someone the image is just too comical to be scary or to even be taken seriously. Kubrick was wise to carry on with the European flavor of the hotel by using a hedge maze instead.

One thing I did find odd is that so many people have told me that the alcoholism of Jack is far more played up in the book and is a possible central cause to his insanity. Yet this is also true in the film. The scenes with Lloyd are almost identical, Kubrick changed almost nothing for those scenes and it’s quite apparent Jack has a drinking problem and that the hotel is using that against him to drive him more insane and to control him. True the film isn’t about a alcoholic losing control, Kubrick’s film is more supernatural, but the themes are still there and one could easily say that the hotel (right down to the film’s neuron receptor carpets) is a manifestation of Jack’s drinking issues and abuse. For King (and audiences who prefer King over Kubrick) to claim Kubrick messed this up is idiotic and says more about King’s (and his fan’s) inability to contextualize theme.

I also was scratching my head about the whole side-story with Jack’s drinking friend, especially the part where they thought they killed a child on a bicycle. What was that all about? That whole idea literately goes nowhere. Yes it scared them both to stop drinking, but why didn’t King tie that into the rest of the book? And speaking of missed opportunities, why didn’t King include Grady’s dead wife and, more importantly, dead little girls? Kubrick immediately took advantage of this to create what is arguably the most iconic image in the film: the Diane Arbus style twin girls holding hands. The hotel had all the other ghosts of people past, why not them, too?

I did like that Hallorann played a more important role in the book. Kubrick just kills him off the second he gets to the hotel and that was only used in that he needed a way to get Danny and Wendy out. King used Hallorann more, but that character dipped so dangerously close into a “black man” stereotype that I cringed more than once.

All in all the book isn’t bad, but the last quarter is just a lot of grunting and screaming and inane dialogue with too much pleading and yelling. The Shining is a shaggy ghost story that isn’t nearly as well crafted as King’s later, and much scarier books. I really was let down because not only because I didn’t find it all the scary, but also because the book and Kubrick’s film are far more similar than I was led to believe – I had been hoping for something much different.

87% done with The Shining

Way back in 1997 I drove up the Roaring Fork Valley in a huge blizzard at about 11pm. At the time I had a 1977 front wheel drive big-block Olds Toranado and drove that beast 5mph behind a Toyota pickup all the way from Carbondale to Snowmass. I’ve never been so nervous but also so exhilarated in my entire life. Anyway, I know how Hallorann felt making his trip and this is my favorite part of the book.

75% done with The Shining

I think one of the issues with this book is that since King is trying to ride the line between a straight up supernatural horror to explain the hotel against … some plausible explanation that it sort of makes both feel a little unsatisfying. I never really feel all that scared because he keeps trying to explain it away as a matter of simple interpretation. Jack should have gone mad sooner to drive home the dread.

64% done with The Shining

The part where Jack is trying to explain how Freudian this all is I found to be laughable. I’m going to assume unreliable narrator here since everything is written in 3rd person limited for each character.

I like the back and forth struggle inside Jack, even calling him John more is a nice touch.

I don’t believe Wendy would be so back and forth with how she feels about Jack, however. She’s not a great character

54% done with The Shining

Until now the book and the film have not been wildly different. Here, however, with Danny explaining his Shine, is a major difference. And it works well in the book (but would have been terribly in the film). This adds a layer of tension for the family by them having to deal with their son’s strange gift and that it is, in part, because of the hotel

But as much as I’m enjoying this, it’s not really that scary. Yet

48% done with The Shining

Kubrick made a wise decision to drop the hedge animals and go with the maze. Not only does the maze work symbolically (isolation, being lost, being controlled, no escape), it also fits the European style of the hotel – which King was going for with the roque court. Not that the animals are put to bad use in the book, but they feel a bit too large and obvious and don’t fit with the theme of domestic violence and abuse

42% done with The Shining

King really takes the time to make this decent onto whatever the hotel is doing to him believable. Even the phone call, which seems a bit out of the blue, King works the angle of Jack not knowing why he’s doing what he’s doing. It’s impressive how well put together this book is. I also like that (so far) we don’t have real answers here: it’s like an X-Files episode where everything unexplained has 2 explanations.

34% done with The Shining

I like this history of the Overlook from the mysterious book. We get a study of Jack, Wendy, and Danny, so why not also the hotel, too? And while this section does a nice job of slowing turning up the dread, it’s also representative of the dark side of American business: the longer it goes on the more brazenly corrupt and debased it is.

25% done with The Shining

One of the things I’ve always enjoyed about King is his attention to details, especially very ordinary, blue collar details, such as the International Harvester truck’s smoky exhaust, the clothes people wear, and especially the way his characters talk. And while his characters tend to think in very narrative driven monologues that almost always end in some sort of self realization, it’s never dull and always vivid.

15% done with The Shining

One thing I was really worried about with this book is that I’d never get the movie out of my head, especially Jack Nicholson. In the film I never believed that Nicholson would have had a family like that, he’s just not a loser, but that’s not what Kubrick was going for – the characters were metaphorical, not realistic. The book is much more personal, Jack (Torrance) feels like a real father. I like the alcoholism.

9% done with The Shining

I’ve never got around to reading this because the film (the good one by Kubrick) is one of my very favorite films and I just didn’t think the book could be as good. However, it’s October, the spookiest month of the year when all the leaves turn and fall and it gets cold and it’s a good time for ghosts. Last year I read At The Mountains Of Madness and I wanted to do another horror classic. So far I really enjoy it.