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  • Louis Arata

Book Review: The Shining

Updated: Aug 13, 2020

Kubrick's film is brilliant, but I cared about the characters in the book.

A red-paneled elevator at the end of a hotel corridor: a tidal wave of blood ruptures through the seams of the closed doors. 

Two identical young girls in blue frocks with satin ribbons around their waist: they beckon a little boy to come play with them.

An axe rips open a bathroom door: “Here’s Johnny!”

Iconic images from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. In the summer of 1980, when the movie was released, my family rented an apartment at the beach for a week’s vacation. The first time my sister took a shower, the steam revealed a single word written on the mirror: REDRUM. Evidently, a prior vacation renter had written the telltale word in soap on the mirror, only visible after a hot shower.

In 1980, I wasn’t old enough to see the movie, so I decided to read the novel. It was one of my first forays into contemporary horror fiction. Reading it made me feel very grown-up. But the novel lacked those images from the film. There was no gushing blood-filled elevator. There were references to the Grady twins, the two girls standing in the corridor, but no actual appearance in the story. And Jack Torrence didn’t use an axe; he wielded a roque mallet.

A few years later, I did see the movie, albeit an edited version for network television. They bleeped out the swearing, and they censored the scene of a dead woman rising from the bathtub, a strategically placed gray cloud over her naked torso. Even so, Kubrick’s film was chilling. I had never watched a movie quite like it. The tracking shots of the camera. The extended sequences of silence. The overall tension that continues to mount, even from the first frames of the film. 

Kubrick’s images are pretty indelible. It’s practically impossible to think of The Shining without conjuring up that elevator or Jack Nicholson’s chilling performance.

But here’s the thing: they aren’t like the book.

Reading The Shining again, forty years later, I can now appreciate why Stephen King has never been a fan of Kubrick’s film. The movie doesn’t represent the story that he wrote. It deliberately distorts the plot for a decidedly different purpose. Kubrick excels at creating a chilling atmosphere, but he fails to engender any warmth for the characters. Right from the start, Jack Torrence seems a bit off. Nicholson gives him a mad-eyed demeanor, what with those arching eyebrows and the Joker’s grin. Shelley Duval’s Wendy is mousy and jittery. And little Danny, with his Shining abilities, is so isolated from his parents that he may as well be raising himself.

But that’s not what King’s novel is about. He starts with the Torrence family in crisis. Jack is a recovering alcoholic who is struggling to keep his family together. But an impulsive act against a student causes him to lose his job. To tide the family over, he takes a job as the winter caretaker at the Overlook hotel, isolated at the top of a Colorado mountain. 

Once the family is settled at the hotel, the Overlook begins to exert its influence over Jack, tickling his curiosity about its seedy past. As the ghosts begin to rise up, Jack struggles between his addiction and his desperate love for his family. Danny recognizes how the place affects his father, and he has premonitions of future dangers. Even Wendy isn’t quite sure whether she trusts Jack anymore. She has justifiable fears that he will fall off the wagon.

King takes time to introduce the Torrence family to the reader. He wants you to care about what happens to them. Jack, for all his mental collapse as the story progresses, is still a sympathetic character. He is struggling to withstand the violent temptations. Wendy has the fortitude to defend herself once the situation begins to deteriorate. And even Danny, who understands the horrors that are arising from the hotel, does not want his father to succumb, but he suspects that the Overlook may be too much for poor Jack Torrence.

King writes swiftly. There is a lot of propulsion in his storytelling, and as you get closer to the end, it’s that much harder to put the book down. For all the creepiness and mounting tension in the story, it works because you care about the family. You don’t want Jack to fail. You don’t want Wendy to fear for her son’s safety. You don’t want Danny to be hurt.

I certainly felt for the family in Kubrick’s film, but not in the same way. Kubrick presents the tragedy as a foregone conclusion. There will be blood. King, on the other hand, holds out hope to the reader that maybe, perhaps, just possibly it will work out right in the end. When it doesn’t, well, that’s the tragedy.

I will always have an immense appreciation for Kubrick’s The Shining. It is a phenomenal movie. But it isn’t Stephen King’s story. You have to go to the novel for that. And the book offers so much more.

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