In 1977, Stephen King wrote his third novel, “The Shining.” In 1980, Stanley Kubrick created a film based on this novel. As a precursor, I will happily acknowledge my bias in writing this review; King and Kubrick are respectively two of my favorite creators of all time. Though I have read upwards of thirty Stephen King books, I rarely revisit this particular novel; however, I find myself watching the film several times a year. While I am a firm believer that Stephen King is a disturbed and valuable genius, I have always found the film superior to the novel. The characters in the film, particularly Jack Torrance, are much less realistic, yet Kubrick’s caricatures evoke a deeper excitement and empathy for these troubled characters.
It is important to note that King was vocal about his hatred of Kubrick’s rendition of his work. Though Kubrick thoroughly enjoyed reading the novel, this artistic contempt clearly went both ways. Famously, King described the family driving to the Overlook Hotel in a red Volkswagen Beetle, while Kubrick used a yellow Beetle. Later in the film, a character drives past a car crash and sees a red Beetle wrecked in a snowdrift. It is widely accepted that this was Kubrick’s way of letting the author know that he, as director, was going to make any artistic choice he found fitting. This petty move on Kubrick’s part is important to note while considering novel versus film.
Inherently, novels have the advantage of being able to provide more backstory. In a film, only so much backstory can be exposed before the audience becomes bored and expects advancement of the plot. Kubrick did not have the luxury of providing a huge backstory, while King did. John Daniel Torrance (Jack’s name in the novel) is given a complex and disturbing history of alcoholism, unemployment and abuse at the hand of his father. Life before the Overlook is viewed as if under a microscope in the novel. While I find this, and even King’s intense and thorough description of the “shine” power that Danny possesses, to be important and intriguing context, I still had more attachment to the family displayed in Kubrick’s film.
This phenomenon confused me for years. King’s characters are much more realistic and easy to relate to; Torrance’s alcoholism in the novel seems very tangible and complexly miserable, while the audience can laugh at Torrance begging a ghost bartender for a drink in the film. After much time spent wondering why my preference lies with the often unrealistic and exaggerated characters of the film, I finally pinpointed that I wholeheartedly enjoy the “lunatic” quality of these caricatures that Kubrick provides in many of his films (e.g. Alex DeLarge in “A Clockwork Orange”). While King clearly possesses the talent of designing this type of character (Randall Flagg in “The Stand,” for example), these caricatures are lacking for me in “The Shining,” though they are not nonexistent; the supernatural creatures display some of these traits.
The embodiment of Kubrick’s exceptional caricature is mastered by Jack Nicholson in his rendition of Torrance. Nicholson plays all his cards in this film. In a scene where he holds Danny, he talks in a whispering, monotone, yet simultaneously full-bodied voice, saying, “I love you Danny.” Here, the character seems to be in complete control of his emotions, though the audience knows that this truly unstable, dangerous man, holding his son in his arms, can kill him at any moment. In other scenes, like the staircase-bat scene, Nicholson lets go of any sense of control. His wild facial expressions, exaggerated hand movements and the absurd things he says as he mocks Wendy are psychotic, yet funny. While not downplaying the seriousness—and horror—of the evils of domestic abuse, Nicholson is so over-the-top that these scenes become downright comical, at points. Such absurd lines like, “Wendy, darling, light of my life, I’m not gonna hurt you,” cannot be meant to be taken completely seriously. Jack Torrance becomes such a controversial and problematic character because he begs to be liked and laughed at even at his worst, most horrifying moments.
King develops Torrance in his own controversial yet likeable way, but misses the mark in comparison to Jack Nicholson’s role. While a part of me wishes I could support the less popular opinion and favor King’s novel, I am forever indebted to Kubrick’s version of “The Shining,” which has, remarkably, dominated my life for eight years; I have never felt so strongly about another film.