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The Shining Movie

From the small page to the big screen.

You don't see many novel adaptations where the author complains as loudly as Stephen King did over Stanley Kubrick's adaption of The Shining. It was surprising for two reasons: (1) Stanley Kubrick is a cinematic god and (2) King hasn't so much as peeped over numerous other adaptations of his work that stink like week-old fish. But authors can be prickly folk, so you never can tell what they'll get stuck in their teeth.

And to be fair, Kubrick's adaptation of The Shining does make some pretty big changes. You could see how King might get bent out of shape over that, even though the movie itself still scares the pants off of many, many people, which was his whole goal in the first place.

What's the Same

The setting and the stars of King's novel are all front and center here. We've got a spooky hotel with a haunted past, way up in the Rockies where no one can hear you scream. We've also got the dysfunctional Torrance family, who are staying at the joint so daddy Jack (Jack Nicholson) can finish his book and generally get his life back on track. The hotel's ghosts aren't about to let that happen, though, and things go from weird to scary to "put down the ax daddy!" in very short order.

Despite some minor differences in the plot, Kubrick keeps King's central theme: the hotel becomes an overt version of the family's own anger and emotional issues. He shows us the tension between Jack and his wife, papered over in the beginning, but brought forth when the snow falls and the ghosts come a'knockin'.

Check out this scene, for example, when Jack and Wendy confront each other after brooding for ages about their clearly doomed family life; Jack is talking about trust and expectations and her perceived disappointment in him (mawwiage!), but the scene quickly makes clear that this guy has gone completely 'round the bend. The madness in the hotel distorts and enlarges the rifts between husband and wife, eventually driving Big Jack to murder rather than couple's counseling. Kubrick keeps that essence there, even when things take a turn for the mega-freaky (in a way they don't in the novel version).

What's Different

While the setting's the same here, the details are a bit different. For one thing, Kubrick gives the Overlook Hotel a more modern look, unlike King's spookier, creakier hotel. By the director's logic, it actually makes things scarier if a ghost pops up in a well-lit hotel room with abstract art on the walls, to which we say, fair point.

Another change made for the sake of pure scares is the hedge animals, which couldn't be realized with 1980 special effects and got changed to a hedge maze. That lets Kubrick stage a white-knuckle chase through the maze in the middle of the snow (instead of jury rigging some lame hedge-animal puppets which wouldn't look nearly as scary as they are in the book.)

But these changes are mostly cosmetic, rather than thematic. For those kinds of tweaks, we'll have to take a closer look at Danny's psychic powers. In the book, the hotel wanted to gobble Danny up to gain control of his powers. In the movie, his powers are kind of incidental; the hotel is actually more interested in Jack, who may be a reincarnated resident. Jackmay have psychic powers that he's unaware of, but he's not the "shiner" that Danny is. Talk about awkward family dynamics.

As with the hedge maze, this tweak makes a certain amount of sense, since it puts the spotlight on Nicholson (one of the greatest actors in the history of everything) instead of child actor Danny Lloyd, who didn't make many movies after this. But it does have the not-so-awesome effect of watering down the psychic elements of the story, which means that the larger notion that there are things in the world beyond our normal perceptions doesn't get the attention it earns in the book. In its place is a more traditional haunted house story, with the "shining" acting as a garnish rather than the main course.

Interestingly enough, that change also makes the story a little darker. King, for instance, makes it very clear that the hotel is possessing Jack, using his body to kill against his will. That divides things into very clear-cut terms—it's family vs. haunted house—and plays down the dysfunction. King may have identified with Jack pretty closely, since he himself was an alcoholic writer, and didn't want to go too deeply into his own capacity for darkness. A hero controlled by a giant evil hotel probably felt a lot more comfortable to him than a writer who falls to his own darkness and tries to whack his family. Yikes.

The movie isn't nearly so clear: Jack could have gone legitimately nuts, meaning that he can't blame the hotel for what he does. That makes him a tragic villain more than a simple victim. He's someone with subtleties and nuances, who might have tried to kill everyone even if the ghosts in the hotel hadn't been jumping on his back like deranged chimps. Kubrick enhances the darkness by making Jack kill Mr. Hallorann (who survives in the book) and by leaving the hotel standing (it burns down in the book). In Kubrick's world, evil causes a lot more damage, and it survives to scare us another day. Strange that Stephen King of all people would go for the rainbows-and-unicorns ending, but that's the way this cookie crumbles.

Other Adaptations

King was so cranky about Kubrick's version that he and director Mick Garris made one of their own: a three-episode miniseries starring Steven Weber as Jack Torrance. This 1997 version is a lot closer to the book, but it's also a lot less freaky. You can play the notes, but you can't always hear the music Mr. King.

So, Shmoopers, it's your call: did Kubrick's take on King's book hit the nail on the head? Or do you side with the cranky King? Shmoop amongst yourselves.

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