Film of the book: ‘The Shining’ (1980)

Stephen King famously disliked this adaptation of his book. The main characters were changed significantly. So was the ending. Some of the important themes were also absent. Stanley Kubrick wasn’t bothered about making films which were true to the original stories; he tended to take the general concepts of the books and turn them into something quite different.

The Shining was also one of King’s earliest published novels and so had more of an autobiographical perspective. You can understand why he would be so sensitive. However, the film is now considered a horror classic and I would assume that most people know the story from the film, rather than the book. In fact, some of the most iconic moments from the film are not even in the book! ‘Heeeeere’s Johnny!’ No. The creepy twin girls in the corridor? No. ‘All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy’ typed thousands of times on Jack’s typewriter? No. Jack wielding an axe? No (it’s a mallet for a game called roque). There was also a TV series made, which King was involved with. I can’t remember if I’ve seen it.

I have already discussed the book in my review here. I re-watched the film (after at least a decade) straight after finishing the book. What surprised me most was how different the film is. As an adaptation of the book, it’s not great. I felt upset about several things. I do like the film and appreciate how it was crafted. It’s better to think of it as almost a separate story from the book.

Warning: there are spoilers below for both the book and film!

The backgrounds and motivations of Jack Torrance (played very frighteningly by Jack Nicholson) and his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) are not explored. Jack is a complex character in the book. There are a lot of things going on with him but he evidently loves his wife and son. In the film however, he’s neglectful as a father, husband and caretaker right from the start. His anger appears to stem disproportionately from marital conflict and the dreaded writer’s block – so he seems more of a psycho. No alcoholism, no explanation of why he lost his job, no references to the abuse he suffered from his father. We can’t really sympathise with the film version of Jack, he just seems horrible to start with. I don’t think there are any moments at all to demonstrate he cares about anything or anyone. In the book, Danny is saved from Jack’s murderous intent – by Jack himself, overcoming the hotel’s influence for a moment with a gruesome act of self-harm.

Wendy is a strong character in the book – a heroine – but in the film she’s very weak, has so little connection with Jack that you wouldn’t know they were married, and flails around screaming a lot. She’s very annoying to watch but it’s not all her fault. There was conflict between Duvall and Kubrick, who was a perfectionist, demanding she re-do scenes over and over. It was very stressful (so much that her hair was falling out) and after all, film directors ‘direct’ the actors, so we can’t blame Duvall for how the character was portrayed. Maybe if she’d been allowed to stab Jack (as Wendy does in the book, even though he has seriously injured her) this would have given her some purpose.

The film version of Danny is creepier and more withdrawn than in the book. I don’t warm to him at all in the film, although young Danny Lloyd does give a great performance. In the book, he talks to his parents, can read their thoughts, tells them about his premonitions. Maybe it just seemed scarier to us if he’s more silent. The other character we have to talk about is Hallorann, who explains to Danny what ‘the shining’ is. Scatman Crothers is very good as Hallorann but I think he’s underused. In the book he’s a hero – making his will after having a premonition he’ll die, then battling his way through snow and the hedge animals to help Wendy and Danny escape. In the film, there’s a build-up to him returning to the Overlook, knowing Danny’s in trouble, but he’s killed by Jack when he gets there. This change to Hallorann’s fate is possibly what annoyed me most.

The ending of the film is completely different (apart from Wendy and Danny escaping). I don’t like it. I get how it works in the context of the film. The Overlook Hotel has won and Jack has become one of its ghosts after freezing to death in pursuit of Danny. That’s very creepy. I was really looking forward to the exploding boiler, which Jack has stopped maintaining as he becomes gripped by madness. I erroneously remembered it from the film, even though we don’t see the boiler more than once, I think. In the book, Jack manages to beat the evil hotel, paying the price with his life. The film’s ending is therefore bleaker, as not only is Jack dead, but the hotel is still there, waiting for its next victim. Which is chilling indeed.

So what’s scarier – the book or the film? I would say the book, because the worst horror is not the haunted hotel or the psycho with an axe, but the horror and guilt of abusing one’s own family and the evils of alcohol addiction.

With thanks to my friend A P Wallis for additional insight.


2 thoughts on “Film of the book: ‘The Shining’ (1980)”

  1. I must say I haven’t read the book but watch the film. It’s always interesting to see the differences where directors “tweak” things or cut things out. 9 times out of 10 the book is always better but I can think of a few times where the film is better or on par! Fab review of both book and film though!

    1. Thanks 🙂 In this case it’s best to see the book and film as separate stories, I think. If you want to understand Jack better, read the book. I agree that in most cases books are better than their film adaptations but I can also think of a few which are better 🙂

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