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Who Told It Best: The Shining

Stephen King has become synonymous with his adaptations, his book and films intrinsically linked since the start. His 1974 debut novel, Carrie, was successfully adapted into a 1976 film by Brain De Palma, catapulting him into mainstream cinema after a handful of cult classics. Similarly, King’s second novel, Salem’s Lot, was turned into a 3-hour television miniseries directed by Tobe Hooper, of Texas Chainsaw Massacre fame, making it one of the most popular shows of 1978, let alone one of the scariest things to be aired on CBS up till then.

As a novelist, King was gaining plenty of momentum, with his quick rise to fame making him spiral down into the hellish pit of alcoholism. As a way to fight his demons, he wrote the story of a writer, Jack Torrance, who takes the job of winter caretaker at the Overlook Hotel, a secluded resort high up in the Colorado Rockies. He brings his wife and child there to spend the winter together, while he tries to write a new novel. Unfortunately, his history of alcoholism and domestic violence resurfaces, partly due to cabin fever, but also because something much more malevolent is living in the hotel.

The Shining was only King’s third novel, but it was a massive success when published in 1977, solidifying his claim as the modern “King of Horror” (pun intended). Stephen King’s writing is very character-driven: Jack’s backstory is fully explored, detailing his experiences with an abusive father, his struggles to preserve his job as a teacher, and his personal demons tormenting him. He is fully fleshed out in every aspect, and King expertly uses inner thoughts by writing in italics to fully immerse readers into his mind. The same goes for Wendy Torrance and young Danny: the former is doing her best to support her husband during a time of financial stress, while the latter discovers through the hotel’s chef (Dick Hallorann) that he possesses psychic abilities that give him clairvoyance and telepathy.

The Overlook Hotel itself is a real character, with every room having its own history and literal ghosts haunting them. King goes very in-depth on the history of the place, crafting a complex history that features organised crime, premeditated murder, loss of sanity, and plenty of cover-ups from the hotel management. There is a level of ambiguity early on whether Jack Torrance is losing his mind because of the articles he is reading about the hotel, or because the hotel itself is actively corrupting him to turn evil.

It is a gradual descent into madness that works, but unfortunately one of King’s major pratfalls is his penchant for overtly supernatural elements that come out of nowhere: the ghosts of Lloyd the bartender or the lady from Room 217 are effectively creepy, but the garden edge animals or fire hoses coming to life (apparently based on a nightmare the writer had) are too silly and fantastical. They do not ruin the overall character work and tension of the story, but when visualised in one’s head they are not nearly as intimidating as the ghostly daughters of the previous caretaker.

Warner Brothers quickly acquired the film rights to such a spooky and successful story, and they hired none other than the perfectionist Stanley Kubrick to direct it. Production took nearly a year to complete, from May 1978 to April 1979, making for a gruelling shoot that, while fun for Jack Nicholson and Danny Lloyd (ironically playing Jack and Danny Torrance respectively), was incredibly emotionally taxing for Shelley Duvall. Kubrick pushed her to her limits to give a convincing performance as Wendy, in ways that were very unethical and questionable even back then.

The Shining hit the silver screen in 1980, and it was neither a commercial nor a critical hit back then. It did not help that Stephen King famously went on record as stating that he hated this adaptation, with Kubrick failing to understand what made the novel work. In that sense, he was right: Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is a very different beast compared to King’s book. If the book is a slow burn, full of uncertainties, and very interested in crafting believable characters, the film is the polar opposite: an immaculately crafted mood piece, where Jack’s descent into madness is telegraphed early on by a menacing Jack Nicholson performance that has very little of the empathy felt for his literary counterpart.

Kubrick took the novel, removed all of its weirder elements that would not have translated well on the screen, and created one of the ultimate haunted house films. The Shining has become a legendary entry in the history of cinema because of how unnerving it is, because of how committed the performances are, and because of how memorable the iconography is. The tons and tons of gallons of blood pouring out of the elevator in slow-motion, the Grady Twins asking Danny to come play with them, the female ghost of room 237 exiting the bathtub, Danny interacting with Tony (“a little boy that lives in my mouth”), or Jack using a fire axe to break the doors in his apartment have been homaged and parodied countless times in the past 40 years.

The film of The Shining is a more visceral and less emotional experience than the book, making the two versions well worth experiencing on their own. Kubrick managed to add enough changes to the horror and story beats that watching the film even after having read the novel manages to stay very surprising and shocking. One of the biggest changes is the death of Dick Halloran: while he survives in the book and is integral to the escape of Danny and Wendy, in the film he is stabbed in the chest by Jack in one of the most unexpected and scariest moments of the film.

Over the years, King has accepted more what Kubrick was going for, effectively making the story his own rather than doing a more faithful adaptation like those of ‘Salem’s Lot and Carrie before him. The film is now properly iconic and one of the most beloved of all time, with much praise going to the performances (especially that of Shelley Duvall, who suffered too much stress during filming), ground-breaking cinematography (the earliest use of complex Steadicam shots), and flawless production design. The Shining is an engrossing tale, and a perfect example that a film sometimes needs to take creative liberties in order to stand on its own.

Have you read the book or watched its adaptation? Let us know in the comments below what you think, and we will see you soon for another round of “Who Told It Best”.

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