Returning to the Overlook:

A Kubrick Fan Finally Reads The Shining

When I was in college, fancying myself a budding film nerd, I began deep diving into the canon of essential films, and in my mind none were more essential or important than those of Stanley Kubrick. He was an auteur, I reasoned. His work was packed with layer upon layer of meaning; even the simplest scene was staged and shot in a precise way. This imbued his movies with a hidden meaning that could only be revealed upon further viewings. Kubrick forces the audience to play an active role in viewing his work or else they can miss the details that make it so rewarding. Of Kubrick’s films, 2001: A Space OdysseyA Clockwork Orange, and The Shining fascinated me the most. The Shining is in fact the first Kubrick film I saw, before I was even aware of who he was. Later I rewatched it with growing regularity in order to try and make sense of it all: the woman (or women) in Room 237, the man in the dog costume, the ocean of blood cascading out of the elevator doors, even the painting of a naked woman with a glorious Afro that hangs above Dick Hallorann’s bed and seems to disappear between shots—what did it all mean? I had theories, of course, but today the internet is chock full of them and many of them blow my hypotheses out of the water. Clearly, The Shining has inspired decades of obsessive analysis from hardcore fans. There was even a recent documentary called Room 237 that took this obsession to exhaustive or exhausting extremes, depending on your point of view.

My engagement with Stephen King’s work predates my first viewing of The Shining. I’ve read several of his books over the years, with Salem’s Lot and the Dark Tower series being personal favorites. However, partly because of my infatuation with Kubrick’s adaptation and my concern that the source material could never live up to the heights achieved by the film, I spent the last few decades ignoring King’s book. Over the years, this began to gnaw at me: how could I consider myself a fan of the film and of King’s work if I hadn’t done my due diligence and read the book that served as the film’s inspiration? Recently, I rectified the situation by finally reading The Shining, and I’m going to look at some of the similarities and differences between it and the film, as well as explore several of its primary themes, including familial dread, isolation, and the supernatural manifestations of our concerns and fears. I will not be rehashing all of the major plot points. If you’re reading this article, you likely know the story: former teacher Jack Torrance moves into the old Overlook Hotel in the mountains of Colorado to serve as the winter caretaker. He alone will be responsible for the upkeep of the hotel during its off season. He, his wife Wendy, and their son Danny will be the only three occupants (or will they?) during the long, brutal, winter months when blizzard after blizzard will blanket the area with snow and make it impossible to get in our out of the Overlook. That’s the set up; from there things get weird.

At its core, The Shining is about a family unraveling. King wrote it early in his career, during a time when he himself was a struggling young writer with a burgeoning family. Since then, he has spoken of seeing things in himself during that time that truly frightened him—the heavy drinking, the awful realization that he was feeling resentment and antagonism towards the demands of his young children. He wrote The Shining as a way to explore this inner turmoil and to get it out of his system. How does a man adjust to being a father? How does his relationship with his wife alter and shift over time? With a young family and not yet the mega-selling author he would soon become, King could relate to someone like Jack and the desperation that would drive a man to accept a job that on paper sounds peaceful and relaxing but in reality is a powder keg waiting to explode. Being isolated in the hotel for the winter with his wife, whom he feels blames him for the family’s woes, and his five-going-on-six year old son who unnerves Jack with his uncanny ability to know what his parents are thinking and see flashes of past and future events, is a recipe for trouble. But Jack sees it as a chance to have some solitude and finish the play he’s been struggling with for a while. It’s also a chance to leave behind their life in Vermont where he lost a teaching job after losing his temper and attacking one of his students. And this act of violence came after he’d broken Danny’s arm in a fit of rage when the boy was just a toddler. Violence has been following Jack for years now and it terrifies Wendy. It’s in this climate of unease that the Torrances move to the Overlook for the winter. The sense of dread that looms over the Torrances throughout the novel (and film) is powerful and at times suffocating. You feel for the Torrances, even Jack, because you sense that they’ve become so consumed with the various troubles littered through their family history that they can’t see past them in order to move on. King does an incredible job of making you sympathize with Jack at times, much more than Kubrick does in the film, and this is no easy task given Jack’s temper and history of violence. King famously detested the film, feeling that Kubrick misinterpreted much of the book. Since reading the book, I can see King’s point now. In the film, Jack goes mad almost instantaneously, it seems, while in the book he slowly devolves into madness over a series of months and hundreds of pages. King also has the luxury afforded by novels to put us directly inside Jack’s head as he reflects on the mistakes he’s made that have led him to this point. In the film, we don’t get that opportunity to relate quite as strongly to Jack—we know he’s a man with a drinking problem who accidentally hurt his son in a fit of anger, but beyond that we don’t learn as much about the myriad details that have begun to derail his once promising life and family situation. This is a key difference between the book and the film, one that makes it harder for me to find the film as faultless as I once did. There is much to be gained in knowing not only what the Torrances have been through but also how each one of them has processed those events and been altered by them.

Isolation is another of the book’s and film’s key themes. It’s a classic Gothic horror tale of going stir crazy when left to your own devices, which King sets inside of a haunted hotel for added tension. The Overlook has a long and sordid history, much of which is detailed in the book but not nearly as exhaustively in the film, and with that past comes a host of demons that seem to plague the place—both literal and figurative ones. How each of our protagonists deals with this forced isolation is part of what drives the narrative. Jack becomes obsessed with researching the hotel’s history after he discovers an old journal in the basement. In the book, it becomes evident over time that the hotel left that journal for Jack to find and is in fact manipulating Jack, stoking his latent feelings of anger and distrust towards his wife and child. Wendy is justifiably nervous about being there and once the snow starts to fly and Jack is starting to creep closer to being abusive, she spends a good chunk of the book struggling to find a way out, Her main objective throughout is to protect Danny at all costs. In the book, we learn that Wendy is being the type of mother to her son that her own mother never was to her—a loving one who puts the child’s needs first. Danny’s fears of the Overlook’s isolation begin early, as he hears and sees foreboding images in his mind about the hotel even before they move out to Colorado. He is an only child, so dealing with isolation for him is nothing new. For Danny it’s more about how he navigates the dysfunction in both the hotel and his parents’ relationship. Danny doesn’t hate his father for having hurt him; he simply wants everyone to get along and also to protect his parents from the danger the hotel presents.

Danny’s ability to “shine” as Dick Hallorann calls it, is akin to a second sight: Danny and others who shine can see things not made available to the rest of us. Those who shine can hear other people’s thoughts, communicate telepathically with each other, see past or future events, and sense a paranormal presence in their midst. Hallorann, the Overlook’s head chef, also shines and before he leaves for the season he has a long heart-to-heart talk with Danny about their shared ability and makes it clear that should anything go wrong during the winter then Danny is to shine an SOS to him and he’ll come running. Hallorann has worked there long enough to know there is something amiss at the Overlook, something beyond the mortal plane of existence that haunts the hallways and elevators and grand ballrooms. In the book more so than the film, we see how Danny understands that as his father descends into madness it is not truly his father, but the hotel acting through his father. This provides a different reading on the relationship between Danny and Jack than what Kubrick gives us in the film. Danny’s link to the supernatural inhabitants of the Overlook makes it clear to him that they want him, not his father, and that his father is being used to bring him to them. They want his power, his ability to shine. This still the case in the film, but it’s less explicit, which is fine as films can often navigate ambiguity in more nuanced ways than other mediums can.  However, it again leads us to see how King’s initial story presents a more fully rounded portrayal of Torrance’s family dynamic with respect to the Overlook’s supernatural overtures. Kubrick’s visuals are striking in the film, providing iconic shots that linger in the viewer’s consciousness. King’s words do the same, but he also links the familial aspects to the supernatural elements in ways that feel more organic and earned.

The film makes several changes to the source material, including excising some of the book’s earlier passages leading up to the family’s move out west, removing the hedge monsters, altering the execution of certain key scenes, swapping Jack’s weapon of choice from a mallet to an ax, and an ending that deviates greatly from the novel. King ended the book with a series of dramatic encounters, as Wendy struggles to fight off the now completely unhinged Jack, who is fully under the hotel’s control at this point, Hallorann arrives after an epic journey through the blizzard to attempt a rescue, and Danny attempts to save his father from the hotel. The novel ends with the Overlook being blown sky high, with Wendy, Danny, and Halloran surviving, battered and changed forever, but alive. The film changes the specifics of several of the book’s later chapters and instead concludes with Jack chasing Danny through the hedge maze, only to have the boy elude him. Cut to later, Jack frozen to death in the blizzard. Before his explosive ending, King gives us a beautiful scene that Kubrick leaves out of the film, where Danny tells his father that he knows it’s not him doing this, it’s the hotel. Jack is able to break through the hotel’s hold over him just long enough to tell Danny to get away while he still can and that he will always love him. It’s an incredibly moving scene. It seems appropriate that I read The Shining after becoming a parent, as I found that it greatly enhanced my personal, visceral connection to the novel’s themes.

Earlier I discussed how I viewed, and continue to view, Stanley Kubrick as an auteur, a meticulous filmmaker who made highly intelligent works of art. Not many people would describe Stephen King in the same manner. Even as a fan of his work, I wouldn’t describe him that way. This is because unlike Kubrick, King’s work has positioned him as an everyman who tells stories about everyday people facing extraordinary circumstances. The hook in a King story is how these characters either overcome or succumb to the evils in their midst. Does this mean they are sufficiently less intelligent books than Kubrick’s films? Of course not. It’s just that one has a reputation as a cerebral artiste and the other is often considered a genre hack. That speaks more to our need to marginalize genre fiction than anything, whether it be novels, comic books, or films. King would never be accused of being a purveyor of high art. It’s this exact sort of condescension that leads people to dismiss his work as inferior to Kubrick’s, and in my case without even having read the work in question first. The arrogance is astounding. Thankfully I’ve corrected this and I found The Shining to be its own work of art, a masterpiece, a truly terrifying peek into the madness that lives within us. And while Kubrick’s film deviates drastically at times from King’s source material, it too provides an unnerving look inside the darkness of the soul. The book and film are both effective at that; they simply arrive at it in different ways. I can still appreciate Kubrick’s film as one of the finest horror films of any era, from a legendary director, one that both paid homage to and transcended the genre. Now I can also appreciate King’s novel with equal vigor, another fine example of psychological and Gothic horror from one of the masters.

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Michael Campochiaro works in academic publishing and spends any free time he can find reading and drawing. You can read more of Michael's musings at his blog, Words Seem Out Of Place.

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