Stephen King again, or, ‘We all Shine on…’

by TheLitCritGuy


After last week’s fairly innocuous return from yet another hiatus I realised that I had barely touched upon the issue of adaptation, mainly because the two things under discussion had little or nothing to do with each other.. Considering this is pretty much the USP (god, there’s a hateful acronym) of this blog I decided that I would try and pick something for this week that was more…contentious. More controversial. Just, more to deal with, more to get my teeth into.

So to that end I decided to return to Stephen King. Regular readers will know that I’ve confessed in the past to having a bit of a soft spot for Mr King and not just for this but because I think he’s a talented writer who, whilst enjoying eye-wateringly high sales, doesn’t necessarily get the critical praise I think he deserves. Now, you can make whatever argument you like about how he’s basically been writing the same story over and over, or how his output in recent years hasn’t quite matched the level of his earlier work but with his writing at its best it remains some of the finest popular writing of the last 40 years.

One of his finest works The Shining was only King’s third novel, published in 1977. His publishers attempted to talk King out of the novel as they thought he would get pegged as a horror writer, (yeah, those guys knew nothing) but King pushed on anyway and the book became one of his biggest successes. The success was not just from the critics but also from huge sales numbers helping establish the young Stephen King as a writer of serious talent and potential. The plot follows the struggling writer Jack Torrance who is facing a career and marriage fracturing under the pressure of two inherited traits from his father – alcoholism and an explosive temper. In an attempt to get away from it all Jack takes his wife (Wendy) and their son Danny to the remote Overlook Hotel after he seriously hurts Danny whilst drunk. Once the three are there things start to get a little strange, involving insanity, hallucinations and attempted murder. As well as this, King introduces the psychological themes that have come to dominate his work; in this novel the focus is Danny who, during the terror of their isolation, discovers his own powerful psychic powers.

As I’ve said, the book was King’s first ever hardback bestseller and captured the public imagination. Surprisingly for such a serious and complex novel the adaptive process was incredibly swift with the film being released in 1980 directed by one of the finest directors in American cinema, Stanley Kubrick. The film was considered a masterpiece on release and has become one of the key pieces in Kubrick’s wonderful oeuvre, winning numerous awards at the time and now firmly cemented onto critic’s lists of the best movies of all time.

The film is, without a doubt, fantastic cinema. Jack Nicholson is mesmeric as Jack Torrance, a fragile man who explodes into violence and madness when confronted with the loneliness of the Overlook Hotel and, though Shelley Duvall was nominated for a Razzie, I don’t think she is that bad at all. The film looks incredible as well – if there is one thing that Kubrick knows its aesthetics and how to make his shots look incredible. The film was one of the very first to use Steadicams, enabling the long, smooth tracking shots that showed off the set design and framing that Kubrick set up. The whole design of the film is gorgeous – especially the weird and creepy visual style of the hallucinations. Kubrick has always had a reputation for being a stickler and on the shoot for this film that side of his personality got a lot of time to mess around. This wasn’t all positive though, as his meticulous nature meant that principal photography went on for nearly an entire year. Shelley Duvall bore much of the brunt of Kubrick’s obsessive nature, frequently arguing with the director and becoming so affected by the stress she was ill for months at a time, at one point her illness becoming so serious she started losing her hair.

So a great book with bold and strongly drawn characters turned into classic cinema from a legendary director and with a legendary production to back it up? I must be getting ready to drown this in superlatives surely?

Well, no.

Simply because, whilst the film is great, and so is the book as an adaptation this really isn’t very good. King himself has famously said that this version was the only adaptation of any of his work that he could remember hating despite previously saying that he didn’t really care about adaptations. You can look up his reasoning if you like, but there are a number of different things that make this so different from the book. Firstly, Jack Nicholson is not really sympathetic as Jack Torrance; in his forward to the book King writes that he was struggling with alcoholism whilst writing the book and there was an element of autobiography to this part of Torrance as a character. Crucially King makes Jack Torrance a character that has not only experienced abuse and the dangers of alcoholism from his father, but is able to love his father just the same. This is a bold character choice, especially from King so early in his career. In the film however, the danger of alcoholism is played down. As well as this the film minimises the book’s original supernatural elements – crucial to ensuring that when Jack eventually snaps and goes crazy he still remains a sympathetic character. In the film, not only is it clear from the moment we first see Jack Nicholson that he will go insane, he doesn’t maintain the sympathy of the books lead character.

Whilst this may not be the best horror adaptation made of the book I am not sure that really matters. The film has become so much a part of the classic film canon it would feel churlish on my part to be overly critical – I would just feel guilty about it as both are great horror experiences. I think though, if I was forced to extract some moral, it would be that writers have a right to feel a little aggrieved sometimes. Great books don’t just happen – it takes time, effort and crafting to produce something as singularly unique as The Shining. On the other hand everything I’ve said there is equally true of that great and singular horror film, The Shining.

Not quite the conclusion I was aiming for, but I hope its good enough to finish a blog on.