Book vs Film: The Shining

I’ve written about film adaptations before, and how sometimes they can be better than their source material. But recently I decided I wanted to go a little deeper, and write more full-on analyses of books verses their cinematic counterparts. I do have a film degree, so I’ve decided to put it to use by creating this series. Don’t know how often it will be–at my whimsy, currently. But this was fun to write, and I want to do this again. So I will.

In an attempt to keep things fair and orderly, I’m breaking the comparison down into four broad sections: tone, characters, story, and craft. With The Shining, at least, I feel that these are the main areas to cover. When I do more of these in the future, I may end up adding or taking away sections. I’m open to improving the formula.

Book: The Shining Author: Steven King Year: 1977
Film: The Shining Director: Stanley Kubrick Year: 1980

I’ve been a horror fan since I was a (very) young kid, getting my teeth into countless horror films and books before I was even 10. So, when I tell you I wasn’t impressed with The Shining when I first watched it (years before I first read the book), just know it wasn’t because I didn’t like horror or hadn’t already enjoyed a hell of a lot of horror films. I can’t remember the specifics of what I thought at the time, because it was so long ago. I just remember the film feeling pretty… empty and insubstantial. And I think I was put off reading the book for a number of years after that. But when I did read the book, I ended up loving it. I found it genuinely scary and several moments in particular have stayed with me since.

When I re-read the book this month, it rekindled my aversion to the film. The film is wildly popular, raved about by cinema critics, and touted as a classic… but I just don’t see it. I discussed it with a few people who also didn’t love the film so much, and decided, in the name of fairness, to give the film a second go too. When the notebook and pen came out, I knew a book vs film analysis was going to be written…

Tone
The tone is what I’m most impressed with from the film. It immediately sets the mood with chilling music and grand, scenic cinematography. And this holds up throughout the film. At a couple of points the music gets a little too high pitched, but overall the music is wonderfully creepy, building the tension and putting me on edge. There are some incredible shots in the film, and in fact the cinematography throughout the film is perfection. It’s one of the first films to have used a steadicam, and it’s used brilliantly. Following Danny racing around the empty hotel in his trike, long single-shot scenes across large rooms, and getting lost in the hedge maze… they look amazing and they also help emphasise the enormous space and how isolated the family are in it.

Of course, the book doesn’t have music or cinematography to help set the mood of the story, only words. But it manages it. The descriptions of the wind howling around the outside of the hotel; the feeling of going from a hotel full of people, to a family of three with lots of space to explore, then gradually to individual isolation from each other; there is also the internal struggles of the characters and how and why they deal with the deteriorating situation. The fact that the book manages to make hose pipes, topiary animals, and playgrounds scary is a sure sign it’s getting the horror right. It also excels at building the tension. At first there is ebb and flow—tension and release—but as the story unfolds the tension mounts until I could barely read a chapter without needing a breather.

Characters
The characters in the book are complex, multifaceted, and sympathetic. I felt for them all, in various ways. Danny’s innocence and emotional maturity, Wendy’s self-awareness and determination, Dick’s easy-going nature and effortless likeability. Jack is by far the most complex character, between who he wants and is trying to be, and who he finds it too easy to be when he stops trying. It is these characters, their histories, and their choices that add meaning and depth to the story. As well as helping to provide a satisfying, but still open to some interpretation, ending to the book.

Meanwhile, in the film… the characters leave a lot to be desired. Danny is a mumbling vacant child reduced to a bit part, Wendy too quickly becomes a simpering mess only capable of screaming and shaking her head, Dick is firm and defensive with no clear reason to want to brave the snowstorms to save the family.

And Jack. He’s not helped being played by Jack Nicholson, who is a strong actor, but has such a singular presence, that he seems to bring very little subtly to the role. His performance later in the film, when Jack has completely lost his mind and is hell bent on murder, is great. However, his performance is lacking at the start of the film; everything he says sounds sarcastic and I can’t tell if he’s supposed to mean what he says or if he’s just a dick character all around.

There is just so little insight into Jack as a character—his troubled childhood, his troubled adulthood, and his troubled fatherhood. We’re given facts—he’s an alcoholic on the wagon and he once dislocated his son’s shoulder—but there is no emotional investment into his character; we see none of his inner turmoil, which was so vital to the story in the book. There is also no investment into the relationship he has with Danny… in fact they don’t even interact other than a few lines and one very awkward, creepy scene where Danny sits on his knee. That relationship was so vital to every member of the family’s character in the book, but in the film it’s barely a footnote.

Ultimately, I didn’t care about any of the characters in the film.

Story
In the book the story is very much linked to the characters. What happens and why depends a lot on the characters’ motivations, beliefs, and choices. Danny knows the Overlook Hotel holds bad things, but loves his dad and understands he needs the job so makes no attempt to stop them from going. Jack being manipulated by the hotel and its ghosts into horrendous acts he would never have be driven to otherwise (or would he?).

The book also has great pacing, switching between character point of views, showing the family’s lives over months, gradually shrinking their world down until it’s just the three of them in the hotel… alone with its own malicious characters.

And of course, all that insight and build up pay off with an ending that is wonderfully weaved together in many ways (foreshadowing and threads of details all paying off), but also very open to interpretation (exactly how much did the hotel manipulate Jack, and how much was who he really was, deep inside?). It left me satisfied while also left me with thoughts to chew on.

The film’s story is much simpler… because it lacks the character depth, and leaves only the cold facts shown on screen. Man goes mad and tries to butcher his family. The end.

One part of the story I really think the film failed on was Tony. Tony is Danny’s “imaginary friend”. In the film he lives in Danny’s mouth and involves a crooked finger for some reason. That is… pretty much the extent of that. Without the full insight into Tony—who he actually is and his relationship with Danny—there seems little point to him in the film? He simply makes Danny seem a bit weirder for his shine… perhaps even possessed.

Another part of the story I can’t fully get behind is killing Dick of immediately after he gets to the Overlook. Now, killing him I’m not opposed to. In all honesty, I half think King chickened out of going that far in the book, after he set it up with Dick sorting his will out immediately before he gets the call from Danny. But. But having him trek all the way across the country, just to stick an axe in his chest the minute he arrives seems… frivolous. He comes to rescue Danny, but they never even set eyes on each other? There is no meaning in his death—it’s just for a bit of gore and to up the minuscule body count.

The pacing also seems very off in the film, with all the main action and turning points taking place in one 24 hour period. It’s very slow and steady for the most part, setting the tone and creeping into this eerie and peculiar place. Then everything happens in a single day. The woman in room 237, Lloyd, Jack drinking, Grady, the pantry, the bathroom… all in one night. It makes the story feel very uneven, and without the character and emotional depth it’s all just for show with no meaning behind it.

Craft
The book, while not King’s best writing, is pretty solid. It’s evocative, memorable, creepy in the right way, and is easy to read without being simplistic. The alternating points of view give a wide insight into the characters and the story, as well as help with pacing and plot progression. There is some subtle and some not-so-subtle foreshadowing, though all the threads play out well even if it was obvious what was coming—it’s how they got there that was the more interesting part.

I also love the parallels between the play Jack is working on and his state of mind. His thoughts on and feelings towards the play mirror that in reality, in a way. Those characters are a way for him to relate to himself and those around him. When he’s feeling in control of himself and genuine with his past, he is in control of his characters and has insight into their motivations. When he’s angry, out of control, and making excuses for his behaviour, he hates his characters and finds their actions insufferable.

Neither the book nor the film aged well in some respects, and namely the use of some choice language. They bother suffer, in that regard, of being a child of their time… but it’s still uncomfortable.

The craftsmanship of the film is a mixed bag. My favourite part is probably the reveal of the writing Jack has been working on. Spending hours and days alone with his type writer, tapping away… When Wendy rifles through the pages to find the same line, typed over and over again in different formats… pages and pages of it. That is the kind of detail and insight the film needed more of. It showcased Jack’s state of mind, without him even being in the room (read: without Nicholson’s eyebrows, stink eye, and sarcastic voice). The only problem is it comes too late in the game, and is conspicuous by its solitariness… there are no other interesting moments like this.

Letting the film down the most, in my opinion, is the acting. I’m not going to blame this all on the actors, either… partly to blame is the dialogue and the directing. A lot of the dialogue is awkwardly unnatural, with long pauses between speech and no natural rhythm of conversation. The best lines where the ones lifted directly from the book, honestly.

There were a couple of jump scares, with a scene cutting abruptly to a title card “Monday” along with a sudden jolt to a high pitched, tense musical note. And I just found those wholly cheap.

The film does have some iconic scenes, and I do believe that is mostly down to cinematography. The bloody elevator, the girls in the corridor, redrum, Jack frozen in the snow… and of course, “Here’s Johnny!” (but… who the fuck is Johnny??)… they’re memorable because they look good. Just a single frame captures the essence of the scene. And I do love the idea of Danny literally running circles around his dad in that hedge maze.

Final Thoughts
I can understand why the film gets talked about so much. Cinematically, it has done some really incredible things. Visually and musically alone I can see why it became a classic. The mood and build up created by the cinematography and soundtrack is incredible… but there is so little to the story of the thing. Ultimately the film feels hollow.

The film is highly over-analysed and theorised about, and I understand that, too… because there is so little of substance. I love an open or ambiguous ending, but the film leaves the audience with so little material to actually work with. Of course, anyone who actually wants the answers could simply read the book…

Ultimately, I would argue the film is very much full of style, but has no substance. It looks stunning, but scratch the surface and there is nothing of significance underneath. And I’ve found this with the other few Kubrick films I’ve seen. I would happily watch any of them again… on mute, in the background, while I was doing something else.

 

Winner: The Book

 

Do you agree? Have any arguments to add? Was there something I missed? Let’s have a friendly debate in the comments!