The Shining (1977)

I think everyone is likely to be familiar with the plot of The Shining: a family spends the winter caretaking a hotel resort in the Colorado mountains, with disastrous consequences. My feelings about the novel of The Shining are slightly mixed. Kubrick's film version casts such a long shadow over any discussion of the story; it is almost impossible - unless you have never watched the film - not to think of Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance. And yet Stephen King was never happy with Kubrick's interpretation of his work, claiming that while it was a strong piece of film-making, it was not a good adaptation of the book.

Perhaps one of the reasons for this dislike (apart from the removal of much that is supernatural, such as the creeping topiary animals, in favour of the psychological) was that Nicholson's iconic performance is too roguishly likable, even when he's clearly lost his mind. In the novel, Jack Torrance is remarkably unlikable - a recovering alcoholic who has previously broken his son's arm and severely beaten a student under his care. While King develops him as a rounded character - and we can see that he truly does love his family - he is driven almost entirely by hatred and rage. His backstory (his own alcoholic father destroying the family) mirrors his own situation, but is very quickly twisted to become a justification for his monstrous behaviour. But that is King's intention: Torrance is a monster-in-waiting, and the malign spirit of the hotel recognises and exploits this to its own ends.

Jack's situation is also mirrored by the play he is attempting to write, and his attitude to his characters. There is a section where he contemplates his own unlikable protagonist; we understand that he tries to see the good and bad in each of them ("let the reader lay blame"), but is gradually losing the ability not to pick sides. I can't help but think that this reflects King's view of his creation as well. It is tempting to go further, and to draw parallels between Torrance and King - the author had a long struggle with addiction himself - but I will leave that to the biographers.

Just to quickly return to the Kubrick version, I should mention that it is my favourite filmed adaptation of King's work (and would probably be in my top ten films, if anyone were unkind enough to actually make me compile such a list). Despite cutting much of what makes the book so disturbing, Kubrick managed something which is very rarely achieved: capturing the essence of King's work. There are King films almost beyond counting which take his excellent ideas and then ruin them utterly by being too literal and by using substandard actors. The Shining takes the opposite approach - paring the plot down to basics, extracting career-defining performances from almost all of the key players, and constantly building dread in a way that I'm not sure has ever been repeated. Anyway, enough about the film.

The novel gives us the full, bloody history of the Overlook, as Jack becomes more and more obsessed with it. His descent into madness is heavily signposted but handled convincingly; not only do we know what he is thinking, we also see things from the points-of-view of his wife and son, Wendy and Danny. And Danny knows more than a five-year-old should about both his father and the hotel. The true horror of the situation is almost always experienced (by us) through Danny - a further development of King's ability to call up the things that scare children to make the reader feel those terrors firsthand. References to Poe's The Masque of the Red Death, and the adult debaucheries lying just beneath the surface of reality in the hotel, add a further disturbing element to Danny's situation; there are things that he is too young to understand, but he has to deal with them nonetheless.

Once Jack has finally slipped off the shackles of sanity, The Shining gears up for a gripping final act, building to a very different climax from that which Kubrick decided to show. And this is where the unlikability of Jack Torrance throughout the book pays off: in his last lines before the hotel completely takes possession of him, Jack redeems himself by trying to save his son. And then the Overlook fully reveals itself in a truly chilling scene, and the race to the finish is on. I won't go into it in any more detail here - read the book yourself.

Next: Rage.

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