Book Review: The Shining by Stephen King

8/10 A complex and enjoyable read aimed at perhaps too-wide an audience.

I don’t normally include spoilers in my reviews, but given the age and popularity of both the book and film, I see little reason to hold back. The Shining is a story most people know, even if you haven’t read the book or seen the movie.

The Torrence family has fallen on hard times, so Jack Torrance takes a job to be the winter caretaker of the Overlook Hotel in the Colorado mountains. While isolated from the rest of the world by winter storms, the hotel comes to life, and young Danny Torrance’s strange psychic ability might be the only thing that can save them.

Film and Book Comparison

For years, bad Stephen King movies kept me away from both his books and his other movies. When I finally saw The Shining, I was surprised that I enjoyed it. A lot. I was less surprised to find out that King himself was not a fan. Well, of course, further cementing that I wouldn’t enjoy his books. Recently, however, I decided to bite the bullet and read one, so I started with the book from which came the movie I enjoyed. There are several differences, some minor, some significant.

The Torrance Family

One of King’s biggest complaints with the movie was Jack’s character arc. He doesn’t begin as a man struggling with internal problems, trying to protect his family and move forward. In the film, he’s a lunatic ready to snap, and the prolonged stay at the Overlook is enough to do it. He’s not the only changed family member. Wendy in the book has a complex backstory, with her own internal struggles (centered on her mother), but shows a fierceness to protect her son. She’s sharp. In the movies, she’s the screaming damsel in distress (to say nothing of the real-life distress Kubrick put his actors through). While Danny himself is more or less the same, his mysterious invisible friend Tony had multiple changes. For one, he’s now visible, manifested as Danny’s wiggling finger and croaky voice. Though more film-able, we lose the interaction between the two and Danny’s prophetic visions. We also lose the twist at the end when Tony reveals himself as an older Danny, reaching out to him through time and space.

Hallorann

I’m mixed when it comes to Hallorann. The book, of course, has pages of backstory and character development. But one thing the book did was build up to Hallorann’s death with tons of foreshadowing. In addition, Hallorann fights the urge to turn around and go home as the world gives him several opportunities to do so, but he pushes on for Danny’s sake. Hallorann all but knows he’s going to die, but it won’t stop him. But then he doesn’t die. In the film, we don’t have buildup; we lose the development and foreshadowing, but then he dies. I wish we could merge the two stories. The buildup and foreshadowing feel wasted when it has no payoff (he doesn’t reflect on it himself either, not even a thought to his will he wrote; the whole thing just gets forgotten).

The Overlook

One of the biggest changes is that the Overlook in the film is merely haunted. In the book, it’s outright alive and sentient, even speaking to the characters at times. Again, that might not translate well to film, but it has a significant implication for removing it. The plot is that the Overlook wanted to consume Danny and take his powers for its own. In the film, there isn’t really a plot. There are just ghosts and a crazy Jack Torrance. And when the ghost of Grady, the previous caretaker, encourages Jack to kill his family, there isn’t any reasoning for it other than Grady was also a crazy man that murdered his family. In the book, the spirits belonged to the Overlook and conveyed its will to Jack as he was the easiest to manipulate.

A less important change was from topiary animals, which would have been very difficult to film with 1980s special effects, to a hedge maze. This was a good change. It would not have aged very well if they tried filming topiary animals attacking characters. The hedge maze was a great alternative and used well.

The Ending

There are several changes to the climax, but the two that stick out to me were the change from roque mallet to axe and the fate of the hotel. In the book, Jack uses a roque mallet to torment and assault his family. I have a hard time believing the handle would survive the impacts to break down a door. It’s not designed for high-impact. The change to axe makes the threat more immediate and breaking down the door more believable. However, we lose one of the most effective and horrifying moments in the book. In Jack’s final moments, while under the hotel’s control, he corners Danny but gains enough control of himself to call out to Danny and tell him to run. He redeems himself in that last moment, defying the hotel to protect his son. His punishment? The hotel takes control again and uses the mallet to pummel Jack’s face into bloody mush. Right in front of Danny. Why Kubrick didn’t include this may remain a mystery.

Then there’s the ultimate fate of the hotel. Here, I prefer the film for its subtlety. In the book, the boiler is a constant motif right from the get-go, and Jack is warned to release the pressure or the boiler could explode. And during the end, it does just that. It’s a big, dramatic Hollywood ending full of explosions and fire. I prefer the movie here.

Story and Characters

Though I’ve already covered a lot of ground, there are a few specific elements of the book I want to cover. For one, I get that many readers enjoy detailed backstories for characters, but The Shining pushes it. Almost the entire first 3rd of the novel is backstory and flashback. The actual story moves inches at a time. It’s one thing to give us detailed backstories for our main characters, but we have flashback characters also being developed. While Al Shockley at least makes a brief appearance later on, that boy Jack beat up in the parking lot exists only in flashback; did he need a backstory to explain why he was angry with Jack? Where’s the cutoff? Hold on, what about those nuns who sat on the couch in the Overlook, surely they have a long sordid backstory you can give us? In all honesty, I’m surprised we didn’t get more backstory for Ullman, who appears in the story more than other characters who get loads of backstory. To say it could use trimming is an understatement. And the first thing to trim would be the repetitions. The book likes to repeat itself; a lot. One last note: I too do not understand King’s obsession with making objects sentient. The Overlook as a character was not interesting or scary to me.

Writing

There are positives and negatives to the writing. For one, while King has a very distinct style, it’s overbearing at times. He knows which tricks and gimmicks he likes to use, and he’s not afraid to use them. This might be a matter of taste, but it didn’t always work for me. And while some aspects of the book didn’t age well (it was the 70s), that goes for the writing itself, baby. I lost count of the number of times the prose called me baby, baby. It doesn’t read that well, baby. Though sometimes King has a stroke of genius, such as the boiler acting as a metaphor for Jack’s anger issues, the effect is ruined when he has a character call it out. And with every other motif and theme explained and repeated ad nauseam, it’s clear King wrote a dense, complex novel but wanted to make sure everyone could read it, even if it soured the experience for others. And it did for me.

Conclusion

I waffled on what to score The Shining. But I went with a higher score because while I have my list of complaints, what King does well, he does exceptionally well. When the book—ahem—shines, it glows. My problems with the book just aren’t enough to take away all the joy I had reading it. I can’t say that I’ll appreciate all of his books as much, and I plan to tackle Pet Semetary next, but at least this time, I enjoyed it. And despite the differences between the book and film, I enjoy both. They’re different stories told by unique and talented story-tellers.

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