Today we take the gloves off.
The Shining (Stephen King, 1977) is largely considered one of the most frightening novels ever written. The Shining (Director Stanley Kubrick, 1980) is certainly one of the scariest movies ever made, a classic chiller from one of the great eras in horror movie history.
But that is where the similarities end. Stephen King has been on record for decades for his distaste of Kubrick’s adaptation. It is a great understatement to say that King has a point. After all, The Shining and its characters are his creations. He should know better than anyone who Jack and Wendy Torrance are and can damn well say anything he wants to say on the subject.
Over the years, two divergent camps have developed: the supporters of King’s masterpiece and the people who think Kubrick did the impossible by making a movie that was even better than the book. I happen to fall into a third camp. I love both.
Before I open the floor to debate over which version of The Shining is superior, I want to lay out how my feelings on the strengths of each version.
Stephen King’s The Shining
In my opinion, King’s story is vastly superior. And that isn’t just a hollow “the book is always better than the movie” argument. Stephen King took the time to craft believable characters. Jack Torrance is the ultimate fallible everyman. From the first scene, we see Torrance’s inner faults. We quickly learn that he has a drinking problem and a tendency for violence, both of which stem from his failures in life.
Wendy Torrance is portrayed as a strong woman and a capable defender of their son, Danny. Well aware of Jack’s faults, she is doing her best to hold the family together. The Wendy Torrance we meet in Kubrick’s version is a helpless, flailing scream machine who is incapable of holding anything together. In my opinion, she seems almost as insane as Jack.
In King’s novel, Jack’s descent into madness is gradual and stealthy. King’s brilliance is on full display, never fully committing to whether the ghosts of The Overlook are driving Torrance toward murder or simply nudging him toward what he was bound to do eventually. That we can recognize our own potential for murder through King’s version of Jack Torrance is absolutely horrifying. Symbolism is intelligently utilized. Clearly the boiler is symbolic of Jack, and I will never understand why the boiler was omitted from Kubrick’s movie.
Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining
Poor treatment of King’s characters aside, Kubrick’s direction was brilliant. What he lost in characterization, he made up for with some of the best camera work and set pieces in horror history. Although Jack Torrance is portrayed as insane from the first scene of the movie version, Jack Nicholson makes the unhinged Jack Torrance work as few other actors could have. Nicholson’s work is unsettling and unforgettable. I will even argue that Shelley Duvall did a marvelous job portraying Kubrick’s vision of Wendy, even if Kubrick’s characterization of Wendy is deeply flawed.
Kubrick’s pacing is strong, too. Although the descent into madness is evident from the opening scene, the tortuous pace which ensues induces feelings of claustrophobia in even the most seasoned horror aficionado.
Add in the breathtaking visuals and a strong soundtrack (a demented version of Symphonie Fantastique by Berlioz) and you have a classic horror movie.
That’s how I compare the two versions of The Shining. Which version do you prefer?
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