The Shining: Stephen King vs Stanley Kubrick

the shining kubrick vs king

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

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.

King’s portrayal of Danny, the young and gifted son, also deserves mention. The novel delves deep into Danny’s character, showcasing his psychic ability known as “the shining.” This ability is not merely a plot device; it serves as a metaphor for childhood sensitivity and awareness, a theme that is richly explored in the novel. While the film does include Danny’s gift, it doesn’t delve into the complexities and emotional weight that it carries in the book.

Jack Torrance artwork

The Overlook Hotel itself becomes a character in King’s hands. Its haunting history and the malevolent forces within it are described in vivid detail, making the setting an integral part of the story’s terror. The omission of the boiler in Kubrick’s version, as noted earlier, is not just a missed plot point; it’s a missed opportunity to underscore the thematic resonance of the story.

The narrative pace in King’s novel also contributes to its superiority. The slow build-up, the intricate weaving of backstory, and the meticulous development of characters create a crescendo of horror that is both psychological and supernatural. Kubrick’s version, while visually stunning and undeniably influential, sacrifices some of this depth for the sake of cinematic impact.

One cannot deny that Kubrick’s “The Shining” has its merits. Its iconic imagery and the chilling performance by Jack Nicholson have left an indelible mark on film history. However, by comparison to King’s novel, it falls short in its exploration of character depth and thematic complexity.

Stephen King’s “The Shining” is a masterful piece of horror literature that not only terrifies but also thoughtfully examines human fragility, family dynamics, and the thin line between sanity and madness. The novel’s multifaceted characters, symbolic elements, and gradual descent into horror offer a richer and more nuanced experience than the film adaptation. While both versions have their place in the annals of horror, King’s original work stands as a testament to his storytelling prowess and a reminder that sometimes, indeed, the book is better than the movie.

The Shining winter

Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining

If Kubrick’s story is so vastly inferior, how has it managed to maintain notoriety as one of the most horrific movies ever made for over three decades?

jack nicholson here's johnny

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.

Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” is not merely a movie; it’s an experience. While some argue that it strays too far from King’s original vision, especially in the characterization, Kubrick’s rendition has its own brilliance.

The film’s visual mastery is one of its standout features. Kubrick’s innovative use of the Steadicam, the hypnotic tracking shots, and the meticulously designed set pieces create an unsettling atmosphere that is unique to the film. The labyrinthine corridors of the Overlook Hotel become a maze of madness, mirroring the disintegration of Jack’s sanity. This visual flair goes beyond mere aesthetics; it serves as a conduit for horror, making the viewer feel trapped and disoriented along with the characters.

The Shining artwork

Nicholson’s portrayal of Jack Torrance is, without doubt, iconic. His exaggerated expressions and wild-eyed madness make for a chilling and memorable performance. It may not align with King’s gradual descent into insanity, but within the framework of Kubrick’s vision, it’s a tour de force. Shelley Duvall’s portrayal of Wendy may be controversial, but within the context of Kubrick’s interpretation, it also fits seamlessly. Her terror, confusion, and desperation resonate onscreen, enhancing the unsettling mood.

The soundtrack of “The Shining” further elevates the experience. Its haunting score adds layers of tension and dread, punctuating key moments and heightening the audience’s emotional response.

What Kubrick offers is not just a translation of King’s novel, but a reinterpretation. It’s a different beast altogether, focused more on psychological horror and atmospheric dread than character depth and thematic exploration. Some may see this as a flaw, but it’s also what sets Kubrick’s version apart. It’s a unique vision, and one that has left a lasting impact on the genre.

In summary, while Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” may deviate from Stephen King’s original in significant ways, it stands as a masterwork in its own right. Its visual artistry, unforgettable performances, and relentless pacing have earned it a place among the greatest horror films of all time. Its notoriety and enduring appeal attest to Kubrick’s genius as a filmmaker and his ability to craft horror that transcends the limitations of adaptation. Whether viewed as a counterpart to the novel or as a separate entity, Kubrick’s “The Shining” remains a chilling and influential masterpiece.

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?

Of course, you could also read something by this frightening writer called Dan Padavona! If you’re looking for authors similar to Stephen King, give Dead and Buried a try. I’ve made Dead and Buried free to download, so get ready for some serial killer thrills and heart-stopping suspense.

4 thoughts on “The Shining: Stephen King vs Stanley Kubrick

  1. Unfortunately, by the time I had read The Shining, I had already seen the movie a large handful of times, so it really tainted my view of the book and I can’t help but be biased, so as a result the movie is far superior for me personally, though I completely understand and sympathize with King’s argument. Nicholson had just finished Cuckoo’s Nest and perhaps it was bad timing for him to jump into another “mentally unstable” role so soon after the success of Cuckoo’s Nest. Kubrick’s visuals are just so ridiculously strong…and of course the music. The Shining mini-series I had a very hard time with. I don’t like anything Mick Garris has done for King. I feel like if King should be mad at anyone for their horrible film adaptations it’s Garris and I can’t figure out why he kept using him. Can you imagine if he would have let Mick get his hands on Shawshank or The Green Mile? I digress. The creepy visuals we got with the eerily lit maze through the blizzard scared me more than any unbelievable topiary coming to life, though smashing your own face with a mallet instead of merely freezing to death; King won that one for sure 🙂

    1. Agree about Cuckoo’s Nest. I think King may have said something about Nicholson coming from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in Danse Macabre or in an interview.

      1. Thank you so much for your comments. It is hard for me to compare the novel and movie The Shining because they are two different mediums. I do love both independently of the other.

        Most Sincerely, Chris Howley, Wollaston, Mass. USA

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