Book vs. Movie: The Shining

The Shining, released in 1977, was Stephen King’s third full-length novel. His debut, Carrie, was such a smash hit that there was an insatiable hunger for King’s work on both the page and the screen. It’s no surprise, then, that it took a mere three years for an adaptation of The Shining to make its way into theaters from celebrated director Stanley Kubrick. And while it wasn’t initially a hit with either audiences or critics, the film version of The Shining evolved over time into a bona fide classic.

You might think Stephen King would be thrilled that one of his books inspired such a famous movie, but you would be wrong. Over the years, King has been very outspoken about how much he hates Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining. We’ll get into the nitty gritty of why, but for now let’s just say that Kubrick’s vision took some serious departures from the source material. And while I won’t be covering all the differences (that would be exhausting), I will be covering the big ones.

The basics of the story are the same: the Torrance family agrees to look after the Overlook Hotel in the mountains of Colorado after it closes for the season and gets snowed in, leaving them completely isolated. The father, Jack, is an aspiring writer struggling to stay sober after breaking his son’s arm and getting fired from his job as a professor at a college. The son, Danny, was born with unique extrasensory talents that come to be called his shining. Unfortunately, Danny’s shine is telling him that the Overlook can be dangerous. All hotels have ghosts, but the Overlook’s seem to be hungry.

The Stanley Park Hotel, inspiration for Stephen King's The Shining
The Stanley Hotel, inspiration for The Shining

First, Some Inspiration

After the publication of Carrie and ‘Salem’s Lot, King was looking for a change of pace (obviously, he hadn’t yet leaned into the world-building he would eventually do in the fictional towns of Derry and Castle Rock). Colorado was King’s randomly selected destination. As King has recounted many times (including on his official website), The Shining was inspired by a night he and his wife spent at The Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado. It was the last night before the hotel closed for the winter, which meant that King and his wife were the only guests. Walking around the empty old hotel, it occurred to King that it would be the perfect setting for a ghost story.

This might give you the idea that the supernatural element of The Shining was the driving force beyond its creation, but that’s only part of the story.

What really formed the idea of The Shining was that Stephen King had a nightmare that very night in which his son (who was only three years old at the time) was running terrified through the halls of the hotel being chased by a fire hose. This brought out King’s own fears as a parent: not only that his child could be harmed, but that he could be the one to do the harm.

This is important because it’s notable that for King, the driving force behind the story was only partially the ghosts. For him, it’s really about a fractured family and, in particular, a man’s struggle to control his own demons to be a good father and husband.

Incidentally, the fire hose from Stephen King’s dream appears as a force of malevolence in the book, but is absent from the movie.

Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance

Daddy Issues

Since we’ve now laid the groundwork for it, let’s get right to the elephant in the room, shall we? The main reason King hates Kubrick’s film is the way the character of Jack Torrance comes across compared to the book. On the page, Jack is essentially a normal guy–albeit one who enjoys his privilege as a white man and feels entitled to success. He has a bit of a temper problem, but it’s not so much of a problem as long as he isn’t drinking. Getting sober has been a harsh reality check for King’s Jack–he’s being forced to learn that the world isn’t going to just give him what he wants and he needs to put as much effort into being a good writer, a good father, and a good husband as the next guy. He may occasionally feel resentful about that, but by and large, he genuinely wants to do better.

I’m not an expert on Stephen King’s life and history with addiction, but he has certainly struggled with addiction throughout his adult life, and that has seeped into his writing in many ways. Even though he didn’t officially get sober until the late 1980s, you can see the struggle playing out in the pages of The Shining. It’s very much a novel about a man trying to rise above his own demons. Temper is a key component of this: Jack isn’t just struggling to stay sober, he’s struggling with anger and resentment, which can be just as potent as alcohol. King has also stated that after becoming a father, he was alarmed by how easily he could become angry at his children–even when they were very young–and how when that anger was combined with alcohol, it led to scary incidents of often-unprovoked rage. He was terrified of letting that anger get the best of him, even as he continued to struggle with both it and alcohol.

So understand that when King expresses intense dissatisfaction with Kubrick’s movie, it isn’t arrogance or ego, it’s that The Shining is a work that has deeply personal meaning to him, and unfortunately, this inspiration is where the movie does the most disservice to its source material.

For King, the movie’s problems begin with the casting of Jack Nicholson, which he objected to (Jon Voight was among his suggested replacements). Nicholson has a unique intensity, and he absolutely brings that into his portrayal of Jack Torrance. Whether this was his approach to the character or a decision formulated with Kubrick, I don’t know, but the end result is that King feels the movie portrays Jack as someone who is already crazy when he arrives at the Overlook. The hotel and its ghosts don’t manipulate him into a downward spiral so much as they give him a slight nudge to embrace what was already there.

This seems like a fair interpretation to me. Yes, you could argue that it’s difficult for a movie to give you the same sense of interiority that a book can–sacrifices must be made not only for the movie’s running time, but for the audience to be able to get the gist of what’s happening without getting bogged down in exposition. Think of how silent film stars overplay their character’s emotions to let audiences know how they are feeling without using words. But it’s not just that: the movie’s shorthand for the character of Jack alters the character in a very deliberate way.

The alterations to Jack’s character reveal a larger, more fundamental difference of opinion in what the story of The Shining is. On the one hand, King’s book is really the story of a fractured family told in the framework of a supernatural thriller. On the other hand, Kubrick’s movie is a supernatural thriller told through the framework of a fractured family. They are putting the focus on two drastically different areas, which changes the tone completely.

Jack’s centrality to the story and what the hotel wants in the movie is another HUGE difference, but more on that later.

This difference comes to a head in the respective finales. On the page, Jack Torrance fights his way through the madness long enough to allow his family to escape, leaving himself to perish (-ish, more on that later) in the exploding hotel. In the movie, Wendy and Danny escape despite Jack’s continued efforts to kill them, and Jack freezes to death unredeemed and alone.

It doesn’t get any more overt than that.

Shelley Duvall as Wendy Torrance

Mommy Issues

King’s problems don’t end with the way the movie portrays Jack Torrance; he also takes issue with the way Jack’s wife, Wendy Torrance, comes across. On the page, Wendy is an every-person in the way her husband Jack is, and is also prone to some archetypical (read: stereotypical) characterization. As such, she’s a housewife and mother with no real aspirations of her own outside of her family. You can tell she was written by a male writer in many respects, but in casual ways she does display her own sense of agency. She seriously contemplates divorce, but ultimately tries to keep her family together–and King has the sense to make his reader know that Wendy does this not out of codependency so much as fear. Fear of disapproval for leaving the role society has given her, sure–but only as subtext (remember, in 1977 divorce was still a controversial subject, as evidenced by the furor over the TV character Rhoda Morgenstern separating from her husband, eventually leading to the show being canceled).

More overtly, Wendy is afraid of failure. Still recovering from a vaguely-defined possibly-abusive relationship with her mother, Wendy is determined to prove her worth in the world. Even more overtly, if Wendy left Jack she knows she would be exposed and vulnerable and would have nowhere to go. More likely than not, she would be forced to move in with the mother she despises/fears until she can get back on her feet. I’m not sure how intentional it was for King to plot out Wendy as a casualty of a woman’s place in 1970s American society (given how prone he is to sexualizing Wendy and viewing her in what is now understood to be the perspective of the patriarchy), but he deserves credit for making her a complex character who at least hints at these larger themes.

She’s also repeatedly referred to as an attractive woman whose, um, assets get noticed by the men around her. Given how defining the movie has been, it’s hard to see Wendy this way at all. Kubrick, who famously tormented actress Shelley Duvall, made Wendy appear frumpy and frail. The movie’s Wendy is a far cry from the attractive, confident, and resilient woman who appears on the page.

Known for being a perfectionist, Kubrick drove the entire cast and crew of The Shining to exhaustion, but he was particularly aggressive and unforgiving with Duvall. It’s no surprise then that the Wendy she portrays is meek, submissive, and skittish. She appears beaten down and afraid all the time. She’s prone to hysterics and her character is flat and one-dimensional.

Finally, in the novel Danny is a daddy’s boy, leaving Wendy feeling frequently excluded from their tight bond. In the movie, Danny is much closer to his mother and seems to fear his father. This switch allows Jack to be the one who feels he is being ganged up/excluded on when things start to go down.

A Note on Danny

Perhaps Danny changes the least from page to screen, but there are still differences. In the movie, he’s played as a normal kid who happens to have special powers. In the book, he’s hyper intelligent and observant.

The biggest difference relates to his “imaginary” friend Tony. The movie doesn’t do much to explain Tony at all, but the book works very hard to make it clear that Tony is a manifestation of Danny’s own subconscious–giving his powers an outlet in his younger days and revealing uncomfortable truths/visions that Danny would rather ignore as they get closer and closer to the Overlook. It’s kind of like the classic (read: largely outdated) explanation for multiple personalities.

The Timberline Lodge, which served as the exterior for the Overlook Hotel

Let’s Talk About the Ending (Or: Going out with a Bang)

Let’s start with the movie, which is a lot simpler. Jack attacks his family and murders Hallorann, who has just arrived back at the hotel after Danny called him for help. Danny manages to lose his father in the hotel’s hedge maze and escapes with his mother in Hallorann’s vehicle. Jack freezes to death, and before the movie fades to black we focus in on an old photo in the hotel that appears to have Jack Torrance at the forefront, even though it was taken before his lifetime. Significantly, the Overlook Hotel is still standing.

The novel is–you guessed it–much more complex, and totally different in tone and outcome. The hotel’s outdated boiler is an entire subplot in the novel that gets excised almost completely from the movie. In the book, the boiler needs to be attended to regularly or the whole place will blow sky high. When we get to the final confrontation, Jack critically forgets about the boiler as he goes about losing his mind and trying to kill his family. Danny reminds him of his error and the good Jack Torrance manages to fight his way out long enough to allow Wendy and Danny to escape the hotel before it blows up, leaving himself to perish with the hotel.

Except that Jack is very likely already a ghost by the time that happens in the book. You see, during their fight, the steelier Wendy stabs Jack and it is implied that she killed him. That allows the hotel to fully take over and make him fully homicidal (until Danny manages to pull Jack’s spirit back out, that is).

So in the book, Jack dies and becomes a hotel ghost that chases his family (and Hallorann) around. But Hallorann? He survives the book and saves the day by getting Danny and the badly injured Wendy down the mountain after the hotel explodes. But when he stops at a toolshed for gas, the hotel attempts to manipulate him into killing Wendy and Danny in a last-ditch attempt that reveals that the hotel’s bad juju exists even without the hotel standing.

Incidentally, this makes the sequel to The Shining, Doctor Sleep, a fraught project. Obviously, Stephen King hated the movie adaptation, so his book follows the plot of his novel. The film adaptation assumes the chronology from Kubrick’s film, however, which means that Hallorann is a ghost and the Overlook is still standing. As you can imagine, King wasn’t too happy that the film went with Kubrick’s storyline. As such, Doctor Sleep the movie oddly adapts King’s original ending with Danny standing in for Jack: when Danny is killed by the hotel ghosts saving a young girl’s life, she manages to bring out the good Danny long enough for him to let her escape before the hotel’s boiler explodes and destroys the hotel once and for all. Not having read the book, I can’t say how that ending compares (maybe a future adaptation comparison is in order?).

What’s My Motivation?

In the novel it is made clear that the hotel’s ghosts are ultimately using Jack to get to Danny, who is what they really want. Danny has a uniquely powerful Shine to him, and the hotel wants to absorb it for itself. Hallorann observes that Jack may have some Shine inside him, but it’s buried so deeply that its nature is undetectable, and since this never comes to light, it feels reasonable to assume that this is merely the device through which the hotel’s ghosts are able to reach (and manipulate) Jack.

Why doesn’t the hotel try to absorb Hallorann, who has worked there for some time when Danny shows up? That’s never adequately explained in either the book or the movie, so let’s chalk it up to a plot hole. You could argue that his power isn’t significant enough, but that feels like an argument better suited to the low-level Shines of hotel staff that can see the hotel ghosts over the years but never make any sense of them. Hallorann is notably more powerful than them, even if Danny is notably more powerful than him.

The movie goes an entirely different route, implying that it really is Jack that the hotel wants, and Danny and his power is merely in the way. It further implies that Jack may be a sort of reincarnated caretaker for the hotel.

As for the hotel itself, the movie resorts to vaguely defined (and racist) easy way out: insinuating that the hotel may have been built on an old Indian burial ground. The book, as you may have guessed, is much more nuanced and complex. Throughout his work, King goes with the belief that a place or thing absorbs evil that takes place inside of it until it becomes a malevolent presence on its own. The hotel’s violent history, therefore, caused it to evolve into an evil presence, which is why King spends so much time painstakingly explaining why although all hotels have ghosts, The Overlook has more than usual.

Odds and Ends

As stated in the beginning of this post, I’m not going to list every difference because I would lose my own mind trying to cover them all. Here are some notable odds and ends, though.

The Haunted Hotel Room

In the book, Hallorann tells Danny to avoid room 217. In the movie, the room number is changed to 237. Why? Blame the Timberline Hotel, which was used for exterior shots (interiors were filmed on a soundstage). They were worried that they would be besieged with requests to stay in room 217 and wanted to avoid that. The Timberline does not have a room 237 and thought that would help. By all accounts, it did not.

So I Married an Axe Murderer

In the movie, Jack famously pursues his family with an axe once he has gone over the edge, going so far as to hack his way into the bathroom where they are hiding in one of the movie’s most iconic/terrifying moments. But in the book he wields a roque mallet (roque being an older version of the game croquet). That might sound a lot less scary than an axe, but if you read about the brutal hammering that mallet is capable of, you wouldn’t say such a thing.

Over the Hedge

In the novel, the Overlook is surrounded by topiary animals that appear to move and follow people around. In the conclusion, they have come fully to life and prowl the property with sinister intent. Hallorann is nearly captured and killed by them trying to get back into the hotel to save Danny and Wendy. They burn up when the hotel explodes, allowing Hallorann to get Wendy and Danny safely by them.

The movie drops the topiary animals completely–most likely due to special effects limitations of the time. Instead, Kubrick substitutes a vast hedge maze that became one of the film’s signatures. Most people I’ve spoken to who haven’t read the book are completely dumbfounded when they hear that the hedge maze is missing from the novel.

Novel Ideas

In the movie, Jack’s deterioration is rapid and virtually inexplicable. He just feels… at home in the hotel, and he quickly comes to take pride in his role as its caretaker. His writing is crippled by writer’s block, which is revealed when Wendy finds that his “manuscript” is just page after page of “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”

You guessed it: the novel is more nuanced. Jack is indifferent to the hotel until he starts to look at it as a device for his writing. After discovering a scrapbook in the boiler room that the hotel deliberately put in his path, Jack decides that the hotel’s unseemly history would be a terrific subject for a book. He gets tied to the hotel because it has value to him. He painstakingly researches its history in the library before they get snowed in, which makes him feel protective of the building–first as the tool to his success as a writer, which later translates (in his confusion) to a more literal protectiveness of the building.

In fact, part of how the hotel seduces Jack in the book is that it releases the writer’s block he had been crippled by in the wake of his disgrace from both alcoholism and life as a college professor.

Redemption/Forgiveness

Speaking of which, the Jack Torrance in the novel has every reason to believe that everything is going to be fine. Sure, he broke his son’s arm in a drunken rage. Sure, his wife nearly left him and remains unsure of their future together. And sure, he lost his job after allowing his temper to get the better of him, resulting in the beating of an entitled and disgruntled student. But the novel’s Jack has a guardian angel: a former drinking buddy named Al Shockley, who has gotten sober himself and wants to help his friend out.

Shockley is on the board of both the college that fired Jack and the Overlook Hotel. He has Jack placed as the caretaker of the Overlook (over the objections of the hotel’s manager) specifically so Jack can lie low for a couple of months and get his life together (read: make sure he stays sober and adjusts to sober living). With that (and the play Jack has been working on) done, Shockley can hopefully convince the board at the college to reconsider firing Jack and bring him back.

The movie’s Jack has no such guardian angel and is more firmly at rock bottom. You could argue that this is why he seems unhinged when the movie begins, but I think the movie isn’t doing anything to give that argument any weight.

Furthering the divide along the notion of redemption/forgiveness, in the movie, Danny’s attack in room 217/237 is the final breaking point for the family. Wendy suspects Jack, Jack feels injured by that suspicion even when vindicated, and they are antagonists for the rest of the movie. In the book, Wendy and Jack find a path back together and try to unite to get out of the hotel. This is actually one of the novel’s weaker points because it strains credulity that Wendy doesn’t do much to resolve this problem. She basically leaves it to Jack, who unbeknownst to her starts sabotaging their ways out of the hotel. Still, the fact remains that in the book there is still a way out, so to speak, for Wendy and Jack’s relationship.

The Twins

One of the movies most indelible images is of the twin daughters of Delbert Grady, the former caretaker who viciously murdered his family before committing suicide, holding hands in a hallway and calling to little Danny, intercut with shots of their murdered bodies. That doesn’t happen in the book. Nor does the iconic image of blood pouring from the elevator bank.

Delbert Grady does show up as a ghost in the book, but you never see his family.

Which is Better?

Now that’s a tough question, because both are good but have definite faults. Really, both incarnations are trying to achieve very different things, so it’s nearly impossible to do a 1:1 comparison. If you take the movie on its own and not as an extension of the book, it’s great. The opposite is true of the book. Both are better off looked at as completely separate entities.

Having said that, if you told me I had to either watch the movie or read the book again, I would watch the movie. The book’s biggest flaw, which is that it could have used a little editing and streamlining, is ultimately more of a dealbreaker for me than the movie’s oversimplification. Having read the book twice before, I could take the additional context into the movie with me.

As for you, if you’ve only seen the movie, I would tell you to read the book. And if you’ve only read the book, I would tell you to see the movie. If you’ve done neither, I would actually point you to the book first.

How’s that for a complicated answer?


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