The Shining is a classic book and a classic movie, but here’s why King’s novel is a definitively better story than Kubrick’s adaptation. I’m going to start by saying that comparing a novel to the movie adaptation has its flaws, but it can be done. Movies and novels are storytelling mediums. I am a storyteller. When I watch a film or read a book, I’m looking to immerse myself in a story. According to this criteria and others, the novel outshines (ahem) the movie by a significant margin.
Jack Torrance is the protagonist of the Shining. He’s a former high school English teacher who’s now working on the next great American novel. When the Torrance family moves up to the Overlook hotel for months of seclusion, Jack figures he’s found the perfect opportunity to work on his novel.
I strongly believe the success of horror stories (i.e. if it scares the reader or not) hinges upon how well the characters are developed. This is the first major difference between the movie and the novel.
In the novel, Jack is an incredibly well-realized character. We learn all about his alcoholism, his troubled past, and his abusive father. Jack really wants to fix the problems he’s created for his family which makes him very human and very sympathetic. The reader wants to see Jack succeed and get his life sorted out, which makes it all the more horrifying when things go off the rails.
In the movie, Jack Torrance is a grinning lunatic from the very first scene. Jack Nicholson’s eyes gleam with insanity and his smile reminds me of his role as the Joker. He speaks with off-kilter contempt from the very beginning. There’s no depth to the character and no change throughout the story. Jack Nicholson’s performance is an excellent piece of acting, but it turns Jack Torrance into a clown. I never felt attached to the character emotionally because he’s melodramatically insane from the first scenes.
The Overlook Hotel
The secluded, historic Overlook hotel acts as the setting for both the book and the novel, but there’s a significant difference in how it’s portrayed in each medium. King adds tension to the novel with an excellent metaphor that’s missing entirely from the movie.
In the book, the Overlook hotel has a rich history. When Jack Torrance is supposed to be working on his book, he often spends hours in the boiler room reading about all the horrific events that happened in the hotel. As he looks at old photographs and reads old newspaper clippings, we get the sense that the Overlook itself is evil. We get the impression the hotel has a personality of its own and that personality is malevolent.
There’s also the boiler room itself. In the book, the hotel has a boiler that needs to be depressurized regularly or the entire hotel might blow up. When you consider Jack’s anger problems, the boiler becomes a metaphor for his mental health. Leave Jack’s boiler alone for too long without maintenance, and he might just blow.
In the movie, the hotel feels more like a twisted museum with endless halls of creepy decor. Kubrick did a lot of interesting things to mess with the audience’s sense of perspective as the characters move around the hotel. In this sense, Kubrick did a great job of giving the hotel a sense of being off, or menacing, simply through set design. That said, the hotel feels very cold and empty, not at all like the character of the hotel in the book. I also feel the exclusion of the boiler robs the story of something precious.
In the book, Wendy is a well-realized character that we empathize and care for. We like Wendy and we want the best for her which adds to the horror when Jack tries to kill her.
In the movie, Wendy’s almost comically passive. She’s strange, pale, and melodramatic. I don’t think her being so passive adds anything to the story, and it actually detracts significantly from the horror element.
The Book’s Scarier
All of these elements add up and make the book far more frightening a story than the movie. Mostly because the reader’s more invested in the characters. We care more about the characters so it’s scarier to watch them go off the deep end (Jack), explore the Outlook hotel (Danny), and get chased by an ax-wielding madman (Wendy).
I want to finish by saying the Shining film is a masterpiece. It’s a marvelous filmmaking achievement and I believe it’s the best horror film of all time. The way Kubrick’s hotel defies our sense of reality shows an adept insight into what makes people uneasy. The soundtrack is magnificent. Jack Nicholson’s performance is excellent as the manic-insane Jack Torrance.
I simply feel the book has a much stronger sense of humanity. The one flaw in the movie may be that nothing feels human. The humans don’t feel human. They feel like dolls in a huge, strange dollhouse, and I cared very little for them. I felt no close attachment to them as people. In the book, I felt a close attachment to the characters which made the horrible bits even more horrifying. A horror story should ultimately endeavour to scare the audience and I believe the book’s more effective at this.
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