The Shining is both a classic novel and a classic movie, and yet the movie does not follow the novel. Blame Stanley Kubrick. The man was a brilliant director, but he had a nasty habit of treating his source material as a polite suggestion. Just ask Anthony Burgess what he thought of Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. G’wan. Ask him.
(Oops. Burgess died in 1993. Well, Burgess hated it. To be fair, he didn’t think much of his own book, either.)
But even King acknowledges that The Shining is a brilliant movie. It’s just not the story he wrote. Besides, how can you not love Jack Nicholson at his homicidal best crashing through the door and yelling, “Heeeeere’s Johnny!”
We are not going to consider Kubrick’s classic here. Instead, I want to talk about The Shining, the 1977 novel that preceded The Stand and followed Salem’s Lot. The Shining is where King found his groove as a novelist. It does not take place in the King universe in any obvious way, though if you’ve read The Dark Tower series, you know anything King writes gets cannibalized into Roland’s sprawling multiverse eventually. On its own, however, The Shining has more in common with Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House than anything Poe or Lovecraft wrote.
The book starts out with Jack Torrance, a struggling writer and disgraced teacher looking to take a job at the Overlook, a remote Colorado resort, as the winter caretaker. Jack has some demons. He fights to keep his temper in check after accidentally breaking son Danny’s arm. And he’s a recovering alcoholic who just lost his job for clocking a student who slashed his tires. The job will give Jack the isolation he needs to finish his play, the time his buddy Al needs to get him his job back, and most importantly, a paycheck to feed his family until he can get back to work.
But the title doesn’t refer to Jack. It refers to five-year-old Danny, who has what hotel cook Dick Halloran calls “the shining,” the ability to read thoughts, sense distant events, and see the future. This disturbs Danny, who doesn’t understand much of what he perceives. He was well aware of the word DIVORCE, appearing in his head in big red capital letters, when tensions ran high between his parents. During Jack’s drinking days, Danny didn’t know what Jack was doing, but he knew Jack was doing The Bad Thing.
The real demon here is The Overlook, a grand hotel that looks out over a valley in the Rockies. It has a dark past that has already asserted itself on the previous caretaker, who killed his family and himself. Jack has to promise the manager that he has his own problems under control.
And for the most part, he does in the beginning. The Overlook is merely an old, isolated lodge, and any creeping horror early on comes from its distance from civilization. But then the topiaries – the hedges shaped like animals – attack Jack. Or he thinks they do. He chalks it up to hallucinations lingering from years of alcoholism.
But then the snow comes and locks the family into the Overlook. The hotel then reveals its true colors. It’s haunted as hell. Danny flees from woman who died in a hotel room. Jack has phantom drinks at a party that took place in 1946, even though the hotel’s bar is bone dry. He becomes obsessed with the hotel’s history. Eventually, the previous caretaker comes to him and says he must correct his wife and child.
That’s when things go horribly awry. Jack goes from mild-mannered dad trying to overcome his mistakes and become a serious writer to Jack Nicholson’s homicidal maniac.
And herein is where Kubrick deviates from the story the most. Jack does, indeed, stalk his family with a mallet (Kubrick had it as an axe, which works better on the movie screen.) However, he does not kill Halloran. If anything, he gets one last moment to redeem himself and get his wife and child out of the hotel before it blows up. And in the nature of all truly evil villains, the hotel’s arrogance is what ultimately destroys it.
This story is classic King, wherein the supernatural is a trapping of the story rather than the story. The hotel is not so much the monster, though it is a monster in its own right, as it is a catalyst for the characters’ darker sides and fears to bubble up to the surface. King could have made this about an isolated man going off the deep end and attacking his family, and the story still would have worked perfectly.