The Shining: Darkness within and around Us
By Zac Goldstein
Stephen King’s monsters need no introduction. From possessed cars to malevolent entities masquerading as clowns, sinister creatures permeate his work. But across King’s oeuvre, some of the worst offenders aren’t supernatural beings or ancient evils. They are us.
In The Shining, King gives us Jack Torrance, a writer who tries to resist replicating the abuse his father heaped upon him. By the novel’s start, he’s already hurt his young son, Danny, once during a drunken rage, the guilt of which plagues him. He’s hopeful that a winter shift as a resort caretaker will help him repair the damage that his drinking has done to his family. The Overlook Hotel – or more precisely whatever malignant spirits inhabit it – has other ideas.
While The Overlook’s haunted history, sinister specters, and sentient topiary provide the novel’s more overt chills, it is Jack who is the primary engine of terror here as the isolation of the winter months erodes his sanity and self-control. Remove The Overlook’s influence or Danny’s precognitive abilities (the “shine” of the title), and we’re left with a man capable of great violence toward those he cares about most.
In this way, King gives us a glimpse of his own worst fears. His substance abuse issues are well-documented, and at the time he wrote The Shining, his children were young. The novel explores what might happen when parental rage, often suppressed or ignored, becomes all-consuming.
Of course, many who have any familiarity with The Shining get it not from King’s book but from Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film adaptation, which is an entirely different beast. It is perhaps the definitive answer to the question of whether or not a bad adaptation can still be a good film on its own merits.
The film, scripted by Kubrick and Diane Johnson, strips out much of the novel’s inner turmoil. Whereas the Jack of the page is, for all of his loathsome moments, a somewhat tragic figure who falls prey to madness, the Jack of the screen (played by Jack Nicholson) looks as if he’s barely keeping it together to begin with, rendering him snapping a foregone conclusion. It’s an effectively menacing turn (with a few comedic undertones) but the “This could be me” factor is lost. So too it goes with Wendy Torrance, transformed from a level-headed, independent woman confronted with growing danger to a largely pliant, panic-stricken designated victim (blame Kubrick’s borderline-abusive direction rather than a terrified Shelley Duvall for the performance).
In place of psychological horror, Kubrick’s film turns its focus outward. The ominous Wendy Carlos score accompanies a long drive up to the resort and establishes a creepy ambiance early on. Once we’re inside The Overlook, we’re entreated to eerie tracking shots (the film was among the first to use the Steadicam) as Danny moves down its long corridors, unaware (despite his gifts) of the full scope of the dangers that await. From beckoning ghostly twins to an elevator that gushes blood, we’re bombarded by shocking images, and their lack of context (Kubrick also excised much of The Overlook’s history) only adds to our unease. What the film lacks narratively, it compensates for aesthetically.
Despite the chasm between King’s vision and Kubrick’s, The Shining’s sequel Doctor Sleep (written by King in 2013 and adapted by Mike Flanagan in 2019) offers a mostly successful synthesis of the two. It shows the effects of generational trauma on an adult Danny (Ewan McGregor in the film), who battles his own addictions and anger issues, while also offering a new external, supernatural threat.
No matter which flavor of The Shining calls to you most – inner conflict or shocking visuals – expect to be, if not scared, then at least unsettled.