I recently visited the brilliant Stanley Kubrick exhibition at London’s Design Museum.
On the twentieth anniversary of the acclaimed director’s death, the exhibition explored his ground-breaking achievements in film. From sci-fi to war and arthouse movies, Kubrick’s creative gift spanned across genres.
But while I do love a Roman epic (who knew he directed Spartacus!), as a horror fan, the props that interested me most were those from The Shining.
A long time ago, whilst travelling around Central America, I bought a battered old copy of the book by Stephen King from a dusty little second-hand shop in Merida, Mexico. The story freaked me out so much, I was too scared to keep it under my mosquito net at night!
Unluckily, near the end I discovered that the final few pages were missing and so I never got round to finishing it, but I bought a new copy from the Design Museum’s gift shop and finally read it to the end.
Those familiar with the film version will know the basic premise of the book. A young family moves into a secluded hotel for the winter. Recovering alcoholic Jack Torrance is an aspiring writer who takes on the job of caretaker, hoping that being cut off from the outside world will help him focus on his play. His wife, Wendy, sees it as an opportunity for family bonding. Their little boy, Danny, knows things he shouldn’t due to his psychic abilities (what the title’s ‘shining’ refers to).
The closest town is forty miles away across roads closed between November and April. Phone lines tend to go down under heavy snow and only a two-way radio and a snowmobile maintain any semblance of connection with the outside world.
Living in a remote location with a well-stocked kitchen, a roaring log fire and a comfortable suite of rooms is my idea of heaven, but the reader soon discovers that sinister things lurk in the shadows.
The elevator has a tendency to clank into action in the middle of the night, transporting debauched revellers from the 1940s to their New Year’s Eve masked ball as the sound of popping champagne corks echoes through the corridors. A former caretaker killed his daughters with a hatchet before shooting his wife and himself, but he’s just the tip of the iceberg of the Overlook Hotel’s murky past. Murder, suicide, illicit affairs. It all happened here.
This book is so much more than a haunted house story. The tension builds slowly, allowing the reader to get to know the family. Believe it or not, it’s easy to like them all thanks to the writer’s ability to draw sympathetic characters. While Danny can read people’s minds, King lets the reader under their skin, the close third person narrative drawing us effortlessly into their thoughts.
Jack is no traditional monster and I found myself willing him to succeed as he attempts to close the door on past mistakes. A deep thinker with anger management issues, he battles self-sabotage and insecurity. The devastating effects of alcoholism are brought painfully to life as he craves the ‘tasty waters of oblivion,’ tormented by the desire to numb his pain with drink even though many of his problems stem from it. King himself faced alcohol issues in the past and vividly captures that struggle.
Jack’s good intentions to spend quality time with his family soon start to crumble as the hotel’s creeping influence grows. While actress Shelley Duvall comes across as rather weak and fragile in the film, book Wendy is far stronger at handling the situation, although she does have a tendency to just go to bed when things get really bad. Understandable! But while Jack’s mood gets increasingly darker, the real threat is of their souls becoming trapped in the hotel forever and ever…
It’s not all doom and gloom though and King’s dark sense of humour sometimes makes you laugh out loud. I won’t spoil the ending but it’s very different to the film. There are some unexpectedly ludicrous moments along the way, like when chef Dick Hallorann, the real hero of the story who attempts to rescue Danny, accidentally sets his own arm on fire whilst battling a haunted hedge animal.
Stanley Kubrick took quite a different approach and at the heart of his film version is a murderous psychopath in the wrong surroundings, rather than a relatively nice guy manipulated by evil forces. It’s an adaptation, not a translation, so rather than merely copying the book, Kubrick shapes the story. The result is a rare example of a book and a film feeling like genuinely separate works of art. That said, they’re equally terrifying.
Stephen King didn’t really like the film which is understandable because the subtlety of the story is somewhat lost. Jack’s madness descends very quickly and the hotel’s insidious grip is watered down. There is less focus on character, and Jack is only likeable at all thanks to Jack Nicholson’s charismatic performance.
But that sense of ambiguity increases the viewer’s unease, and the innovative hand-held camera work creates an unnerving sense of being crept up on.
It says a lot about the current climate that horror has become the new normal genre, both at the cinema and on TV, but The Shining doesn’t resort to extreme gore or violence. It’s a visual feast that feels like a classic in its own right.
So, in the month of October, if you’re feeling curious then why not read the book and then watch the film on Halloween? Go ahead. If you dare…
‘You’re the caretaker, sir… You’ve always been the caretaker.’