Most of the time, I read the book before I see the movie. (If I see the movie at all, that is.) This time, I saw the 1980 movie version of The Shining before I read the 1977 novel by Stephen King. The biggest reason I read the book first is so that I can create version of the characters in my head before a movie puts a concrete interpretation there. Because I’ve already seen the movie, I couldn’t help but picture Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Scatman Cruthers, and that kid with the bowl cut acting out a slightly different version of events as I read. I kept waiting for the “Here’s Johnny!” moment even though I know Nicholson ad-libbed it. Because the film and the book are so similar (apart from the endings), it was hard to not compare the two. Both versions creeped me right the hell out. They succeeded there. But the endings? It’s hard to decide which is more satisfying. At this point, I can’t choose which version I prefer.
The plot of The Shining is simple enough to summarize. Jack Torrance, writer, recovering alcoholic, and very angry man, takes a job as the winter caretaker at the Overlook Hotel. The road to the Overlook closes during the winter, but the company that runs it needs someone to make sure the place survives the snow and the wind. For a writer and a recovering drinker, five months in a hotel with no alcohol and no way to get any is a great gig. He can finish his play. He can build new sober habits. His wife, Wendy, isn’t too keen but she’s willing to go along. Their son, Danny, is even less keen. He’s been having dreams about terrible things happening at the Overlook. Danny has what is later called the shine. He knows what people are feeling and thinking. Sometimes, he knows when things happen or will happen to people. The Overlook scares him, but he doesn’t have much choice about where he goes, being five years old.
The Overlook has a sordid, bloody history. Something “lives” there. It goes to work on Jack and Danny as soon as the Torrance family moves in and everyone else moves out. Things are good at first. Jack makes a breakthrough with his play. Danny learns to avoid bad spots. Wendy worries, but she’s a worrier. Nothing, at first, is objectively wrong. That changes when Jack gets interested in the hotel’s history. For a while, the novel treads the line between the supernatural and the more spectacular varieties of mental illness. Then all three start to get flashes of the hotel’s history—the suicides, the murders, the things that have carried on haunting the place—that can’t be explained away as hallucinations or tricks of the light.
What interested me most about this book wasn’t Danny; it was Jack. Jack is the kind of man who never takes responsibility for his actions. It’s the booze that makes him lose control of his temper. It was that kid who lost him his job at the prep academy. It was his father who made him the way he was. At the Overlook, Jack starts to blame his inability to control his temper on Wendy. The book is peppered with Jack’s attempts to put the blame on everyone around him. This would be bad enough, but it makes him susceptible to the hotel’s flattery and promises. Many sections in The Shining are told as streams-of-consciousness, so we’re in Jack’s head while it churns up his anger, guilt, and sense of entitlement. Even without Danny’s dreams, it isn’t hard to tell that while five months alone might be a good idea for Jack, it’s a terrible idea for anyone locked up with him.
The Shining is a hefty story at nearly 500 pages, but it didn’t feel like almost 500 pages when I read it. The chapters flew by. Even though I knew, roughly, what was going to happen, King’s prose completely captured my attention and it was hard to tear myself away when I had to go teach a couple of library workshops this morning. Early Stephen King is hard to beat for gripping, terrifying reads. I’m really glad my book club chose this for our November read.
All that said, I really want to talk about the endings of the book and the movie. If you don’t want to be spoiled, stop reading here.
The ending of the original story of The Shining is spectacular, but not as iconic as the ending of Kubrick’s film, with the image of Nicholson’s pissed off frozen face. In King’s version, Jack has lost control of himself to the hotel and its ghosts. He’s beaten his wife. Then chases his son all over the hotel, intending to beat the boy to death. But when the moment comes, Jack fights through the hotel’s influence and saves his son. Jack gets his redemption. There’s no redemption in the film version. Kubrick’s ending is one of triumph over evil. King’s ending is more complex. For that reason, I might like the original ending a little bit more than the film ending.