The book ‘The Shining’ was released in 1977 by Stephen King. Stanley Kubrick created ‘The Shining’ movie, inspired by King’s novel three years after its release. Both versions are infamous and undoubtedly seared into the collective human consciousness—teaching us the fundamental lesson to never stay in a haunted hotel over the winter. But which version of this infamous narrative is the best?
King Hated the Movie
King expressed: “That’s what’s wrong with [Stanley Kubrick’s] The Shining . . . the movie has no heart; there’s no centre to the picture.” After watching and reading both versions, I can confirm, King isn’t exactly wrong. The book contains an infinitely more emotional backstory to every character in it; they are impeccably human, with their faults and all.
In Kubrick’s ‘The Shining’, Jack Torrance seems to begin the movie as mentally disturbed, even before going into the hotel. The movie contains masterfully disturbing camerawork and music, constantly reminding us that something sinister is at work. The ‘Jack’ played by Nicholson obviously has aggression and drinking issues and a more than uncomfortable relationship with his wife and child. Kubrick takes the fundamental issues of King’s ‘Jack’ and generates an utterly terrifying figure of abuse.
However, the movie character is somewhat two-dimensional compared to the novel’s construction of Jack Torrance. Similarly, the characters of Wendy, Danny, and Hallorann are not described or built-up to the elaborate extent they are in the novel. But, as a director, Kubrick has to decide which bits are necessary to his own masterpiece—and as fascinating as each separate narrative is, Kubrick’s ‘The Shining’ functions perfectly well without the embellishment and depth. King said: “I wrote the book as a tragedy, and if it was a tragedy, it was because all the people loved each other.”
This, perhaps, is why King disapproves of the film so strongly; he writes about people, experiences, and truth. Kubrick’s version focuses on mental illness, discomfort, aesthetic brilliance, and plain good horror.
King Revolted by Adapting His own Version, But it Flopped
In 1997, King decided to make his own motion-picture adaptation of the Shining in the form of a three-episode mini-series. The narrative space provided by a miniseries meant King could keep some of his backstory and emphasize the emotional turmoil at the heart of the horror. Additionally, the mini-series (as the novel outlined) emphasized the supernatural elements to the story—There is no doubt about it, the Overlook Hotel is haunted and turns Jack bad; not just bad, but a demon of some sort. Kubrick’s depictions of the supernatural can be read as symbolic of mental illness and schizophrenic episodes. The movie’s “ghosts” pave the way for Jack’s complete psychotic breakdown and he attempts to kill his family. Whilst the mini-series is more faithful to the original text, it simply doesn’t measure up to Kubrick’s cinematic gem. . .And, honestly? I’ve heard it’s not a great watch. . .At all.
Can the Movie and the Book even be Compared?
King’s novel explores issues of addiction and pressures of parenthood. As an ex-addict and a parent from an early age, the book is closely inspired by his own, sensitive experiences. He, very much so, put his heart into it. To a certain degree, we must ask, can Kubrick really tell a story that is not his own? Will it ever be as the original author intended?
The answer is, of course not. Adaptation and change are an inevitability when it comes to writing. Even in the act of reading, readers project their own perceptions and experiences onto the text. It’s odd to think that, technically, nobody will ever experience King’s original ‘The Shining’ because, well, we aren’t Stephen King. This writer-reader dynamic is something King is perfectly aware of, as he states in his book ‘On Writing’—but perhaps it is the way Kubrick has dismembered the themes of the novel to create his own cinematic Frankenstein.
King believes that the movie misses the point, but seems unwilling to accept that the movie wasn’t aiming for that in the first place. Kubrick has done something wonderful: He’s turned a four-hundred-and-fifty-page book into a two-and-a-half-hour movie (neither of which are short, by any means), and created something aesthetically wonderful, and emotionally/intellectually stimulating. Whilst the movie doesn’t quite reach out as far as the book, it has gotten countless people interested in King’s work.
To sum up, these masterpieces aren’t really comparable— because they are different stories. Whilst the furniture of the narratives are similar, the rest of these elaborate texts are unrecognisable to each other.
The novel ‘The Shining’ could win for its tragedy, its imagery, its characters. . .But Kubrick’s ‘The Shining’ doesn’t stray far behind with its outstanding camera-work, its ability to create tension, and its artistic brilliance. Both are masterpieces, and both are worth engaging with.
But one thing is for sure: The Shining mini-series is best kept locked in room 237. Sorry, Stephen.
Thank you for reading. We’d love to know what you think: Which is better, the book or the film? Let us know in the comments below.