Monday 6 May 2013

The Shining: Book vs Film

I feel its worthy of note that Stephen King's The Shining was one of the first books I ever read, and as Kubrick's movie adaptation was already one of my all time favorites, it was to me not just a comparison of which of these acclaimed artists could do the most with the same story, but actually which medium was better. I must warn you that on my long trek through the halls of the Overlook I did not manage to find a definitive answer (as if you expected one) but I do feel that both the film and book, which both transcend the age-old haunted house horror genre to become something more, are excellent examples of what is good and bad in each medium. I suppose what I like about each medium is subjective, and I'm sure there are those who happily disagree with me and pick one over the other.

But then again, it is my opinion, so you might as well take it as fact.

So where to begin with such a comparison? The plot of both works is usually given, yet I have long since found much reason to describe the premise of whatever I am reviewing, both because if your on this blog then I'm going to say you've got an internet connection and that you can find that info out for yourself, and because no-one's paying me, which makes any complaints over my lack of explanation paper thin. Lets just say that Jack Nicholson, or Jack Torrance depending on your medium, has got a great new job as a caretaker in a haunted house secluded enough to let all of the horror you will find here possible.

Reviewing the Movie 
The hedge-made labyrinth which is only a fleeting bit of background information in the book is not only a key location for the movie, but a symbol of exactly what Kubrick was going for. The whole movie is a giant labyrinth, giving you enough to play with that you understand the big picture, yet withholding a lot of the important details. I won't list the many unexplained anomalies of the Overlook, and the cabin fever vs the supernatural argument leads nowhere when the whole point of the movie is clearly open to anyone's interpretation, but Kubrick does plant images for the audience that almost feel like there leading you somewhere if you follow them long enough. The most glaringly obvious one being that picture at the end of the movie; Was Jack absorbed into the house? Is he simply reliving an endless cycle that has happened before? Did Kubrick even know himself what he was going for here?

If you don't believe me that this story - presented, and even marketed to us, as a traditional haunted house movie that moves into slasher territory when the shit starts to hit the fan - is actually a multi-dimensional mindfuck, leading us down as many possible explanations as there are never-ending corridors in the hotel it's set in, then just look up recently released documentary "Room 237". Whether you believe the theorists in that film are wackos or intelligible fans who have managed to pick away at the movie long enough to find things no-one else has spotted before, it's undeniable the film was made with the idea that the audience can believe what they want to believe, intended by the filmmakers or not.

As for the film itself, I've already said it's one of my favorites. It's that perfect mix of a brilliant art film from a master filmmaker (Kubrick, who was great because of how easily do-able he made being a genius look) that's managed to camouflage itself as a piece of genre entertainment. It also helps it was derided on release and only picked up its adoring fans years later (the greatest movie ever to be nominated for a razzie?).

Kubrick of course made the bold claim on release that this was the scariest film ever made. Some might mistake this as a moronic claim, a simple piece of shock excess with the obvious intention of getting asses into cinema seats (aided of course by the fact that he was in the golden era of horror: Halloween and Alien already out, Freddie Kruger just around the corner) yet I will give Kubrick the benefit of the doubt in knowing what he was doing. He was subverting the mainstream masses expectations. He did this again and again throughout his career. Just look at his final laugh at the mainstream; his supposed "erotic thriller" Eyes Wide Shut, starring at the time-hollywoods favorite couple, which was really a complex psychological drama that was all about how something big and sexy turned out to be completely different to how Mr. Respectable Everyman thought it would be (sounding familiar?)

Yet the real reason Kubrick's claim that The Shining was the pinacle of multiplex terror never sat well with me was because this isn't really a traditional horror movie at all; more a gory fairy tale. Don't get me wrong, there is a long list of horrifying images sprung throughout this film (and I'm guessing the Grady-twins would rank top of most people's lists) and there's a feeling of growing dread throughout the film. Yet there's something so mystical about this movie to me. It's not set in a run-down camp lodge, or in a city framed in total darkness; it's set in a really nice looking hotel, with beautiful views on the outside, and an inside that's filled with lots of wide open space that is filmed amazingly with Kubrick's steadicam, which captures the feeling of being a small kid in a big place perfectly. And it's not an un-killable monster coming to kill the lead characters in their dreams, it's just some guy who goes crazy while care-taking a hotel. Most filmakers cover their movies in a sheet of blood, yet Kubrick's film is covered in the childlike glow of christmas time snow.

Then there was another reason why the movie was so great: Jack Nicholson. The man is an acting powerhouse, at least in the 70s and early 80s, after which he simply became a cool guy with a great reputation. Nicholson is hilarious here. I've heard people complain over the fact that Nicholson plays the character like a psycho, not the loving family man who slowly declines into madness like described in the book. Yet that's part of the fun of this movie, Jack is a character destined for what he will become in the Overlook. It's not until he starts swinging that axe that we see that trademark-Nicholson grin creep onto his face.

The over the top-ness of Nicholson, contrasted with the endless shrieking of Shelley Duvall, and the cliche scary movie kid portrayed by Danny Lloyd (an archetype which audiences would never accept in the same way today) create the high points of the movie. One sequence, where Nicholson backs Duvall all of the way up the stairs after she has discovered his "novel", was famously shot a record 102 times. You could argue that to be excessive (and damn funny when you find out Kubrick used the second take) yet it nevertheless is one of the most intense scenes ever filmed.

Yet the highpoints of the movie are the sequences set in the ballroom, where Jack's alcoholism gets the better of him in either his own self-serving psyche, or as part of the Overlook's manipulation. It's great just to watch Nicholson act here. To see him finally accept the madness going on around him and implant himself into the song and dance thats being orchestrated for him. Kubrick, to the dismay of many fans (and King himself) altered the book heavily when adapting it to screen, but this sequence is taken almost directly from the book. Yet in the book we are fully aware of why all of this is happening (the benefit of the house) and we are simply witnessing Jack Torrance be turned into a monster. Conversely, Kubrick's ballroom is filled with light, energy and music. This Jack Torrance is already in on the joke. He is already a monster, no need to be tricked into anything. King played for the ironic horror, Kubrick played for the twisted laughs.

Reviewing the Book
As I've said, this was one of my first books, and my first Stephen King. The man, with his long going reputation as the master of horror, and the distinction of being the only writer on this side of J.K.Rowling to still be a household name, had a big reputation to live up to in my mind. Which was why I was so surprised when I found the book so funny, at least early on. Not to say it's a secret comedy that's still fooling people, simply that King sprinkles enough humour here and there to lift the book up from what could have been a drab pit of depression into something more relatable.

What's so funny? Mostly just the internal thoughts of Jack Torrance, starting off with his hatred of the hotel's owner Mr. Ullman, an arse-hole who's sleazy personality is glossed over completely in the movie.

The book itself is a strong one. King himself is no Thomas Pynchon; he feels more a well trained author who knows the ins-and-outs of writing than someone who is experimenting and bending the rules of writing, but his writing is more than just competent, and he makes The Shining a very easy, if at times very slow read.

And by god is it slow. King throws enough weird happenings and paranormal outbursts to keep the reader interested in the horror side of things, yet it's clear King was much more interested in the characters, most specifically Jack, who's own alcoholism and past abuse of his family were partly auto-biographical for King. The idea Jack is an alcoholic is a main theme throughout the book, and the supernatural elements in the book seem to be a metaphor for an abused family that (like many families imprisoned by abuse) simply ignores the problems. King makes the point that for a family like this, all of the cracks would come to the surface if they were trapped together in a big empty house for a winter.

In truth, while I wouldn't argue against the books reputation as a horror classic, it seems to me King - at least for this book - was more a great ideas-man, less a brilliant storyteller. The best bits of the book are the ones clearly more personal to king; the ones not at all involving axe murderers and ghosts. Which means that when the book does plough head first into these things the book does suffer, and the slow build up stops allowing for more character development and instead stands in the way of the action, which apart from the finale which is a real highlight, is the low point of the book.

Then again, when King does get going-he really gets going. He's damn good at creating well rounded characters. If you thought Jack's transformation into a madman in the movie was simply too sudden a change then you'll find the book has a lot more to offer you, showing the man's slow decline from loving but flawed family man to killer. Other characters are also given a bigger spotlight in the book, most notably Dick Hollaran the Overlook's chef. It would be fair to say Kubrick turns all of his characters into much simpler stick figures, not a bad thing when it allows for the story and action to speed up a lot more, yet King gives his characters space to breath, and the extra backstory to all of the characters should be the main selling point for any fans of the film who haven't read the book yet.

It's an enjoyable if overlong horror book which celebrates it's own sick darkness and gory imagery in the same way that the film celebrates it's more fantastical imagery and outlook of childhood.

(Spoilers incoming) 
It should be clear to you by now that it's the movie that I prefer. Both are enjoyable experiences, but Kubrick takes the haunted house template in King's novel and makes it about something completely different. That's why he cut so much from the book. I'm guessing when Kubrick read the book he wasn't that bothered about the story of Jack, Wendy and Danny, instead he saw an opportunity to make a film about the medium's infinite opportunities, and create a heavily calculated mystery of a film filled with hidden symbols and symmetrical frames.

So What's different about the two works? Well the backstory of the book mainly concerns Jack's years of being a struggling alcoholic schoolteacher, a stint ending with him crashing into a bike while drink driving. He doesn't kill anybody, but the moment when he think's he did put's him off the bad stuff for a while.

Another big difference is in the character of Hollaran. In the film he is a martyr, his sole purpose being to bring the slow plough to the hotel so Wendy and Danny can escape. In the book, not only are his backstory back at his home and his journey to the hotel both filled in, but he doesn't die at all. He doesn't save the day in total heroic fashion and gets them out of the hotel alright.

The most glaring change is the way Jack dies. In the film he freezes to death in the hedge-maze. In the book a plot-point is set up early on that Jack must attend to the boiler everyday or the hotel will blow sky high, and yes you guessed it? In the middle of all the carnage he forgets to check it and is killed in the explosion. The reason for the change? Maybe Kubrick just wanted to keep the evil at the hotel still alive for his audience even after his characters escaped. Or maybe he was making the ultimate contrast between the book by turning fire into ice.

I won't go into all of the differences. They're unimportant really. i did get two things from the comparison:
1) Books are for the detail. Yes, they can tell you more than films and can tell you what characters are thinking. But all of that is really in service of giving more backstory/detail to the plot, and raising more points to the reader that they may not already be thinking about.
2) Movies are for the experience. Filmmakers can experiment with what their medium is a lot more than authors can. I see here that Kubrick didn't go for the backstory, he went for the overarching horror experience, he wanted to put in all of the great elements of the book and let his audience figure the rest out.

Other Readings of The Shining 
The Shining has meshed into the pop-culture stratosphere over the years, a film that everyone knows even if they haven't seen it, so it makes sense that a lot of people would have things to say about it. Here are just some of the best I've found:
  • Scanner, one of my favorite film blogs which is run by Jim Emerson, wrote an article about the theories surrounding the film and doc Room 237. Read it here. 
  • Critic Richard T. James, someone you should definitely check out if you haven't already, was an early supporter of the film. His review was eye-opening to me. 
  • There are a number of analysis' of the film on the internet. This one explores the hidden meanings and ideas of duality in the film. This one talks about the films many complexities. 
  • Oh yeah, and there's this too: 

And here's some cool pictures I found while looking for some artwork for this post: 

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