Few people will approach The Shining by Stephen King without having seen, or at least heard about, the 1980 movie starring Jack Nicholson and directed by Stanley Kubrick. The story follows writer and recovered alcoholic Jack Torrance, his wife Wendy, and his psychic son Danny, when Jack becomes caretaker of a hotel hiding a dark past. While reading King’s book, I was distraught to see that such an incredible cult-classic film was based on such a displeasing novel. However, this pain was temporary as my mind became accustomed to the work’s simplistic style and odd, somewhat surreal dialogue. Once adjusted, The Shining became a different sort of entertainment: campier, less serious, but nonetheless meritorious and worth reading, if only to prove how ridiculously talented Kubrick was as an adaptor of the book.
King will rarely force you to utilize a dictionary, which is comforting in a way. His work will not make you ponder philosophical quandaries, nor fear for your life (unless you are reading at night in an old creaky house, as I foolishly did), but The Shining has a certain effect. It draws you in, like the hotel draws its unfortunate caretaker into its corridors. In this way, King is a master of enticement. Towards the end of the novel, I was speed-reading in frenzied anticipation of what would become of Wendy and Danny. However, the plot twists are as simple and reliable as the writing style. Nothing about the book is subtle, from Jack’s evident character flaws to a multitude of horrific events that make the final scene anti-climactic. The final scene is perhaps the largest disappointment. After devouring 659 pages, albeit quick ones, the reader face a conclusion that feels like a man shooting a machine gun in every direction and somehow still missing his target. The nose-dive in subtlety and complexity by the end of the text is disappointing.
The plot events are the area in which the book falters most. These parts are improved in the movie version (described in the documentary Room 237), which I will compare with the book to show how slight changes could have made the text more effective. The roque mallet that is so integral to the book’s horror is far more frightening as an axe in the movie. Wendy’s blonde hair turns into Shelley Duvall’s pale skin, dark hair, and noticeable teeth in the movie, an understated way create the traditional image of the gothic heroine and mother.
At the same time, the book’s many (often extraneous) background details result in some worthwhile contributions to the plot. Jack’s alcoholism is well trod-out, but his friendship with Al Shockley is relatable. Danny’s spells of psychic powers grow tiring after a few pages, and I sighed with relief when those chapters came to a close. While the first scene of the book is an unrealistic mess, the way in which Jack teases Mr. Ullman delivers comic relief like Mercutio and Lear’s fool manage to do in Shakespeare’s plays.
Most importantly, Wendy’s relationship with her mother has a dimensionality that the rest of the book lacks. Wendy is easily the most sympathetic character in the book, and her narrations are the most enjoyable to read. Because of the book’s role in pop culture, readers may already know some of the story before embarking on The Shining. As the reader realizes Jack’s state of mind alongside Wendy, readers who know what will happen can find as much fear and confusion in Wendy’s discovery as those who will be experiencing the story for the first time.
The Shining is not a great book. In terms of its subtlety and writing style, it is not an especially good book either. But its redeeming qualities, which include its many perspectives, interesting characters, stirring plotline, and quick surprises, save the book from campy melodrama and make the story well worth reading on a trip to the beach or a road trip.