This is the third (and most recent) in a series of posts on The Shining. If you want to find the first post in the series, it’s here; and if you want to find the previous post in the series, it’s here.
Alex and I both ended up with more questions than answers about The Shining when we watched the film, and in my first post I wondered if the novel would answer any of them. Well, I’ve finished the novel now and I’m happy to say that it did indeed answer many of our questions. Of course, it raised a bunch of its own questions, which I’m both happy about because it’s food for thought, and irritated about, because there’s nowhere else we can go to get answers. Unless the TV miniseries that Stephen King wrote answers them, but given King was famously angry with the changes Kubrick made for the film (though apparently he’s mellowed towards it in the decades since it was made), it seems unlikely he’d make changes to his own work and give us all the answers. I’ll probably still check the miniseries out at some point though.
As with the previous two posts, this one comes with a spoiler warning. I’ll be discussing both the film and the novel, and will be assuming that any readers know what happens in both of them. I say ‘both of them’ because the novel is really quite different from the film. It’s better, in my opinion.
As you mentioned, Alex, the characters in the film are really one-dimensional, but that’s not the case in the novel. Stephen King fleshes them out really well, and although he imbues Danny with more maturity than I think a normal 5 year old has (my daughter’s 4, and pretty mature and intelligent for her age – or so I think, being a proud dad – but there’s no way she’d be able to handle half the stuff Danny copes with) King gives all three main characters a lot of humanity. Way more than the film does.
Jack is a recovering alcoholic (he is in the film, too, but I think he only mentions this in passing), and he’s really suffering guilt and remorse at his actions when he drank, and is determined to stay clean and sober and make a better life for his family when the novel starts. He had an abusive, drunk father growing up, and Jack’s fear that he’ll end up like his own father is palpable. Wendy is far from the wet blanket she’s shown to be in the film; although I think she’s still the ‘weak’ link in the trio. Danny, as I said, is preternaturally mature, but still a small boy trying to deal with events far beyond him.
The events in the novel are subtler than they are in the film, and take a lot longer to drive Jack to the dark side. Of course, that’s one of the advantages a novel has over a film: you can fit a lot more in when you don’t have to tell the story in two hours. This means King can indulge in more of them, and these events do answer a lot of the questions we had about the film.
In the novel, it is the Overlook hotel itself that’s evil, and its aim is to get Jack to kill his family in order to prove his loyalty to it. Killing them would allow the hotel to consume their… actually, I’m not certain what. Their humanity? Their essence? Their souls? Whatever, it wants to consume them. It especially wants Danny, because if it can consume his Shining power, it will become even more sentient and powerful. Unlike my supposition about the film, the Overlook isn’t really interested in Jack at all. Danny’s who it wants (and King plays on Jack’s paranoia about this pretty well at several points), but here’s the first of my questions from the novel.
What’s the Overlook hoping to gain from consuming Danny? What’s its plan? Will it be able to drive more people crazy and get them to kill people? But again, why? I never really got a sense of what the Overlook wanted, other than to be evil. This leads on to my second question: what caused the Overlook to gain sentience? In the novel, we hear of a woman committing suicide (the woman in the bath) and a gang killing. But neither of those things seem ‘powerful’ enough to bring the hotel to life. Maybe it’s me being jaded, or maybe values have changed since King wrote the novel, but it doesn’t strike me that those things would do anything to bring the hotel to life. There’s suggestions that a child died in the playground, and we know that Grady killed his family, but as I recall, both those things are supposed to have happened after the hotel woke up. And we also know that the guy who built the hotel had a wife who died from a riding accident on the grounds, and a son who died of ‘flu (though I don’t think that happened at the hotel). He also accidentally electrocuted himself. But those deaths, while tragic, seem to me to be benign.
And here’s my favourite question (it’s actually two questions) – what’s going on with the owners? The first owner, the one who died, sold it to Harry Derwent, a William Randolph Hearst-alike who poured a lot of money into renovating it, and whose grand reopening party in 1945 seems to mark the awakening of the hotel (as the ghostly ball scenes from the novel seem to be from this party). He apparently sells it to the mob, but is actually still the owner thanks to some convoluted shell company-type dealings. What’s his story? How come he’s so obsessed with the hotel? And, question two on this subject: what’s with Jack’s friend Al Stockley? He’s rich, we know that. And he’s on the board of directors for the hotel (he actually has the controlling stake, so he’s pretty much the owner), and got Jack the job. But how did he get to be on the board of directors? How did he come to get the controlling stake in the hotel? How much does he know about the hotel? He phones Jack after Jack unwisely taunts Ullman, and tells Jack he can’t allow him to write a book that would make the hotel look bad, which implies he’s incredibly protective of the place. Does it also imply knowledge of The Overlook’s nature? And why does Wendy go to work for him at the end of the novel? She doesn’t like him, blaming him for a lot of Jack’s drinking, so the idea she’d willingly work for him doesn’t sit right with me. Perhaps she needs the money, but there was a lot of life insurance money from Jack’s death, so I’m not sure about that. Maybe the sequel will answer that one…
One thing I like about the book that doesn’t happen in the film is that Halloran survives. I thought the film was a bit odd in how it dealt with him: he’s set up as a source of aid, and when Danny calls to him he comes all the way from Florida to help. Then he walks through the door and IMMEDIATELY gets an axe in his chest. It felt almost like a bad joke how he was treated by Kubrick. King’s version of what happens sits better with me. He gets proper beaten up, but does in fact save Wendy and Danny (since he gets them away on a snowmobile). That just felt right when I read it.
Another interesting difference between the novel and the film (in my opinion) is how the two treat time. King is very clear when each event is happening, how long the Torrances have been in the Overlook, how long it’s taking Halloran to get there etc. Kubrick doesn’t tell us when the Torrances arrive at the hotel, and then his indications of time get more and more vague: he has several text ‘cards’ on screen which signify the passage of time, but they’re useless really. One of them says ‘one month later’, but without knowing how long the Torrances have been at the hotel in the scene before that (unless I’m misremembering which is possible), one month passing doesn’t mean anything. And things get worse from there: you then have days, but no dates. ‘Tuesday’ is shown, but that’s meaningless. Is it the Tuesday immediately after the ‘one month later’ card, or have there been other Tuesdays since then? Even if it is the first Tuesday since then, that’s no help. That could mean anything from one to seven days have passed since ‘one month later’. I like this aspect of Kubrick’s film though. It increases the sense of isolation and how every day is probably the same. It could be any Tuesday, because they’re all alike. Except for Jack’s declining mental state, that is.
I’m definitely interested in reading Doctor Sleep (the sequel novel to The Shining) to see if there are any answers in it. And since typing all this out, I’m interested in seeing the miniseries.
What did you think of the novel, Alex? Did you like Wendy more? Did you think the wasp motif was overused? What about the way Jack comes to sympathise with his father more and more the crazier he gets? And what about the hedge animals? I can’t decide whether I thought they were creepy or preposterous.