Take Two | Stephen King’s ‘The Shining’ vs. Stanley Kubrick’s ‘The Shining’

Take Two | Stephen King’s ‘The Shining’ vs. Stanley Kubrick’s ‘The Shining’

We’ve covered many things thus far in the “Take Two” series, remakes and originalsreboots and now with Mike Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep coming out this week, I thought there was no better time to add a new layer to this series, an examination of book and movie. Stephen King’s novel and Stanley Kubrick’s movie, The Shining. 

The King’s Words

Source: Getty Images

Released in 1977, The Shining was Stephen King’s third novel after Carrie and Salem’s Lot. The book was inspired by the author’s stay at The Stanley Hotel in Boulder, Colorado as it was closing down for the season. This inspiration took him away from the New England setting of his first two novels and formed a novel that was informed by the works of Shirley Jackson and Edger Allen Poe.

Often cited as one of his best novels, ‘The Shining’ reads quickly for a novel of 659 illustrious pages. His prose isn’t overly flowery but still communicates to the core. King is able to string together sentences and paragraphs that envelop any reader in the atmosphere and isolation of the empty hotel.

Perhaps the best way to understand this work and its relationship to Kubrick’s film is to exam this novel by way of authorship (not always the best way to go about this, but it feels appropriate for here).

Source: Warner Bros./Hawk Films

At this time, King was struggling with alcoholism. Addiction is something that is a theme throughout King’s work as it was in his own personal life. The Shining has many aspects but the novel is based on two pronounced themes: alcoholism and fatherhood.

The main character in Jack Torrence (played by Jack Nicholson in the movie) is an aspiring writer who has a history of alcoholism, which spilled over into a violent incident with his son, Danny.

Throughout the novel, we are plunged into Jack’s mind. We witness his sorrow,  regret and continued desire to be better for his family. King creates Jack with great empathy and makes you feel how he feels.

As the spooky hauntings begin to take their toll on the family trying to reconnect with on another, Jack inches further toward his greatest flaws. King’s writing is intensely committed to character and, at his best gets, you invested emotionally. 

This fable of a crumbling family allows you to spend time with everyone and become intimate with Danny, Jack, and Wendy. The final pages of horror aren’t just scary because of King’s mastery over the genre but because it’s all happening to a family you care about and are invested in knowing. 

torrance family“Sometimes you confess. You always hide what you’re confessing to. That’s one of the reasons why you make up the story. When I wrote The Shining, for instance, the protagonist of The Shining is a man who has broken his son’s arm, who has a history of child beating, who is beaten himself.

And as a young father with two children, I was horrified by my occasional feelings of real antagonism toward my children. Won’t you ever stop? Won’t you ever go to bed?” ~Stephen King 

The book is a strong statement of truth from a writer and artist some have dismissed as an author of “penny dreadfuls” and thematically is carried throughout the novel. It’s not just a story of alcoholism but specifically fatherhood and those moments where violence visits upon children. It’s a calculated and thoughtful meditation on those themes. 

The novel was an instant best-seller further solidifying King’s place in pop culture and a voice of a single genre. Soon, the novel caught the attention of a very famous filmmaker. 

Kubrick’s Eyes

On the Set of The Shinning
Source: Getty Images

After the box-office disappointment of Barry Lyndon, Stanley Kubrick jumped on board to direct the adaptation of King’s work. Quickly, King found himself on the outside of every decision as Kubrick hired novelist Diane Johnson to co-write Kubrick’s script and making every casting choice counter to what King envisioned.

After a grueling production that included a set burning down and abusive treatment of lead actress Shelley Duvall, the film was released to mixed reviews and even Razzie nominations. The film’s reputation grew over time as a home video hit and eventually gained the iconic status it holds today.

And rightfully so.

18ZOStanley Kubrick’s The Shining is a visual masterpiece in the horror genre as he used every possible tool in the film vocabulary language to create a genuine unease in the audience at every turn.

Watching The Shining you get the impression through every scene that something is cosmically wrong with the characters and setting.

The place isn’t just haunted but everything feels like premeditated;  predestined as the characters march into a world bigger than themselves.

Kubrick is a filmmaker not interested in divulging answers to his stories, providing sharp distance between the viewers and authorial intent. It’s partly the reason why 2001: A Space Odyssey’s ending is so out of reach for a definitive explanation but still so hypnotic and brimming with purpose and visual meaning.

The Shining works on a similar level. There are throwaway lines that might hint toward an explanation but, at the same time, Kubrick also presents every image and ghostly occurrence as something rooted with a character’s own perspective. Are their perspectives reliable? An answer doesn’t matter to Kubrick creating an uneasy indifference to reality. 

kubrick collectionWith movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Dr. Strangelove, and A Clockwork Orange under his belt, Kubrick has proven to be a master of his craft. He understands how to utilize sound and hard cuts to elicit fear from the audience. Something as simple as Danny riding his big wheel across a series of rugs and hardwood floors creates a pattern of sounds that cuts through the emptiness of the hotel all while being carefully followed by a Steadicam gives the movie moment of quiet anxiety.

The musical score (credited to Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind, although many pieces are also partly selected by Kubrick as part of his repertoire) is one of the biggest driving forces of the film. Mixed together with his careful dolly and slow push-in shots and Kubrick paints a frame of constant eeriness. Often, he will also make hard cuts to Danny’s visions. 

A modern filmmaker might be tempted to throw in a loud noise to scare you but Kubrick trusts his visuals is scary enough. Because there is no jump scare to make these edits make us look away, our eyes stay glued on the screen as we take in every detail of these visions leaving an everlasting terror. 

King vs. Kubrick

Source: AFP/Dia Dipasupil – AFP/STF

Now we arrive at the heart of this discussion. Stephen King has spoken a great deal about his dislike for Kubrick’s version of the story.

King is deeply rooted within character, personal demons, and his own experiences. Kubrick is more interested in environment and using the characters as a vehicle to explore that environment. 

It’s hard to exactly pick between the two. One is a question of medium. What purpose does it serve picking between a book and a movie when both art forms having their unique strengths and weaknesses?

the shining tv
Courtesy of: Lakeside Productions/Warner Bros. TV

I was tempted to examine the later mini-series, Stephen King wrote the screenplay. The mini-series was released in 1997 and a comparison between the mini-series and Kubrick would be too unfair. While the mini-series isn’t as bad as some have claimed, it also existed in an era where TV neither got the time or budget that it does today.  

As much of a cop-out as it may seem, instead of having to choose between the two, understanding the difference between them provides more clarity and purpose. Both are master works of their respective mediums and within the genres they occupy.

The question of King’s differences with Kubrick seem less to do with authorial ego and more to do ideological differences in storytelling.

King’s story is a tragedy of family drama rich in character development. The book taking the approach of the horror of the hotel also allows the demons you bring to it (a theme much like Shirley Jackson’s Haunting of Hill House). Kubrick doesn’t seem to care about that at all. Those themes don’t seem as interesting to him, which is why he opted instead for a story of environment. 

the shining movie
Courtesy of: Warner Bros./Hawk Films

I saw the movie first and was memorized. It instantly taught me about the grammar of horror films and how to create not brief moments of shock but instead eternal terror through sight and sound. It remains one of my favorite movies in general. I got around to the novel much later in my life. I was half-expecting to side with the film in some preconceived argument that was in my head, but then I was disarmed.  

Not only did King’s steady prose bring me into the world but I felt emotionally attached to the characters, enveloped in their lives and even though I knew how the book ending I felt myself rooting for the family to overcome their own demons. When Jack starts his descent, my stomach knotted up and I wished desperately for him to make different choices. The book hooked me on my emotions along with descriptions of terror. 

Where does that leave me? 

Two versions of the story that stimulates two different parts of me. My own personal storytelling sensibilities towards attachment to characters make me lean towards King’s words being more sympathetic to his views. But the part of me that loves ambiguity and analytical filmmaking makes me lean towards Kubrick.

Either way, I love both versions. It has been said that Mike Flanagan is looking to bridge the gap between the two with Doctor Sleep.  Will he pull it off?  That’s a review for another time. 


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I'm a film fan that hailed from the spooky rural area of Vermont before getting my film degree in Chicago. I love reading, watching film, and writing in nearly all capacities. Currently working towards my MFA in Creative Writing. I enjoy discussion so let's have some!
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