The Absent Clock: Stephen King’s and Stanley Kubrick’s Versions of The Shining

Danny Lloyd as Danny Torrance   CCLI by quicheisinsane on Flickr
Danny Lloyd as Danny Torrance

The Shining contains themes of abuse, addiction, insanity and manipulative evil. What actually makes this story tick in the imagination?

I grew up watching horror movies on my father’s knee. The Shining was one of those films. I distinctly remember the eerie music playing as the little yellow Volkswagen Bug crept into the mountains.

Most novels easily surpass any film or theatrical adaptation, but Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining gives Stephen King a run for his money. It is an excellent film, perhaps largely because Kubrick was willing to stray from the original story in ways that allow the film to have a life of its own. Even so, there are things missing from his retelling which create a richer and scarier landscape in the novel. Many of these things are due to differences in medium. Visual and auditory elements work well in films, while psychological elements, such as internal monologues, do not. Characters like Tony, Danny’s imaginary friend, are difficult to portray and putting them onscreen forces Kubrick to make definitive choices which we are not forced to make as readers. For this reason any film adaptation will make our own imagination “wrong”. This is why they produce such strong reactions.

Ghost sistersCCLI by Adam Polselli on Flickr
Ghost sisters

Kubrick altered and added to the story, creating intense images that make the strongest impacts in the film, such as the blood pouring from the elevator, the ghostly sisters, and the hedge maze. He also managed to de-emphasize one of the central tenets of the story: that a place, or a supernatural inhabitant of a place, could be inherently evil and manipulative by feeding off the energy of its human inhabitants. While it isn’t devoid of supernatural elements, the movie plays up the more explicable side of the story, a man going insane who projects his insanity on his wife and son. The Jack Torrance of the book does a much better job of holding things together, and, as much as I enjoy watching Jack Nicholson play crazy, I wonder if seeing his insanity develop would have been more satisfying.

CCLI by quicheisinsane on Flickr

The most disappointing portrayal in the film is that of Wendy Torrance. Jack’s wife in the novel is a heroic female, torn between a husband and a son who are both behaving incoherently. By the end of the book she is operating extremely clearly in a way that anyone who has ever been through a traumatic situation will recognize. Hollywood wasn’t ready for that in 1980 and I’m not sure they are now. The horror genre has long been enamored of the screaming female and Shelley Duvall is quite the victim. I don’t fault her acting. The problem lies with Kubrick’s direction. His cruelty and meanness toward Shelley Duvall during filming is legendary and inexcusable. Jack’s rampage scene is made more horrific when you realize that Kubrick worked her into a state of mental and emotional panic. She isn’t acting; she’s coming apart before our eyes.

There is a chapter in the book which deals with a clock in the East Ballroom of the Overlook Hotel. This is one of my favorite chapters. It is absent from Kubrick’s realization.

Here in the Overlook all times were one. There was an endless night in August of 1945, with laughter and drinks and a chosen shining few going up and coming down in the elevator, drinking champagne and popping party favors in each other’s faces. It was a not-yet light morning in June some twenty years later and the organization hitters endlessly pumped shotgun shells into the torn and bleeding bodies of three men who went through their agony endlessly. In a room on the second floor a woman lolled in her tub and waited for visitors.

Public Domain Image via Pixabay
Public Domain Image via Pixabay

In the Overlook all things had a sort of life. It was as if the whole place had been wound up with a silver key. The clock was running. The clock was running.

He was that key, Danny thought sadly. Tony had warned him and he had just let things go on. — The Shining, Chapter 37, The Ballroom

For me this hints at what is most terrifying about the Overlook Hotel: that the forces behind the place are able to subvert time. They hold on to certain people and replay them over and over, never allowing them to rest or be at peace. Even worse, they are able to alter and control events in the present through these replays, by intimidating and even touching the living. The terrifying lady in the bath tub nearly strangles Danny, leaving marks. Kubrick doesn’t portray this onscreen, leaving us to wonder if Jack, or perhaps Danny himself, is responsible.

It strikes me as odd that Kubrick deleted so many of the elements that spoke overtly of the predatory evil of the Overlook Hotel. Was it that he didn’t believe in these elements or was it that they symbolized something he himself wasn’t willing to deal with: that there might be inhuman evil that could turn a man into a monster from the outside? Regardless, both the film and the novel are masterpieces, albeit masterpieces that tell different stories.

Video via KnightKobra49 on Youtube.

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