Words by Erik Winther
Scary novels have captivated readers since Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in 1817, and scary movies have kept viewers enthralled since at least 1910, when no less a filmmaker than Thomas Edison released his 16-minute silent adaptation of that same novel. Many people enjoyed the stagy black-and-white movie, and to this day mostly everyone loves the groundbreaking novel. However, even back then there were complaints about the changes made to the story in its translation from page to screen.
Fast-forward 70 years to 1980, when Stanley Kubrick’s film version of Stephen King’s best-seller The Shining was delighting some and frustrating others in exactly the same way as Edison’s project did: a legendary talent (Edison, then Kubrick) taking a beloved author’s famous horror novel (Shelley’s, then King’s) and creating a film that was entirely its own animal.
The novel still sells millions of copies and the film is consistently voted one of the best horror movies on Netflix, so why the dissatisfaction from moviegoers over the book and readers over Kubrick’s cinematic version? The reasons have to do with the unavoidable “slimming down” of a rich and complicated text into a comprehensible visual experience.
Stephen King himself has been very vocal over the years about his dislike for the 1980 movie—he directed a miniseries of the book in 1997, a bloated and mediocre treatment fans were right to ignore. His version was highly faithful to the book compared to Kubrick’s, but the very changes King and his fans complained about ended up contributing to a horror film even detractors know is a classic (even if they don’t like it).
What kinds of changes were made to the book in order to bring Kubrick’s vision to life? Everything from what characters were supposed to look like to major characters dying differently in the movie than in the book—or even dying in the movie when they survived to fill important roles in the novel’s conclusion.
Some of the most-noticed changes, some minor and some major:
Room 237: In the book, the hotel room where the evil of the Overlook is concentrated is number 217. While it might not seem like a big deal, it was very important to the Oregon hotel where the interiors of the fictional Overlook were filmed. The hoteliers were concerned that guests would be too scared to book room 217 once the movie came out, so they asked the filmmakers to change it to 237, a room number the Mt. Hood hotel didn’t have.Amusingly, the hotel owners were wrong about guests and “scary” room 217—to this day, it is by far their most requested once those booking learn it’s the “real” room from The Shining. (Also, this change is cited in the fascinating documentary Room 237 as evidence that Kubrick “knew” the Apollo landings were faked, the moon’s orbit averaging 237,000 miles from Earth.
Wendy’s meekness: In King’s book, Jack Torrance’s wife, Wendy, is described as being blonde and looking like a model, with an assertive and confident personality to match. While moviegoers are used to characters looking completely different in movies based on books—the character played by Arnold Schwarzenegger in Total Recall was based by Philip K. Dick on Woody Allen—the change from Farrah Fawcett lookalike to Shelley “Olive Oyl” Duvall was reflected in the meek and passively terrified “victim” portrayal of Wendy in the film.
Halloran dying: In one of the moments Stephen King is on record as hating the most about the movie version, Overlook cook Dick Halloran is killed with an axe by Jack Torrance. In the book, Halloran survives and becomes a mentor to Jack’s son, Danny, since he shares the psychic “shining” ability with the boy. (Many feel that this resulted in the 30-page anticlimactic conclusion to the novel, perhaps Kubrick included.)
What is it that’s evil?: In the novel, it is strongly suggested that the Overlook Hotel itself is evil, having absorbed the violence and horror that occurred within it over the decades. This evil “infects” Jack and pushes him over the edge into insanity and murder. In the movie, however, Torrance is on the verge of madness before he ever steps foot onto the property; his alcoholism is a sign of his weakness that the hotel’s ghosts take advantage of.King would revisit the idea of a haunted and malevolent hotel room in his short story “Room 1408” (which was itself made into a film starring John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson) and of an entire horror-drenched town in his Castle Rock cycle of stories and books. He explored this idea in his miniseries adaptation of The Shining as well.
Ending: One of the most obvious and, to some, bothersome aspects of the Kubrick film adaptation is how the story is resolved. In both the book and the movie, Jack tries to murder his wife and son; however, in the book, he is able to resist the influence of the Overlook long enough to spare them. In the movie, he freezes to death while trying to hunt them down. This reflects the source of evil in each version: in the novel, it’s the hotel. In the movie, it’s Jack Torrance himself.
Whether or not one prefers Stephen King’s original novel or what Stanley Kubrick did with his movie of The Shining, the cinematic vision of what happens at the Overlook Hotel is scary enough to make viewers want to keep the lights on while they watch…