Why The Shining is a better film than novel

Jess Bradbury examines whether Stephen King was right to slate the 1980's film adaptation of horror classic The Shining

Jess Bradbury
17th October 2021
Image credit: IMDB
Rather infamously, the master of horror, Stephen King, has been open about his dislike for Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 version of The Shining. But as much as King likes to rant about the film adaptation, there’s no denying that it is one of - if not the most - iconic horror films of all time. 

I will preface this by saying I adore both The Shining as a novel and as a film - if the discussion was surrounding another of King’s novels, such as Pet Sematary, then I’d 100% be arguing the other way round. But there’s no denying that Kubrick’s film is a masterclass in penning horror from the page to the screen. Yes, there is the matter of fact that many plot points were changed for the film, but I believe this only strengthens the tension and terror in the two and a half-hour run time. 

Kubrick’s film is a masterclass in penning horror from the page to the screen

Firstly, Jack Nicholson’s performance as the head of the family, Jack Torrence, is remarkable. His portrayal of the character differs from that of the novel, in which Jack only becomes violent once the ghosts of the Overlook take control of him. In the film, Nicholson angrily grins and drags himself through interactions with his family - perhaps a decision that makes him one dimensional. However, it makes it clear from the offset that Jack is already close to insanity, and Nicholson depicts the monster that Jack Torrence becomes with near perfection. Kubrick’s version in my opinion is much more unsettling - it is obvious that the family man persona is all a facade and so the tension this creates is far more disturbing than that of the novel. His dark and unbalanced nature demonstrates that he isn’t inherently good, much as the novel would somewhat like him to be portrayed. Moreover, in the novel, the paranormal forces at work are less ambiguous in their influence over Jack’s behaviour, but the film suggests that it is more than feasible for him to be acting of his own accord.

Image credit: IMDB

Secondly, it is my opinion that the film ending is the better of the two. At the end of the novel, the Overlook explodes because of a broken boiler. However, the ending of the film goes in an altogether different direction as Wendy and Danny narrowly escape a frozen death with Jack. The camera then cuts to a corridor and focuses on a photograph depicting the hotel in 1921, with Jack Torrence right in the centre. This opens up all kinds of questions: is Jack a ghost? Has he always been at the Overlook? Did any of the events actually take place? Kubrick famously took the meaning of the film with him to the grave. But there’s no denying that this is one of the greatest and most memorable endings in the history of horror, much more unnerving than the explosion of King’s novel ending.

Image credit: IMDB

Of course, that doesn’t mean that Kubrick’s adaptation is not without its faults. I intensely dislike the decision to make Wendy a weak character, when her resilience in the novel is such an appealing character trait. Shelley Duvall has been open about the trauma she experienced on set and Kubrick’s treatment of her is enough to leave a sour taste in your mouth. However, King’s novel is a haunted house story whereas Kubrick’s incarnation is more unsettling, exposing the ugliness of humanity’s dark side instead of focusing on imaginary supernatural forces.

Video credit: BFI
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AUTHOR: Jess Bradbury
English lit student with a very good talent for rambling. Twitter/IG @jessbradburyx

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