The Shining (1980): How Kubrick’s movie differs from the book

Films to Read Before You Die | Out October 2021

Getting into Kubrick’s claustrophobic cinema classic The Shining.

What is The Shining about?

Writer Jack Torrence (Jack Nicholson) takes a job looking after the Overlook hotel for the winter. Wife Wendy (Shelly Duvall) and young son Danny happily go with him – but the legacy of the hotel’s former caretaker comes to haunt them all.

If Kubrick’s The Shining is a cinema masterpiece, it’s controversial one.

Kubrick’s treatment of Shelley Duvall now sounds particularly inappropriate. Stephen King also famously hated the movie, not least for the way it presented Wendy as a “screaming dish rag”.

Ultimately, Kubrick’s film is a great Kubrick film, NOT an adaptation of the book.

Moreover, much of what was left out removes the intricacy that elevates King’s version of The Shining to modern literary classic.

Here are some of the standout differences.

1. The shining means different things

One of the most striking differences between the film and the book is the way Danny’s clairvoyance – his shining – is handled.

In the book, Tony reveals real things to Danny as well as spooky premonitions. For example, when things go missing around the house.

Danny can also tune into other people’s thoughts, sometimes for comic effect as well as terror. This is almost entirely missing from the movie beyond Hallorann’s brief interaction with Danny.

While the film sees Danny haunted by Room 237 and the murdered Grady girls, it’s far more pervasive in the book. The Overlook is stuffed with memories that won’t die. That’s why it wants Danny.

There’s evil in the playground and the presidential suite – and Danny sees the dog man, not Wendy.

These past events become increasingly real, until others see them as well. Wendy and Jack hear distant music, and discover streamers discarded in the elevator.

But the hotel’s past life roaring back into existence only features fleetingly in the movie, and only then at the end. For instance, when Wendy glimpses the dog man, and later when she runs into a room full of dead party guests.

2. Room 217 / Room 237

Kubrick filmed some of the Overlook’s exterior shots at Timberline Lodge, Oregon. The Lodge asked him to change the room number to avoid scaring guests (the Lodge didn’t have a room 237, so it seemed a safer choice).

That’s not all Kubrick changed about this nightmare bedroom.

Room 217 is almost the book’s origin story. Danny repeatedly references the Blue Beard fairy tale, in which a young woman is given a key and told not to open one particular door.

She can’t contain her curiosity – and is rewarded with the sight of her murdered predecessors.

This mimics what happens to Danny. He’s given the key to hundreds of rooms and told not to open one particular door (217), but he can’t help himself.

Without Blue Beard, room 237 in the movie lacks some of that significance. It also loses its connection to Orwell’s room 101, i.e., a place that holds each person’s greatest fear.

In the novel, Jack’s worst terror is what he did to a former student. That’s who he actually meets in 217.

3. Jack’s transformation is handled differently

As a book, The Shining is constructed around premonition and possession.

Jack and Wendy battle against turning into their parents, i.e., the people they’re fated to be. Jack’s father was an abusive drunk. Wendy’s mother is manipulative and bitter. Of course, both become the thing they’re running from.

For Jack, the spectre of Grady – the former caretaker who killed his family – also looms over the hotel. This is another fate he can’t avoid.

The irony is that Jack genuinely loves Wendy and Danny. His drunken physical abuse of Danny aside, he shows his real feelings for his family many times.

This makes his transformation into a “human monster” – technically it’s a possession – all the more tragic. Jack’s battle with the booze eventually destroys his better side but, because we know his struggles, it’s easy to feel sympathy for him.

Kubrick sets this up rather differently. Jack is dry and almost puritanical (perhaps as a result of his 5 months on the wagon). There are few cosy laughs on the drive up to the hotel, for instance.

His mental state also flips abruptly. He wakes up one morning singing the hotel’s praises and, shortly after, becomes mean and morose.

The way he snaps at Wendy is particularly abrupt – and yet Wendy doesn’t seem too shocked by it (i.e., it’s happened before).

Jack in the film isn’t a particularly nice guy to begin with … and then he just gets worse.

Sidebar: Does the film suggest Jack sexually abuses Danny?

Jack’s character arc in the novel is complete remote from the fan theory that, in the film, he sexually abuses Danny.

The theory feels flimsy for a few reasons, many of them explained by the book’s backstory and construction.

But most of all, Jack is a homicidal maniac who tries to murder his wife and 5-year-old son with an axe. His being a paedophile on top couldn’t make him any worse than he already is.

So its inclusion (moreover as a supposedly hidden reference) doesn’t make a lot of sense for storytelling, particularly when the film is quite explicit about Jack’s other moral failings.

4. There’s a maze instead of haunted hedge animals

The book has several creepy scenes with a topiary that comes to life. Kubrick’s film does away with the animals in favour of a hedge maze.

Whereas the animals add a nervy tension throughout the novel, the movie’s maze isn’t a source of terror so much as the setting for the final chase.

5. Hallorann dies

In Kubrick’s movie, Halloran travels from Florida to Denver – battling a deadly storm along the way – only to die the minute he arrives at the hotel.

Retrospectively, this is troubling. It reduces Hallorann (and Scatman Crothers) to ‘black guy who dies’, a formerly common casting strategy that introduced non-white characters so they could be killed off without jeopardising the leads.

This doesn’t happen in the book.

The book ends with Danny, Wendy and Hallorann as an alternative family unit. In fact, Hallorann is the father figure Danny deserves: the father who will do anything to save him.

The other thing missing from the film is Danny’s bond with Hallorann. In the book they’re like old friends, even when they meet for the first time.

The film gives them a much colder vibe. This makes it less convincing that Hallorann would leave Florida to save Danny’s life.

6. The film’s ending is completely different

Stephen King writes out the Overlook in an enormous explosion. As caretaker, Jack must keep a close eye on the hotel’s decrepit boiler. He forgets to check on it when he’s busy trying to kill Danny.

The resulting explosion destroys the hotel and its evil presence.

None of this happens in the film because the boiler is never mentioned. And rather than fire, it’s ice that ends the movie.

When Jack comes after his family, Danny escape to the hedge maze and tricks Jack into getting lost.

While Wendy and Danny neatly escape in Hallorann’s snow truck, Jack simply freezes to death.

The hotel survives them all. And, according to the film’s final photo, Jack lives on as one more ghost.

Other differences

  • Jack dislocates Danny’s arm in the movie. In the book, he breaks it.
  • The novel’s famous opening line reveals how much Jack detests Stuart Ullman: “Officious little prick.” The feeling’s mutual. This deteriorating relationship (and others) underlines Jack’s descent into delusion.
  • In the book, Jack becomes obsessed with writing about the Overlook’s sordid past. This is how the hotel sucks him in: it gives a struggling writer a killer story. Its his relationship to writing that then isolates Jack.
  • The mystery of what ‘redrum’ means is a major component of the book. The film slips it in almost as a throwaway scare. In the novel, however, it’s just one of many puzzles woven through the story.
  • A fan theory suggests the man in the bear costume (dog costume) signals Danny has been sexually abused. But in the book, the dog man represents Jack: someone who will do anything to please the hotel’s management.
  • Stephen King’s Wendy is quick witted and emotionally resilient. Duvall’s terror jumps off the screen, but she’s a horror film trope compared to the book.

The Shining (1980), directed by Stanley Kubrick

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Picture credit: Rafif Prawira