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A Book Review on Stephen King’s The Shining and How Stanley Kubrick Ruined it

When people hear the title The Shining, most will immediately think of Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 horror classic of the same name. The movie has ingrained itself into popular culture in ways that few movies can with scenes and plot points being referenced and mocked continuously. However, ask the same person about the 1977 book of the same name that the movie was based on, and people go silent. With the movie version of The Shining being one of the most popular movies of the 20th century, Stephen King’s masterpiece has fallen off, only referenced to the movie version. However, Stephen King’s The Shining is not something to skip as it is one of, if not, the best psychological horrors ever written, but it also shows how a terrible adaptation of a book can overshadow a true masterpiece.


The plot of The Shining is one that is simple and perplexing. The novel begins with the Torrence, made up of father Jack, mother Wendy, and their son Danny traveling up to the isolated overlook hotel where Jack will be working as a caretaker for the winter. It is made clear that the family has gone through issues in the past as Danny has an intense invisible friend that he talks to and Jack struggles to hold down a job. During the months of their stay, the family proceeds to go through several paranormal events within the hotel’s walls, alluding to dark secrets within the family. The plot reaches the climax as the hotel takes control of Jack and begins attacking the family through him. After some running and fighting, Danny finally confronts his father and sees that the hotel has finally taken him both mentally and physically and that his father is dead. The hotel then proceeds to explode from a gas leak but Wendy and Danny escape. The book version of The Shining has a typical physiological horror plot; however, where it differs is how it intertwines its plot with a clear message. 

Stephen King had written two books prior to working on The Shining, both being acclaimed horror novels. However, both of these books and his career as a teacher-led him down a path of alcohol and drug addiction which had a drastic effect on his personal life. These factors inspired his work on The Shining with Jack being a clear stand-in for himself. In this way, King used The Shining to discuss difficult issues such as addiction and the drive to be better all explored through Jack and his interactions with the hotel. With this context, the book version is far deeper and sadder than most other horror novels with every interaction, object, and conversation having a multitude of hidden meanings. For example, the hotel itself is clearly representing substance addiction with it constantly “speaking” to Jack through ghosts. Throughout the novel, Jack slowly falls under the control of the hotel with it a promising success through writing. It’s not until the final part that Jack finally succumbs to the addiction with the book vanishing from his perspective. In this way, King’s novel is near perfect when it comes to characters and symbolism. However, the book largely focuses on its three main characters through thoughts and dreams, something that can’t really be accomplished with a visual medium. But still, it was tried and it failed.

Stanley Kubrik is well known as one of the best film directors of the 20th century with movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, and of course The Shining, being revolutionary for the filming industry. However, when keeping in mind that his work on The Shining was meant to be that of an adaptation a lot of things do not add up. The movie does a poor job at translating the book’s words to film and although most of this cannot be translated as looked at above, it still doesn’t make sense how entire scenes or plot points are completely changed from the book. Kubrick’s vision ditches most of the addiction message that was so important to the book and replaces it with basic commentary on how people go insane and proceeds to show it in the most contrived and, frankly, confusing ways. Kubrick also keeps several themes and plot points found in the book that contradicts his new theme of insanity. Case in point, Jack’s conversation with Grady at the end of the novel. In the book, this conversation serves to show the audience that Jack is gone, sunk into the grasps of the hotel (addiction). King demonstrates this through the use of  the now-iconic line, “you’ve always been the caretaker.” In the book, this reasoning is clear and is used to illustrate King’s point. However, in the movie, Kubrick uses the same exact line but with new connotation and context, thanks to his removal of King’s central message. Instead, because Jack is shown to be slightly insane even before the Overlook (a detail that is also extremely bad), there is no final loss or drift into addiction or insanity that’s in the book. Instead, since the audience believes Jack is already insane, they start grasping for other reasons behind this line such as, “Ohhh he’s a ghost now,” or “Ohhh he’s always been at the hotel”. This simple example shows how Kubrik failed to adapt this book and his clear motive to write his own movie while also adapting a book with a clear message. This combined with his horrible set management and other claims by actors really paints the director’s name in a bad light. Sadly, since the movie version has become an all-time classic, the glory of the book and its story is always overshadowed by the mess that is The Shining

To close off let me just begin by saying if you haven’t read Stephen King’s The Shining, you probably should. It is one of the best and most intricate horror books out there and a fascinating reach into the human mind. If you love the movie but don’t want to read the book, a good recommendation would be the sequel Dr. Sleep which tackles the same themes presented in the book. In the end, the result of this failed adaptation is a sad one. Looking back on King’s inspiration and how personal this story is to him and others, it’s really sad to see an amazing director butcher what is not only an amazing story but one of the best horror books ever written.

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