Reading the King: The Shining

The Shining has always been one of those Stephen King novels that was always on my radar but I never actually picked up when I saw it in bookstores (for similar examples, please see: Rose Madden, Misery, The Girl who Loved Tom Gordon). I think I may have read it when I was in my early teens, but I didn’t give it the time and attention that it deserved — there was a point when I was around 14 or 15 when I was reading to have said that I read the book, but not to actually enjoy the story or give it much thought afterwards. Glad I got out of that phase relatively early!

After going through Carrie and Salem’s Lot, I was really excited to sink my teeth into The Shining. I did some research into the adaptations that had been made. Carlton Cinema, which is my absolute favourite theatre in the downtown core, screened Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining for October 2017! It actually coincided quite nicely with this #readingtheKing challenge, with the added bonus of being able to watch it on a big screen as opposed to a tiny laptop screen. Alas, I was unable to find a copy of Stephen King’s The Shining miniseries, which is a shame as I had wanted to compare it to the Kubrick adaptation had I been able to find it.

Here we go with part 3 of the Stephen King reading challenge, The Shining!

The Shining, 1980, Stanley Kubrick | IMDB, Wikipedia

Original Movie Poster The Shining

This film. Ahh, this film. It was compelling and nerve-wracking, and while nowhere near as tense as certain moments in Misery, some scenes were taut to the point of breakage. The soundtrack, written and performed by Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind, was perfect: eerie and jarring at some moments, terrifying and skin-crawlingly creepy at others. The older I get, the more I appreciate the wonder of a well-timed soundtrack, and this was particularly beautiful.

I left the cinema afterwards feeling like I had seen a well-crafted movie, one that made deliberate choices in moving towards a specific end, and one which led me through a tedious slog to a satisfying finish. It’s evident that this iteration of the story is more Kubrick’s than King’s, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the directions that the director took both in casting and character development.

Kubrick lost something in act of moving Winnifred Torrance from page to screen, but the choices that he made in what carried over and what did not were very much intended to have the outcome of Wendy as an easily cowed person who deferred to Jack in many things. I later found out that King is not a fan of this movie, saying that Kubrick’s Wendy is “just presented as this screaming dishrag.” I don’t disagree, and it’s such a shame because Wendy on the page is a much stronger and more interesting person than the Wendy that Shelly Duvall was made to portray.

I don’t recall King writing a woman in any of his stories to be as much of a stereotype as Wendy was presented to the audience in Kubrick’s piece.  This Wendy had me cringing hard, into my seat at the theatre. Her weakness seemed to be tied specifically to her being a woman, and formulated as an overt foil to Jack’s brute manhood. Most scenes that had her in it were very difficult to watch, and it crosses over from a story with actual supernatural events in it to a story about domestic abuse.

I also believe that Jack Nicholson’s Jack Torrance lacks the nuance of Jack on the page. He begins as a man leaning towards emotional excess and ends it absolutely bonkers. For Kubrick’s purposes, Nicholson was perfectly cast for this role. The amplification of Jack’s mental instability is the focus of much of the film, with many of the film’s now-famous moments iconic in its glut of “crazy”: Here’s Johnny! as the axe smashes through the bathroom door with Wendy screaming in terror on the other side; “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”; the literal flood of blood coming in from the elevators. The viewers miss out on much of what fleshes out Jack Torrance in the novel: the conflict between what he knows to be his weakness, and his love of his family.

Altogether, while brilliant, Kubrick’s The Shining seems to be the story of a family, snowbound in the mountains, going crazy together. I don’t think it has what makes the novel an engrossing story, nor does it possess any of the warmth surrounding King’s telling of it. I would not watch this film again, although I am glad that I saw it. The film is beautiful, and such a cinematic experience, but I don’t feel good about devoting more time to it than necessary. Although I don’t think it will be on my list of favourite movies, I understand why this film is highly regarded and very polarizing.

The Shining, 1977, Stephen King | Goodreads, Wikipedia

The Shining First Ed cover

This novel was a beast to get through – but it was wonderfully written, giving the readers an intimate look at the interactions and relationships within a family already slightly wary of each other.

I don’t think it will be a surprise to anybody that I absolutely adore this book. I fell in love with much of what makes the struggle human, and therefore more frightening: Wendy Torrance as she grappled to understand how the signs of her husband’s alcoholism were present without any alcohol to be found in the hotel; Jack’s battle between his alcoholism and his love for his family; Danny’s absolute and almost desperate love for his father, to the very end. After having finished reading the novel, I have a better understanding of why King dislikes the Kubrick adaptation.

Let’s begin with Wendy, as I took such issue with her characterization in the Kubrick film, especially after I had finished reading the novel! Wendy as a wife is attuned to her husband’s moods and personality changes, and readily sees what he blocks out or is unwilling to see. As a mother, we see her beginning to be jealous of how Danny has taken to Jack so much more readily than to her, but this also allows for a much more intimate and nuanced framing of the Jack-Danny relationship. Wendy also recognizes and experiences that something beyond her comprehension has awoken in The Overlook – it is terrifying to imagine how Wendy must have felt when she started hearing Jack talk to the Overlook’s guests and realised that the Overlook spoke back to Jack.

Jack Torrance is a man who is tortured and torn between his deepest flaw (a once-indulged proclivity towards drinking, with disastrous consequences), and his love for his family. That he adores his son and wants nothing more than to do right by him (this time) is such a strong undercurrent in the book that you can taste it in all that he does. His last lucid moment, after all, was particularly heartbreaking:

But suddenly his daddy was there, looking at him in mortal agony, and a sorrow so great that Danny’s heart flamed within his chest. The mouth drew down in a quivering bow. 

“Doc,” Jack Torrance said. “Run away. Quick. And remember how much I love you.”

The sense of love and adoration exhibited by Jack and Danny for each other at moments, and certainly at the very end, is not the type of fatherhood that Kubrick allows Jack to be epitomized by.

One thing I wish had made it into the movie was the wasp scene – that entire sequence, beginning with Jack on the roof being stung by a couple and through to Danny’s room being absolutely filled with wasps after Jack brought in the supposedly-empty nest, was harrowing in a manner that begins to raise the question in the reader’s mind of whether it is all supernatural or occurring in Jack’s head.

Honorable mentions: the Hedge Animals, Dick Halloran and the more nuanced character arc he gets in the book, the Scrapbook.

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Reading the King: Salem’s Lot

It’s now week eight of fourteen for us at the University of Toronto as this post goes up, and I am very keenly feeling the effects of the upcoming due dates, deadlines, papers, presentations, and the never-ending flood of emails that I need to respond to. I’m writing this on a Friday morning that I had to force myself to pencil in as a mental health day, as I really needed a break. I’ll be back to work on campus over the weekend, but for today at least, I get to think about fun little side projects!

Salem’s Lot took me a little while to get through because of how hectic my schedule currently is, not to mention the other responsibilities that I’m juggling. Although finding time to read the book was not a problem, it became difficult trying to schedule a block of time when I could watch the 1979 miniseries uninterrupted. For the record, I also did try to watch the 2004 miniseries, but after four attempts – none of which made it past the one-hour mark – it became clear that I wasn’t enjoying the experience, and I decided to nix that. Maybe some other time?

Here we are with entry number two in Reading the King: Salem’s Lot, the first edition of which now apparently goes for US$1750, at least according to LW Currey Inc.

Salem’s Lot, 1975 

Salem's Lot First Cover
Here’s the first edition’s cover!

Salem’s Lot combines two things that I’m very fond of in literature: vampires and small towns. I have very fond memories of this book, and when I reread it I was happily surprised to find that it holds up. Salem’s Lot delivered on the good, the unpleasant, and the downright terrifying aspects of what it means to live in a small town, plus vampires. It also figured heavily in my early encounters with Stephen King as a teenager – I vividly remember reading One for the Road in Night Shift and nervously huddling under my blankets, occasionally peering up at my open window hoping no vampires were outside.

The most striking character in this book, and my favourite in the re-read so far, is Father Callahan. As a person who was raised in a religious household, and was always surrounded by people of different religious beliefs, the question of what constitutes true faith was always present in my conversations growing up. Father Callahan was so real and raw, and true to the effects of alcoholism even as it is revealed as a symptom of his ongoing existential crisis. When his faith falters as he is facing off with Kurt Barlow, my heart sank – how can faith survive after a test such as this, especially with what Barlow does to him afterwards? I know that Father Callahan turns up again in The Dark Tower series, and I am looking forward to seeing how his character develops.

Another aspect of Salem’s Lot that I really enjoy is the idea of “evil” in Salem’s Lot – how it is insidious and inescapable, sticking like molasses to the town and all the people who come to it. I am also rather partial towards the idea that an evil person can corrupt the space that they live in, and that the Marsten House essentially became transformed into a beacon of evil because of the type of person that Hubie Marsten was, especially with his life being bookended by death.

I would probably not read this book again in the near future just because of the sheer volume of Stephen King works available to me, but when this reread is done? Who knows! I firmly believe that we get different lessons when we read the same books at different moments in our lives, and perhaps when I’m 37 I’ll approach Salem’s Lot with a different perspective.

Salem’s Lot, 1979 miniseries

Salem's Lot poster
I’m actually not sure if this is one of the original posters, but I like it because it shows Barlow hovering over the main cast even as it shows Ben slamming that stake into his chest.

I enjoyed this adaptation a lot! However, I do think that it was quite long, clocking in as it does at three hours and seven minutes. Now that I’ve had time to think about it, I realise that my mistake was in approaching the miniseries as if it were one long movie: I dedicated an entire Saturday afternoon to watching it, but had to stop in the middle and save it for another day when it began feeling like such a slog. I think that for future adaptations, if they’re also in the form of a miniseries, I’ll spread it out and watch it as it was intended to be seen.

I believe that for the most part, the miniseries captures much of the spirit of the book even with the character changes. The most visible of these changes was the character of Kurt Barlow and how it changed from what was a preternaturally intelligent and crafty vampire in the book, to the campier and more macabre thing that he was in the movie.

Barlow
Now isn’t that nightmare-inducing?

Not gonna lie, I screamed and jumped when Barlow swung into the Petrie’s kitchen for his face off with Father Callahan. I am such a fan of the vampire make-up! Cinematic Kurt Barlow was fantastically ghoulish, and apparently one of its Primetime Emmy nominations was for Outstanding Achievement in MakeupGo, make-up team!

According to Richard Kobritz, the reason that they opted to go this route for Barlow was a harkening back to old vampire lore: “We went back to the old German Nosferatu concept where he is the essence of evil, and not anything romantic or smarmy, or, you know, the rouge-cheeked, widow-peaked Dracula.” I think that for this particular miniseries, with the insidious and unstoppable creep of evil engulfing Salem’s Lot, it works so well! It casts Barlow in a very not-human light, which makes the terror that much more chilling. This is an evil that cannot be reasoned with, nor can it be fully understood.

Speaking of character changes, it was a shame how the movie decided to not fully explore the character of Father Callahan. I feel like that kind of internal conflict, especially when it comes to religion and religious authority figures, would have been really interesting to see onscreen. Although I also missed the good doctor Jimmy Cody, who was altogether not in the adaptation, a deeper exploration of religion and supernatural evil would have made it truer to the source material.

Also, bonus points for the way that they made the glass bottle containing holy water shine like Sting does in the presence of Orcs – that was enjoyably fantastical.

Holy water in Salem's Lot
See what I mean about it being like Sting?

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