The first rule of THE SHINING is: forget the movie.
Yes, Kubrick made a horror masterpiece. The tone and timbre of that flick is intensely on point. Kubrick is a weird case in that he spent his career bouncing from genre to genre, defining them and mic dropping but he was never able to make THE definitive flick of those genres because his pieces were always more style over character substance. There are moments where this isn’t the case but on the whole people remember HAL before they can name more than one astronaut on the Discovery One, and before those men they probably remember the man-apes from the opening sequence.
And when it is that Kubrick makes a truly iconic character, it is because of their hollow nature. R. Lee Ermy’s Gunnery Sergeant in FULL METAL JACKET, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman’s married couple in EYES WIDE SHUT, and Alex in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE. These are all fantastic monuments of the silver screen but when they meet their downfall, if they even do, it doesn’t sting as much because they kinda feel like they started on rock bottom. Which is the mammoth problem with Kubrick’s version of Stephen King’s greatest novel – Jack Nicholson plays Jack Torrance as insane from the start [or at least quite unhinged] so his drop to murderous father isn’t a fall so much as it is a restrained mental patient finally laying back under their restraints and accepting the darkness inside. It’s a lateral move, not downward.
The book however is a downfall as epic as any you will find, and it’s so utterly tragic because it is real. It’s a father always worrying he’s on the edge, sometimes nudging a toe over the line, but he wants to be good. He wishes he could be great but you get the vibe he’d settle for better than bad. But it all slowly unravels and it’s brutal to follow as you read.
Because, and here’s the dirty little secret, reading THE SHINING isn’t scary, it’s heartbreaking. Jack Torrance fails at his most important job and it kills us all inside, especially because we all knew he couldn’t really do it all along, himself included. Once we find out he once broke his son, Danny’s, arm because he lost his temper, well, the seeds of doubt were not only sown but they were fertilised and the liquid nourishment of alcohol was all it ever needed to grow more, with Torrance not having the mental tools to know how to tend to that garden.
The concept of the shattered man holding it together with trembling fingers is great noir fuel. Because you want it to go one way and when it goes another that’s killer, but when it’s his own fault for that downward curve, you just hate. You hate him, you hate alcohol, you hate the world for setting these things up.
The other major aspect of the book that the movie neglects, or at least adapts poorly, is the state of the Overlook Hotel. The hotel isn’t just haunted, it’s aggressively evil. It’s a conduit to our worst and so it aligns with Jack’s hidden interior to make it exterior. It takes over him, in a way, but it also feels like an acceleration of Jack’s natural timeline anyway. Even in the end, as Jack elects to try and save the Overlook from a volatile boiler, it feels like it’s Jack’s choice to do this. It’s is he who elects the method of his own downfall. But with him gone, imagine how much the world will improve for his family.
That’s not actual logic, but it is a choice made daily by people, sadly. And so, in that end, THE SHINING becomes this great exploration of one man’s inability to be good and so slowly spiralling down into pure evil until he implodes in and with it.
RKL NOTE: THE SHINING was my favourite novel for well over a decade, in which I read it more than once, and found I could constantly just pick it up and flick through and lose myself for 80 pages. It’s amazing.
My new favourite novel is THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER & CLAY by Michael Chabon. It isn’t really a noir.