Wednesday, November 09, 2011

the shining

"The whole place was empty. But it wasn't really empty. Because here in the Overlook things just went on and on. Here in the Overlook all times were one. ... It was as if the whole place had been wound up with a silver key. The clock was running. The clock was running. He was that key, Danny thought sadly."
In Stephen King's The Shining Jack Torrance is a man with many issues. He is a recovering alcoholic who battles his desire to drink every day. He has a temper and is prone to flying off the handle at anyone who challenges his sense of personal worth or authority. He recently lost his teaching position after getting in a physical altercation with a student. He is an aspiring writer with a play he can't seem to quite finish. His wife Wendy hasn't trusted him since he broke their son Danny's arm in a drunken rage. He is practically unemployable, and their savings are just about nil. In a last-ditch attempt to try to finish his play and salvage his relationship with his wife and son he accepts a job at the Overlook Hotel in Colorado, as the caretaker during the winter season when the hotel is closed to guests and visitors. Very bad idea.

Jack Nicholson gave an unforgettable performance as Jack in Stanley Kubrick's film The Shining

Jack's son Danny isn't a typical five year-old. He sees things — both from the past and the future. He can read minds, and speak to others who share his ability, who "shine," as the Overlook's chef, Dick Hallorann, calls it. But as a child, Danny is essentially powerless. He has to go to the Overlook, a place he knows to be dangerous, because his parents say so. But he is also the most powerful person in the novel because of his ability to shine. His parents may close their eyes to his abilities, but the entity that is the Overlook is very aware of Danny's power and desperately wants to control him. Hallorann, who shares the ability to shine, although to a lesser degree, is Danny's only true ally, as his parents work out their marital issues and the hotel takes more and more control of their lives.

Even if Danny didn't shine, all signs point to the fact that Jack should not take the job — or if he does, he at least shouldn't take his family there with him for the winter. As Stuart Ullman, the manager of the hotel, tells Jack at his job interview, "During our first winter I hired a family instead of a single man. There was tragedy. A horrible tragedy."

King brings many shades to what at first seems a simple haunted house tale. The supernatural forces at work, and Danny's (and maybe the rest of his family's) ability to see them. How alcoholism affects a person, his ability to create, and his family. A close-up look at the dissolution of a marriage. The difficulties of parenting.

Jack has a tendency towards violence, whether drunk or sober. He thinks he knows better than everyone ("Father knows best") and is constantly excusing himself, his judgments, his jealousies. The reader learns that his father was abusive, to the point of almost killing his mother, which helps fill in some of Jack's blanks, but King never excuses any of his behavior. If the Overlook was holding a casting call, it couldn't have picked anyone more suited for the job of caretaker-gone-mad than Jack. King writes about Jack's ability to connect with both the hero and villain in his play. The reader can connect with all of the characters in The Shining. Jack, when he is in his craziest most dangerous moments, is to some degree sympathetic. He also has a wicked sense of humor, “The boiler’s okay and I haven’t even gotten around to murdering my wife yet. I’m saving that until after the holidays, when things get dull.”

The Overlook was based on the Stanley Hotel
It is well-known that King himself was an alcoholic (and was at the time of writing The Shining). One can't help but feel that his love/hate for the character of Jack Torrance is his own beating up of himself and his demons. Parenting is hard and there are times, no matter how much you love your child, that they drive you nuts and make you angry. This is taken to extremes in Jack's story, but one of his defining moments is when he broke Danny's arm. This violent act haunts Jack as much as any of the other creepy things that inhabit the Overlook. King keeps Jack's feelings ambiguous. Was evil always inherent in Jack, and the Overlook able to hone it, bring it out? Or is alcohol mostly responsible for his violent tendencies? Is the Overlook King's metaphor for alcoholism? Are the ghosts Jack's alcoholic demons made real? The Shining can incorporate all of these elements and still just be a darn good ghost story.

King switches back and forth between the viewpoints of his main characters, which can sometimes be dizzying, but also adds to the claustrophobic nature of the Torrances and their life at the Overlook. Jack and his family seem trapped long before they ever get to the hotel. What at first simply appears to be cabin fever gradually reveals itself as the hotel's mounting campaign to ensnare its latest residents. I've always thought of the Eagles' song Hotel California in tandem with The Shining (which, coincidentally, came out in the same year as the novel — 1977), "You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave." The Overlook and its axis of evil always seems to be looking for new blood.

Wendy in the novel is far from the doormat wife that is depicted in the film version. Although she knows in her heart that her marriage has been dead for quite some time, she is still unwilling to let go, to leave Jack. Because of the family's dire financial circumstances, the Torrances all feel dependent on this job. She may still feel some enduring love for her husband, but she is hesitant to separate Danny from Jack, from the very strong bond she knows that father and son share.

The Shining drags a bit, is too long. I think if it was tighter, it would have been even scarier. But there is no denying that there are some genuinely frightening sequences. I was kicking myself at one point for reading it late at night. When Stephen King wants to scare you, you get properly scared: Danny in a sinister snow-covered playground. Jack and Wendy's confrontation in the lobby and chase up the stairs. Danny discovering what really lies behind the door of Room 217. The wasp's nest. The Overlook is one of the most interesting characters in the novel. But I would have liked a little more of the why and not the what of its evil history.

When King is writing from Danny's point of a view the language at times is far too elaborate. A five year-old, even a psychic one who shines would not be so adult in his perceptions or conclusions. There are inappropriate sequences, too. The hotel (and author) expose Danny to sexual imagery for no really good reason except to shock. There is also lots of use of negative, racist slurs in relation to the African American character of Hallorann, which instead of portraying certain characters as racist, just gives a racist cast to parts of the book. It was King's third novel. It's not perfect, but it is indeed, in parts, quite chilling.

Book vs film:
There are so many things in Kubrick's adaptation of The Shining that I like. The tightening-up of the story, the ominous and influential use of Steadicam. "Redrum" is more skillfully handled than it was in the book, where it became a bit repetitive and clunky (and obvious).  
But Kubrick sacrifices a lot of what I like about King's novel — Jack's wavering back and forth between his love for his family and the violent path the hotel wants him to follow. He believes he can change, can be a better man, can succeed. In the film, once Jack (Jack Nicholson) starts going down the path to madness it's a one-way street with no looking back.  
King creates some frightening imagery with the menacing topiary animals, but they appear too often, so for me, the scares became diluted. Kubrick's changing of the topiary animals to a hedge maze was an improvement. The scene where Danny tries to hide in the maze, stepping backwards in his footsteps in the snow in order to elude his pursuer, is one of the greatest moments in horror film.
The chase through the maze is unforgettable. 
Kubrick completely screws up the character of Hallorann and subjects him to a very unnecessary and cheap shot at the end of the film, which is most definitely not in the book. 
I missed the creepy Grady girls in the book, as they were so visually powerful in the film, and have become indelibly connected to The Shining.

Could the Torrances have escaped their fates? Is The Shining really about human weakness? Anyone who spent the winter or any extended time at the Overlook Hotel would be exposed to its ghostly, evil atmosphere. But why do the Torrances all feel like they can't leave? Jack wrestles back and forth with wanting to be there, become part of its history, to wanting to leave, to protect his family. Wendy feels trapped in her relationship with Jack because she has no other safe harbor (she is estranged from her only other living relative, her mother). Danny loves his daddy so much that he doesn't want to leave him, even when he has seen what is coming, who will come after him.

Stephen King is reportedly writing a sequel, Dr. Sleep, with a 40 year-old Danny using his abilities to help terminally ill patients cross over. And then he runs into some psychic vampires ... It is likely that someone like Danny, if he caught the attention of the malevolent forces at the Overlook would run across something like that again. The Shining dealt with a lot of the issues that King was battling at the time. Both he and Danny are older now. It will be interesting to see what happens next and if he finds himself in another environment like the Overlook.
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