Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Stephen King's The Shining

 The Shining, King's third published novel has an iconic status largely due to Stanley Kubrick's film. It is impossible to separate the novel from Stanley Kubrick's 1980 film - and the resulting acrimony about the adaptation. As a novel it marks a turning point in King's career who was perceived as a writer of, in the words of Pauline Kael, "unassuming potboilers" to one capable of writing a character study of a family facing some serious demons. The primary themes in the novel such as alcoholism, unfulfilled ambition, and past trauma engage the reader in a truly terrifying way. It is a haunted house story firmly within the Gothic tradition that has a modern twist with real characters with problems based on reality.

The plot is fairly simple and has a small number of characters.  Jack Torrence, an aspiring writer and teacher, agrees to act as caretaker for the Overlook Hotel Resort in the Colorado Rockies after losing a teaching job after an altercation with a student.  Although Jack has shown promise as a writer he also struggles with drinking.  His wife Wendy is generally supportive, but rightly concerned about living in isolation with their their son Danny, who has a "gift" his parents are unable to understand.  Danny has an ability that allows him to use the "shining" to read the minds of others.  The novel opens with Jack landing a job as the Overlook's caretaker from September to May.  On the surface it is the perfect time to regain his footing as a writer and heal his family.  Lurking behind this invitation to family bliss is the Overlook's dark history.

Over the years, King has stated that he wrote Jack as a sympathetic character and a version of himself.  At the time King, although a much more successful writer that his fictional creation, had his own drinking problem.  Jack dreams of becoming a major American writer and truly wants the best for his family.  Jack's own history with abuse is told in terrifying flashbacks as well as an alcohol driven incident with Danny. Early on it is clear the story will not have a cheery conclusion.

Like much of King's fiction the novel is overlong.  Jack's descent into madness is a slow buildup and downright tedious at times.  By the time Jack is pushed over the edge the novel has some of its energy.  Other characters are less drawn out, especially Wendy, who seems supportive yet suspicious of her husband.  The tone of The Shining is overtly serious and labors hard to compel the reader to emphasize with Jack in his struggle to rebuild his family.   But the hotel's supernatural power make the struggle seem predestined and anti-climatic.  Family conflict in a haunted house can make for deep tragedy or satire - the route that Kubrick took the material.

This is not to say that the book isn't frighting. It is in a way the film is not.  A good portion of the story is told from Danny's point of view and King has an almost Salingeresque ability to capture childhood.  What is more terrifying that observing evil spirits from child's perspective?  This formed a template King's later novel It.

It remains a mystery what attracted Stanley Kubrick to the novel.  Film scholars have latched upon the political and historical context in the film and see it as a metaphor of the cruelty of Western civilization.  Interestingly enough, in the novel Jack plans to write a history of the Overlook Hotel to "reveal the soul of post-war America."  It is like all the dirty laundry of recent American history is stored away at the Overlook and god help anyone than stumbles upon it!  There is an interesting connection that may explain Kubrick's decision to buy the rights.

The novel and film version of The Shining continue to capture the public's imagination.  The film is one of my favorites for its creepy look, outstanding performances, and strange interplay of satire and tragedy.  One of the ongoing points of interest is King's negative response to Kubrick's vision (King played no role in pre-production).  He has compared the film to a beautifully made custom made car with no engine.  Perhaps his dismay came from Kubrick decision to parody his own personal story. In 1997 King did write a forgettable TV version.  In 2011 King announced he was writing a sequel to The Shining, that follows Danny as an adult.  Too bad Kubrick is not available direct the sequel.