Books of 2013, #49: The Shining, by Stephen King

Yeah, I went there.

A friend of mine has been hosting a movie night in his new home since he moved in this summer; on one mid-November Monday, his choice was Kubrick’s now-iconic adaptation of King’s story of isolation, madness, and malevolent mountain hotels.

It is indeed a fine film; it’s aged well. At this point, we can really only ding it for the same thing that drove King himself to make his own film version some seventeen years later: Nobody was surprised when Jack Nicholson went homicidally nuts, which mutes what King has long said was the central horror of the book.

The film, inasmuch as it has a viewpoint character, focuses on Danny (and to a lesser extent, on Wendy). Jack is an external force, and one they fear due to his rage issues and his alcoholism. The family presents as one dominated by an abuser, not as one trying to escape its demons and start fresh. That Nicholson is sort of expected to be menacing and crazy drives the point home, which is why King went for someone decidedly more likable and normal in his “vanity” adaptation in 1997.

Remembering all this from articles in years past, I realized I’d never read King’s source novel as an adult, and as the movie night came right as I finished the aforementioned Goldfinch, I dove right in.

King is, fundamentally, correct. Kubrick made a great film, but King’s novel really is better. The novel switches perspective over the course of the story, giving us glimpses of life at the Overlook from Danny, from Wendy, from Hallorann (the Scatman character), and, crucially, from Jack himself. It’s Jack whose perspective is missing from the film, and it’s that perspective that helps make the book more horrifying than the film.

Jack is a broken person. His father was an alcoholic rage monster, and all his life he’s fought to keep those aspects of himself in check, with varying degrees of success. At the same time, his predicament — jobless, and therefore forced by economics to take the gig at the Overlook arranged for him by a wealthy friend — is not entirely his fault for reasons beyond the scope of this post. Sure, he contributed, but he’s a man both sinned against and sinning.

Key to the literary Torrence is his desire to be a good man to Wendy, and a good father to Danny. Danny is his world and his opportunity to do a better job than his old man did. (The portions told from Wendy’s point of view show her suffering from a parallel fear of becoming her mother, a domineering and nagging character in her life whose aid they cannot bring themselves to accept.)

As in the film, when we meet the Torrence family, Jack’s been sober for months. He’s doing well, but for their financial situation. He’s on a good track, personally, and would probably have been fine except for the Overlook itself, which sees the special capabilities present in Danny and wants them for itself. If it can push Jack into killing Danny in the hotel, it believes it can add Danny’s “shine” to the dangerous mix already present. The Overlook magnifies all their fears, pushing them to and then across the breaking point. (The idea that the Overlook is a sentient entity with real motivations, as opposed to just a haunted place, is something else Kubrick kind of glosses over.)

It’s worth noting that King has had his own well-documented battles with drugs and alcohol and anger. Jack wrestles with the demon that King himself was fighting, and the horror King ends up writing of is, once divorced from the supernatural forces of the hotel, the one that he feared most: losing control and harming his family. Turn that up to 11, add evil ghosts and an isolated hotel, and simmer.

The horror of the film is being trapped in a haunted hotel with a lunatic. The horror of the book is becoming the lunatic, which is much more personal, internal and, to me, horrifying.

Bonus Bit: James Bond at the Overlook

(The following is taken from an email I wrote my host after watching the film, because I am an obsessive bastard.)

The character Ullman, the hotel’s manager who hires Jack Torrence, was played by an actor named Barry Nelson. Nelson is of interest in Heathen circles (sadly) for his status as a 400-level Bond trivia answer: Nelson was the first man to play James Bond on film.

It’s widely believed that the Bond franchise got pretty weak sometime in Roger Moore’s tenure, and an obvious reason is that they were out of source material (the other big reason is that Bond was getting old; Moore was actually 3 years older than Connery, but never mind that). Nothing after Live and Let Die looks much like a Fleming book at all, because Eon Productions (the family concern who did all the Bond films) had already used them all.

Except one.

The literary Bond makes his debut in Casino Royale, but Eon didn’t adapt Casino until 2006; they began with an adaptation of Dr. No instead, which was the sixth of Fleming’s novels. Why did they wait 40+ years to adapt the first one while making blatantly subpar films like Die Another Day? One answer might be that Eon wasn’t first the party on Bond; prior the Eon’s Dr No in 1962, an American TV show called Climax! adapted Casino Royale, way back in 1954.

In this American TV version, our iconic British agent was reimagined as the American spy “Jimmy” Bond, played by Barry Nelson. Le Chiffre, now world famous as embodied by Mads Mikkelsen, was played by Peter Lorre.

But Wait There’s More!

As if that weren’t enough to put Eon off the book, Peter Sellers and David Niven would do a satirical adaptation of Casino Royale in 1967, as a spoof of the by-then enormously successful Eon productions. This presumably pushed a straight film of the book off the table until the pseudo-reboot in 2006 (though it seems weird that they didn’t try it with Brosnan).

Anyway: Barry Nelson was the first Bond. He made his screen debut in 1941’s Shadow of the Thin Man, and worked (85 credits worth!) until 1990. He died in ’07, at the age of 89.

This has been “Obsessive Chet’s Film Footnotes.” Enjoy your day, and Merry Christmas.

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