Shine On You Kingly Writer

Few authors in speculative or literary fiction have had more of an impact on American language, culture, imagery, and identity than Stephen King. We could trot out names like Harper Lee and J.D. Salinger but let’s keep our discussion to the realm of the living for the time being. I mean, King’s so significant that the President of the United States gave him a medal.

Hail to the King, Baby.

In The Shining, King tackles alcoholism, child abuse, failed dreams, dead-end marriages, and–this is perhaps the most significant aspect of the work–the very heart of the United States.

At the time of the novel’s publication Jimmy Carter had just entered office, the nation’s economy was in a recession that would eventually lead to stagflation, and the division in American politics we currently enjoy had started to form due to the Watergate scandal. The central co-protagonist / co-antagonist of the novel, Jack Torrance, is the typical American male with problems typical of his time. It’s only fitting that this novel should be set in Estes Park, Colorado.

The hotel that inspired the hotel in the book, The Overlook, is an actual place, The Stanley. The hotel sits in prime ski country–beautiful mountains, lots of good snow, and the prices that go with such a setting. It’s appropriate: Opulence in the heart of the country and a place of temporary shelter, overseen by a desperate, needy man who struggles with countless personal demons.

Jack Torrance is 1977. He is the entire span of his life–from his own abusive father to the Vietnam War to alcoholism to his death in the explosion of The Overlook–and that’s significant because I doubt seriously that this novel could’ve been written at any other moment in history. While that strips the work of the timelessness most authors desire, it also successfully captures a snapshot of attitudes, feelings, hopes, and fears for a lot of Americans at a time when the future of the nation seemed uncertain.

That said, when Stanley Kubrick directed the film version of the novel, he managed to create a timelessness which King found appalling. Despite the brilliance of Kubrick’s work, the atmosphere of the mid-to-late-1970s vanished, replaced by an eerie transcendent quality which works well for the visual / auditory space of cinema but not so much for novels.

While the details in Kubrick’s film are clearly dated (cars, television shows, soft drinks–I think Wendy drinks a Tab at one point–clothing, etc.) those can be glossed over easily and the whole thing can be brought into the present with ease. Unfortunately for King, he didn’t realize then (and he may not be too terribly aware of it now) that the headspace of the novel does not map isomorphically onto the visceral arena of the silver screen. (This is a common problem for many reader/viewers who fall in love with a novel that then gets turned into a movie. A dear friend of mine was so outraged by the treatment of the third Harry Potter novel when it became a film, that she swore off the movie aspect of the franchise for the duration of her life. I’m not going to try to dissuade her from that as she is just as stubborn when it comes to aesthetic choices as I am.)

King was so incensed by Kubrick’s interpretation of the novel, that he went on to remake the book as a miniseries–which totally and completely sucked canal water through a dirty straw. I mean, it was absolutely faithful to the book and, in the process, became a complete and utter bore to the point that suicide seemed inevitable as I watched it–then I remembered the remote.

Now, not to knock King or Kubrick, I will say this: The two media are different, so the story will vary and liberties must be taken. But I don’t think King gave his director a fair shake. I mean, Kubrick directed one of the most grotesque moments in film history–death by lobotomy.

5 thoughts on “Shine On You Kingly Writer

  1. I think King’s biggest complaint with the film version is its treatment of Jack. Full disclosure: I KNOW you cannot properly translate a book to movie. You can’t take a 10 hour reading experience and condense it into two hours of visual stimuli an hope it will be the same. You make a good point about how the book was dated (seriously, Dick, use a cell phone!), but if you look at Jack in the movie and Jack in the book… two different characters. Movie Jack starts out bat-shit crazy and ends bat-shittier crazy. I think the slow decline and finally the redemption we got from Jack in the novel is difficult to get across on celluloid.

    As for the miniseries? Nope, didn’t see it and never want to. As much as King disliked Kubrick’s take, he was a master story-teller in his own right (except for Eyes Wide Shut… I’m convinced it’s that movie that killed him). Kubrick did the best he could within the constraints given him, and no mini-series will ever replace that.

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  2. Victor, you nailed it in this review. The Shining WAS 1977, in all its misery. And I don’t think that “place in time” fact of the book makes it any less timeless than The Grapes of Wrath or To Kill a Mockingbird. The little cultural anachronisms are easy enough to ignore, I think. Although I don’t know if Dick’s having a cell phone would have made much difference to the story – what kind of reception can they have in the mountains.
    I’m also glad to see someone else defend Kubrick’s The Shining. It was a brilliant piece of work, and if it didn’t show Jack’s character arc the way King wrote it, well, oh WAAAHHH. That’s what the book was for. Suck it up, King.
    Oh, and I LOVED the Army of Darkness reference. Good review.

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    1. Yeah, I think of “timelessness” as contrasting to “time-fullness” (if that makes sense.) The novels you mentioned–time-full. They’re nice perfect time capsules of their era. Sure, they speak to us now, but not the way that–say–‘The Old Man and the Sea’ does. You can put that old guy down just about anywhere and any age and it works because there are always fishermen with less than adequate equipment to get the job done.

      I think that, post-1980s “Me Generation” materialism, Jack would’ve been dabbling in the stock market or maybe trying to work on a business merger or make a startup. He’d have had more options after being fired, but all of them just a sketchy as his current situation.

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  3. Matt Andrew

    If Jack Torrence was 1977, I guess we could also say that Stephen King was 1977. I think he had the same type of life as Torrence (roughly). You’ve nailed it again, I believe.

    One of the theories in the documentary “Room 237” was that Kubrick left an Easter Egg saying that he was taking The Shining and making his own ‘thing’ out of it. There’s the scene where Scatman Crothers is driving to the Overlook and sees a red VW crushed under a truck. Because Jack drives a red VW in the book, some say that that was a symbol of Kubrick saying that he was killing the book’s storyline and making it his own. Not sure I believe it, but it sounds plausible.

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  4. I am reminded of “On Writing” and King’s declaration that writers can (and should) essentially not fear brand names, band names, and anything that would “date” material. Personally I’m divided on the issue. When it comes to capturing a time in any characters’ lives, what are we to do? Omit inventions like the telephone or ignore fads that persisted entire decades in hopes that they do not endure?

    I don’t mind seeing “high-fives,” sneakers with pumps in them, hearing popular jargon (hell, read some Noir and look at all the “bright-boys” and the like), and so on. I also don’t feel it’s necessarily a disqualifying feature of something. As you said quite brilliantly Victor, Jack Torrance is the decade itself. The story and it’s conflict are timeless (isolated family VS ghosts/themselves). But the sheer amount of discussion raised by this very topic is enough to insinuate that everyone has an opinion on the matter: a sure sign that there is something worth talking about!

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