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.
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.