Sunday, 27 October 2013

DOUBLE REVIEW: The Shining, by Stephen King (4.5*)

~ The Book ~
by Stephen King (New English Library, 1978)
My rating: 4.5 stars

"It was the place he had seen in the midst of the blizzard, the dark and booming place where some hideously familiar figure sought him down long corridors carpeted with jungle...  It was here.  It was here.  Whatever Redrum was, it was here."

I really only knew the absolute basics about this book when I started reading it.  I'd never seen the film, and the sum total of my knowledge ran to it being about a writer called Jack Torrance, madness, a haunted hotel, a psychically gifted son, and this:

Which didn't turn out to be very helpful, because it's not even in the book, yet DOES manage to spoiler an important twist in the novel.  In fact, as I'll explain in the film section of this post, the movie is so different to the book that I really wasn't surprised by the time that famous scene came around...

Soooo, The Overlook is a hotel in the Colorado Rockies.  A hotel with a colourful history, forced to shut down over the winter thanks to the brutal snowstorms that render the mountain roads impassable every year.  Enter Jack Torrance, the new winter caretaker, his wife Wendy and young son Danny.  On their first day at the Overlook, while his father is being shown around by the manager, Danny meets Dick Hallorann, the hotel cook, who recognises his 'shining', or psychic gift.  Mr Hallorann warns Danny that bad things have happened in the hotel over the years, but tells him he should be alright if he remains calm and watchful... and stays away from Room 237.  Unfortunately, it doesn't take long for Danny's visions to reach fever pitch, as the hotel starts to affect not only him, but also his parents.  What is Redrum?  Who are the masked partygoers in the ballroom?  What did that chambermaid see in 237?  And most importantly, what is chasing Danny through the corridors in his terrifying nightmares?

My synopsis probably makes absolutely no sense - and that's probably because this book is so complex, the storyline slowly filling out, the terror gradually escalating, the themes swelling in importance, that my review is never going to do it justice.  Buuuuut that's kind of the point of having a book blog, so here we are.  This book is so fantastic, the menace so tangible, the characters so real...  To read it is to slowly descend into the Overlook's madness, to become immersed in the claustrophobic atmosphere and to see at least part of this horror through the eyes of a little boy who can't escape his own abilities.  King is an expert at playing on our fears and weaving a plot of such utter brilliance that he draws us in and traps us so that once the horror truly begins to unfold, it's too late.  All we can do is hope and breathe and read on.

In a tiny way, the book had already been spoilered - not just by the iconic moments in the film (which sort of relate to the book even if they don't actually appear in it), but also by the reemergence of Danny in King's newest novel, Doctor Sleep.  In some ways, that was quite reassuring for me: "Even if everything else falls apart, if other people die, at least I know that little boy escapes with his life."  It allowed to me to absorb the themes outside the horror without being too preoccupied; as always with Stephen King, this isn't merely a horror story - it is a novel about growing up, facing loss, inner demons, alcoholism, writing, domestic violence, winter and childhood fears.  Stephen King writes people, writes humanity, so perfectly that once again I was blown away.   

More than anything, it is a novel about bravery in the face of danger and grief.  The hotel coming alive is so scary because it is inescapable and inevitable.  Danny has seen the future, and the bitter storms mean there's no getting away - but thanks to a handful of good people with great strength - Danny's bravery, Wendy's maternal selflessness and Dick Hallorann's all-round good nature - they somehow manage to beat the unbeatable and stop the hotel's rampage.  There are some genuinely awful moments that more than counter the interesting-but-gentle buildup, and the tense, moving and truly haunting ending likewise balances against the gradual onset of Jack's madness.  When the hotel possesses Jack, the novel becomes truly nightmarish - the image of the "thing in the lift", with its bloody, rolling eyes, a horrific mimicry of a human being, pushed beyond lunacy to monstrosity, is still lurking at the back of my mind despite the fact that I finished the book nearly a month ago.  *awed clap for Stephen King, Master of All*

Soooo, yeah, I loved this book.  It was one of those horror novels where the actual horror creeps up so gradually yet so inescapably that by the time it starts to manifest itself more strongly, you're already hooked and have to read on, and on, and on...  The supernatural elements are so well done, and although they are undoubtedly real, they are so entwined with Jack's madness and the hotel's history that the reader begins to question everything, both on the page and off.  It gets under your skin, dropping hints and placing symbols and filling you with a sense of foreboding.  It's maybe not for the squeamish - there are some truly gruesome moments - but if this review has made you even vaguely curious, then give it a go...  It's definitely going to be one of my top books of 2013!
Notable Quotables:
  • "The truth is that monsters are real, and ghosts are real, too.  They live inside us, and sometimes they win.  That our better angels sometimes - often! - win instead, in spite of all odds, is another truth of The Shining.  And thank God it is." - Stephen King's introduction
  • "In that instant, kneeling there, everything came clear to him.  It was not just Danny the Overlook was working on.  It was working on him, too.  It wasn't Danny who was the weak link, it was him.  He was the vulnerable one, the one who could be bent and twisted until something snapped."
  • "Now his ears were open and he could hear them again, the gathering, ghosts or spirits or maybe the hotel itself, a dreadful funhouse where all the sideshows ended in death, where all the specially painted boogies were really alive, where hedges walked, where a small silver key could start the obscenity.  Soft and sighing, rustling like the endless winter wind that played under the eaves at night, the deadly lulling wind the summer tourists never heard.  It was like the somnolent hum of summer wasps in a ground nest, sleepy, deadly, beginning to wake up."

Source: This book came into our bookshop a few months ago and I pilfered it to add to my King stash!

~ The Movie ~

Directed by Stanley Kubrick, starring Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall (1980)
My rating: 3 stars
Aaaaaand so to the movie.  Which really did NOT impress me, especially coming so soon after my reading of the original novel.  Perhaps if I'd seen the film first I'd have been able to appreciate both individually, but I had such high hopes given how amazing the book was and how highly rated I know the adaptation to be...  Well, let's just say that the three stars I've given it were mostly for the clever cinematography and the awesomeness that is Jack Nicholson.  (By the way, I find it quite creepy that Jack played Jack and Danny played Danny... that must have made it difficult to separate out character from actor sometimes?)  The rest was... what the term 'meh' was made for.  Sadly.
I guess my problem with the film can be very pithily summed up in one sentence: It's not The Shining.  It's set in a hotel and scary stuff happens and the characters' names are the same.  But the plot, the focus, the characters' personalities and motivations... all changed.  To illustrate: in the book, the hotel wants Danny, because of his Shining.  In the film, it wants Jack, for unknown reasons that may or may not have something to do with reincarnation, or maybe the old 'Indian burial ground' cliche that is quietly mentioned at the beginning of the film.  In the book, Jack is a family man who descends into madness.  In the film, he's clearly veiling violent insanity from the onset.  In the book, the dark forces are supernatural and the characters are victims.  In the film, the dark force is largely Jack.  In the book, Jack is a recovering alcoholic and writer.  In the film, JACK IS FRICKIN' INSANE.  In the book, Danny manages to get through to his father so that he regains 'himself' long enough to allow his family to escape.  In the film, the hotel maze somehow aids Danny and traps his father, who doesn't stop until he's exhausted.  In the book, the previous caretaker Grady and his family are just another part of the hotel's history.  In the film, his tragedy - and his daughters - are a key element.  I could go on...
I think the worst thing was the way the characters are changed.  I mean, Jack Nicholson is Jack Nicholson (and who doesn't love Jack Nicholson?!), but he in no way comes across as a loving family man, a father and husband, which somewhat diminishes the sense of loss and the terror at his madness.  Magazine writer Frederick Clarke once wrote that "Instead of playing a normal man who becomes insane, Nicholson portrays a crazy man attempting to remain sane."  I couldn't agree more - but then, that's how Kubrick chose to play it.  Shelley Duvall is hideously wooden, like a doll with an annoying accent, and I hate to say it because he seemed like a bit of a jackass, but I think Kubrick was right to be irritated by her.  Little Danny is... well, okay for a kid... but what they did to his 'shining' was fairly unforgiveable given that IT'S THE NAME OF THE FILM.  It's almost an afterthought here, not the focus, and the scene with him crossing the bedroom croaking 'Redrum! Redrum!' was just ridiculous.  I wrote down near the start of the film that the main characters seemed 'more like an antisocial man, a nanny and her completely unrelated charge' than a tight-knit family.  It's hard to feel sad for a family falling apart when they don't feel like a family in the first place!  I also didn't like Dick Hallorann.  As the hotel cook and the man who recognises Danny's 'shine', he is one of my favourite characters in the novel.  He is kindly, strong and reassuring, a figure of comfort and reason and dignified calm.  A beacon in the dark.  He just doesn't have that in the film.
Sooo, what did I like?  I thought some of the sound and cinematography was very clever: I particularly liked the scenes where Danny is pedalling around the hotel on his little tricycle, the sound changing dramatically as he rides on and off the rugs laid out on the hard floor.  The 'finger puppet' trick was an interesting way of getting around the 'Tony' thing - Tony being a manifestation of Danny's shining, someone who tells and shows him things - but by the end it just felt a bit embarrassing, to be honest.  The banging noises seemed to fit the book for a while - Jack playing ball against the lobby wall sort of echoed the recurring theme of the roque mallet hitting the corridor walls in the book, for example - but it never came to anything in the end.  The music itself was terrifying - layered and chaotic - but it was so loud in comparison with the general sound level that it was giving me a headache by the end of the film.  Jack Nicholson's dangerous mania was half-frightening, half-sexy, which is usually when he's at his best, let's face it.

One of my favourite things about the whole DVD (perhaps sadly) is the half-hour behind-the-scenes documentary, shot by Kubrick's 17 year-old daughter Vivien.  I suppose because she was an 'insider', the actors are that much more relaxed and candid, so it feels like a genuine peek at life on a movie set rather than a staged tour.  We get to see the actors rehearsing their lines, Nicholson cheekily playing to the cameras, Duvall and Kubrick arguing (about how bad her performance is, ha!) and even Duvall's 'breakdown' on set (such a delicate flower...).  There's a mini focus on the huge ballroom scene, and we also get to see the way the maze was built and filmed.  The most impressive thing was watching 'the filming of the filming' - seeing Jack playing Jack.  Seeing him maniacally laughing and threatening Wendy from the inside of the fridge then snapping back to normal the second the cameras stopped rolling...  watching him jumping up and down, limbering up, his voice changing to a furious growl, swinging the axe experimentally, becoming the character, right before the filming of the Here's Johnny scene...  It felt like a bit of a privilege, seeing a real old-fashioned actor at work, a legend in the making!  *Jennifer Lawrence fangirl moment*
Soooooo, yes.  I can see why King reportedly didn't like the film (at least to begin with), because IT'S NOT HIS BOOK.  I wish I'd seen it before I read the original, because then I might have seen what all the fuss was about instead of being disappointed.  For me, the characters, the plot, the whole feel of the book was changed too far, completely missing that fine balance between the original material and the compromises necessitated by the shift in media.  3 stars, mostly for some clever scenes and for the fact that Jack Nicholson can still make me come over all unnecessary even when he's bat-shit crazy!