Published March 1, 2008

I was 13-years-old when I read The Shining. After years of enjoying comic books and short stories, it was the first novel I ever read. To say its impact on me was profound is a gross understatement. Coming from a past with verbal, emotional, physical, and religious abuse, it was the first time I realized my deplorable situation was not unique – there were people in the world, writers, who empathized with my situation. People who understood that … sometimes parents go crazy and try to kill their kids.

In early 1974, not long after selling both Carrie and ‘Salem’s Lot (both set in his home state of Maine), Stephen King wanted a change of scenery for his next novel. Randomly picking Boulder out of an atlas, King packed up his wife (novelist Tabitha King) and their kids and moved to Colorado. After trying out a few ideas (one of which was Darkshine, about a psychic little boy in a haunted amusement park), none of which worked, King and his wife decided to take a little vacation away from the children. At the behest of a friend, they decided to check out The Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, near the base of Rocky Mountain National Park. Checking in on Halloween weekend 1974, King and his wife were nearly turned away. It was the last day of the season, the hotel was closing down for the winter, the credit card slips had been packed away and the place was nearly deserted. King paid cash and he and Tabitha checked into room 217.

The Stanley Hotel
That night, after eating in the massive-yet-empty main dining room, and going back to their room through long, eerily deserted corridors, Tabitha turned in, but Steve decided to do further investigation. He ended up as the sole customer in the rustic Colorado Lounge, where he was served drinks by a bartender named Grady. Returning to 217 – after briefly getting lost in the maze of hallways – King went to the bathroom, noticed the antique clawfoot tub, pulled back the shower curtain and … What if somebody died here? King thought.

Says King: “That night I dreamed of my three-year-old son running through the corridors, looking back over his shoulder, eyes wide, screaming. He was being chased by a fire-hose. I woke up with a tremendous jerk, sweating all over, within an inch of falling out of bed. I got up, lit a cigarette, sat in a chair looking out the window at the Rockies, and by the time the cigarette was done, I had the bones of the book firmly set in my mind. It was like God had put me there to hear that and see those things.”

Stephen King
Upon returning to Boulder, King rented a room and for the next four months set about writing what would become one of his most seminal works, The Shining. Initially conceived as a tragedy in five acts, the novel involved a recovering alcoholic writer, his wife and son (who has the titular psychic knack) and the winter of discontent they spend as caretakers of The Overlook, a remote Rocky Mountain Hotel with a long and notorious history. Subtext involved themes of isolation (physical and emotional), demons (spiritual and psychological), alcoholism, and anger management.

In an interview from 1983, King said: “Sometimes you confess. You always hide what you’re confessing to. That’s one of the reasons why you make up the story. When I wrote The Shining, for instance, the protagonist is a man who has broken his son’s arm, who has a history of child beating, who is beaten himself. And as a young father, I was horrified by my occasional feelings of real antagonism toward my children. Won’t you ever stop? Won’t you ever go to bed? And time has given me the idea that probably there are a lot of young fathers and young mothers both who feel very angry, who have angry feelings toward their children. But as somebody who has been raised with the idea that Father Knows Best and Ward Cleaver on Leave It To Beaver, and all this stuff, I would think to myself, Oh, if he doesn’t shut up, if he doesn’t shut up … So when I wrote this book I wrote a lot of that down and tried to get it out of my system, but it was also a confession. Yes, there are times when I felt very angry toward my children and have even felt as though I could hurt them. Well, my kids are older now, and they’re all super. I don’t think I’ve laid a hand on [them] in probably seven years, but there was a time …”

King was also struggling with alcohol and drug abuse at the time, but has been sober since the late 1980s.

By the late 70s, King was already a brand name. Brian DePalma helped put him on the map with his excellent film adaptation of Carrie in 1976. Three years later, Tobe Hooper also did a good job with the TV mini-series of ‘Salem’s Lot. It wasn’t until 1980, however, that King received the ultimate push into the literary stratosphere, when visionary director Stanley Kubrick adapted and directed his ode to family dysfunction and spooky hotels.

Using both Pinewood Studios and Elstree Studios in England, the sets for the Overlook Hotel were the largest constructed at that time – including full recreations of the hotel’s exteriors and interiors. A few exterior shots were done at Timberline Lodge on Mount Hood in Oregon – notable because the hedge maze is missing (the book used hedge animals). The Timberline Lodge asked Kubrick to change the number of diabolical Room 217 of King’s novel to 237, so customers wouldn’t be afraid to stay in the real room 217. (They needn’t have worried).

Though the film (starring Jack Nicholson as conflicted caretaker Jack Torrance) has since achieved cult status, at the time of its release, it got a very mixed reception. Critics and King fans agreed that while the film was a technical marvel (oh, those Steadicam shots!), it lacked the heart and emotional complexities of the novel. Nicholson’s Torrance goes so crazy so quick there is no time to empathize with anyone in the story. (I admit, I was also sorely disappointed with Kubrick’s film when it first came out – it has since become one of my favorites.)

Stanley Kubrick
Not long after the release of Kubrick’s film, King opined: “Stanley Kubrick’s version of The Shining is a lot tougher for me to evaluate, because I’m still profoundly ambivalent about the whole thing. I’d admired Kubrick for a long time and had great expectations for the project, but I was deeply disappointed in the end result. Parts of the film are chilling, charged with a relentlessly claustrophobic terror, but others fall flat … Not that religion has to be involved in horror, but a visceral skeptic such as Kubrick just couldn’t grasp the sheer inhuman evil of The Overlook Hotel. So he looked, instead, for evil in the characters and made the film into a domestic tragedy with only vaguely supernatural overtones. That was the basic flaw: because he couldn’t believe, he couldn’t make the film believable to others. What’s basically wrong with Kubrick’s version of The Shining is that it’s a film by a man who thinks too much and feels too little; and that’s why, for all its virtuoso effects, it never gets you by the throat and hangs on the way real horror should. I’d like to remake The Shining someday, maybe even direct it if anybody will give me enough rope to hang myself with …”

Nearly two decades after Kubrick’s version, ABC television – who had great success with other King miniseries, IT and The Stand – asked King what he wanted to do next. King didn’t think twice. Adapting the novel himself this time and utilizing the same production team from ABC’s The Stand (including director Mick Garris), Stephen King’s The Shining began production in mid 1996 and aired in the spring of 1997. Largely filmed at the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park (returning its karmic debt after nearly a quarter century), the three-part miniseries starred Steven Weber as Jack, Rebecca DeMornay as Wendy and Courtland Mead as Danny. Reviews were again mixed, but there are those (including myself) who champion this as a much more faithful adaptation. Steven Weber (TV’s Wings) is so good in this role – especially when Jack goes completely over the edge – he nearly makes one forget Nicholson’s iconic performance. Rebecca DeMornay is also excellent, making Wendy Torrance a much stronger, more emotionally rounded character than Shelly Duvall in Kubrick’s version. The opening scene around the massive, sweating boiler of The Overlook (which must be regularly dumped to maintain its integrity), is a brilliant metaphor for the anger management fable which follows. This longer version (4 1/2 hours without commercials) is not without flaws – Garris is not nearly the cinematic visionary Kubrick is – but on an emotional level, it soars. The week of its premiere, TV Guide gave it a score of 10 out of 10 – a first. Many Kubrick aficionados despise this version, but I appreciate both. They somehow illuminate each other.

Both versions of The Shining are available on DVD, including a new, 2-disc, widescreen (finally!) version of Kubrick’s film. Among the excellent special features produced especially for this release, is a documentary from the original production, shot and directed by Stanley Kubrick’s (then) 17-year-old daughter, Vivian. Very entertaining. That snow-covered maze is actually an indoor set at Pinewood Studios in England, and the snow is actually salt. Fascinating. Don’t want to wait to watch it? Good, because I am posting the doc in its entirety below – get comfortable, it’s 35 minutes long. Included on the DVD of the TV miniseries version, is a commentary track by King himself, which makes for a fascinating listen – never more so when King discusses his initial stay in The Overlook … er, I mean The Stanley. If you’ve never seen it, many DVD retailers (and are now selling it at a bargain ten bucks!

The Shining is probably my favorite book … all right, The Stand comes close. It was the one that sparked my obsession with All Things King. Like much of Big Steve’s (written) work, it is equal parts horror, humor and humanity — a richly characterized, emotionally rewarding novel. If you are only familiar with the film versions, I highly recommend seeking it out. Especially if you can say, like the print ads for the TV version stated …

Sometimes the family can drive you a little crazy.