Third-Person-ality Disorder (The Shining)

The-ShiningA couple posts ago, I praised two novels that were adapted into Stanley Kubrick films (Lolita and A Clockwork Orange). Each of these were controversial novels that made controversial films. The Shining is less controversial, unless you’re a pro-King purist who laments the liberties Kubrick took in his version.

Although nothing beats first-person narration, when done well, my preferred form of storytelling is third-person. It allows for an author to develop style and provide details that, when conveyed with restraint, invite reader participation. It feels a little more like campfire tales, and should be a perfect companion to a ghost story. But there was something ultimately jarring about Stephen King’s novel and King’s use of third-person.

The novel jumps viewpoints. It takes the liberty of presenting different scenes form each of the three primary characters—and a fourth, less primary—which sounds inventive, even intriguing. But it wasn’t, not to me, at least (and here, I’m sure to be in the minority). The problem is that King offers a number of interesting perspectives to choose from: Danny, Wendy, Jack—even the Overlook Hotel, itself. But he chooses, instead, a detached and voyeuristic narrator. The narrator is like one of those nature photographers who switches between filming a leopard eating a gazelle to a wildebeest sinking in mud to a butterfly flittering across the land. The voice may probe but remains at a distance, always a watcher. There’s nothing invested and nothing at risk. The narrator won’t learn and won’t feel and won’t understand (or misunderstand). The narrator doesn’t sympathize with a perspective. It gives us too many options for entering the story, and doesn’t compel us to feel attached to any.

As such, The Shining is one of those rare cases when the film is more effective than the book (maybe it’s the difference between a good book and a great film, in this case). Kubrick sets a tone and sticks with it, from the moment blood pours out of elevators until Jack shows up in the old photograph. The novel tries too much. It doesn’t really make that commitment. And the result is a misuse of third-person narration that is interesting, but not compelling. Of course, maybe things would’ve been different if I’d read The Shining when I was fifteen like I should have.

Thoughts? When was the last time you preferred the movie over the book? Have you come across books whose third-person narrator took you out of the story? Am I wrong about The Shining?


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