With the publication of Doctor Sleep, it is only natural that renewed interest is focused on The Shining. This renewed interest is reflected in the recently released documentary Room 237, which explores various interpretations of Kubrick's film. While I like Kubrick's film as a film and believe it deserves much of the praise it receives, it is clearly not an adaptation of King's work. I teach a college course in Gothic and horror lit, and I tell my students that watching the film as any kind of short cut simply will not work. Kubrick's film is more an artistic work inspired by King's novel than an adaptation of it.
Of course, directors have always altered literary works for artistic and practical reasons. The work must be condensed into a roughly two-hour piece; even Hamlet has been produced in its entirety only once because it is a five-hour play.
Some of Kubrick's changes can easily be explained in terms of artistic vision and practical necessity. Others cannot. One that has always puzzled me is why the room number is changed from 217 to 237, for example.
Therefore, I was naturally attracted to a documentary titled Room 237. Generally, fans of the film do not care for it, but film critics love it. There's a simple reason; this piece is more an academic/literary discussion of the film than most audiences care for.
The documentary provides several interesting academic interpretations of the film and discussions of how these interpretations are evident in changes Kubrick made. It is, like most academic criticism, speculative with no evidence that Kubrick had any of these interpretations in mind, although there is evidence supporting that he might have had any or all of them in mind. The point is moot in literary criticism because the author's interpretation is seen as only one correct interpretation; the question of validity lies in whether the interpretation can be supported by elements of the work, and the interpretations presented in this documentary are.
However, one of the most intelligent interpretations mistakenly credits Kubrick for a concept within King's work. It is not a new exploration in literature. In fact, Fitzgerald explores it in The Great Gatsby and more directly in his excellent short story "Babylon Revisited." The concept can be thought of as the paradox of the past; no one can ever return to the past, and no one can ever escape it. It is always gone, and it is always here.
Yes, the documentary makes a good argument for the symbolism in the Kubrick film presenting this paradox. But it overlooks that the novel does also. Ghost stories, and in essence, The Shining is a ghost story, generally are reflections of the harm the past can inflict. King makes this point very clear not only through the manifestations in the Overlook, but also in Wendy's and Jack's recognition or lack thereof, respectively, that they are recreating the parenting of their own least nurturing parent. I haven't looked into it closely enough to know, but I think the wasps and wasp nests are symbols of the past rising up to cause harm. (There's an academic paper in there somewhere. )
Also, while I enjoyed the reference to the semi crushing the red Volkswagen in the documentary, I completely disagree with the content of the interpretation. The film is a good film, already considered a classic. But the novel might be the best horror novel ever written. It's not my favorite horror novel or even my favorite King work, but in terms of its ever-building rhythmic organization, the language used to evoke terror or horror in the reader, and its modernized use of traditional Gothic tropes, it is, from a literary standpoint, a shining example of everything horror can offer. Pardon the pun.
The film is considered a classic because not because it is a better film than King's work is a novel; film becomes canonical much more quickly than literature. With a few notable exceptions such as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, horror is marginalized in literature to begin with. Also, academicians look with skepticism on any written work that sells well.
But take heart. Shakespeare played to packed houses. I am confident that some King works, including The Shining, will become part of the canon and recognized for literary merit. He doesn't walk the walk and talk the talk of academics, but the artistry, the talent, the depth, the language, the intertextuality, the well-drawn characters, the intricate but consistent plots, and any other criteria one can think of are all in these works.
By the way, I admire King for not talking the talk. His vast knowledge is much more accessible to everyone than academic prose, and most literary criticism is written in academic prose. Danse Macabre is an outstanding work on horror literature, and one doesn't need a PhD to read and learn from it. Knowledge, like food, should be available for anyone and not hoarded.