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Reading Stephen King, Pt. 2

August 28, 2014 - Evan Reid
THE SHINING (1977)

“The Shining” deserves it’s status as a modern horror classic. It’s not only a great horror novel and a great Stephen King novel — it’s a great novel in general.

The story begins when aspiring writer and newly-recovered alcoholic Jack Torrance takes a job as the winter caretaker of the Overlook Hotel in Colorado. His wife, Wendy, and their young son Danny join him at the hotel. Jack’s tenure as the caretaker does not go well, to say the least.

King really puts his best foot forward here. The characters are well-rounded and sympathetic, the story is engrossing, and he sustains an appropriately creepy mood.

It may help that this was most likely a “write-what-you-know” situation, as King was a father struggling with addiction himself at the time. Of course, unlike Jack Torrance, King conquered his demons and his family is now living very comfortably.

The author does indulge in one of his most annoying bad habits here — pointless repetition. It seems Danny has the same nightmare (which foreshadows the end of the story) on about every other page.

Also, variations on the phrase “Come and take your medicine!” are all over the place. It’s a line Jack’s abusive father used on him when he was young, and Jack thinks or says it throughout the novel. Maybe it’s meant to indicate the cyclical nature of abuse, but it just winds up being kind of funny after a while.

The 1980 Stanley Kubrick adaptation of “The Shining” is one of my favorite movies of all time, so I decided to check out the 1997 TV miniseries adaptation to see how it measured up.

I was curious because King has been bad-mouthing Kubrick’s handling of his story ever since the film was release. Kubrick died in 1999 and even that didn’t stop him.

King himself “created” the miniseries version and it was based on a script that he wrote, yet...

Kubrick omitted or changed many aspects of King’s story, but he did so artfully and created a masterpiece. King mangles his own story for no discernible reason and winds up with a lame, boring mess.

In the miniseries, there’s a scene where Jack Torrance drags his fingers down his face and says “What’s... happening... to me!?”

Compare that with Jack Nicholson’s classic performance and you get the idea.

CARRIE (1974)

Here it is, the book that launched a million other books — Stephen King’s first published novel.

“Carrie” is a little rough around the edges, but it’s also an innovative, memorable story, which, at about 200 pages, is much more readable than some of the books that followed it.

There’s a reason that Carrie White is probably still King’s most widely-recognized character: she’s one of his most vivid.

Emotionally conflicted, ridiculed by her peers, ignored by every one else and subjected every day to her mother’s insane religious beliefs, Carrie has a lot going on even before you consider her strange powers. It’s hard not to feel some sympathy for her.

Brian de Palma’s well-known 1976 adaptation is still one of the most solid Stephen King movies out there. It’s not perfect but it’s still better than most, if not up to the same level as Kubrick’s “The Shining” and Rob Reiner’s version of “Misery.”

CHRISTINE (1983)

“Christine” is pretty bad! If this was the first book of King’s I had read I would have probably dismissed him for another 10 or 15 years. It encapsulates the negative criticism of his work — it’s way too long, way too cheesy to be believable, and it doesn’t make any sense.

It doesn’t even make sense structurally because the first and third sections are written from the first-person perspective of Dennis, the story’s hero, and the middle section is written in King’s usual third-person style because Dennis is confined to a hospital bed.

Also, Dennis doesn’t sound like a high school football star when he is narrating — he sounds like Stephen King. These problems just make the novel seem undercooked.

“Christine” is also way, way too long at over 500 pages. It would have worked much better as a leaner novel, like “Cujo” or “Carrie,” or even as a short story. The first thing to cut would definitely be the “ominous” dream sequences, which were a little obnoxious in the “The Shining” but are almost unbearable here.

There’s maybe an attempt to say something about the thorny bonds between parents and their teenaged children, but none of those relationships in the book are believable or interesting so it doesn’t pan out.

But the worst thing about “Christine” is that King's explanation for what exactly makes Christine, the 1958 Plymouth Fury, so evil is vague and unsatisfying at best. It’s haunted or cursed. Or something.

The novel’s climax is exciting enough but it’s not worth the effort it takes to get there, and there’s not much substance to the story in general. “Christine” is about a haunted car, and that’s about it.

I thought John Carpenter’s movie version of “Christine” (which was released less than eight months after the book was published!) was much better, and the changes Carpenter made to the story only improved it.

Carpenter’s best move was to begin “Christine” with a scene of the car being assembled in Detroit. Her hood clamps down on a worker’s hand and the audience knows right away: Christine was just born bad, no lame explanation necessary.

 
 

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