The film differs from the novel significantly with regard to characterization and motivation of action. The most obvious differences are those regarding the personality of Jack Torrance (the source of much of author Stephen King’s dissatisfaction with the film).
Motivation of ghosts
In the film, the motive of the ghosts is apparently to "reclaim" Jack (even though Grady expresses an interest in Danny's "shining" ability), who seems to be a reincarnation of a previous caretaker of the hotel, as suggested by the 1920s photograph of Jack at the end of the film and Jack's repeated claims to have "not just a deja vu". The film is even more focused on Jack (as opposed to Danny) than the novel.
The room number 217 has been changed to 237. Timberline Lodge, located on Mt. Hood in Oregon, was used for the exterior shots of the fictional Overlook Hotel. The Lodge requested that Kubrick not depict Room 217 (featured in the book) in The Shining, because future guests at the Lodge might be afraid to stay there, and a nonexistent room, 237, was substituted in the film. Contrary to the hotel's expectations, Room 217 is requested more often than any other room at Timberline.
There are fringe analyses relating this number change to rumors that Kubrick faked the first moon landing, as there are approximately 237,000 miles between Earth and Moon (average is 238,855 miles) and the movie is a subtle confession of his involvement. Another theory is an obsession with the number 42 and its forms in the movie and the product of the digits in 237 is 42.
The novel presents Jack as initially likable and well-intentioned but haunted by the demons of alcohol and authority issues. Nonetheless, he becomes gradually overwhelmed by the evil forces in the hotel. At the novel's conclusion, the hotel forces have possessed Jack's body and proceed to destroy all that is left of his mind during a final showdown with Danny, leaving a monstrous entity that Danny is able to divert while he, Wendy and Dick Halloran escape. The film's Jack is established as somewhat sinister much earlier in the story and dies in a different manner. Jack actually kills Dick Hallorann in the film, but only wounds him in the novel. King attempted to talk Stanley Kubrick out of casting Jack Nicholson even before filming began, on the grounds that he seemed vaguely sinister from the very beginning of the film, and had suggested Jon Voight among others for the role.
Only in the novel does Jack hear the haunting, heavy-handed voice of his father with whom he had a troubled relationship. In both the novel and film, Jack's encounter with the ghostly bartender is pivotal to Jack's deterioration. However, the novel gives much more detail about Jack's problems with drinking and alcohol.
The film prolongs Jack's struggle with writer's block. Kubrick's co-screenwriter Diane Johnson believes that in King's novel, Jack's discovery of the scrapbook of clippings in the boiler room of the hotel which gives him new ideas for a novel catalyzes his possession by the ghosts of the hotel, while at the same time unblocking his writing. Jack is no longer a blocked writer, but now filled with energy. In her contribution to the screenplay, she wrote an adaptation of this scene, which to her regret Kubrick later excised, as she felt this left the father's change less motivated. Kubrick showed Jack's continued blockage quite late in the film with the "all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy" scene, which does not appear in the novel.
Stephen King has openly stated on the DVD commentary of the 1997 mini-series of The Shining that the character of Jack Torrance was partially autobiographical, as he was struggling with both alcoholism and unprovoked rage toward his family at the time of writing. Tony Magistrale wrote about Kubrick's version of Jack Torrance in Hollywood's Stephen King:
Kubrick's version of Torrance is much closer to the tyrannical Hal (from Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey) and Alex (from Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange) than he is to King's more conflicted, more sympathetically human characterization.
From Thomas Allen Nelson's Kubrick: Inside a Film Artist's Maze: "When Jack moves through the reception area on his way to a 'shining' over the model maze, he throws a yellow tennis ball past a stuffed bear and Danny's Big Wheel, which rests on the very spot (a Navajo circle design) where Hallorann will be murdered." Jack's tennis ball mysteriously rolls into Danny's circle of toy cars just before the boy walks through the open door of Room 237.
"In the film's opening, the camera from above moves over water and through mountains with the ease of a bird in flight. Below, on a winding mountain road, Jack's diminutive yellow Volkswagen journeys through a tree-lined maze, resembling one of Danny's toy cars or the yellow tennis ball seen later outside of Room 237."
Danny Torrance is considerably more open about his supernatural abilities in the novel, discussing them with strangers such as his doctor. In the film, he is quite secretive about them even with his prime mentor Dick Halloran, who also has these abilities. (The same is true of Dick Halloran, who in his journey back to the Overlook in the book, talks with others with the "shining" ability, while in the film he lies about his reason for returning to the Overlook.) Danny in the novel is generally portrayed as unusually intelligent across the board. In the film, he is more ordinary, though with a preternatural gift. In the novel, Danny is much more bonded to his father than in the film.
Although Danny has supernatural powers in both versions, the novel makes it clear that his apparent imaginary friend "Tony" really is a projection of hidden parts of his own psyche, though heavily amplified by Danny's psychic "shining" abilities. At the end it is revealed that Danny Torrance's middle name is "Anthony".
Wendy Torrance in the film is relatively meek, submissive, passive, gentle, and mousy; this is shown by the way she defends Jack even in his absence to the doctor examining Danny. It is implied she has perhaps been abused by him as well. In the novel, she is a far more self-reliant and independent personality who is tied to Jack in part by her poor relationship with her parents. In the novel, she never displays hysteria or collapses the way she does in the film, but remains cool and self-reliant. Writing in Hollywood's Stephen King, author Tony Magistrale writes about the mini-series remake:
De Mornay restores much of the steely resilience found in the protagonist of King's novel and this is particularly noteworthy when compared to Shelley Duvall's exaggerated portrayal of Wendy as Olive Oyl revisited: A simpering fatality of forces beyond her capacity to understand, much less surmount.
Co-screenwriter Diane Johnson stated that in her contributions to the script, Wendy had more dialogue, and that Kubrick cut many of her lines, possibly due to his dissatisfaction with actress Shelley Duvall's delivery. Johnson believes the earlier draft of the script portrayed Wendy as a more-rounded character.
In the novel, Jack's authority issues are triggered by the fact that his interviewer, Ullman, is highly authoritarian, a kind of snobbish martinet. The film's Ullman is far more humane and concerned about Jack's well-being, as well as smooth and self-assured. Only in the novel does Ullman state that he disapproves of hiring Jack but higher authorities have asked that Jack be hired. Ullman's bossy nature in the novel is one of the first steps in Jack's deterioration, whereas in the film, Ullman serves largely as an expositor.
In Stanley Kubrick and the Art of Adaptation, author Greg Jenkins writes "A toadish figure in the book, Ullman has been utterly reinvented for the film; he now radiates charm, grace and gentility."
From Kubrick: Inside a Film Artist's Maze: Ullman tells Jack that the hotel's season runs from May 15 to October 30, meaning the Torrances moved in on Halloween. On Ullmann's desk next to a small American flag sits a metal cup containing pencils and a pen—and a miniature replica of an ax.
"When Ullman, himself all smiles, relates as a footnote the story about the former caretaker who 'seemed perfectly normal' but nevertheless cut up his family with an ax, Jack's obvious interest (as if he's recalling one of his own nightmares) and his insincere congeniality (early signs of a personality malfunction) lead the viewer to believe that the film's definition of his madness will be far more complex."
Stephen King provides the reader with a great deal of information about the stress in the Torrance family early in the story, including revelations of Jack's physical abuse of Danny and Wendy's fear of Danny's mysterious spells. Kubrick tones down the early family tension and reveals family disharmony much more gradually than does King. In the film, Danny has a stronger emotional bond with Wendy than with Jack, which fuels Jack's rather paranoid notion that the two are conspiring against him.
In the novel Jack recovers his sanity and goodwill through the intervention of Danny while this does not occur in the film. Writing in Cinefantastique magazine, Frederick Clarke suggests "Instead of playing a normal man who becomes insane, Nicholson portrays a crazy man attempting to remain sane." In the novel, Jack's final act is to enable Wendy and Danny to escape the hotel before it explodes due to a defective boiler, killing him. The film ends with the hotel still standing. More broadly, the defective boiler is a major element of the novel's plot, entirely missing from the film version.
Because of the limitations of special effects at the time, the living topiary animals of the novel were omitted and a hedge maze was added, acting as a final trap for Jack Torrance as well as a refuge for Danny.
In the film, the hotel possibly derives its malevolent energy from being built on an Indian burial ground. In the novel, the reason for the hotel's manifestation of evil is possibly explained by a theme present in King's previous novel Salem's Lot as well as Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House: a physical place may absorb the evils that transpire there and manifest them as a vaguely sentient malevolence. The film's Hallorann speaks to Danny about that phenomenon occurring at the Overlook. In the novel, Jack does a great deal of investigation of the hotel's past through a scrapbook, a subplot almost omitted from the film aside from two touches: a brief appearance of the scrapbook beside the typewriter, and Jack's statement to the ghost of Grady that he knows his face from an old newspaper article describing the latter's horrific acts. Kubrick in fact shot a scene where Jack discovers the scrapbook but removed it during post-production, a decision which co-screenwriter Diane Johnson lamented.
Some of the film's most famous iconic scenes, such as the ghost girls in the hallway and the torrent of blood from the elevators, are unique to the film. The most notable of these would be the typewritten pages Wendy discovers on Jack's desk. Similarly, many of the most memorable lines of dialogue ("Words of wisdom" and "Here's Johnny!") are heard exclusively in the film.
Film adaptation commentary
Although Stephen King fans were critical of the novel's adaptation on the grounds that Kubrick altered and reduced the novel's themes, a defense of Kubrick's approach was made in Steve Biodrowski's review of the film. He argues that as in earlier films, Kubrick stripped out the back story of the film, reducing it down to a "basic narrative line", making the characters more like archetypes. His review of the film is one of the few to go into detailed comparison with the novel. He writes, "The result ...[is] a brilliant, ambitious attempt to shoot a horror film without the Gothic trappings of shadows and cobwebs so often associated with the genre."