“I want you to like it here. I wish we could stay here forever… and ever… and ever. “
Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is one of the most – and least – successful adaptations of Stephen King’s work. It’s an incredibly well-made haunting story – and I say haunting specifically, rather than a ghost story. Jack is haunted by his past and his failures, Wendy is haunted by the same and the shadow they cast over her life and young Danny’s. Danny is haunted by his ability and how little it helps him, given he’s a child and incapable of making his own choices. And then there’s the Overlook.
And yet it fails in the most basic consideration of an adaptation – it captures almost nothing of the spirit of the work from which it takes its inspiration. The characters and (some) events remain, but they’ve been hollowed out and filled with a different creator’s vision. The Shining never feels like a Stephen King movie. It is uncompromisingly a Stanley Kubrick film.
I personally don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. Some of the best “adaptations” take little more than a few details and some inspiration from their source material. I’m thinking of things as disparate as James Whale’s Frankenstein films and David Prior’s The Empty Man (keeping things in horror genre, as this IS October after all). Stephen King of course takes issue with the film, as it no longer centers on the concerns and relationships he feels are the center of the story (Danny and Jack have the strongest relationship, for instance, in the book). And he’s right. It’s not that story anymore. It’s another version, viewed through a mirror darkly. Yet it remains a compelling vision, one that is haunting audiences still.
What The Shining Means to Us
It’s odd to consider a movie that disturbs me so much as one of my favorite movies of all time, but a genius like the one and only Stanley Kubrick can make that oddity a reality. It’s hard to say definitively, but The Shining might be a display of the masterful Kubrick at the height of his craft. There’s a bit of directorial playfulness underneath the sinister happenings of it all. Kubrick is so on his game – so in control of everything – that’s it’s nearly impossible to do anything but marvel at its mastery.
Okay, I guess there is one thing it’s possible to do besides marvel – be scared absolutely sh*tless. No matter how much time I spend during my countless rewatches of The Shining and wriggle around my seat with the giddy joy of a Kubrick fanboy, I spend just about as much time wriggling in my seat with a disturbing terror sitting in the pit of my stomach. As someone who doesn’t typically gravitate to horror films (or anything remotely scary in real life), it takes something truly special to get me to revisit it constantly even though it’s given me nightmares in the past.
The Shining is a powerhouse of a film. Its influence is about as far reaching as any film made in the last 50 years. It’s constantly parodied, frequently referenced, and continually culturally relevant. If you want a greater understanding of the hold that Kubrick’s masterwork has on us as a society, I highly recommend checking out the documentary Room 237, which offers voice to many of the countless theories, critical readings, and interpretations surrounding The Shining. It’s cool that a movie can be so many different things to so many different people, but to me it’s just an incredible piece of art.
I find it interesting that some of the greatest and most effective horror movies were from directors who never directed horror before and sometimes never dabbled in the genre again. I truly believe that if directors like Spielberg, Charles Laughton, Michael Powell or Kubrick (just to name a few) decided to stick with scaring people instead of changing genres or retiring completely, they’d rank amongst the best in the genre. Imagine all the different types of subgenres we missed out on because Kubrick decided to be an auteur instead of a master of horror. Imagine a world where he directed an alien invasion film or even something schlocky like The Birds. He’d blow every other director out of the water; there’d be no competition. I know this because few films hold a candle to The Shining. It’s a perfect horror movie. It’s impossible to write about it without mentioning King’s infamous dislike of the film and while I get it (he really hates the fact that Nicholson is crazy from the jump and that is not a show progression into madness), I truly believe some if not all of his dislike towards the film is due to jealousy. I think he knows he could never make something this scary and he hates the fact that Kubrick one upped him. And he’s right.
I love King and I think he’s about as good and author as they come, but Kubrick took what was scary on the page and made it real in a way King could never do. He has to rely on my imagination to do a lot of the heavy lifting, whereas the film adaptation puts the horrors on the screen. He forces me to confront room 237, he puts me in the shoes of Wendy and Danny, he makes the terror real and palpable. There aren’t many locations more terrifying than The Overlook Hotel and the film traps us in there with the characters. But unlike most haunted house movies from around that era, you see the ghosts and they’re horrifying. The Twins will be etched in your memory for all times, the old hag in room 237 is still alarming and as much as I want to, I can’t forget the man in the dog costume. If the film was nothing but a gallery of unsettling poltergeists, it would still be one of the greatest horror movies of all time but the true terror comes not from the paranormal but a flesh and blood monster. Jack Torrance ranks among the scariest movie villains because of how unpredictably crazy he is. In a film filled with nothing but the best horror moments, the best and scariest one by far, is when Wendy finds out how dangerous her husband is and just how long he’s been insane. All work and no play make jack a dull boy, like redrum, isn’t scary without context but within the context of the film, they’re bone chilling. This film is so good at scaring the audience that it makes innocuous images and phrases (like twin little girls or words without meaning), part of horror fans vernacular. Almost everything about this film is woven into the fabric of cinema. I mean, how many times have you seen the design of the carpet alone in movies and television? This isn’t just a horror movie, it’s a foundational pillar of cinema.
I have a complicated relationship with The Shining. I’ve never really managed to enjoy the novel, as well written as it is. It has much to do with the rather tough time my family was going through when I first read it. A basically decent human being who had a terrible temper was all too familiar to me at the time. I read it again recently and in some ways that was cathartic – particularly in reaching the end and finding the mother and child have survived – damaged but intact. I found myself teary eyed and realized that I was emotional for myself and my family. We too had survived, never the same but still alive and kicking.
As a result of that complicated relationship with the original novel, I’ve always preferred the film version. In part because there’s a distance to Stanley Kubrick’s film that allows me to separate myself from the narrative. I’ve always loved Kubrick’s movies, but they’re not… intimate films. They don’t require attachment, either to the characters or the narrative, which can be byzantine and even contradictory. It allows me to enjoy the story in a way the novel doesn’t, because I’m not as personally invested.
Which doesn’t mean it’s not scary to me. It’s terrifying. It remains one of the few films that has ever given me a nightmare (that woman in Room 237 – gah). While my relationship with the film has grown more complicated over time – the revelations about Shelley Duvall’s treatment has darkened that relationship somewhat – I’m still sucked in every time. I just watched it. And I kinda want to watch it again.
Come Play With Us – Adapting The Shining
With the commercial failure of Barry Lindon, Kubrick found himself in the unenviable position of trying to find a project that would be both creatively and financially satisfying. I’m always reminded of Carl Theodor Dreyer who found himself in a similar situation after Joan of Arc also failed to find an audience. Both men turned to the horror genre for their next projects and used the works of famous horror authors as inspirations rather than blueprints (Dreyer based Vampyr on two stories by J. Sheridan Le Fanu). While both directors chose the genre at least partly out of financial considerations, they were also both artists – incapable of making something that wasn’t an expression of their creative vision. They were also both initially disappointed in the reception of their work, with their films initially poorly received by both critics and the public.
Kubrick decided on The Shining after reading many other horror novels – each rejected after only a few pages. King’s work was the first that he liked. The only problem was that the main character in King’s book was a good man who descends into evil with the outside pressure of a haunted hotel. Kubrick thought it more realistic that Jack Torrence was already a man with evil inside him – evil just waiting for an opportunity to be expressed.
With a template chosen and a treatment in hand (it’s well worth a read, if you get a chance), Kubrick’s next job was finding a location. The Overlook is a character in itself, and finding the right property was paramount to creating the atmosphere the director was looking for. In the end there was no such property – though Oregon’s Timberline Lodge served as the exterior – and the interiors are sets based on many different properties (photographed in detail by art director Ray Walker). When stitched together they form the labyrinthine monstrosity of the film, and the incongruities between the various parts of the hotel are part of what’s so unsettling about it.
In stripping down the characters to their basic elements, discarding much of the novel’s details and background, Kubrick comes very near to making them caricatures. The violent, crazy man and the wailing, traumatized woman defending the preternaturally gifted child. All the actors are so good, however, that they elevate those roles beyond their simplified (or “clarified,” to use Kubrick’s term) presentation in the script. Nicholson is never more frighteningly Nicholson, Duval is so brittle she seems like she could shatter at any moment, and young Danny Lloyd is perhaps the most grounded and believable of the trio – quite a feat as he’s the one with the psychic power. The supporting cast is uniformly excellent as well, from Scatman Crother’s would-be hero cook to Joe Turkel’s eery barman to the incredibly creepy Grady Twins played by Lisa and Louise Burns.
You can’t talk about The Shining without mentioning the cinematography. Always a feature in Kubrick’s films, here the use of the then-new technology of Steadycam is a huge part of what makes the film as special as it is. While not the first film to make use of Garret Brown’s invention it was certainly the first to engage the inventor so much that he became involved in the production, learning and adapting the technology to achieve what the director wanted. The resultant prowling, fluid camerawork is almost a character in the film as well, a disembodied third party following Danny as he rides his Big Wheel through cavernous halls and stalking through the maze alongside Jack as if we’re part of his hunt for his son.
The Maze – Meaning and Minotaurs
The Overlook Hotel has a maze and IS a maze. The layout of the hotel, as shown in the movie, makes no sense. Rooms in the center of the hotel are shown with windows, hallways go nowhere and the ballroom cannot fit into the dimensions of the hotel. In this way the Overlook reminds me of the house at the center of Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves – an ever-growing edifice of unknown and unknowable dimensions. Maybe a reflection of the psyche of those who live within it, maybe a reflection of the author, or even the reader – or viewer, in the case of the film. Or maybe just a cage for an evil that can’t be allowed to escape.
In another way, the film is a maze of meaning. Kubrick was a notoriously meticulous filmmaker and seems to have always had a reason for anything that made its way on screen. The Shining is filled with elements that invite discussion and digression, that divert and draw us into an examination of the film as having layers of meaning that may well be nothing more than dead ends or circular paths leading us only back to the beginning. Why is Jack reading a Playgirl at the beginning of the film? Why does Grady insist his first name is Delbert, despite as much as admitting he’s also the previous caretaker, CHARLES Grady, the one who killed his family with an axe? What’s up with that elevator filled with blood, anyway?
These questions and more have led to something of a cottage industry in the film’s analysis and deconstruction. An entire documentary – Room 237 – is based around interpretations of the film (including some extremely out-there analysis, such as details that “reveal” that Kubrick helped fake the moon landing). The film may not support all of these interpretations (or any), but like the Overlook itself it is large – it contains multitudes – and the ambiguities allow for people to project their own interests and concerns into the film. Or get lost in the maze.
Kubrick himself has said that the supernatural should defy explanation, that the uncanny – in the same sense that H. P. Lovecraft uses in his essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature” – should stimulate an audience’s anxiety and fear. Do that, and explanations aren’t necessary, and in fact can puncture that feeling of fear. To that end the film doesn’t need to make sense, as long as it feels right. Given that intention – to defy explanations – the ambiguities and elements of the film that don’t seem to make sense are a part of what Kubrick is trying to accomplish. They’re just as intentional as anything else in any film the man made.
My own amateur insight/interpretation is that Jack also has a touch of the shine. That’s what allows the echoes of the Overlook access to his mind. Like the stone room in Nigel Kneale and Peter Sasdy’s The Stone Tape, the Overlook is an enormous recording of the things that have occurred in it – and the darker things have dug a deeper groove. I think about that first scene of Jack typing away in that vast, empty room, like a reflection of the huge space that is the empty page to a writer. It starts with Jack occupying the space. It ends with the space occupying Jack.
The Caretaker – Stanley Kubrick
I don’t feel like you can talk about The Shining anymore without at least thinking about the experience of Shelley Duvall on the film. Her performance was derided at the time of the film’s release – she was “awarded” a Razzie that year – as over-the-top and weak. The Razzies recently rescinded that nomination, given information that has come to light about her treatment by Kubrick during the making of the film.
The documentary Making ‘The Shining’ – shot by the director’s daughter, Vivian – contains a scene where Kubrick berates Duvall for missing a cue. This is only the tip of the iceberg of his behavior towards the actress. Duvall endured constant belittlement, isolation (including from the crew, who were directed to keep her at a distance) and endless days of grueling performance, like the famous 127 takes for the scene in which Wendy fends off Jack with a baseball bat. She would end up dehydrated, her hair would begin to fall out and she would eventually have a nervous breakdown.
While some – including Duvall herself – have defended Kubrick’s methods as a director attempting to get a particular performance out of his actress, this behavior goes beyond the pale. It was abuse, plain and simple, and if I’m honest it makes it difficult to watch those scenes now.
It’s ironic that Kubrick made a film about an abusive man who turns on his family. You could just as easily show Kubrick’s face in the photograph at the end of the film. He too has always been the caretaker. If The Shining is a maze, then Kubrick is the minotaur at the center – the monster that haunts every scene.
I still love the film. I just can’t watch it in quite the same way anymore.
The Shining remains one of the most influential horror movies of all time, and among the most memorable films in a career that consists almost entirely of memorable films. It has permeated popular culture and is referenced seemingly constantly in film, music and television. While it wasn’t received well upon its release it has since become a mainstream masterpiece – no “cult favorite” here. Think about how often you’ve seen “Here’s Johnny!” or “All work and no play make Jack a dull boy” referenced. The twin girls, the carpet designs, Danny’s ride through the hotel. Iconic moments and images all as indelible today as they were when the film was released.
Personally, I always think of that The Simpsons “Treehouse of Terror” episode – “The Shinning.” But I also admit to owning a copy of the The Shining board game, though I’ve yet to play it. And of course the film was #1 on our list of Greatest Stephen King adaptations.
While Stephen King has gone on to have his novel adapted into a television mini-series, this will always be the definitive screen version of his story – for good or ill. While The Shining doesn’t capture the tone of the original story, it has captured our imaginations. We’re all victims of The Overlook, in a way. Trapped by a relentless vision of terror that grabs hold with that first helicopter shot and doesn’t let go, even after the screen fades to black on Jack’s frozen, scowling visage.
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