Widely reviled by Stephen King fans for abandoning much of the book (King himself said his feelings balanced out to zero), Stanley Kubrick’s film version of THE SHINING reveals, upon re-examination, that he took the same course he had used in the past when adapting novels to the screen (such as Vladimir Navokov`s Lolita): he stripped away the back story and exposition, distilling the results down to the basic narrative line, with the characters thus rendered in a more archetypal form. The result may not quite match Kubrick’s greatest films, but it is enthralling and hypnotic — a brilliant, ambitious attempt to shoot a horror film without the Gothic trappings of shadows and cobwebs so often associated with the genre.
Stephen King’s third novel (after Carrie and Salem’s Lot) tells the tale of the Torrance family (Jack, Wendy, and Danny), who spend a winter as caretakers in an old, isolated hotel that closes down in the off-season. Jack is a former school teacher and an aspiring playwright, whose drinking has harmed his career and his family life (he was fired from his teaching position before he could get tenure, and he broke his son Danny’s arm in a drunken rage). Since then, he has sobered up, and plans to use the quiet winter months to complete a play. Unfortunately, the Overlook Hotel has a bit of a bad reputation for working ill will on troubled minds: during a previous winter, a caretaker went mad with “cabin fever” and slaughtered his family and himself. Hallorann, the hotel’s cook, explains to young Danny Torrance that the Overlook is haunted, but it seems to be a peculiar kind of haunting: it takes someone with a “shining” (i.e., psychic abilities) to see and/or activate the ghosts. Both Hallorann and Danny have this ability. Once the hotel is closed and everyone else has left the Torrance family alone, Jack begins a slow descent into madness, seeing visions of ghosts that urge him to slaughter his family — in particular Danny, because the hotel covets his precious psychic gift. He discards the battery of a snowmobile that could take them to safety and destroys the radio they might use to call for help. In the latter chapters, he becomes complete possessed by the hotel, but Danny’s psychic abilities summon help in the form of Hallorann, who braves the snows to rescue the mother and son from their homicidal father. Jack knocks Hallorann senseless and obliterates his own face with a heavy mallet, leaving nothing of the real Jack — only a walking puppet controlled by the hotel — but Danny saves the day when he remembers “that which was forgotten”: that the pressure on the hotel’s boiler has not been checked. Alarmed, what’s left of Jack races to the cellar while Wendy, Jack, and Hallorann escape — just before the hotel explodes.
The Shining shows the strengths that have made Stephen King a best-selling author of horror fiction: he knows how to create situations that are genuinely frightening, and he knows how to milk them for maximum impact; but more than that, he has a gift for characterization that is rare in the genre. He creates very detailed, nuanced personalities that are not the simple heroes and villains of traditional Gothic horror (e.g., Bram Stoker’s Dracula), and he actually makes the book almost a character study as we follow the gradual transformation of Jack Torrance, whose inner demons make him an easy target for the malign influence of the Overlook.
Unfortunately, the book also displays the considerable weaknesses and excesses that marked King’s early writing. Weaned on horror movies, King uses words to mimic the crude shock effects of films: instead of zoom lenses, we get a deluge of exclamation points and parenthetical marks, and words (even whole sentences) in italics and/or ALL IN CAPS!!! As if emulating the shock-cut technique of cinema, King sometimes launches his chapters with an abrupt stream of profanity, in order to capture our interest. (The very first sentence is: “Jack Torrance thought: Officious little prick.” A later chapter begins with this subtle dialogue: “Oh you goddam fucking son of a bitch!”) And of course he doses his pages with enough dollops of gore to satisfy any slasher movie fan.
These stylistics excesses aside, King also overdoes his central conceit — which is trying to maintain some sympathy for Jack as a human being even while we see him inevitably succumbing to the Overlook. King attempts to achieve this through long inner monologues in which Jack rationalizes his behavior; it’s a long, gradual, and far-too-slow road to damnation that runs out of interest before it reaches its conclusion, because we can see where it’s going. To cite just one example, it takes Jack two pages to think through his decision to throw away the battery to the snowmobile, but the reader knows the outcome from the beginning — because King obviously has to disable this means of escape if he’s going to maintain the suspense. Worse, King does not play this dramatic decision as the clear turning point it is (at this point, Jack must be planning to kill his family); instead, it is just one more tiny step on the way to the finale, and we’re expected to continue sympathizing with Jack as those nasty ghosts continue to make him do these terrible things that he really doesn’t want to do.
As a result, The Shining is an extremely uneven book. It is filled with great ideas and nightmarish horror, woven together with a strong story and an admirable attempt at convincing characterization. But it is also long-winded, over-written, melodramatic, and even bathetic in its attempt to wring tearjerker moments amidst the free flow of bloodshed.
In effect, the novel seemed like the perfect source material for a movie that could retain the core concepts, trim away the excess, and replace the overdone writing with a sophisticated cinematic style (much in the way that the Brian DePalma-directed Carrie had translated King’s debut novel to the screen).
When THE SHINING reached theatre screens, much more had been deleted besides the stylistic excess of the novel: not only was the bloody violence toned down; much of the action had been removed as well — a fact for which King fans have never forgiven the film. Nevertheless, it is clear that Kubrick’s screenplay (written in collaboration with novelist Diane Johnson) made several changes that improved the film: there were no longer hedge animals that came to life; Jack Torrance no longer beat himself and Hallorann bloody with a mallet; and the hotel did not blow up in a pat, satisfying finale. In effect, the book read more like a horror movie than the actual movie, which exchanged King’s hot-blooded approach to horror with Kubrick’s cold, calculating detachment, filmed almost with God-like indifference to the fates of mere mortals.
A perfect example of this is the missing hedge animals. In the book, the evoke fear early on, when they only seem to be moving when glimpsed out of the corner of the eye as Jack (doing his duties as caretaker) is trimming them. Later, when they start running around like real animals, they are barely one-step away from being a bad joke: “attack of the killer shrubbery” (one imagines Monty Python could have some good, silly fun with this concept).
In place of the hedge animals, Kubrick substitutes a hedge maze, which becomes a metaphor for the predicament in which the characters find themselves trapped. In fact, the hedge emphasizes that the entire Overlook Hotel is really a maze, with endless corridors and right angles, around which unknown horrors may be lurking.
This fits in perfectly with the traditional Kubrickian worldview, in which the apparent free will of the characters is almost always exposed as an illusion, not necessarily through the story but through the visuals. In previous films, Kubrick favored lengthy tracking shots that followed characters as they navigated paths through trenches (in PATHS OF GLORY) and spaceships (in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY). In THE SHINING, this translates into numerous wonderful Steadicam shots as, variously, Jack or Wendy or Danny wind through the corridors of the Overlook and the pathways of the hedge maze. In all cases, the moving camera (which traditionally appears to convey a sense of freedom to the characters) instead holds them in place: they seem to be choosing their path, but in truth the path has already been laid out for them by the architecture, which forces them to take particular twists and turns, around which may lurk unknown horrors (the most effective of which are the twin ghost girls, who invite Danny to play with them…forever). Layered upon top of this technique, in the Kubrick worldview, is the circular sense of endlessly repeated action, as if what we are seeing does not really come to an end but instead goes on into infinity. The difference is that, in a realistic film like PATHS OF GLORY (or the later FULL METAL JACKET), the concept of “infinity” is metaphoric at most; in THE SHINING (and 2001), it may be quite literal.
With the ghostly manifestations toned down from the book, the film relies more on a sense of claustrophobia and growing paranoia to generate a sense of unease the gradually evolves into all-out horror. Gone are most of the Overlook’s permanent guests; instead we get a few skeletal glimpses, plus the wonderful “Elevator of Blood” (used to great effect in the film’s teaser trailer. The story is also more streamlined, with less time wasted on detailing each and every increment of Jack’s descent. (The disabling of the snowmobile and the destruction of the radio take place off-screen, for example.) Because of this, some critics and King fans faulted the characterizations and performances, but again, a reasonable examination of the film shows that Kubrick made the right choices. Jack Nicholson gives a career redefining performance, beginning with the Everyman persona established in films like FIVE EASY PIECES and mutating into an over-the-top psychotic lunatic (“Heeerrre’s Johnny!”). Shelley Duvall is a big improvement over the book’s Wendy: we actually believe she still might be married to Jack, and it truly is a surprise when she manages to outmaneuver him and survive. Young Danny Lloyd is the perfect embodiment of Danny Torrance, the young boy cursed with the “Shining.” Scatman Crothers perfectly embodies the hotel’s cook, Hallorann. And Joe Turkel deserves special mention for his brief but memorable role as Lloyd, the Overlook Hotel’s ghostly bartender, which sort of sums up the approach of the whole film: he never does much of anything, but his mere presence creeps you out beyond explanation.
In spite of the perfection of the casting, the film came in for criticism, particularly from fans of the book who thought that Duvall was too weak and pathetic as Wendy, who was a much stronger character on the page. The problem that these fans seem loath to consider is that the book’s character was totally unconvincing for one simple reason: she was clearly stronger than Jack; therefore, it was impossible to believe that she would still be with him after he broke their son’s arm. King spends pages and pages of text trying to explain away this anomaly, but all his best efforts never truly convince us that this is anything but an arbitrary set-up: he needs Wendy to be a strong character so that she can believably survive her ordeal.
Kubrick, on the other hand, presents us with an apparently helpless woman, who acts rather like a battered wife, except that the violence she rationalizes away was perpetrated on her son rather than on herself. There is no attempt to turn Wendy into an idealized role model of what a strong female character should be; instead, she is a believably ordinary person caught in extraordinary circumstances. Through a combination of luck and perseverance (and perhaps a dispensation from Kubrick, in honor of Mother Love), she manages to escape the Overlook with her son.
King himself has reportedly said he wanted an actor like Michael Moriarty to play Jack Torrance, working on the theory that this would make the character’s transformation to insanity more startling. This theory overlooks the fact Jack Nicholson’s only previous brush with on-screen madness was in ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST, wherein he played a convict who pretended to be insane because he thought he would have an easier time in the loony bin. As a matter of fact, most of Nicholson’s persona up to this time had been molded in films that presented him as an ordinary guy struggling with ordinary problems. THE SHINING really represents not only Jack Torrance’s transformation but also Jack Nicholson’s: it is the beginning of his wild-eyed, over-the-top period that would lead to such scenery chewing extravagance as the Joker in Tim Burton’s BATMAN (1989).
There have also been criticisms leveled that Nicholson’s antics undermine the horror of King’s story by inserting misplaced humor. However, the use of humor did not begin with Kubrick; King’s novel actually uses similar devices. At one point, Jack pretends to attack a miniature model of the Overlook, imagining himself as a giant ogre and musing, “Kiss your four-star rating goodbye!” Later, when Wendy is trapped in the bathroom with her husband trying to break in, she looks around for a weapon, and King writes, “There was a bar of soap, but even wrapped in a towel she didn’t think it would be lethal enough.”
This kind of joke truly does undermine the horror — it’s as if the author were winking at his reader in between the lines. In the film, on the other hand, the humor is part of Jack’s madness, creating an excellent sense of black comic creepiness as he merrily goes about his homicidal work, loudly announcing, “Wendy — I’m home!” as he attacks a door with an ax, or later chortling lines from the fairy tale “The Three Little Pigs” (“Little pigs, little pigs, let me in… Not by the hair of your chinny-chin-chin!”) In Kubrick’s version, Jack never obliterates his face with a mallet, signifying the destruction of his human personality as the hotel takes complete control of his body; in effect, Jack remains Jack until the end — a demented, homicidal version of himself. This keeps the horror on a human level, instead of diverging into melodramatic genre territory. It also plays into Kubrick’s theme of eternal repetition, because Jack, at least in a spiritual sense, seems to survive, providing a vague but optimistic hint of immortality after his body freezes to death in the hedge maze.
By deleting King’s explosive finale, Kubrick robs the film version of a spectacularly exciting conclusion, but the gambit pays off. In the few interviews he gave about the film, Kubrick said that he thought horror films were intrinsically optimistic because the supernatural trappings implied that our souls survived death. This idea emerges in the film’s final shot, as the camera slowly dollies in on a frame photograph of the Overlook’s ballroom, taken decades ago, and we see Jack among the partygoers. The image is ambiguous. We cannot say for sure whether it means Jack visited the hotel in a past life (in his dialogue he mentions a sense of deja vu) or whether, by dying on the premises, he has been subsumed into the hotel’s past, becoming one of its permanent guests — becoming, in effect, a part of eternity. This reading seems to be supported by a scene in a restroom where Jack confronts the ghost of Grady, who is now dressed as a butler. When Jack recognizes him as the previous caretaker, who killed himself and his family, Grady insists: “I’m sorry to differ with you, sir…but you are the caretaker. You’ve always been the caretaker. I should know, sir — I’ve always been here.”
This effective scene exemplifies Kubrick’s approach to the horror, which is to present it in a low-key, matter-of-fact way, emphasizing the “banality of evil.” With the red-and-white background decor shot from rigid right angles, Jack and Grady discuss violence past and violence yet to come with a complete moral indifference that evokes shudders — as when Grady recalls, with seeming moral indignation, that he “corrected” his wife and daughters when they tried to burn down the hotel. The disconnect between his word choice and his actions is so great that it feels like an electric shock going down the spine.
The scene also shows off one of the film’s subtle conceits: Jack sees ghosts only in rooms with mirrors (the ballroom, the bar, the bathroom). It is as if Kubrick were reminding us that they are merely reflections of Jack’s own disintegrating personality. The only time Jack interacts with a ghost when he is in a room without mirrors is after Wendy has locked him in the storage room — and in that case, he only hears Grady’s voice through the door, almost as if it were only an imagined voice in his head.
In this context, one other scene deserves mentioning: the famous room 237. In the book, Danny sees a vision of the decomposed body of a woman who committed suicide in a bathtub years ago, and winds up in a catatonic state with bruises on his neck; when his father goes to check, Jack gets a glimpse of something behind the shower curtain, then denies see it. The function of these chapters in the novel was to show that Danny’s visions were not just intangible memories that his “shining” allowed him to see; they could take physical form and do actual harm. In the movie, the two scenes are overlapped through intercutting, with Danny flashing back to his encounter while Jack his experiencing his in real time. The difference is that, in the film, Jack clearly sees not a shadow behind a shower curtain a beguiling woman, completely nude, who steps out of the tub and lures him into an embrace. The erotically charged interlude is interrupted by Jack’s glance into a mirror — which reveals that the beautiful body in his arms is actually the bloated corpse of a hideous hag. The implication is that the hotel is presenting a seductive facade to Jack, but the ugly truth resides in the mirror. The mirror, of course, provides a reflection, again implying that the source of the horror lies as much within Jack’s mind as in shuttered rooms of the hotel. The metaphor is not all that different from DRACULA, where (as Leonard Wolf has noted, in THE ESSENTIAL DRACULA) fail to see the vampire’s reflection because they refuse to acknowledge he is a reflection of themselves.
As a film, Stanley Kubrick’s THE SHINING belongs in a category that includes Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO and Roman Polanski’s ROSEMARY’S BABY. All three are horror films, based on novels, that emerge less as traditional genre adaptations than as auteur pieces that reflect the styles, themes, and concerns of their respective filmmakers. With an emphasis on craftsmanship and conviction, these are all films that, at least to some extent, “mainstream” the horror genre — not necessarily by toning it down, but rather by presenting their stories with a level of performance and style that makes them seem believable to the audience. In a sense, all of them transcend the genre by not slavishly hewing to genre conventions. There is never a point in any of them where credibility is tossed aside in order to achieve a cheap shock effect. As a result, they may disappoint hardcore horror fans, who enjoy being jolted at regular intervals, but they work on an altogether finer, more sophisticated level.
Stanley Kubrick considered changing the ending, so that when Hallorann arrived to save Wendy and Danny, he would become possessed by the hotel and finish Jack’s intended purpose, murdering the family and himself. The film would have ended with an “upbeat” epilogue, in which, as the Overlook reopens next season, the Torrance family is re-united in the afterlife as ghosts haunting the hotel lobby.
Kubrick and his screenplay collaborator discussed the possibility that audiences might be distracted because the first name of the film’s star (Jack Nicholson) was the same as that of the character he was playing (Jack Torrance). Ironically, Kubrick then ended up casting young Danny Lloyd as Jack’s son, Danny Torrance.
When the film was originally released, a longer print was available for the first few days of screenings. After the shot of Jack Torrance frozen to death in the hedge maze, the film included an epilogue, wherein Wendy and Danny are seen safely back in the hospital, having surviving their ordeal at the Overlook. While dialogue delivered by the hotel’s director Stuart Ullman (Barry Nelson) implied that the horror was over, Kubrick’s tracking shots down the hospital corridors echoed the feel of the Overlook, suggesting that the same eternal maze of repeated actions was very much still in force. The film then cut to the final shot of the camera dollying in to a close-up of the framed photograph on a wall, implying that Jack Torrance has become a part of the Overlook’s timeless eternity. The cutting of this sequence was not a response to audience reaction to the movie; it was widely reported before the film’s release that Kubrick was planning to make a last-minute cut of some kind, but uncut prints had to be shipped to meet the pre-set release date. The footage has never been seen again, not even as a supplement on the DVD.
Like most films of its era, THE SHINING was shot in a standard 1:1.33 format and projected in a 1:1.85 format. This means that the image on the negative was 1.3 times wider than the height, but when the film was projected in theatres, a matte was used in the projector to crop off the top and bottom of the frame; consequently, when the film was magnified and projected on screen, it would have a “widescreen” look that was 1.85 times wider than the height (in other words, if the screen was ten feet tall, it would be eighteen-and-a-half feet wide). However, when shown on television, the image is presented unmatted, because the aspect ratio of the television screen is very close to the 1:1.33 aspect ratio of the negative. This means that you can see more of the image on television than you could in theatres, which can produce unfortunate results. In the case of THE SHINING, during the famous opening credits helicopter shots of the car driving through snowy mountain ranges on the way to the Overlook hotel, in one shot, you can briefly see the shadow of the helicopter near the bottom of the frame; in another shot, you can see the blur of the helicopter blades near the top of the frame.
Although Stephen King admired the film’s technical virtues, he was dissatisfied with changes made to the story; he said his feelings “balanced out to zero.” In the 1990s, he got a chance to film THE SHINING his way, as a two-part made-for-television movie, directed by Mick Garris.
The DVD presentation of THE SHINING, available as part of the Stanley Kubrick collection from Warner Home Video, presents the film in the unmatted 1:1.33 aspect ratio, with a Dolby monaural soundtrack (Kubrick wanted to preserve the sound mix from the theatrical version, not created a new one for home video). The print is mostly in good shape, but there is some visible speckling over the opening shots, and of course the infamous helicopter shadow and blades are visible thanks to the top and bottom of the image not being matted off as they were in theatres.
The disc contains the famous trailer that features the eerie “Elevator of Blood,” which slowly opens, releasing a deluge of red liquid into the halls of the Overlook Hotel. There is also a half-hour documentary on “The Making of THE SHINING,” that was filmed on-set by Kubrick’s daughter, Vivian. The film is instructive for a number of reasons, mostly because it belies the image of Kubrick as the chess mastermind who plotted every move beforehand in the planning stage and then executed his plan with iron rigidity — and no creative inspiration — during the actual production. As this documentary makes clear, script revisions were going on constantly throughout production, and Kubrick is seen typing up new pages that incorporate new ideas and suggestions from Jack Nicholson. At one point, Nicholson explains the multi-colored script to Kubrick’s mother: the pages of each new revision are a new color, making them easy to identify, and says he gave up trying to keep up with them once the script ran out of colors and started re-using them.
The documentary features interviews with the actors but not with Kubrick himself, whose only words to the camera are to tell his daughter to get out of the way or stop filming. Despite Kubrick’s reluctance to reveal his working methods, the documentary does provide an interesting look behind-the-scenes, including some conflict between the director and his lead actress (who admits resenting that she did not receive as much attention as Nicholson). We see Kubrick arguing with Duvall over dialogue changes she proposes on set, and at one point he berates her because she responds too late when he called “Action” during an elaborate Steadicam shot involving physical effects for wind and snow. At a half-hour in length, “The Making of THE SHINING” is far from an in-depth work, but it is about the best behind-the-scenes glimpse we are ever likely to see of the notoriously reclusive Kubrick. This in itself makes the DVD worth owning.
A subsequent “Two-Disc Special Edition” DVD offers a new transfer with a different aspect that crops off the top and bottom of the frame, plus optional audio commentary by Steadicam operator Garret Brown and film journalist John Baxter. The second disc includes a handful new bonus feature: besides the old making-of documentary and the trailer from the earlier DVD, there are three new behind-the-scenes featurettes (apparently leftover bits from Jan Harlan’s documentary STANLEY KUBRICK: A LIFE IN PICTURES). Total running time of the new material is less than an hour.
THE SHINING (1980). Directed by Stanley Kubrick. Screenplay by Kubrick and Diane Johnson, based on the novel by Stephen King. Cast: Jack Nicholson, Shelly Duvall, Danny Lloyd, Scatman Crothers, Barry Nelson, Philip Stone, Joe Turkel.