THE SHINING (1980)
Perhaps more than any other film genre, the scary movie is awash with movies whose reputation precedes them. One of the most celebrated, written about, discussed and dissected is Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980).
The coming together of one of the finest movie directors of all time with perhaps the greatest horror writer of all time, Stephen King, was destined to result in a remarkable picture. But the film was not the result of a beautiful union. Almost immediately upon the film’s release King stated his dislike for the film. It’s an opinion he still holds today, which, when considering The Shining is quite rightly heralded as one of the finest horror movies ever made, is bewildering.
It’s hard to picture now given King’s standing in the world of literature, but back in 1977 when the idea of The Shining first came by Kubrick, King wasn’t a writer with the sort of reputational heft to boss around one of Hollywood’s most highly regarded and influential filmmakers. At that stage in his career King had just two published books to his name, Carrie and Salem’s Lot, albeit novels that were massive sellers and critical hits. By chance, following the box office flop of Barry Lyndon (1975) Kubrick was eyeing a potential horror project. Seeing the success fellow auteurs were having with the likes of The Exorcist (1975) and The Omen (1976), the director theorised that the horror genre might achieve better financial results and also allow him to take on another movie genre he’d yet to tackle. It’s rumoured that Kubrick requested piles of horror books be sent to his office for him to sift through. His secretary heard a steady thud as the books were flung against his office wall one by one. When the thudding stopped, she assumed he had found a book of interest. It was King’s third novel The Shining.
Kubrick took the book on but only on the basis that he was free to change the story however he wished, if he so desired. King was commissioned to write a first draft screenplay, but this was rejected by Kubrick on the basis that it stuck too rigidly to the plot of the novel. The rejection might go some way to explain the poor reception King gave the film on release. Being such a fan of horror himself, if King had no connection to Kubrick’s eventual film one finds it hard to believe King wouldn’t have enjoyed it.
What Kubrick wanted for his horror movie, and what wasn’t present in King’s original text, was the unknown. Whilst The Shining as a novel is undoubtedly in the upper echelons of horror literature, what it lacks is an element of mystery. Everything within the book is explained and wrapped up neatly. What makes The Shining as a movie that much more terrifying is that not everything is. The creepy happenings that afflict Danny, Jack, and Wendy are often given very little context and no rationale, which makes them all the more terrifying.
One small moment encapsulates Kubrick’s approach to the The Shining perfectly. As Wendy makes her terrifying dash through the haunted hallways of the Overlook Hotel in the final scenes, she pauses on a landing. Even though there’s supposedly no one else in the Hotel other than her husband and her son, she stares in to a room where a tuxedo wearing man is receiving fellatio from someone wearing an odd looking dog costume. Both of them slowly turn and grin at Wendy, who quite rightly screams and dashes away in the opposite direction. It’s a brief but maddeningly confusing and terrifying moment that arrives without explanation or reason, typical of the entire film.
King’s main criticism of The Shining is its lack of heart, ‘It’s a beautiful car with no engine in it’ and it’s lack of warmth ‘It’s cold, and I’m not a cold guy’. However, there is heart in Kubrick’s movie; it’s just lost under the Torrance’s strained relationship. Even in the first moments of the movie its clear there is a history between Jack and Wendy, and not all of it is good. Further than that, there are strong hints of abuse and alcoholism, a dark home life that all three participant s are entangled in with no clear idea of how to get out. It is clear that there is a strong loving bond between Danny and Wendy, but it’s caught in the supposed ideal home life with would-be tormentor Jack. When the start of the film is this subconsciously bleak, it makes the tumble in to further danger even more horrifying.
King’s other concern was that the movie’s Jack Torrance was already slightly deranged at the beginning of the film. In his novel Jack starts the novel as a decent man trying to move on from his previous problems with alcohol. Even during the final few chapters of the book there are moments where Jack is able fight off the influence of the Overlook’s ghosts to try and save his family. There were no such moments for movie Jack. Kubrick had only one name in mind for his Torrance, his namesake Jack Nicholson. King voiced concerns, noting that, fresh off his Best Actor turn in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) as the slightly batty Randle McMurphy, viewers might feel that Nicholson’s Torrance was already on his way to madness. That may well have been the whole point of Kubrick’s casting choice.
As Jack makes his way to the Overlook Hotel with his wife Wendy and young son Danny in tow to start his job as the winter caretaker, there is something slightly askew about Jack’s fondness for what might lie ahead, ‘See, it’s ok, he saw it on the television’. It’s unsettling, and we haven’t even reached the Overlook yet. And you start to wonder; had the hotel already gotten its claws in to Jack, or had it just awakened something that was in Jack all along?
To unsettle the viewer further, Kubrick also changed Wendy. In the book she is less subservient to Jack, more resourceful and nowhere near as meek. Whilst in the novel this provides the reader with some hope that Wendy and Danny might be able to fight their way out of their situation, the viewer gets no such relief from Shelley Duvall and her astonishing performance as the stricken wife of a man losing his mind in the most petrifying and isolated of locales. King famously called the movie Wendy ‘The most misogynistic character ever put on screen. She’s just there to scream and make dumb decisions’. If Wendy is the most misogynistic character King has ever seen, it’s clear his movie viewing history isn’t very deep at all. While Wendy certainly isn’t as strong as her book counterpart, it’s arguable that she behaves in a more realistic manner when faced with the growing insanity in the Overlook. Not every female character is an Ellen Ripley in waiting either; movie Wendy does the best she can with what she has.
Kubrick also altered his Danny. In King’s novel he is more adept with his powers, and at the start of the novel his ability to see in to the future reveals nearly all of the terrifying things that await the Torrances at the Overlook. Like his mother he is more resourceful and pro-active, and he has actual visions of his psychic ‘friend’ Tony. Kubrick’s Danny, brilliantly portrayed by Danny Lloyd in a performance so good you can’t even class it as child acting, is nowhere near as confident. Like many five-year olds would be, Danny is quiet in his new surroundings, daunted by his the size and inherent creepiness of his new home and confused by the visions he’s having. Unlike novel Danny’s relatively clear hallucinations, movie Danny’s visions are scattershot and nonsensical, and all the more frightening for it.
Scatman Crothers completes the scant cast with a wonderfully warm performance as Danny’s unlikely ‘shining’ mentor Dick Hallorann. Kubrick then turned to the other main ‘character’ in the film, his chief villain, the Overlook Hotel.
The success of Carrie and Salem’s Lot was most welcome for King and his wife Tabitha, struggling at the lower end of a working-class life. The success also necessitated a holiday though. King saw the chance to get away as having double benefits; not only would it provide a break from the excitement of his burgeoning writing career, it would also provide a change of scenery and fresh inspiration for his next book. Randomly sticking a finger on a map of the United States, King landed on Boulder, Colorado. Packing up their car they drove across country with their three year old son Joe and arrived at the nearby small town of Estes Park. Their chosen hotel was the Stanley Hotel, but unbeknownst to them the hotel was in the process of closing up for the season. King and his wife found themselves the only patrons left staying there, the long corridors and creaky rooms of the seventy year old hotel all theirs, apart from a small number of staff.
Stephen and Tabitha took dinner alone, the only table set up in the grand dining room, with taped orchestral music swirling around the empty space. After Tabitha turned in for the night King sat at the bar on his own, chatting with the barman over a couple of drinks. The barman was named Grady. After waking up in the night having dreamt of his young son being chased down one of the hallways of the hotel by a possessed fire hose, King woke up, lit a cigarette, and stared out the window at the Colorado Rockies in the distance. The bones of what became The Shining started to fall in to place and by sun up King had most of the plot mapped out in his mind.
I was lucky enough to stay at the Stanley Hotel in 2017 and it was easy to see why the imposing hotel up on the hill on the edge of town inspired King so. Estes Park has grown in the last few decades and the hotel itself was much busier than it would have been when King was there, but we still managed to have a wander around after dark when most of the patrons had turned in for the night. There was a warm appeal to the building which, if you stood long enough in silence, seemed to mask something else, something old, something ominous, something to give the hairs on the back of your neck cause to rise.
Kubrick opted not to go in for such subtleties; his Stanley / Overlook Hotel would have a much clearer sense of menace. Opting to forgo the colonial style Stanley Hotel itself, Kubrick shot the hotel exteriors at the imposing Timberline Lodge in Oregon (the hotel requested Kubrick change the number of the infamous haunted room from 217 to 237, fearing that no one would want to stay in their room 217 after the film came out). Knowing he would never find interiors to match his vision, Kubrick then moved to Elstree Studios to build the Overlook he had in mind. What he and his film crew created was the most disturbing location ever seen in cinema. Filled to the brim with oddities (such as its illogical layout), plot nods (the native American artwork and design, hinting at themes of genocide of the indigenous population), and the sort of décor you only see in your nightmares (blood reds, sickly yellows, carpet and wallpaper designs that threaten as much as they delight), even before things start to go wrong for the Torrances its clear the Overlook is not a fun or friendly place to be, especially with no one for company.
Already unsettled by the location, once the scares start to arrive they are all the more chilling. The Overlook staff have barely left for the season and the viewer is already cowering at just what the hotel might throw up. The horrors that surface are barely linked, whether it’s a mouldy old woman in room 237, elevators gushing blood, a vision of twin daughters hacked to death by the previous caretaker (though for two girls hacked to pieces the twins are oddly all in one piece when Danny gets a glimpse of their bloody demise) or Danny’s tricycle ride around the square hotel lounge which doesn’t actually bring him back to where he started. What do these horrible visions all mean and what are they leading to? And what on earth is in store next for Danny and Wendy? It’s mystifying in the extreme leaving the viewer vulnerable and petrified.
Over the top we get one of the most unsettling soundtracks in movie history from Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind, a grim central theme opening the film as the Torrances make their way through the imposing Colorado landscape, before things start to get weird aurally. Like the plot, the soundtrack has moments that confound and unsettle, quietly eerie one moment, crashing and bombastic the next. It doesn’t follow the pattern of a traditional horror soundtrack and its all the more effective for it.
By the halfway point of the movie Kubrick manages to get a good scare out of the viewer just by stabbing the word ‘Tuesday’ on to the screen with an accompanying soundtrack crash. At this point the viewer is fully at the mercy of Kubrick and the plot, no idea where it might lead and no idea whether Wendy and Danny will escape in one piece; the odds and the ever increasing ghostly occurrences suggest not. As the plot builds, things get more tense as the Overlook slowly reveals itself more and more, ‘I corrected them, sir’. By the time the finale arrives it’s as nerve-racking a climax as any horror film has had before or since.
During the first week of the film’s release in May 1980 the movie stood at 146 minutes of run time. Never one to be satisfied with his final product though, Kubrick took scissors to the film’s final scene. A coda shows Danny and Wendy in hospital, with hotel manager Stuart Ullman explaining that they never found Jack’s body. He gives Danny the tennis ball that Jack was throwing around the Overlook, presumably as some sort of grim memento, and offers his place in Los Angeles on the beach as a place Danny and Wendy might go to in order to rest and get themselves back on their feet. The film ends on the infamous 1921 Independence Day Ball photo with Jack taking centre stage. Kubrick never explained why he removed the scene, but the movie works much better without it, leaving the conclusion more open ended and ripe for viewer interpretation.
Sadly for UK viewers Kubrick got busy with his scissors again before its European release in October 1980 and this time the scenes were missed. Inexplicably cut were 25 minutes of excellent footage, including more explanatory scenes of how Jack previously broke Danny’s arm, and some wonderfully terrifying moments during Wendy’s climatic escape.
The reason for Kubrick’s further tinkering was the lukewarm reception the movie got from critics earlier in the year. For reasons that are impossible to fathom some reviewers at the time were unmoved by the film. Pauline Kael of The New Yorker famously wrote ‘Again and again, the movie leads us to expect something, almost promises it, and then disappoints us’, while others focused too much on King’s original text and were disappointed that Kubrick hadn’t delivered a straight forward adaptation, as if a director as enigmatic as Kubrick would have done anything of the sort. The film eventually did a reasonable trade at the box office, taking just under $50 million off of a $19million budget. It wasn’t until the eventual DVD release of The Shining that European viewers finally got access to the full 144 minute version. The epilogue scene trimmed from the original version though remains lost. Kubrick had a reputation for destroying deleted and trimmed scenes, and to date a copy of the final scene cut from the film after the first week of the its release has yet to resurface.
Seventeen years after Kubrick’s movie, King decided to prove a point by writing and producing his own movie version of his novel. Working with director Mick Garris, who had already teamed up with King on Sleepwalkers (1992) and the television adaptation of The Stand in 1994, the film (tellingly titled Stephen King's The Shining) was split in to three parts totalling 273 minutes, and aired over three nights in April and May of 1997. Steven Webber was cast as Jack, with Rebecca De Mornay as Wendy, Courtland Mead as Danny, and Melvin Van Peebles as Dick.
As a straight adaptation of the novel, all of the missing pieces of the plot were included, dousing the unexplained nature of the frights that made Kubrick’s movie such an otherworldly, fright packed, mess-with-your-mind delight. The decision was also made to film at the real Stanley Hotel. Whilst this was true to King’s original experience when he concocted the idea for the book, as a film location it was far too bright, clean, and sterile, and nowhere near as claustrophobically sprawling or isolating as Kubrick’s Overlook. De Mornay was the strong woman King had originally wrote, and Webber more sympathetic in his portrayal of Jack. The result here though was that you felt Danny and Wendy were in much less peril, Wendy strong enough to resolve the situation if need be. It also made you question why such a strong minded woman would have stuck with Jack through all of his previous poor behaviour.
Worst still is Courtland Mead, offering a stilted performance as Danny, so firmly from the child-acting-school style of delivery it becomes painful to watch after a short while. The CGI hedge maze creatures, one of the main set pieces Kubrick wisely ditched, looked awful, but even worse was Will Horneff as the floating apparition Tony. Kubrick and Lloyd did so much more in their film with just a waggle of the finger and a croaky voice. The real kicker though was the saccharine, happy ever after ending when you realise Tony is actually the grown up Danny, as he blows a kiss to the vision of his departed Dad at his graduation. It is the schmaltzy antithesis of everything Kubrick got right with his film.
As a curio, Garris and King’s version is still worth a watch, just to see how King’s book filmed as a straight adaptation would have turned out. Sadly for King though, it was not a case of being proven right; while the show attracted a solid number of viewers, reviews were mixed, and unlike Kubrick’s movie which has been re-evaluated as a masterpiece in the years since its release, reviews of the television movie have only gotten worse as time has passed.
Intriguingly, cinema still had more to say on The Shining, a lot more. In 2012 writer and director Rodney Ascher directed the brilliant Room 237 (2012). Offering up a fascinating exploration of various fan theories on the hidden meanings in the film and possible conspiracy theories on why Kubrick, always so deliberate with his creative choices, did what he did, it’s a rabbit hole of a documentary which takes you even deeper in to the world of The Overlook. While some of the concepts put forward are laughably improbable, others only add to the film’s creepiness, such as the dissection of the impossible architecture of the Overlook, something that is so easy to miss when viewing the film straight. As a companion piece it makes for fun viewing for anyone interested in the idea of dissecting a film and the fun that can be had from theorising on possible readings, even if most, if not all of them, were unintended.
In truth though, The Shining needs no companion piece or remake (King wrote a sequel in 2013, Doctor Sleep; ironically, the best parts of its 2019 movie adaptation were call backs to Kubrick's original film). The fact it doesn’t stick to King’s original novel is a moot point; as its own entity The Shining is without equal. The perfect combination of directing, writing, art design, acting, soundtrack, and editing in the scary movie genre all coming together to create a picture that is even better than the brilliance of its individual elements. No film has come closer to touching the madness and horror that awaits us if we get to close to whatever might be lurking in wait on the ‘other side’.
See also Stephen King’s The Shining (1997), and Room 237 (2012)