Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Written by Stanley Kubrick and Diane Johnson
Looking back, one has to wonder if Stanley Kubrick knew exactly what he was getting into when he decided to adapt The Shining for the silver screen.
Legend has it that Kubrick had been paging through stacks and stacks of books as he looked for source material for his next film when he picked up a copy of King’s novel. The story held his attention (all other volumes had been tossed aside by the director after a few pages), and some time later, Kubrick had delivered one of horror’s strangest and most iconic works.
It seemed like a match made in heaven: a story penned by America’s most celebrated horror writer at the apex of his career, adapted by a living legend of the visual arts. However, the people who are familiar with King’s disdain for the finished project probably outnumber those who have actually seen it from start to finish. Odder still, the film has permeated the cultural lexicon to an absurd degree, apparently via word of mouth, yet, judging by the small crowd that gathered at IFC Center to attend a screening last week, a surprising number of young adults have never sat through the film credits to credits.
It’s a long and deliberately paced movie. All 146 minutes (a colossal length for anything lacking spandex these days) inch by with precision and grace that can at times seem plodding. I remember being a vocal critic of The Shining when I first saw it in my late teens, but a large chunk of that may have been due to my stalwart devotion to the King novel.
Kubrick had quite a task laid out for him. Save for a few memorable set pieces (many of which Kubrick wound up eschewing anyway), a great deal of the book’s conflict is communicated through interior monologues. There were two options for the screenplay. Option one was to insert endless chunks of exposition in place of those interminable bits of reflection. Option two was to shoot the moments exactly how they might appear in reality. As usual, Kubrick took the riskier route.
The performances of all three leads are somewhat stilted in the beginning. Kubrick opts for a theatrical style, and much of the dialogue between characters is mundane and designed to take up space. Watching the film on a large screen again, it’s apparent that this choice serves two deliberate functions. First, it brings the setting rather than the interaction of the characters to the forefront of the audience’s attention. Much of the film, especially the opening third or so, is shot inside of massive frames, highlighting the cold, empty beauty of the Overlook Hotel and its grounds (by contrast, many of the scenes away from the hotel, such as those in Florida and Boulder, are shot much more tightly). This begins to change as Jack Torrance drifts further and further towards madness, and at this point, the second effect of the film’s stage-play performances presents itself. The pleasant facades of Jack and Wendy Torrance have been slowly crumbling the entire film, but right at the point of Jack’s nightmare (and Danny’s encounter with the woman in Room 237), the masks are obliterated entirely, and we’re left only with raw, blind rage and frantic, all-encompassing fear, respectively.
Visually, The Shining proceeds like some sort of twisted museum tour in which the once beautiful and awe-inspiring frames shrink down into little twisted and sneering canvasses. Aided by the use of the then-brand-new SteadiCam, Director of Photography John Alcott forces us to (despite the museum analogy) consume the film not as audience members looking in, but to live inside the worlds of these characters and feel each progression with claustrophobic and horrifying detail. We’re given no quarter with editing or camera movement, forced instead to linger on the chilling and beautiful grounds of the Overlook Hotel as the walls close in around us as well as the Torrances.
As mentioned previously, Kubrick’s alterations to the meat of The Shining’s story are the subject of much debate, especially amongst fans of King’s novel. Kubrick’s adaptation throws out many threads of its own, but ultimately, the horror of the film gestates inside the uncertainty and lack of resolution that washes over the audience as the clock winds down. There’s mention of the Overlook’s seedy past, and Jack’s alcoholism and short temper are briefly touched upon, but for the bulk of the story, the audience is kept somewhat in the dark. Once again, we’re forcibly placed in the shoes of Danny and Wendy Torrance, two characters who are simultaneously afraid of and fearful for their loved one. As Jack spirals further and further into insanity (or possession, or both), both Danny and Wendy must eventually make their peace with the fact that the Jack they know and love is gone. This makes for a very powerful metaphor, not only for the ravages of addiction (which figures much more heavily in King’s book), but for the all-consuming nature of rage.
The greatest departure from the original text lies in Kubrick’s refusal to draw conclusions about the nature of the Overlook Hotel itself. Is Jack experiencing cabin fever, made all the worse by alcohol withdrawal and anger at his own inability to write, or is something much more sinister at work? Wendy eventually begins seeing horrible sights, as does Danny, which certainly suggests that there is a supernatural presence in the hotel, but it’s not a stretch to wonder if Wendy and Danny are themselves suffering from hallucinations brought on by the claustrophobic conditions and their growing fear and emotional distance from Jack.
This, coupled with the steady ramp-up to violence and cruelty is what makes The Shining special. It’s not particularly violent, at least, not when viewed in conjunction with other horror films of note, and especially not by modern standards. Above all, The Shining succeeds because it zeroes in on something that is more terrifying than all of the bloodletting in the world: the loss of control. From the word go, we’re made to face the fact that we humans are very small, as Alccott’s camera zooms over the majestic Colorado landscape, gradually honing in on the small, insignificant blip of Jack Torrance’s car as he unknowingly hurtles towards his doom. As the film progresses, we’re made to empathize with a variety of characters and their varying degrees of helplessness. Wendy is attempting to keep her family together despite her husband’s failings as a provider, husband, and father (Duvall’s performance was, infamously, helped along by Kubrick and Nicholson, who supposedly treated her so badly on set that she suffered a nervous breakdown). Danny has it perhaps the worst of all, as he can see the horrors that lie ahead but can do nothing to stop it, nor can he get anybody to listen to him until it’s too late. Jack is probably the least sympathetic character in The Shining, but anybody who has felt the gnawing hunger of a blank page or the cold sting of disappointing your loved ones knows that his personal road is no less rocky. Danny and Wendy end up escaping the Overlook Hotel, of course, but in the end, it’s the hotel that emerges victorious. Another family has been destroyed, and judging from the film’s final shot, another soul has been added to the employee rolls. The Shining, above all else, introduced American audiences to the notion that sometimes, the bad guys won, and there was nothing anyone could do about it.