Hey everyone! I’m the idiot who volunteered to write about The Shining, Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s 1977 novel that over the past 40 years has already been run through the discourse grinder nine ways to Sunday. Even those few who haven’t seen it likely know the story: recovering (kinda) alcoholic Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) takes wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and son Danny (Danny Lloyd) to the remote Overlook hotel to serve as caretaker during the off-season and give Jack a chance to work on his book. Those plans are quickly derailed, however, as Danny’s burgeoning psychic ability (the “shine”) helps him see that the hotel is alive and less than friendly. Naturally, it possesses Jack, who attacks his family with an axe while spouting manic Ed McMahon impressions.
Personally, I quite enjoy the film as a dread-drenched blend of haunted house and possession story, and I get a kick out of watching Nicholson absolutely devour the scenery in the film’s second half. But the conversation around the film is what I find particularly fascinating, especially around Kubrick’s stark departure from King’s original material as he imbued it with a cold, callous sensibility that translated not only to the screenplay, but in his approach to filming.
Before the Overlook ever made an appearance on celluloid, Stephen King put pen to paper in a novel inspired by a trip to Colorado’s Stanley Hotel at the tail end of the season. This experience, along with anxiety over grappling with antagonism he’d sometimes feel towards his kids, motivated King to write a tragic story about a man broken by the Overlook’s malevolent force in addition to his inner demons. Around this time, Stanley Kubrick, who by the late ’70s had a career spanning three decades including films like Spartacus, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Dr. Strangelove, and A Clockwork Orange, was coming off his biggest commercial and critical failure at the time with Barry Lyndon.
Searching for a film that would resonate with mainstream audiences while still allowing for creative flexibility, Kubrick looked to horror, poring through stacks of books until he found The Shining. In David Hughes’ biography on Kubrick, Hughes notes that King actually wrote a screenplay for a film adaptation, but Kubrick didn’t consider using it, calling King’s writing “weak.” Kubrick seemed more interested in the basic plot elements and themes present in King’s work, as he would regularly call King with random questions and thoughts about the story.
Kubrick filmed most of the movie at EMI Elstree Studios in England. While a second unit team did get some exterior shots at locations in Montana and Oregon, including the aerial shots of the car driving to the Overlook and some shots of the exterior of the hotel itself, a surprising amount of the indoor and outdoor sets were established at Elstree. In a behind-the-scenes documentary put together by Kubrick’s daughter Vivian, it’s pretty amazing to watch Nicholson traverse the inside of what looks like a regular office building until he walks through a door that instantly transports him to the snowy, outdoor hedge maze from the film’s climax.
Of course, much of the interest to do with the film’s production is less about shooting locations and more about Kubrick’s approach with his actors, all of whom he put through some version of “let’s try another take” hell to keep pace with his obsessive perfectionism. Of course, there’s the infamous scene where Wendy cracks Jack in the head with a baseball bat that took 127 takes, which at the time put it in the Guinness World Records for most takes shot for a scene with dialogue. But Kubrick also forced Scatman Crothers, who as Dick Halloran provided young Danny with guidance on his psychic abilities, to shoot 60 takes for a simple panning shot to show Halloran lying in bed.
But the brunt of Kubrick’s ire seems to have focused on Shelley Duvall. “From May until October I was really in and out of ill health because the stress of the role was so great,” recalled Duvall in an interview with Vivian Kubrick as part of her behind-the-scenes documentary. “Stanley pushed me and prodded me further than I’ve ever been pushed before. It’s the most difficult role I’ve ever had to play.” In the documentary, you can see the tension between Kubrick and Duvall as he gets visibly frustrated with her while giving notes on a scene, and later blaming her for missing her cue on a take that required a lot of technical moving parts.
After what by all accounts was a drawn-out, harrowing production, Warner Brothers released The Shining on May 23rd. It was a hit at the box office, pulling in $42 million to become the top-grossing horror film of 1980, even beating out franchise-starter Friday the 13th by $5 million. The reviews, however, were initially mixed, with one particular viewer left underwhelmed: “I’d admired Kubrick for a long time and had great expectations for the project,” said Stephen King in a 1983 interview with Playboy, “but I was deeply disappointed in the end result. Parts of the film are chilling, charged with a relentlessly claustrophobic terror, but others fell flat.” He also lamented Nicholson’s casting, asserting that “the book is about Jack Torrance’s gradual descent into madness through the malign influence of the Overlook—if the guy is nuts to begin with, then the entire tragedy of his downfall is wasted.”
Time has been kind to The Shining, as the film holds an 85% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a 93% audience score. But there’s still a conversation about what, if anything, lies underneath Kubrick’s technical prowess. I used to have a theory that a person’s opinion of the film was in large part due to whether or not they’d read the book first. Such was the case for Daily Grindhouse contributor Albert Muller, for whom the book left a lasting impact. “It changed my life forever, no hyperbole,” recalls Muller. “I was already a pretty voracious reader, and I already loved the scary stuff I'd come across; this just guaranteed I'd be a horror fan for life, and it changed all the things I would read from that point on because it opened up an entire world for me.”
Like King, Muller asserts that Kubrick left out what made the novel so poignant. “It's only [a tragedy] because you give a shit about the characters, that you feel the heart of the story. The movie has no such heart for me. The fact that it is impeccably made on a technical level only serves to make me both angrier and sadder about the whole endeavor—if you could have kept all that craft and filmmaking skill present while also including the emotional depth of the novel, it could have been the greatest horror movie ever made. As it stands now, it's an empty exercise.”
Terry Mesnard, who runs Gayly Dreadful, shares a similar sentiment as someone who thinks Kubrick removed key themes present in the book. “There've been interviews with Kubrick where he talks about stripping out parts of the book that were ‘non-essential,’ which had to do with the character's backstory. In the novel, we learn of Jack Torrance's inherited trauma through dealing with his own alcoholic father. It ties into the theme of The Shining as one of a cycle of violence that continues to perpetuate itself.”
But it turns out that fans of the book aren’t the only ones who think the movie is devoid of emotion. “I hadn't read the book first,” says Daily Dead’s very own Scott Drebit.” I find [the film] very arid. There's one tone, ominous, that isn't modulated or built upon... for a story about family, there's very little humanity or warmth.”
Conversely, Rue Morgue Executive Editor Andrea Subissati had in fact read and loved the book before seeing the movie, but she also has a deep and evolving appreciation for the film. “The Shining explores issues that have touched my own childhood experience. My entire career in horror is predicated on my conviction that horror is an essential tool toward understanding ourselves, and The Shining was a huge touchstone for me. What’s especially interesting is that my connection to the story shifted as I got older. Having seen these movies as a young teen, I’d adopt the perspective of Danny, because he’s a child. Then, as I got older, I started to see the narrative with fresh eyes through Wendy’s perspective... the shift in perspective only served to deepen my appreciation.”
Beyond Kubrick’s choices to diverge from the novel, I also wondered what impact the knowledge about Kubrick’s directorial style (also known as being a grade-A prick) had on people’s ability to enjoy the film. Says Mesnard, “In particular, [Kubrick’s] treatment of Duvall is appalling and in later interviews, he'd show his dismissive and sexist attitude towards her. [Kubrick says] in reference to the character of Wendy, ‘The novel pictures her as much more self-reliant and attractive... but these qualities make you wonder why she has put up with Jack for so long. Shelley seemed to be the exact kind of woman that would marry Jack and be stuck with him.’ It's hard to read this and think that Kubrick understood Wendy at all, or what King was trying to say in his novel.”
And for those who enjoy the final product, do the ends justify the means? That, of course, is a complicated question. “If you analyze horror long enough, you come to realize that movies are such an alchemical mess,” explains Subisatti. “You can have the best and brightest talents come together and make hot garbage, while a micro-budget indie feature can alter the course of the genre forever. It’s like catching lightning in a bottle, so I don’t think there’s any one right or wrong way to make a good movie. This is me tap dancing around the fact that Kubrick fully tormented Shelley Duvall into giving the performance of her lifetime. I can’t condone a director abusing their talent, but I’m awfully grateful for the outcome. Sometimes the most beautiful flowers grow from sh*t!”
It should also be noted that Duvall herself explained that, although her time working with Kubrick was difficult, she also appreciated the performance that came from it. “You always dislike whatever the cause is of pain. You always resent it,” explained Duvall. “So I resented Stanley at times because he pushed me, and it hurt... We had the same end in mind. It was just that sometimes we differed in our means. And by the end our means met. And I find I really respect him, and really like him as a person and a director... He’s taught me more than on all the other pictures I’ve done.”
Also of interest is how new adaptations and additions affect people’s interaction with Kubrick’s work. In 1997, Mick Garris directed a miniseries based on a Stephen King script, hoping to produce something more in line with King’s original story and casting Steven Weber to portray a more layered, sympathetic Jack Torrance. This version generally seems to provide those elements that people found lacking in the film, as was the case for Albert Muller. “I prefer that one in terms of a filmed version of the story. Simply because that's what I want: a version that at least has the spirit of the book, and the heart of it most of all. Is Steven Weber a better actor than Jack Nicholson? Of course not. Is he a better Jack Torrance? Yes, he is.”
Scott Drebit agrees with Muller’s sentiments about Weber’s turn as Torrance, saying, “As far as being a faithful interpretation of the novel, it works; it has problems to be sure, but Steven Weber brings not only fear to Jack, but a full emotional arc that is much more satisfying.”
Then there is Doctor Sleep, the 2019 Mike Flanagan film that serves as an adaptation of Stephen King’s 2013 sequel to his original novel. But it’s also a sequel to Kubrick’s 1980 film adaption, so it’s got the tricky task of adding elements from related, but at times conflicting, narrative arcs. Personally, I think Flanagan absolutely cracked the code as Doctor Sleep was my favorite film of 2019. And what’s particularly interesting for me is that it actually builds on my enjoyment of Kubrick’s film, expanding on thematic elements of addiction without negating the work done in the original film.
For some who didn’t enjoy Kubrick’s adaptation, Flanagan’s work is actually able to push them toward viewing it in a more favorable light. Scott Drebit explains that Doctor Sleep “manages to breathe life into the original characters while forwarding the story,” and Albert Muller agrees, saying, “I absolutely love Flanagan's movie and think it's kind of a miracle, honestly. What he did... he accomplished an impossible task... especially since it does make me sorta like the Kubrick [version] more... or at least dislike it less.” Muller admits, however, that he’s still not too likely to revisit Kubrick’s version.
Andrea Subissati still prefers The Shining, but like me she appreciates that Flanagan’s film doesn’t take away from Kubrick’s work. “Flanagan did turn out an entertaining film. It has its flaws... but I didn’t find it egregious enough to impact my appreciation of the original. In my mind, the story ended as the film ended, with Danny and Wendy escaping to an unknown fate, changed forever by the traumatic events at the Overlook, but undoubtedly stronger for it. That’s the ending that serves me.”
Ultimately, The Shining inspires discussion because it defines Kubrick as a director, for better or worse. It’s probably his most well-known film, and for many his meticulous, calculating methods produced a masterpiece. For others, he was a bully who drained all the life out of Stephen King’s source material. I, for one, think he was absolutely an egomaniac who treated his actors like garbage. But in the process he managed to make a damn fine supernatural chiller, and the discourse about it that’s spanned the past four decades is likely to continue for many more.
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