by Mel Valentin
Released in 1980 after a typically lengthy production shoot, Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining," Stephen King’s novel of supernatural horror and psychological disintegration, met with an unenthusiastic critical response. The box office reaction was more positive, with "The Shining" making back more than double its production costs in North America alone. King, however, was famously (vocally) unhappy with Kubrick's interpretation, as were many fans of King’s early pop masterpiece. In 1997, King adapted "The Shining" for a six-hour, television mini-series. Although a more “faithful” adaptation, the mini-series was undermined by a limited budget (especially where the special effects were concerned), unfocused, meandering writing, histrionic performances, and tepid, uninspired direction. Kubrick’s adaptation, however, remains the definitive version of King’s novel, if only by default. As a standalone film unshackled by questions of fidelity to the source material, "The Shining" remains a surprisingly effective psychological horror film of existential dread.Story wise, Kubrick’s adaptation follows the source material closely in the opening scenes (Kubrick helpfully includes title cards, white type on black backgrounds to demarcate chapters or segments). Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson), a struggling writer and recovering alcoholic, interviews for a position at the Overlook Hotel in Colorado as the Overlook’s winter caretaker. The Overlook, nestled high in the Colorado Rockies, becomes all but inaccessible during the long winter months (roughly November through April). Jack hopes to spend the long winter working on a writing project. He’s not alone, however. His wife, Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and his young son, Danny (Danny Lloyd), join him at the Overlook for the long winter season.
"Truly seminal psychological horror. Worth revisiting at least once a year."
Arriving on the last day of the season, Jack receives a guided tour from the Overlook’s manager, Stuart Ullman (Barry Nelson). Wendy and Danny are given a tour of the kitchen facilities, meat and vegetable lockers by Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers), the Overlook’s cook. Hallorann takes an immediate liking to Danny, but Hallorann also detects Danny’s paranormal abilities. Danny, it seems, can read minds and receive premonitions from the future. Danny can also receive violent visions from the past. Somehow, the Overlook has become a repository for violence and the ghosts created by violence (it was also built on an ancient Indian burial mound). Danny’s unique nature makes him specially attuned to the Overlook’s malevolent nature.
As the first major snowstorm hits (one of the worst on record, of course), Jack, Wendy, and Danny become increasingly isolated, with only a two-way radio linking them to the outside world. Jack, for his part, becomes obsessed with his writing project. Wendy and Danny drift through formless, snowbound days, but as the winter deepens, Jack’s obsession turns to mania and eventually, insanity. Jack begins to see and interact with ghosts, including Lloyd ((Joe Turkel), the Overlook’s chief bartender and Delbert Grady (Philip Stone), an obsequious, manipulative waiter. Danny’s curiosity leads him into room 237 (217 in the novel), where an unseen horror awaits. The already fragile family unit disintegrates in response to the Overlook’s influence over Jack’s already fragile psyche. With another, more mundane specter, domestic violence, casting a pall over the film, it’s not surprising where Kubrick’s film ends (hint: to paraphrase Anton Chekhov, never introduce a hedge maze in the first act that won’t be used in the third act).
Kubrick, however, chose a markedly different ending from King’s traditional horror novel. King’s ending left no room for ambiguity, while, as mentioned, giving the flawed protagonist a chance at redemption for his murderous behavior. Kubrick doesn’t, instead choosing a full-on descent into irreversible (and irredeemable) madness. The final shot, different from King’s novel, suggests one of several, mutually exclusive interpretations, but ultimately settles on none of them. Not surprisingly, many critics and fans of King’s novel prefer King’s cleaner, closed (and, therefore, more conventional) ending. While potentially confusing, Kubrick’s ending suggests a circularity, finality, and inevitability first evident in the opening overhead helicopter shots that glide and swoop as they follow Jacks’ car as it torturously makes its way up narrow, twisting mountain roads.
As many critics and film fans have noted, Kubrick chose a mobile filmmaking style for The Shining, using close-in, sinuous dolly or Steadicam shots to follow his increasingly entrapped characters. Kubrick sometimes tracks in from a distance across the Overlook’s vast interiors and, at other times, following characters at ground level. In one of the most discussed scenes, Danny rides his Big Wheel (or a reasonable facsimile) around the interior of an empty Overlook multiple times. Like an unseen predator, Kubrick's camera prowls behind Danny, sometimes uncomfortably, claustrophobically close, as Danny’s Big Wheel crosses hardwood and carpeted floors. The soundtrack reflects the change rhythmically, helping to create an almost hypnotic effect that subtly complements the slow-building, “slow-burn” screenplay (one which, arguably, some horror fans find unengaging). Later, Kubrick's mobile, stalking camera helps to create a sense of disorientation as one characters flees into a snow-covered hedge maze.
The soundtrack, complete with ominous, atonal music (thanks to Béla Bartók, Krzysztof Penderecki, György Ligeti, and contributions from Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind), is typical of Kubrick's successful career as a filmmaker. Kubrick saw himself as an auteur filmmaker, responsible for all facets of production, from production design, to performances, to the score. That obsessive attention to detail (including his apparent mania for multiple takes of the same shot or scene) has led to an understandable criticism of Kubrick as a cold, intellectual director, a director uninterested in the human characters at the center of his fatalistic dramas. While that argument may be, at least in part, true, Kubrick's worldview tended toward the misanthropic and the pessimistic. Kubrick had little faith in the ability of human beings to overcome their flaws and there's probably no better example than the substantial changes he made to the central character.Where King’s novel offered the possibility of redemption for Jack Torrance, Kubrick categorically offered none. Where King allowed a sympathetic secondary character to survive through to the end of the novel, Kubrick ruthlessly dispatched the same character via a tightly wound suspense scene punctuated by a shock cut (as unsettling today as it was twenty-five years ago). Kubrick also made some other, less objectionable changes, changing the memorably menacing topiary from the novel into a hedge maze. Kubrick made the change for practical reasons (i.e., the inability of then contemporary effects technology to translate King’s ideas from page to screen). Kubrick’s decision to replace the topiary with the hedge maze was, at minimum, a fortuitous one, as the hedge maze functions as one of the most memorable settings for a climax on film, while also subtly externalizing the irresistible undertow of the supernatural and psychological forces that bear down on Jack, Wendy, and Danny.
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originally posted: 12/11/05 21:50:49