The Stanley Kubrick Project: The Shining (1980)

Of all the Movies That I Haven’t Seen But Probably Should, likely the most surprising is Stanley Kubrick’s version of Stephen King’s multi-kabillion-copy bestseller The Shining. It is, after all, a horror movie, and I have moved through my life adoring the horror genre. If I’ve grown disenchanted with the genre over the years, it is because so much of the product created has little to offer me. I walk through the Halloween Haunted House, and spend all my time recognizing the props, so shopworn and rote has the field become.

When I find a movie that actually scares me, that’s something to cheer about. I suppose it’s some sort of desensitization, because my wife refuses to watch anything having to do with horror. It affects her on a level I can never hope to achieve again.

You see, I recognize all the props.

But we’re here to talk about The Shining, not me.

After the dismal box office on Barry Lyndon killed forever any chance of making his dream Napoleon project, Kubrick, while casting around for his next movie, must have been keenly aware of a need to make a commercial film. I don’t think box office ever truly mattered to him, but he was close to some of the executives at Warner, and making their lives easier might be a good thing. Horror had been a major force in the realm of Major Motion Pictures since The Exorcist blew up in 1973, and its possible, maybe even probable, that Kubrick was enough of an egotist to either a) feel that he was being left behind, or b) that he could show everyone what they were doing wrong.

So, Stephen King’s bestseller The Shining. That is what is referred to as Box Office Gold. Recognized name, recognized property. A Sure Thing.

Except that it wasn’t a sure thing. I remember everybody who saw it hated it, mainly because they’d read the book. Everybody had read the book. I think with international sales and all, The Shining made its money back, but the backlash was severe.

Then, it’s also a pattern with which we should be familiar by now. Derided at its initial run, The Shining is now considered a classic, almost always cropping up in those largely useless “Best Horror Movie” lists. (I hate lists.) Kubrick, as ever, if not ahead of the curve, is the curve.

Most of the ire directed at the movie is the changes wrought on the source novel, though really – how this surprised anyone is beyond me, given the changes made to the paper versions of Lolita, Red Alert, A Clockwork Orange and The Luck of Barry Lyndon. It is easier and far more common to pick up and read a book – (especially one in such plentiful supply as The Shining, which used-bookstores enforced a moratorium upon, they were so common) – than to examine a film director’s body of work. And admittedly, in 1980, it was damned difficult to examine Kubrick’s  oeuvre in a casual manner; you had to be a student at a well set-up university or a millionaire.

The Shining concerns the Torrances – man, woman, and child – who are going to spend six months in the fancy Overlook Hotel as winter caretakers. Jack (Jack Nicholson) is trying to write a book. The child, Danny (Danny Lloyd) is psychic, his abilities manifested through Tony, “a little boy who lives in my mouth”. The Mom, Wendy (Shelley Duvall) is pretty much the only non-imaginary friend Danny has – the family seems to have moved a lot recently.

Snowed in by one of the worst blizzards in years, The Overlook Hotel (built over an Indian burial ground, of course) begins to make itself known to the three people trapped inside. Danny keeps seeing ghosts – two sisters who were killed by their father, another caretaker, years before in similar circumstances. Jack begins having nightmares about murdering his family. And then he starts seeing the ghosts of Overlook Past.

There is a certain amount of controversy right from the start, with the casting. King wanted someone who could track from normalcy to insanity, suggesting Michael Moriarty or Jon Voight; he wanted a good man to be slowly corrupted by the Hotel. Jack Nicholson – a choice with whom I’m sure none of the executives argued – is twitchy from the get-go. He’s playing an alcoholic who hasn’t had a drink in months, and he’s quite obviously keeping a tight lid on, projecting normalcy; he needs this job.

The choice of Shelley Duvall was similarly a source of dismay. Nicholson, for instance, wanted Jessica Lange; but the choice of the unglamorous Duvall, playing a woman who is at a brittle truce with her marriage, who is trying to make it work, chain-smoking her way through days with an oddball son and a volatile husband, who is similarly trying… it’s just damned canny casting.

Duvall has said the filming wasn’t something she regretted, but likely wouldn’t do, ever again – interviewed by Roger Ebert, she stated that “… my character had to cry 12 hours a day, all day long, the last nine months straight, five or six days a week.” And to facilitate that, Kubrick was infamously mean and short-tempered with her, even instructing his daughter, Vivian, who was shooting a making-of documentary, “Don’t sympathize with Shelley.” Brutal technique, worthy of Eli Cross. I can’t really say that I can sanction it but, but my God, what results!

Kubrick’s movie takes a much less mystical track with the story, though the fantastic elements are still there – casting The Shining  as a movie of pure psychological horror simply doesn’t hold up, especially toward the end when the spirits of the Overlook start manifesting to Wendy. The Hotel finds a not-too-subtle toehold in Jack’s already tormented psyche, resulting finally in the closest thing Kubrick employs to a jump scare: Jack talking to someone who isn’t there in the abandoned bar, all liquor and provisions packed away for the winter – and in the reverse shot, we see Lloyd the Bartender, in a fully stocked bar. It’s a superb “Oh shit!” moment in a slow-burn movie.

A slight digression: In a scene before the snow actually comes in force, Wendy comes into the large lounge area which Jack has chosen for his writing space. What follows is a fairly upsetting scene that shows that Jack is fraying at the edges, as he tells her in no uncertain terms that yes she is interrupting and it takes time to get back to where he was and to never fucking come in there when he is writing. Look, I would like to think I would not be as offensive as Jack, but I swear to you that is a conversation every writer has wanted to have with his spouse.

A truly major change from the novel is the hedge maze, which, of course, replaced the topiary animals coming to life at the novel’s climax. Something like that might look incredible in the theatre of the mind (truthfully, I found it laughable even while reading the book), but in a movie, it is definitely something better left out. The Hedge Maze of the movie turns out to be a logical, satisfying replacement that lends itself to an exciting, fitting conclusion. (Due Diligence: I have not seen the “authorized” TV version of The Shining, but I understand the topiary animals are there – they just don’t move unless you’re not looking at them. That could work, but the Hedge Maze is so much more of an elegant solution)

I also think a good deal of the backlash against The Shining when it was first released was an unconscious feeling that Kubrick would re-invent the horror movie, just as he had re-invented the science-fiction movie with 2001. But truth to tell, Kubrick hadn’t re-invented the genre as much as delivered a good, stately science-fiction movie, a leather-bound version printed on wonderfully smooth paper, that would sit proudly on the shelf, next to its paperback brethren with rough pulp pages and gaudily colored cardboard covers. And that is what he did with The Shining: created a prestige version of a ghost story that has aged in only the best ways, as quality craftsmanship always does.

You see, I still recognized all the props. But they were so skillfully made, so well-presented, that I did not resent them one bit, and instead welcomed them, like old friends ’round a roaring fire.

To tell ghost stories.