With The Shining, Stanley Kubrick wanted to dabble in a genre he had no previous experience with; Horror. After the financial disappointment that had been Barry Lyndon (1975), Kubrick was obliged to give Warner Bros. a fail-safe box office hit that would restore the Studio’s faith in Kubrick, to give him the necessary financial backing to get his cherished proyect about Napoleon off the ground. Kubrick had been interested in doing something in the Horror genre for some time already, but was having difficulty finding the right source material. Legend has it, that after spending the better part of one afternoon tossing books around in his office trying to find the right book, he finally happened on a copy of Stephen King’s The Shining. The successful writer from Maine was already hot property in Hollywood after filmmaker Brian De Palma had adapted his first published book to the big screen in the box office hit Carrie (1976). Great things were being done in the genre already with the likes of William Friedkin in The Exorcist (1973), and Richard Donner in The Omen (1976); two groundbreaking movies in the genre that elevated a mostly derided, and considered inferior genre, to the higher echelons of critical appraisal. Kubrick wanted to join in on the genre’s revival by delivering his very personal take on it. Thus, The Shining as we know it, came to be.
Kubrick didn’t just want to adapt the book as written. There were some supernatural elements to King’s work that didn’t interest Kubrick in the slightest, preferring instead, to focus his attention in the psychological aspects of it. For this, he hired Diane Johnson, a well known American novelist who’d written The Shadow Knows, a novel about a woman recently divorced, who has to raise four children all by herself after having escaped a constricted marriage, and who is, all of a sudden, plagued by mysterious occurrences in her daily life that prompt her to believe that someone out there wants to hurt her. The level of paranoia that the protagonist reaches in a confined environment was something that appealed to Kubrick a great deal, and was something that King’s novel offered to a certain degree without being the main focus of the story, that being the old hotel Overlook being haunted by malevolent spirits that cause the main protagonist, Jack Torrance, to go over the edge.
The story is well known to those who’ve ever read the book, or seen any of the two adaptations (more on that later). Jack Torrance, an ex-professor and struggling playwright with a drinking problem, takes on the job of looking after the Overlook Hotel, a Summer Resort high up in the Colorado mountains, during the Winter. Jack takes his wife Wendy and only child Danny with him. Over the course of a cruel Winter in which the hotel is snowbound, the malevolent spirits that inhabit the hotel slowly take over Jack, and use his weakness with alcohol and a very short temper to drive him mad, putting his whole family in jeopardy. As clean cut as the story may seem at first, Kubrick wanted to sideline the paranormal aspects of it, in favor of exploring Jack’s already manic personality as the main reason for things starting to go horribly wrong. Of course there would always be an inescapable supernatural element that the story would draw from, but the development of the story once the Torrances get to the hotel, and especially its conclusion, go in a very different direction than that of the book.
With Johnson working on the script, it was time to find the actors who would portray the main parts in the movie. Jack Nicholson was an actor who’d always fascinated Kubrick. In fact, Kubrick always had him in mind to play the role of Napoleon in his biographical proyect on the French military leader. When that film fell through, he thought Nicholson could be an excellent fit to play the deranged Jack Torrance. For the part of Wendy, Kubrick decided to go with an unusual choice, that of actress Shelly Duvall. This is unusual in the sense that Duvall is nothing like the character as described in King’s book, neither physically, nor psychogically. Wendy is a very good-looking, strong female presence in the book, very much in love with her husband, but not afraid to stand up to him and defend her son when it becomes obvious that Jack has gone off the deep end. As surmised by Steadicam Operator Garrett Brown on the Bluray’s Audio Commentary, it was quite obvious that it was particularly that fragile and vulnerable quality that the actress transmitted, that decided Kubrick to use her as the perfect counterbalance for an aggressive and domineering Jack Nicholson. Next up was Danny Lloyd as Danny Torrance, who was chosen after an exhaustive casting process that took months and hundreds of child actors to be screen tested. In the end, they settled on Danny Lloyd, an eight-year old with no previous acting experience, who was taken under the wing of Leon Vitali, Kubrick’s personal assistant, to be coached, trained and looked after. Vitali, who’d played Lord Bullingdon in Barry Lyndon (1975), gave up his acting career right after, to become Kubrick’s personal assistant, and would play a vital role in preserving his state after his death, was instrumental in getting the best out of Lloyd. The young actor proved to be a quick study, and is regrettable that he didn’t pursue an acting career afterwards. Scatman Crothers apparently became attached to the project on account of his friendship with Jack Nicholson. He asked Nicholson to put in a good word for him. Crothers had been a musician throughout most of his life, and had played in numerous bands throughout the 30s and 40s. His brilliant take on Dick Halloran, the Overlook’s cook who shares a strong psychic connection with Danny was a painstaking process of trial and error for the actor as he had a very difficult time remembering his lines, and was one of the actors who was pushed the hardest by Kubrick.
Other bit players in the movie were Joe Turkel, who plays Lloyd, Jack’s imaginary barman/friend, and British actor Phillip Stone as Delbert Grady, the Overlook’s first caretaker. Both actors had previously worked with Kubrick in The Killing and Paths of Glory in the case of Turkel, and A Clockwork Orange and Barry Lyndon in the case of Stone.
The rigors of Winter
With Kubrick’s fright of airplanes to contend with, it was quite obvious that the bulk of the movie would be shot in the UK, where the filmmaker had resided for years. He did, however, want to base his Overlook Hotel on a existing hotel. For that, a Second Unit flew to the United States to shoot aerial footage of the mountain roads in and around Mt. Hood, and the Timberline Lodge in Northern Oregon, a very good real-life approximation of the Overlook Hotel as described in the book. Kubrick also sent a crew to take pictures of the interior of the hotel, and some of the rooms, so that later on, the look and furniture of those rooms could be recreated in detail in the sets at Elstree Studios, Borehamwood, UK. The exterior of the real Timberline Lodge was used for establishing shots, while the bulk of the interior of the hotel was recreated in the sound stages at Elstree Studios using multitude of Native Americans motives to play around with the idea that the hotel was actually built on the site of a former Indian burial ground. Kubrick also wanted the sets to be as big as they possibly could to highlight the sensation that the Torrances are dwarfed by their surroundings. This was achieved through the use of wide-angle lenses, to increase the vertical scope of the image. It was an imaginative solution helped in great part by the use of the Steadicam. The Steadicam is a camera stabilizing device that allows the cameraman to move freely around the set, with the image staying static throughout, which makes for inmersive and fluid imagery. It was the brainchild of Cameraman Garrett Brown, who put it to very effective use in The Shining. So he wouldn’t have to constantly run around chasing the actors with his camera, given how heavy the equipment was, a special solution was devised in which the crew retrofitted a wheelchair onto which the camera was mounted. This not only made for a more stress-free shoot, but it also allowed for more autonomy, control, and it also saved the crew from having to lay tracks on the floor for tracking shots.
A small part of the Timberline Lodge’s facade was built on the Elstree backlot for those exterior shots of Wendy and Danny trying to run away from a demented Jack at the end of the picture. So was a section of the maze, which was something completely new that was created for the movie. The maze was a substitute for the topiary animals present in the book, that Kubrick thought would be very difficult to realistically recreate on film given the technology available at the time. It was built using wood and chicken wire to hold the hedge structures in place, with pieces of hedge stuck to them. In reality, the hedges weren’t that tall, but through the clever use of the Steadicam, and wide-angle lenses, the hedges appeared to be bigger than they actually were. Each member of the crew were given a blueprint of the maze before entering, to make sure they could find their way around inside, and wouldn’t get lost. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case. Many a crew member got lost inside the maze. The heavy use of styrofoam, fake snow, and oil smoke to recreate the blizzardy and cold conditions outside, didn’t help much either. The maze was also the subject of the only bit of visual trickery seen in the whole film. The scene in which Nicholson is looking down on a model of the maze in the hotel’s lobby, and we can see from very high up an aerial shot of Wendy and Danny walking inside the maze, was achieved by recreating a very small section of the maze in the Studio’s parking lot, and using a crane to film down on it from as far up as they possibly could. The resulting shot was later superimposed over the model maze seemlessly, giving it that eerie and impossible-shot quality that’s had the most experienced filmmakers puzzling over throughout the years. Tons of salt were also used by the crew as snow for those scenes in which the hotel is snowbound. This represented another problem as the corrosive nature of salt would do away with the crews’ footwear while shooting those outdoor scenes. Kubrick’s legendary penchant for multiple takes didn’t make things easier either, with Shelley Duvall mostly being on the receiving end of Kubrick’s impatience and bouts of bad temper. Many on the crew, Duvall among them, have recognized over the years that this was probably a clever directing ploy on Kubrick’s part to keep the actress on her toes, and get the best out of her. Most of the third act of the movie required Duvall to be in a constant state of hysterics, which resulted in the actress being in and out of good health, suffering anxiety attacks, and even losing some hair in the process. Whatever the technique, it worked like a charm. Duvall delivered a very believable and nerve-wracking performance. As for the rest of the cast, Nicholson also grew occasionally impatient with Kubrick’s constant demands to change his approach to numerous scenes, until the actor was so exhausted, he’d start to pull faces and deliver wackier performances. These, ultimately were the takes that Kubrick would settle with. Another actor who suffered under Kubrick’s demands was Scatman Crothers. The actor not only had difficulty remembering his lines, but was also pushed to the limit by being asked to repeat scenes over and over again, until Kubrick was satisfied with the end result. Crothers was ultimately very satisfied with the experience, but like Nicholson, would often get frustrated with Kubrick’s demands to the point of asking him what was it that he wanted from him, as he long since had run out of ideas. One actor who proved to be a real trooper was Danny Lloyd. His playful approach to the whole affair, no doubt aided by Leon Vitali’s very clever coaching techniques, resulted in the child actor having a very good time on set, and always ready for more. The constantly demanding nature of the shoot also kept the crew on their toes, with Garrett Brown being forced to repeat his compositions so much, that he ended up perfecting his shooting technique with the Steadicam to a degree he never had before, for which he was, and still is, most grateful.
Critical and financial reception
The movie was a substantial financial success, earning $47 million given its budget of just $15 million, but above all, it garnered very positive reviews from critics. Not everybody was won over by it, though. Stephen King considered it at the time to be a visually strong movie, but a very poor book adaptation. So, what is my opinion on this matter? Well, let’s first discuss what a faithful adaptation of The Shining looks like.
The 97 miniseries
In 1997 the book was adapted into a Prime Time, three-part TV miniseries. Stephen King was never happy with the way Kubrick had adapted his work to the big screen, and had been pretty vocal about it for years. So it was that he finally got to do his own take on it when the CBS network offered him the chance to write and produce a miniseries based on the book. He immediately jumped at the prospect, and soon after enlisted the help of filmmaker Mick Garris, with whom he’d had a very fruitful working relationship on Sleepwalkers (1992), and especially The Stand (1994). It was decided pretty early on that the show would be shot at the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado, where King had actually had the inspiration to write The Shining, after having gone there with his wife Tabitha for a small weekend escapade. Being shot for TV, King was able to stick very closely to the book, including most of the subplots in the book, but done away with by Stanley Kubrick. It also leaned more heavily on the supernatural aspect of it, with things like the topiary animals coming to life that had been excised from Kubrick’s version, and exchanged for the now iconic maze. The cast was also definitely more lackluster than that of the original movie, with a hit-or-miss Rebecca de Mornay filling in for Wendy Torrance, a decent enough Melvin Van Peebles playing Dick Halloran, and a horrendously miscast Courtland Meade as Danny Torrance. His is, without a shadow of a doubt, the worst bit of acting in the whole thing. There are some interesting character actors playing bit parts like Elliott Gould, who plays the hotel manager Stuart Ullman, and Pat Hingle, who plays the hotel’s full-time caretaker Bill Watson. Stephen King and filmmakers Mick Garris and Sam Raimi have brief cameos in the movie too. Oddly enough, the best actor from the whole emsemble proved to be Steven Weber, who very competently steps into the role, and makes it his own, in spite of the obvious acting gap between him and Jack Nicholson, something that the actor was very aware of having to live up to, but conscious of not being able to match. He did the most intelligent thing, that was to give his own spin on it. Surprising, considering the actor was best known for his part in the sitcom Wings (1990-1997).
The TV miniseries is mostly limited by a Prime Time rating code, and obvious technical limitations, with some very poor CGI for scenes like the topiary animals coming to life, less than perfect make-up effects, and some very weird and drawn out scenes, that limit the impactfulness of the story. The subpar acting doesn’t help either, with Weber having to carry the movie on his shoulders most of the time. So, let’s play the game of comparisons.
Movie versus book versus TV show
To be fair with King’s criticisms of Kubrick’s adaptation, I must admit that from a strictly book-to-movie adaptation point of view, Kubrick’s The Shining is not a very good one. But it doesn’t really have to be. If you take a step back, you start to see that what Kubrick did with King’s novel was something very interesting, and unique. An exemplary study on family disfunctionality and paranoia. It’s never clear cut in Kubrick’s version whether what we’re witnessing is real, or the product of the protagonists’ imaginations. Even the last shot of the movie leaves plenty of room for interpretation. In the book, Jack Torrance is a recovering alcoholic, a very flawed, but loving father and husband, whose problems stem mostly from uncontrollable fits of rage as the result of heavy drinking. He starts off as a character who’s definitely on the mend, and wants to make a fresh start, with the malevolent spirits that inhabit the hotel slowly getting into his head, and turning him into a deranged psychopath, who goes after his family. He also has his redemption at the very end, something that Kubrick never gives the character in his version. Kubrick’s Jack Torrance is already on-edge by the time the family arrives at the hotel. The past history of domestic abuse that is hinted at on Kubrick’s movie, but taken full advantage of, on both the book and TV show, is a lurking threat that’s always simmering under the surface, ready to explode. Kubrick also changes the fate of some characters, and even the hotel itself, resulting in an ending that is a total departure from the book, that I think gives Kubrick’s version a new and unique perspective. His ending is thus more interesting, and open ended, while the book’s and TV show’s is more straightforward. There’s a definite contrast between the way Kubrick saw the character of Wendy Torrance, and the way King describes her in the book. Kubrick’s Wendy is a meek, complacent housewife, too afraid to stand up to her increasingly unstable husband, while Rebecca de Mornay’s take on is more book-accurate, but more of a mixed bag. She may be a bit too sassy for her own good, but does try her best considering. Both the book and TV show give equal protagonism to all three of the main characters, while Kubrick’s version is more centered around Jack Nicholson’s Jack Torrance, with Duvall and Lloyd playing second fiddle to Nicholson’s on-screen antics. And it’s a heck of a lot of fun to see Nicholson full-on Nicholson-mode too. When told by Steven Spielberg that Jack Nicholson’s performance was a bit hammy, he replied by asking Spielberg to name his ten favourite actors of all time. After producing the usual suspects, Kubrick admonished Spielberg on not having included James Cagney in that list. That’s why he thought Nicholson was a great actor, and the perfect Jack Torrance. I also think that some of the changes made by Kubrick for his version are better than what we get in both the book and TV show. The topiary animals in the TV show are the result of some laughably bad CGI, and one of the weakest passages in the book. Jack’s obsession with the hotel’s backstory is a very commendable storytelling device in the book to reflect Jack’s rapid mental decay, and is aptly played up in the TV show, having being mostly played down, or ignored by Kubrick in his version. There have been countless interpretations drawn from Kubrick’s film, and even a full-on documentary dedicated to the subject titled Room 237, Rodney Asher (2012), in which various people extrapolate the different conspiracy theories, and double-meanings that are supposedly peppered throughout the movie. I have watched that documentary, and while I can appreciate some of the theories, I found most of them to be the results of an overly active imagination on some of the participants’s part. So, what do I think of it all?
Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is that, Stanley Kubrick’s. It’s his own version of a very popular book by master of Horror storytelling Stephen King, and I happen to like both. For years I was on the fence about reading King’s book, even though I’ve read most of them, because I really liked Kubrick’s The Shining, and I’d heard that the filmmaker had taken massive liberties when adapting the book. I basically didn’t want to be dissapointed by Kubrick, and so I put it off for years. Now I’ve finally plucked up the courage to give the book a go, and was pleasantly surprised to find how much I enjoyed the similarities, and especially, the differences between both. Reading the book didn’t take away from my enjoyment of the film, and vice versa, as I treated both as two separate entities to be enjoyed in their own right. And as the TV adaptation proved years after Kubrick’s attempt, being faithful to the source material doesn’t necessarily mean getting a better picture. Like Peter Jackson proved years ago when he adapted J.R.R Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings to the big screen, there are sacrifices you have to make for a literary property to properly fit into a visual medium. People may not always agree with these changes, but what works on paper doesn’t necessarily translate well on the screen. Not so long ago, I learned through a very good friend of mine of an extended cut of The Shining that I surprisingly didn’t know anything about. Apparently this was the only cut of the movie that was shown in the US, with the rest of the world getting a shortened cut of the movie that was also the only version of the movie that the Europeans ever got to see. After having seen it recently, I’ve got to say that I much prefer the European cut, and I can clearly see why Kubrick chose to cut out most of the added scenes. Apparently this cut was especially cut for American audiences so they could get a better grasp of the story. I don’t know why that is, as I think that the European cut does a wonderful job of telling the story, and the ambiguity is still there, while on the Extended cut, some of the ambiguity goes out the window because of the inclusion of some scenes at the end that definitely feel out of place in a Stanley Kubrick movie. There’s, of course, the short scene at the beginning in which there’s talk about Jack’s backstory of domestic abuse, but other than that, the added scenes don’t add a whole lot to the story. And there’s also the controversy surrounding the presentation of the film, with it being formatted in an aspect ratio of 1.33.1 for the 2001 Stanley Kubrick DVD boxed set, was later re-formatted into 1.78.1 aspect ratio for the newly remastered 2007 Bluray, that gives it a more film-like appearance, but crops the image at the top and at the bottom. Apparently, Kubrick wanted his movies to be open-matted, or 1.33.1 for home viewing to fit TV sizes back in the day, while still keeping true to the original Theatrical presentation of 1.66.1. Loss of image on the sides would be negligible at best. With the advent of Widescreen TVs that was no longer the case, but having being shot in 1.66.1, if wrongly formatted, you run the risk of losing image, and thus image composition on the top and the bottom, as it’s clearly the case here. That’s why I’m holding on to my DVD copy. Literary and technical nitpicks aside, The Shining is a masterful work of suspense. No matter how many times you see it, you can’t help but be enthralled by it each time. It oozes atmosphere, it’s highly disquieting in its best moments (the eerie appearance of the ghosly twin sisters in the corridor with matching blue dresses, the effective use of Wendy Carlos’s original score, and classical pieces by György Ligeti, Krzysztof Penderecki, the river of blood gushing through the elevator doors, the maze scene at the end..), are images, and moments of the movie that will forever be etched in your memory once you’ve seen them. The acting is excellent throughout, and the cinematography superb, as it wouldn’t be otherwise coming from Kubrick. All in all, it’s an excellent movie where endless nuances can be found each time. The 70s and 80s were rife with jewels in the Horror genre, and Kubrick left for us one of the very best examples.
Thanks for reading.