It has been suggested that Kubrick’s adaption of The Shining was in part a reaction to the mediocre box office takings of Barry Lyndon; the director needed to prove he was commercially viable, so he set out with the star of his aborted Napoleon film down an overtly populist road. At the same time, there’s a view that it was borne out of need to be deemed relevant, much as A Clockwork Orange fired him up almost a decade before. The ‘70s was a decade where big commercial horrors had broken out (for which Rosemary’s Baby paved the way), although I suspect Kubrick was more impressed by The Exorcist than The Omen.
Whatever the truth of the matter, the finished film most emphatically did not meet with Stephen King’s approval. The author went as far as voicing the opinion that Kubrick did not understand the horror genre. Though how scary a fearsome topiary would have been on celluloid is up for debate. I think it’s probably true to say that Kubrick wasn’t only interested in making a scary film, other impulses are bound to amass and filter in; the film I’d compare it to most in his back catalogue is 2001: A Space Odyssey. Not that I think The Shining is on that heightened plane, but it has a similar willingness to push the viewer in a direction where answers will never be forthcoming. We are left with, foremost, resonance. And then inconclusive debate over what means what. The filmmaker’s tools too, are not so different when tackling this genre. The approach to sound in both films is very similar (2001 must be the eeriest U certificate film ever) and long, slow takes without dialogue encourage the viewer’s imagination to push in multiple directions to fill the gaps that most filmmakers are frightened to leave unplugged. (in my review of A Clockwork Orange I said the film in his oeuvre that was most comparable was The Shining, and in terms of presentation of the central character I’d maintain that, but on this viewing it was 2001 that most consistently came to mind.)
The Shining feels in some ways like Kubrick’s least “artful” film, in the way it embraces the bold and in-your-face (the director repeatedly opted to use Nicholson’s most extreme takes); at times in the last half you might be watching a live action Warner Bros cartoon. So heightened is the action that you’re not sure if you’re supposed to laugh or scream (Sam Raimi would later tip this over into the former with Evil Dead II). As in A Clockwork Orange, this willingness to cross the line into queasy, unsettling humour seems to be a reference point for a director who wants to provoke his audience. It’s debatable whether The Shining has any commentary underneath the filmmaking prowess, certainly not the one King intended (he opined that his themes of the disintegration of the family and alcoholism were cast aside). Indeed, Kubrick stripped away the book replacing the unquestionable presence of the supernatural with (mostly – ultimately this is less subjective than say Jack Clayton’s The Innocents) less definable impulses.
The result is a focus on human conflict rather than ghostly chills. I’m not sure how successful that is; for me, the film is at its best during the first half, before Danny’s experience in Room 237. During this section, the character of the hotel envelops us with ever-increasing unease, afflicting us with disturbing images and sounds. The long steadicam shots are punctuated with short sharp shocks (the twins, the elevator) as Danny sees more and more of what the Overlook wants to show him. In contrast, the lunatic Nicholson and frantic Duvall of the second half seem like much safer territory (admittedly I’m talking with the hindsight of repeated viewings).
I’m not generally a huge fan of the horror genre, but entries I rate tend to put chills and atmosphere before hacks and slashes. The Shining has only one element of the latter here, the film’s Psycho moment, as Kubrick kills a character who survives in the book. You can almost see the glee with which he axes the most sympathetic person in the film, and potential savior of Danny and Wendy. That kind of decision may link in to another criticism King made, that Kubrick “thinks too much and feels to little” (something that would certainly explain why he willfully gave Shelley Duvall such a hard time in order to elicit the desired performance).
Whether you think Kubrick elevated the source material or shat on it will likely depend on how much of a fan of King you are. I think Kubrick’s choice to reduce the supernatural elements of the film was a smart one; by keeping them on a constant periphery he imbues the piece with a constant dread far more affecting than matter-of-fact revelation. That said, it appears that this approach was, to some extent, a consequence of Kubrick’s own skepticism about such areas as ghosts and life-after-death. For King, Jack Torrance was afflicted by supernatural forces, while Kubrick was more interested in his inner demons breaking forth. It also means that the couple of instances where a subjective explanation doesn’t wash stand out to the viewer and provoke more examination than a more literal approach would. Kubrick was unequivocal in interviews that it was his intention for there to have an underlying supernatural element, but the line between that being for narrative purposes (to pull the rug from under an audience that may be swayed towards an “all in his mind” explanation) and a result of the predisposition of the auteur himself is up for debate.
Most obvious of these is Jack’s escape from the locked larder. It’s the point at which the viewer has no option but to accept a non-corporeal answer as no one but (the unseen) Grady could be responsible (unless we are to assume Jack has telekinetic powers, and this is never intimated). Kubrick stressed this as a turning point, although co-writer of the screenplay Diane Johnson commented that she and Kubrick realised in the course of writing the film that they wouldn’t be able to give every instance in the film multiple readings. My feeling is that, by accident or design, it is a narrative element the helps to explain the lingering power of the film; our attempts to grasp clearly what is happening are just out of reach. Not willfully elusive as in a David Lynch film, but with just enough sense of design that we feel sure it makes sense somehow.
I’m unpersuaded there is a “correct” reading. It seems to me that even Kubrick didn’t end up with something definitive (the script went through constant daily revisions during its year-long shoot). He said of the final reveal, another pointer to a conclusively supernatural element: “The ballroom photograph at the end suggests the reincarnation of Jack“.
Meaning that Torrance had previously lived in the hotel in the 1920s. Proponents of this interpretation have pointed to the reference Grady (Philip Stone plays the murderer of his family, and was also Alex’s dad in A Clockwork Orange) makes to Jack having always been living at the hotel, and that Grady too may represent a reincarnated soul destined to return forever to the Overlook. Grady is referred to as both Charles (the caretaker who axed his family and shot himself about ten years earlier) and Delbert (the butler in the 1920s sequences).
I prefer the interpretation that the photograph represents Jack having been “absorbed” by the hotel, becoming part of its history and future (so he would not have been in that photo prior to his death). That feels like a better fit with the representation of the edifice as a character and entity in its own right during the first half of the film. The reincarnation idea may suggest we’re to believe that Jack is predestined to experience this, but it seems somewhat disconnected to the character we see; as an explanation we don’t react with, “Of course” but, “Er, okay….”
Adding to the suggestion that there is no clear explanation for the photo is the original coda that Kubrick removed a week after opening the film. Here we learn that Jack’s body was not found. Roger Ebert was of the view that excising the scene prevented the film from being too ungraspable for the viewer.
If Jack did indeed freeze to death in the labyrinth, of course his body was found—and sooner rather than later, since Dick Hallorann alerted the forest rangers to serious trouble at the hotel. If Jack’s body was not found, what happened to it? Was it never there? Was it absorbed into the past and does that explain Jack’s presence in that final photograph of a group of hotel party-goers in 1921? Did Jack’s violent pursuit of his wife and child exist entirely in Wendy’s imagination, or Danny’s, or theirs?… Kubrick was wise to remove that epilogue. It pulled one rug too many out from under the story. At some level, it is necessary for us to believe the three members of the Torrance family are actually residents in the hotel during that winter, whatever happens or whatever they think happens.
I’m not so sure; I think the photograph has that effect anyway. A missing body only cements it. It would rather diminish Kubrick’s favoured reincarnation angle, though. I could see the director’s reasoning that it was one definably supernatural element too many; the doubt is already in the mind of the viewer and any further reinforcing of it is unnecessary.
The other supernatural element is Danny’s strangulation. At the time we are willing to conceive, as Wendy does, that it was Jack who laid hands upon him (as this takes place before the larder lock-in). But Danny emphatically does not accuse his father, and unless we buy into Jack’s explanation that Danny inflicted this upon himself and then lied, we are left with only the ghostly. It also makes sense in terms of the hotel having designs on Jack (attacking Danny to lure Jack to the room), a change from the novel where Danny is the object of the hotel’s intentions.
Roger Ebert also suggested that the film resists allowing us a reliable observer (like 2001, it does not guide us through narration, and unlike Lolita, A Clockwork Orange or Barry Lyndon), making it a film about madness rather than ghosts. There’s no doubt that Jack is identified as unreliable, and by the time of the climax Wendy (previously unsusceptible) is freaking out, running into apparitions hither and thither. And while Danny is aligned with Scatman Crothers’ Dick Hallorann, who we do trust as reliable – and therefore when he sees visions of what has happened in the hotel we are inclined to believe he is seeing what is there – the events in Room 237 are oblique enough for us to doubt him. His ensuing near-catatonia and tranced intonation of “Redrum” pushes us toward the hysterical Wendy for a while (we are back with Danny by the time of the maze finale, though).
It’s probably worth mentioning the US cut. This ran to 144 minutes (with the coda it was 146 minutes) while the European cut was 119 minutes. Most of the “additions” (the European cut came later) are frontloaded in the first third of the film, spelling out elements that the European audience is encouraged to work out for themselves. Jack’s explanation for his abuse of Danny in the European cut has resonance because we only hear the abuser speak about what happened, and attempt to justify himself (a knock-on of this is perhaps that it looks a bit like Danny “triggers” Jack when he asks his father if he would ever hurt him or his mother). Identification of Jack’s alcoholism is at best oblique in the European cut, and we are left to guess why there is no alcohol at the Overlook. Also reinforced in the US cut is Jack’s connection to the Overlook, his sense of déjà vu and having been at the hotel before. As to which was Kubrick’s preferred version, the shorter cut was the one he worked on last and approved for initial home video release in the US, so that may be the answer. Most people seem to agree that the inclusion of Wendy happening upon the skeletons sat around a dining table was not the most effective of moments.
The director’s intentions are much debated too in respect of the numerous continuity “errors” in the film. You can read about some of them on the imdb FAQs page for the film. There is a school of thought that Kubrick was so meticulous about every stage of his film that any apparent error must, in fact, be intentional on his part. If that is the case, the question becomes how overtly one wishes to read meaning into any individual instance. Something like the typewriter changing colour must have a specific intent (relating this to the genocide of the Native Americans is a surprising one, though). And I can quite believe that the changing positions of drapes and paintings are relevant in the way that Gordon Stainforth (great name) comments of the geography of the Overlook. Which was purposefully unreal, so it makes sense that this would extend to the furnishings (much has been written, and youtubed, on the spatial confusion of the Overlook (this is evident right from the opening sequence, where there is no maze in the grounds of the hotel).
Gordon Stainforth, assistant editor: I don’t doubt that some of Stanley’s ‘continuity errors’ may […] have been deliberate. Almost as jests to get the pedants excited e.g. the typewriter changing color […] Also to create the dream/nightmare ambience of the film (despite its deliberately ‘realistic’ and well-lit, superficial appearance). Another key point, similar to the continuity one: people have tried to work out the geography/layout of the Overlook Hotel, without success, and without realizing that they have missed the point completely. This is not a real 3D place, but a place which exists in the viewer’s imagination. Each person who sees The Shining builds up their own personal image of the hotel from the disparate fragments they are provided with.
I’m not especially convinced by most attempts to analyse the film toward a unified interpretation. Readings have been made that it is about the Holocaust. Then there’s the massacre of family as metaphor for the massacre of the Native American. Yes, there’s the Indian burial ground site signposting and there are minor references dotted through the film but it seems like a lot of work is needed to sell that, particularly given the wildly veering tone that Kubrick opts for (we aren’t being informed of anything earnestly, that’s for certain). At the same time, given how meticulous Kubrick was, I don’t doubt that it was an element that he considered. But on themes of racial hatred and violence, it can’t be a coincidence that we hear Grady disgustedly refer to Hallorann as “nigger” to Jack and Torrance later gleefully axes the poor man in the chest.
One intriguing idea suggests that the image on The Shining poster of the face in the lettering is intended to represent an evil version of 2001’s Star Child, proponents pointing to Bowman arriving at what looks like a richly furnished hotel room at the end of the film. There are also the conspiratorial mutterings that link it (and most of the director’s filmography) to exposing the Illuminati (which culminates with Eyes Wide Shut, for which the director was murdered…)
The most famous aspect of the film is Jack Nicholson’s huge performance as Jack Torrance, of course. It would be wrong to call it an albatross around his neck, but there’s a very clear line drawn in his career with hindsight; post-Shining willingness to mug away or coast on charisma for big bucks and pre-Shining serious actor. I don’t think that’s quite fair (particularly as the broadness is all down to Kubrick), but you do wonder quite how Kubrick intended for his finished film to be seen. I like Nicholson’s performance; it’s unsettling and hilarious and heightened. In that sense, it’s a natural progression from McDowell in A Clockwork Orange. But there’s little doubt that it punctures the atmosphere that has been carefully built up in the opening sections. Kubrick’s approach is said to be one of not attempting realism but finding truth. I’m not so clear what the truth of the Wylie Coyote-Road Runner interactions between Jack and Wendy is, however.
King thought Nicholson was all-wrong because he was clearly on the verge of going nuts in the first scene. Which is a fair call if you want a straight translation of the book. King had in mind Jon Voight or Michael Moriarty. Apparently, Kubrick considered De Niro (not psychotic enough) and Robin Williams (too psychotic) and even Harrison Ford (King might have been okay with that choice).
Then there’s Shelly Duvall as Wendy Torrance. The tales of her persecution by Kubrick are legend, and Kubrick’s choice to make her a submissive character compared to the novel is questionable. It’s unclear if she became so trampled before or after Duvall was cast, although Johnson notes that much of her dialogue was cut by Kubrick. Apparently Jack Nicholson suggested Jessica Lange (more in keeping with King’s blonde cheerleader type from the novel). I used to find Duvall’s performance incredibly irritating, but now it seems to be a curious mirror to Nicholson’s, as OTT in an opposite direction. Her pathetic waving of the knife at Jack on the stairs is as funny as Jack snatching at it, and her hyperventilating hysteria is extreme as Jack’s leering rage.
The other lead is Danny Lloyd (now a science teacher) whose performance kicked off a run of outstanding child lead performances in the early ‘80s (see also Time Bandits, E.T.) There’s never a moment where you’re distracted by inexperience or preciousness, and he’s all the more impressive when you consider that it was Scatman, not Lloyd, who reached wits’ end over the endless takes demanded by his actors in the “shining” discussion kitchen scene.
The Shining received a resoundingly underwhelmed response at the time. It was snubbed by proper critics and labeled disrespectful by those who held the novel in esteem. It was also nominated for a couple of Razzies in the inaugural year of the awards. But it did well at the box office, so Kubrick succeeded in one of his goals. And like a number of early ‘80s horrors (The Thing) its reputation has only grown since. Spielberg recounted how he admitted to Kubrick that he didn’t love it on first viewing and thought that Nicholson’s performance was too big (Kubrick countered that Jimmy Cagney was one of his favourite actors). Even the endless pop-culture referencing of the film has done nothing to diminish it.
Perhaps The Shining has endured precisely because of the tonal range it contains. The theatricality of Nicholson and the eerie, agoraphobic ambience of the Overlook. The depiction of mental disintegration and the ghostly visions. Like 2001, it creates a hypnotic atmosphere that makes it hard to look away even when Danny turns a corner on his trike to be face by terrifying twins. And also like 2001, it doesn’t patronise its audience with pat answers, even distancing us from easy character identification. It succeeds in a different way to A Clockwork Orange, although both are shamelessly provoking their audience. Orange leaves us debating our emotional response to it, our identification (on whatever level) with the violent impulses of its protagonist. The Shining is more elusive, as it seems designed to trouble us in a less tangible way. I mentioned Lynch earlier (of whom Kubrick was a big fan), and there’s a sense with this film, as with Lynch’s work, that analysis will come to naught (even though we try anyway). It’s the resonance of the film that is most important, which is resistant to interrogation. As Kubrick observes:
A story of the supernatural cannot be taken apart and analysed too closely. The ultimate test of its rationale is whether it is good enough to raise the hairs on the back of your neck. If you submit it to a completely logical and detailed analysis it will eventually appear absurd. In his essay on the uncanny, Das Unheimliche, Freud said that the uncanny is the only feeling which is more powerfully experienced in art than in life. If the genre required any justification, I should think this alone would serve as its credentials.
Addendum 11/09/22: As tends to be the case, I find myself impressed with the detail of Jay Dyer’s analysis but not wholly on board with his presiding case. His reading is that of “the spectral haunting of America itself, in terms of its dark pasts in relation to the Native Americans”. However, if we assume all bets are off with regard to anything definite historic – most pointedly with regard to a potentially repopulated America post-1700 – then any assumptions regarding Native American extended heritage have to be up in the air. And if that’s the case, then Kubrick, as an insider, was probably as in the know as anyone who was shaping culture. Either way, though, one could suggest the movie is pointing towards the true history of America, whatever that history may be.
Dyer throws up numerous pertinent points, though, including the Monarch poster on the wall behind the creepy twins, suggesting MKULtra is “really about mass mind control rather than programmed assassins”, Jack’s copy of Playgirl (which contains a story of incest), his Baphomet pose in the final photo, Danny’s inverted pentagram’s shirt with the number 42 (2x3x7=42), and the movie Summer of 42 being watched (in which an older woman seduces younger boy). His assessment of the manner in which Stone gives Jack instructions and how The Shining presents mind-control victims and generational abuse fit seamlessly into the director’s surrounding catalogue. Here, the “theme of paedophilic generational bloodlines parasitically manipulate (sic) the underclass through the false promise of worldly prosperity” is inculcated via a control structure that “operates through sex magick and generational traumatisation”.