Written by Stanley Kubrick and Diane Johnson, based on the novel by Stephen King
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
A Warner Brothers Picture
Starring: Jack Nicholson (Jack Torrance); Shelley Duvall (Wendy Torrance); Danny Lloyd (Danny Torrance); Scatman Crothers (Dick Hallorann); Barry Nelson (Stuart Ullman); Phillip Stone (Delbert Grady); Joe Turkel (Lloyd the Bartender); Anne Jackson (the Doctor); Barry Dennen (Bill Watson)
Much has been written and spoken as of late about Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s bestselling novel The Shining, much of it sparked by the release of Room 237 (2013), a documentary about six different interpretations of the film be six “interesting” people. Although more a documentary about the obsessive ideas of certain film fans than of the film itself, it says a thing or two about The Shining that so many people find fresh (sometimes lunatic) ideas hidden in the frames. This is due to the exacting nature of Stanley Kubrick himself, a filmmaker known for his micro-management of every aspect of the films he chose to make. Not since Hitchcock, who reportedly would choose which cars would pass by windows in the background of shots whenever he went on location, was there ever a filmmaker like Kubrick; his slow pace at developing scripts and shooting films is legendary and, although actors loved to be in his films, all of them have spoken at length about the incredible amount of retakes he would do (of her time on The Shining, Shelly Duvall said, “Did you ever see the film Groundhog’s Day [the Harold Ramis comedy where a man (Bill Murray) is forced to relive a day over and over again]? It was a bit like that.”) We won’t be touching on anything even vaguely weird; there’ll be no discussions about how Kubrick used the film as an oblique confession for faking the ’69 moon landing footage. Instead, we’ll be looking at the merits of a film that has challenged audiences since its release. Is The Shining a failure, an opinion held by many including the story’s original author Stephen King, or is it a yet another treasure in the Kubrick canon?
If I were a screenwriting professor, I would take the time to talk about how a successful adaptation of a novel into a film happens; unfortunately, I would not be able to take much time because, frankly, there are no hard and fast rules to follow. Should a screenwriter be incredibly faithful to the source material, keep the general idea but work up his own script, or work somewhere in between? The truth of the matter is that both successful and failed screenplays have been the result of all these different tactics. Roman Polanski’s adaptation of Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby is faithful to a fault while Kubrick chucks much of King’s original ideas out of The Shining and invents his own scenarios. I would argue that both approaches have resulted in great films. To say that The Shining fails because it shows no reverence to the source material is to miss the point of filmmaking: The Shining is Kubrick’s film, it succeeds or fails on that point alone.
King’s disgust with the finished product (and his continuing heartache that so few of the other adaptations of his work have received as much reverence as The Shining) has nothing to do with the film as it stands (are the performances subpar or does Kubrick photograph the boom mic? Nope.) and has everything to do with how unlike the film is to his conception of the characters and story. King’s contention has always been that his novel was about a troubled man who succumb to the influences in the bad place while the film begins (apparently) with Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) already dangerously insane. This explanation of the film’s Torrance has existed for so long that viewers take it as true without taking into account that there is little (if anything) in the film to support it. All we know of Jack Torrance between his introduction and his harsh scene with Wendy (Shelly Duvall) when she interrupts his writing is that he is a writer, an alcoholic, has tension in his family life and once broke Danny’s arm while drunk, all of which are true to the novel. Despite giving a performance that has been lauded by critics and fans for more than three decades, Jack Nicholson is unfairly judged by many to be playing Torrance as a dangerous lunatic based chiefly on his false smile (flashed when so many of us flash a false smile, during a job interview), his obvious impatience with his family during their drive up to the Overlook and his diabolical eyebrows. Let’s face it, the Torrances have a bad marriage and spending a few months snowbound at the Overlook isn’t going to help, ghosts or no ghosts. Jack is selfish and Wendy is mousy, always spouting platitudes that are obviously driving him up the wall (Look at the obvious sarcasm he exhibits when she tells him that good writing is just getting into the habit of daily practice, and then see the contrast in his mood when he starts talking about his love for the Overlook a moment later). In fact, I would postulate that it makes perfect sense that Jack starts to crack around edges long before he sits at the bar in the Gold Room and orders a drink from a bartender who isn’t there. Jack is too old to be playing the role of the pretentious writer who needs to be sheltered and left alone for him to be able to work (even then he spends his first writing session throwing a ball against the wall) but he doesn’t seem to know how to play any other part: he’s a failure as a husband, a father and a caretaker (notice that Wendy is seen performing Jack’s duties in the basement as well as making and serving the meals). Maybe that’s the reason he is so susceptible to Delbert Grady’s (Phillips Stone) temptations. The man who was horrified by a nightmare of chopping Wendy and Danny to into little pieces starts, just a few hours later, to entertain committing that crime in reality.
Grady has only two scenes in the film (the Gold room/bathroom sequence and the storeroom scene), but they’re both incredibly well written and acted, turning Phillip Stone, who played the mild-mannered and somewhat hapless father in Kubrick’s earlier film A Clockwork Orange (1971) into a menacing serpent, the very instrument that turns Jack Torrance into a killer. Notice the exchange in the bathroom when Jack, at first grinning to the subservient Grady, confronts the man with the words, “You chopped up your family… you were the caretaker here.” Grady, however, won’t hear of it; “You… are the caretaker… you’ve always been the caretaker.” Their close-ups now show that the tables have turned between the two of them; Grady is smiling and standing up straight while Jack looks scared and ready to jump backwards. By telling Grady that he knows that he killed his family, Jack has opened a Pandora’s box that can’t be shut; it feels as if had Jack kept his mouth shut, Grady would have finished dabbing his jacket and sent him on his way. “Your son is using his power against your will,” he says, as if Jack hadn’t been completely oblivious to Danny’s power until that moment. “It’s his mother,” Jack hisses, “She… interferes.” And this where Jack’s vulnerability lies; he cannot see his failures as his own fault, they are Wendy’s for interfering and Danny’s for gravitating to her (notice two scenes earlier when Wendy and Danny play outside while Jack has removed himself from the family inside). Those who say that Jack has been crazy from the beginning are wrong; if he has been slowly losing his mind since moving into the Overlook, than this is the moment he steps over the line, with Grady’s hard smile staring him in the face. Grady’s goading is subtle in the bathroom but becomes more obvious when he addressed Jack outside the locked storeroom door. “You can hardly have taken care of the business we discussed… you haven’t the belly for it.” “No need to rub it in, Mr. Grady,” Jack says, his manhood threatened after Grady lets it be known that killing his family (correcting them) is his duty as the head of the household. Jack gives his word (recalling how he argued with Wendy about his legal obligations to the Overlook) and Grady, with a loud click, unlocks the storeroom door.
Much has been made of this moment; Hallorann (Scatman Crothers) told Danny (Danny Lloyd)) that the things he’ll see are “like pictures in a book,” and couldn’t hurt him. He was wrong. I like to think that the Overlook ghosts could tell that someone as level-headed as Hallorann, someone who couldn’t be manipulated (unlike Jack, who is the Overlook’s perfect murder weapon), was a natural threat to them and gave him a wide berth while keeping in mind that he had to be gotten rid of somehow (how else could Hallorann have maintained a job at the Overlook without losing his mind every time he turned a corner and saw twin girls hacked to death in the hallway?). Much has also been said about how anti-climatic Hallorann’s quick murder as soon as he arrives at the Overlook feels. Although Hallorann was never the ghosts’ final goal (that privilege obviously belongs to Danny), is it reading too much into the film that Hallorann was also a target and his murder was part of their plan? This interpretation lends Hallorann’s death a little more weight to the story and gives the specters of the Overlook an overreaching plot: force the scared boy to lure Hallorann to the killing fields and kill two birds with one stone. Is that any crazier than the Kubrick/moon-footage theory?
The film is scary, like the book was (and yet unlike the book as well). The Shining is a difficult film to pin down with one’s finger, but Kubrick definitely did something right (just as King and director Mick Garris definitely did something wrong with their television mini-series adaptation of The Shining in 1997). Why is it so wrong for Jack Torrance, a failure with a drinking problem floundering through life, to be not entirely likable even before the Overlook starts to go to work on him? This was one of King’s major objections to Kubrick and Nicholson’s interpretation of the character and his script for his mini-series bends over backwards to try to make Jack an initially likable guy (a waste of the audience’s time, in my opinion). While the Overlook ghosts are scary, Jack Torrance is the greatest monster in the film. Maybe that’s why there are so few traditional “haunted” moments in the film; with Nicholson chopping down the bathroom door to get to the screaming Shelley Duvall, ghoulies and ghosties are a bit superfluous. Stanley Kubrick made a fantastic horror film featuring the scariest monster he could find: Jack Nicholson. Who could ask for anything more?