The Shining

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After reading the novel last week, I decided to take another look at the film version of The Shining, released in 1980. I hadn’t seen it since it first opened.

There’s all sorts of lore about the movie, almost more than the substance of the movie itself. Most movie buffs know the story of how Stanley Kubrick wanted to make a horror film, and had a stack of books, and how his secretary heard the thump of a hurled book against the wall after a few pages, until she heard silence–Kubrick was hooked by Stephen King’s The Shining.

Most movie and horror novel buffs know that King was never really crazy about Kubrick’s version, and made his own version some years later. I can understand his problem, as Kubrick took the bare bones of a story and made a completely different narrative, changing it from King’s story of a man being consumed by his own demons using the metaphor of a haunted hotel into more of a visual poem that doesn’t concern itself with a tight plot.

Okay, so if it doesn’t match the book, how is the movie on its own terms? When I first saw it 34 years ago I had problems with it, and many still remain. The casting is problem number one. Jack Nicholson is probably the greatest movie star of the second half of the 20th century, but he is woefully miscast here. When we watch this movie, we are supposed to see a sane man lose his mind. With Nicholson, though, and the reputation he brought into the film, we are watching an insane man trying to keep it together. He’s very entertaining in his madcap stage, wiggling his eyebrows and calling out “Here’s Johnny!” but it’s a betrayal of the story. Shelley Duvall is also very weak. I can’t imagine what Kubrick was thinking in casting her.

Aside from that, though, Kubrick’s genius is frequently on display. He is adept at building dread. The opening twenty minutes, in which Nicholson interviews for the job, is hired, and then when he and the family are shown around the hotel, are on the surface very boring bits of film, but in the larger construct this banality only makes what comes after more powerful. When, in the middle of those scenes, we get young Danny’s seizure, where he sees a river of blood coming out the elevators and his first glimpse of the little girl ghosts, are a jolt in the arm that sets us on edge for the rest of the movie.

And Stephen King’s protests aside, many of the film’s most iconic touches are Kubrick’s inventions: the little girls, the tracking shots of Danny on the Big Wheel zooming around the hallways, the maze (it’s topiary animals in the book, but the special effects weren’t advanced to recreate it in 1980), the “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,” and “Here’s Johnny!” which Nicholson swears he did not improvise. Some scenes work better in the book, though, especially the Room 237 one (it’s Room 217 in the book). Reading about a bloated old lady corpse is scarier than actually seeing one.

But ultimately I think this is a disappointing film, because for all its visual gifts, Kubrick abandoned King’s plot and just felt his way in the dark. The last shot, of a photo that suggests that Nicholson was reincarnated or something, seems tacked on. But The Shining is a visual marvel, creepy as hell.

About Jackrabbit Slim

Location: Vegas, Baby! I’m much older than the other whippersnappers here, a baby boomer. I tend to be more snobbish about film, disdaining a lot of the multiplex fare for “cinema.” My favorite films: Woody Allen’s oeuvre (up until about 1990), The Godfather, The Graduate, A Hard Day’s Night, Pulp Fiction. Politics: Well, George McGovern was my political hero. I’m also a prickly atheist. Occupation: Poised to be an English teacher in Las Vegas. For many years I was an editor at Penthouse Magazine. My role on this blog seems to be writing lots of reviews and being the resident Oscar maven.

19 responses »

  1. I just watched Room 237 to see what obsessives think. Talk about apophenia, where patterns are seen where none exist! And I love the guy who thinks Kubrick shot the moon landing, and now thinks the government is following him. Hoo boy.

  2. So is it easier for you to separate the divergences in the film compared to the novel because it’s Stanley Kubrick? Do you forgive them more? It feels like you’re sympathizing with King in regards to his feelings on what Kubrick did, so I wonder if because it’s Kubrick, it might cause you to look at taking liberties with the source material differently than if it were just some screenwriter who decided he wanted to change motivations in the film.
    It’s an interesting question to me, and looking at the film itself, being the masterpiece that it is, I don’t know if I would enjoy the book more and then look differently at the film.
    The Shining is one of the few King books I haven’t read. I understand no adaptation can be completely faithful.

  3. It’s a good question. Many authors are more philosophical about it, and figure their book is always there on the shelf, and take the money and run. But King was always bothered by it. As I said, I hadn’t read the book before seeing the movie, and most movies are not faithful adaptations. But this one really just took the outline of the story and did something completely different, which I’m sure is why King was upset. It’s still a pretty good movie, with its casting flaws.

    Of course, according to some of the people in Room 237, it’s about the genocide of American Indians, the Holocaust, or Kubrick filming the fake moon landing. Take your pick.

  4. I think someone said before when I talked about Room 237 (the most shocking revelation of which is when he’s reading a Playgirl, because then it becomes a man fighting understandable demons) and seriously, the fact that’s what he was reading blows me away and adds so much of a layer to the movie, and what it seemed Kubrick wanted to say, but someone who believed the strongest theory from that was the genocide of Native Americans still didn’t show how they believe that. I get the Native American imagery, but I don’t see the allusions to it. After watching Room 237, and the Playgirl revelation, it’s a man’s descent into the madness of his own sexual inclinations and wrestling with such, with the ball, and the photograph at the end is him among the people he understands and belongs with and some have hinted he abused the boy and he choose his wife so he could control her how he needed to and I don’t know, I see that a lot more now after watching that documentary. The duality of the girls, the rocketship allusion, which is insanely creepy that the kid wears it and has nothing to do with moon landing, and everything to do with erections, and the blood represents the oppression of the female in his existence and him not being able to be who he is, and yeah…I haven’t fleshed it out completely.

  5. No. I think most of the voices in Room 237 are nuts, especially the moon landing guy. The only one who made any sense was the one who said that the film is about how the past impinges on us, but that’s what almost any movie is about. I think a lot of the things pointed out could be considered continuity errors, such as the missing chair or Dopey decal. The Playgirl thing is probably a joke–Playgirl was a magazine for women featuring naked men, so unless Kubrick was saying that Jack was a closeted homosexual it doesn’t mean anything. I’ll bet Nicholson had one smuggled on set.

    And no, I don’t think it’s a masterpiece. It could have been, but it’s lowered by the miscasting of the leads and the convoluted plot line.

  6. That’s what I’m saying. I think the movie is the repressed demons of a closeted homosexual. That’s what I wrote.
    That’s what the rocket on the kids shirt is (that ‘stands up’), that’s what the blood is (the oppression of the ‘female’ in his life), that’s what the dance ball is, that’s what the photo is (he understands and belongs with his ‘people’), that’s what the old crusty woman is, the ‘furry’ bear costume, it’s all and allusion to his repressed homosexuality. He even gets ‘stuck in a closet’ halfway through the movie, put there by a woman.

  7. And I didn’t see that until they pointed-out the Playgirl. Do you really think Kubrick would have added something just for shits-and-giggles?
    That’s like saying Michael Mann doesn’t walk through the crowd in a crowd scene to check belt buckles.

  8. I don’t see any repressed homosexuality in the film.

    And I know Kubrick was very detail oriented, but there have been errors in his movies, and it’s possible that’s a joke. Probably Nicholson’s joke.

  9. Great movie. A or A- at worst.

    The ghosts are psychic vampires. They want Danny’s power. In the end they only get Jack. Jack is in the photo to signify that they have absorbed him.

    Room 237 was entertaining as shit, even if you didn’t agree with any of it.

  10. Shocker: never seen this or the other one you guys are talking about. Or Chinatown. I’ll never get through my queue

  11. I agree with Juan, in the A or A- range. Lucky enough to see it at a cinema a few years ago, an awesome experience.

    It has a few flaws but it’s strengths and best bits are so good and so vivid they become part of one’s memory & you don’t really have to watch the film again. Above all else, the atmosphere of menace and dread created by Kubrick is marvellous so that even the most mundane scenes have you on edge.

    I know that Duvall’s gotten a lot of criticism for her performance (including from Kubrick himself during filming) but I thought she was great, giving a real truthful example of terror that you rarely see in a film.

    As for Nicholson, I can understand why many think he’s miscast for it, but he’s so memorable that it’s impossible to think of anyone else for the role. I liked what somebody said about his performance is that even in the early scenes – instead of being totally normal as most actors are the craziness is almost ready to bubble to the surface.

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