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.