The Shining: Classics Reclassified
There will be spoilers. You've had 40 years.
When I was younger, I used to collect (read: hoard) DVDs. Since the rapid increase of accessibility to online streaming services, the rate of acquisition has slowed considerably, although I still indulge in a new BluRay from time to time if the mood takes me. I think the tally currently stands somewhere in the 200s after a significant Marie Kondo-style cull last year ('does Death Race bring me joy [anymore]? No!'). However I always had one very simple rule: I never bought the DVD of a movie I hadn't seen before. I was creating a collection of all-time favourites that I knew I could rely on and watch at any time - a kind of physical manifestation of my eclectic cinematic and televisual tastes (all alphabetised, of course - I'm not a total loser).
Around the same time in my teenage years and early 20s, when my love of cinema was developing, I was also inhaling as many Stephen King novels as I could get my hands on. I was completely obsessed with his verbosity (a quality many people find a huge turn-off) and ability to paint an image into being using only words. He is called one of the best horror authors in history for good reason. I vividly remember lying in bed reading The Shining one night and getting to the point where I was genuinely too terrified to turn the page. I recall at once being so scared, but simultaneously so impressed that mere words on a page could scare me in a way that a film never had. I knew one day I was going to have to watch Stanley Kubrick's film adaptation (I had always wanted to), but I was adamant I needed to read the novel first.
After finishing the book, I made a decision I had never made before, and never will again. I bought the DVD of The Shining without ever having seen it. Surely, a film adaptation of probably the best novel I had ever read up until that point that seemed to be on the top of every Top 10 List ever was enough justification to break my rule.
I had never been so disappointed in my life and, to this day, I genuinely do not understand why Stanley Kubrick's 1980 film adaption of The Shining is held in such high regard.
This film is less an adaptation of King's novel and more of a re-imagining. At its core, the book is a sprawling haunted house story. The Overlook Hotel, where the Torrence family (Jack, Wendy and their young son Danny) take up residence as caretakers for the long, lonely Colorado winter, is haunted. Like, so very haunted. Haunted in a way that only a Stephen King creation could be haunted. Danny, we come to learn, possesses something called 'the shining,' which encompasses a whole range of seemingly psychic abilities. One such aspect of Danny's 'shine' is that he can see into the violent and disturbing past of the Overlook - a past that might suggest it wasn't a great idea for the Torrence family to ever step foot inside. As they are cut off in the midst of a vicious snowstorm, the supernatural entities residing in the Overlook start to wreak havoc on Jack's psyche, putting Wendy and Danny in grave danger. Unfortunately, the film decides to make the source of Jack's psychosis more vague, and implies that he is giving in to his inner demons, rather than gradually drowning in the beckoning of the hotel.
One of the most distressingly effective things about King's novel is Jack's slow, torturous downward spiral into madness. You were sympathetic to the well-intentioned but incredibly flawed family man that accepted the caretaker position, partly to guarantee some solitude while working on his writing and also to concentrate on his relationship with his family as a recovering alcoholic with anger management issues. His genuine desire to make good on his checkered past makes his gradual downfall, one which mirrors his predecessor who killed his family, all the more tragic. This backstory is entirely absent in Kubrick's film. Jack Nicholson plays him like a tool from the first moment his eyebrows walk into frame. There is instantly something 'off' about him. How am I supposed to empathise with him throughout his arc when I can't stand him from the beginning? His descent into madness is almost immediate; there is no nuance whatsoever. Nicholson turns in some effective individual moments, but a good Jack Torrence he is not. All work and no play made Jack an annoying buffoon.
Shelley Duvall cops a lot of flack for her portrayal of Wendy Torrence, and she definitely deserves some of it. Early on in the film, some of her line delivery is utter cringe; sometimes she speaks to her son, Danny, like it's the first time she's ever met him. However, some of her smaller moments are very powerful, like when Jack goes Full Jerk for basically the first time, telling her to get out of his writing room, which is the size of a small ballroom, because she broke his writing mojo. She looks so shocked and defeated. It's just a shame that that's not how the Wendy from the book would have reacted. Wendy is a strong-willed woman who stands up to Jack on more than one occasion, which, in turn, gives his gradual betrayal more intensity. In the film you're like, 'mate, calm down, she just asked you to take her for a walk outside and then offered to make you a sandwich.'
Far and away the best actor in this small ensemble cast is the young Danny, played by Danny Lloyd. To my mind, the majority of Kubrick's adulation should go to the performance he managed to tease out of this young kid. He's alternately adorable and unsettling, especially as he interacts with his imaginary friend, Tony, who takes the form of...his index finger. Most of the film's decent scares (there aren't many) rest on the performance of Lloyd. I mourn to think of how much better the film could have been if he'd had better on-screen parents.
One of my biggest gripes about this film is the score - almost a complete tonal misfire (pun intended) in every sense. The decision to use the pre-existing music of modernist giants such as Ligeti and Penderecki baffles me, although music editor Gordon Stainforth deserves credit for making it seem like much of the music was composed for the film. I certainly understand the impulse to use Those Yucky-Sounding Orchestra Pieces With The Screechy Violins and Loud Jabby Stabby Noises, but I'm quite sure the two composers he hired to write seemingly three seconds of original synthesised music, Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind, would have been quite capable of fashioning a bespoke musical landscape. Instead, we're just subjected to a barrage of offensively loud and totally out-of-context atonality, akin to having an obnoxious man sitting next to you screaming "THIS IS A SCARY BIT NOW!" Check out the utterly brilliant Shutter Island for a masterclass in music supervision, and a much more effective use of Penderecki in a cinematic context.
Among the colossal disappointment, there are a couple of redemptive moments. One such scene involves a slow burn between Jack and Wendy, as he circles her unbearably slowly around a room and backwards up a staircase, his mind unravelling in front of her. As her pathetic bat swings increase in frequency, the possibility of his redemption seems more and more unlikely, until one particularly vicious swipe connects with his head and sends him hurtling down the stairs. The much-parodied "Here's Johnny!" scene is made inevitable by this moment, and it's genuinely a chilling scene. The snow-covered grand finale also deserves credit from a cinematography and editing standpoint. Danny, being pursued by his murderous (#redrum) father through the Triwizard Tournament Cup hedge maze, outsmarts his dad by backtracking through his footsteps and running out the way he came, leaving Jack to freeze to death. No, that's not how Jack meets his demise in the novel, but maybe they spent so much on the Elevator of Blood (also not in the book) that they didn't have room in the budget for the boiler explosion.
Stephen King adaptations are inherently problematic. The absurd and surreal goings-on are almost more effective because they exist on the page, allowing your mind to do the heavy-lifting. In my personal view, the most successful adaptations (Misery, Gerald's Game, It: Chapters I and II, Carrie) work because they commit to the tone and embrace the bonkers. When a filmmaker starts to inject too much of their own visual style (some of the cinematography and set design in The Shining is textbook Kubrick), the tone of King's original, which is already so idiosyncratic, gets muddied; to me, that's the crux of what went wrong here. A strong-headed and visually consistent filmmaker like Kubrick was never going to be able to share the stage. King's 'visual' language is specific and visceral in a way that seems to have been completely incongruous with Kubrick's, which is a great shame. Atypically for me, I would be very open to a contemporary reworking of this astounding novel. Does anyone have Denis Villeneuve's number?
You could say the source material was overlooked. I'm not mad, just disappointed.
The Shining is streaming on Netflix now.