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The Shining versus The Shining

[This review discusses Stephen King's novel The Shining and the film adaptation by Stanley Kubrick.]

"This inhuman place makes human monsters."

The first time I saw the 1980 film The Shining, I felt cheated. A brilliant, world famous director took one of my favorite books, cast one of my favorite actors in the lead, and then... he completely screwed it up. For years, I felt that Stanley Kubrick had ruined one of my favorite books. I was incensed. How could he?

My opinion has recently changed. Now I think Kubrick's The Shining may be a cinematic masterpiece. But it is not really a horror movie, and it's not really an adaptation of King's novel. It is its own self. If you see it as a separate entity, it's kind of fascinating.

The book

The Shining may very well be Stephen King's best novel, and that's saying a lot for a man who is probably the most famous writer in the world. In it, an alcoholic writer named Jack Torrance takes a last chance job as winter caretaker at a luxury hotel deep in the Colorado Rockies. As he, his wife Wendy, and their psychic five-year-old son Danny are cut off from the world by the weather, Jack slowly loses his mind and becomes a danger to his family. Were the malevolent ghosts of the people who died in the Overlook Hotel manipulating Jack, or was it all in Jack's head? Or was everything that happened caused by Danny's psychic gift?

The book succeeds on pretty much every level. The story is tightly written and almost impossible to put down. The Overlook itself captures the imagination -- its beauty and isolation, its gory history, the ghosts of past tragedies. I cared a lot about Jack, Wendy and Danny, and I so wanted everything to turn out for them, even while I was aware that it almost certainly would not. (Never get too attached to the characters in King's books.) I was especially into Danny. Psychic characters are not easy to make real and believable, especially kids, but Danny is captivating. I also loved Dick Hallorann, who shines, pun intended, in the opening chapters. The first time I read The Shining, I was blown away. I was young and impressionable, and I never forgot how this book affected me.

There are arguments to be made that King's works are too internal to translate well to the screen, but I don't think that's true. What about Stand By Me, The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile? (And possibly more?) I wonder if some producers tend to see the scary in King's works, and just don't look beneath the surface for what makes it work?

I initially intended to just review the movie, but I just couldn't help talking about the book first. So… on to

The movie

After my initial serious disappointment, I had never intended to watch the movie again. And then I saw a documentary called Room 237 about some of its more devoted fans (Josie Kafka did a terrific review for us, which is why I tried it). It made me want to give the movie another shot. I'm glad I did.

While the book centers on what the characters are thinking and feeling, the movie is almost completely external. The Overlook itself is the main character, and what a character it is. Nearly every shot inside the Overlook is framed in a way that reminded me of how lines are drawn to create perspective in art, with the focal point way off in the distance. We keep seeing the ceiling and light fixtures (mostly chandeliers) above, and the very strange carpets on the floor. Showing the ceilings and floors is not something filmmakers tend to do. It has the effect of making the characters look small and strange, as if they don't belong. Or as if the Hotel is swallowing them.

As fans of the movie explain in Room 237, the hotel is oddly shaped and its geography makes no sense. The long, confusing hallways are echoed by the maze, which is so immense that it seems impossible that anyone could have created it. The kitchen is also maze-like, and everything is too big; the size of the industrial cans and bottles makes Wendy look smaller. There are sets of French doors all over the small caretaker's apartment, and every book in every bookcase is tilted at an angle. There are empty chairs in nearly every shot. Jack's typewriter changes color, from white to dark gray to blue. In one scene, the pattern in the carpet actually changes. Although these are things the casual viewer might not consciously notice (and I might not have if I hadn't been primed by the documentary), we're aware of it subconsciously, and it gets our lizard brain buzzing.

One of my favorite things in this movie is Danny riding his Big Wheel through the long, strange hallways of the Overlook. It's just what a kid would probably do, but it increases the feeling that they're in this immense, bizarre place that is outside of reality.

My biggest problem with the movie is that the characters have all of the humanity and complexity of chess pieces. I suppose it was intentional. But what an unholy waste of Jack Nicholson, who is arguably one of the best actors in the world, although I'm more of a fan of his early work (Chinatown, Five Easy Pieces, The Last Detail) before he started playing a caricature of himself. He did a good job with what he was given, but there is really no opportunity to get to know Jack Torrance, or what motivates him. Why he does what he does is almost inexplicable.

And Jack and Wendy never feel like a couple. Was Shelley Duvall miscast? Did the actors just have zero chemistry? Or was this dissonance between them what Kubrick intended, a way of showing the unresolvable tension in their marriage? Danny Lloyd as Danny made me think of Jake Lloyd as Anakin in Episode 3. Interesting coincidence with the surnames. I don't like criticizing child actors, so I'll stop there.

Dick Hallorann is a favorite character of mine in the book, and even though Scatman Crothers did a good job, I hated how Dick was treated in the movie. But I did love the strange female nudes with the huge afros that decorated his bedroom in Florida.

A few more random comments about the movie that contributed to the mood it creates:

— In one scene, Wendy and Danny are watching television, and there is no electrical cord visible. In another, Jack, seated, is reflected in a mirror and it looks as if he has two sets of legs. (Because, of course, Jack is becoming another person.)

— In yet another, Jack is sleeping at his desk, but he is balanced on the edge of his chair in such a way that if he had actually been sleeping, he would have fallen off.

— We never actually see Jack do any caretaking. There is one scene with Wendy in the boiler room. The boiler room is a big deal in the book, almost nonexistent in the movie. Sigh.

— We never see much out of the windows except for glare, which makes it seem even more that the outside world doesn't exist.

— There is no music during many scenes. When there is sound, it is disconcerting whines and screeching, or eerie wavering vocals like the score of Kubrick's 2001, A Space Odyssey. In fact, a lot of this movie makes me think of 2001. Which I believe is a better movie. (I should probably get around to reviewing it someday, but it's intimidating, I'll admit it.) (Note from later: I did finally get around to reviewing it.)

— In the opening interview scene, Ullman (Barry Nelson) does some very strange things with his hands. It's like they don't belong on his body.

— In the car, the Torrances talk about the Donner Party. Jack seems to think cannibalism is acceptable in order to survive.

— The Torrances bring more luggage than would actually fit in the trunk of their tiny VW bug.

— The walls of the maze are thirteen feet high. Who would do that?

— The word "overlook" has a double meaning, of course.

— The hotel decorations have a Native American motif, leading fans of the movie to think that Kubrick was commenting on the genocide of the American Indian.

— In many rooms, especially the notorious Room 237 which may have been the ugliest hotel room I've ever seen in my life, colors and patterns clash. (Although maybe that was just the seventies.)

— In the final scenes, Wendy is wearing what may be the ugliest outfit I have ever seen on a leading lady in a mainstream movie.

To conclude, I can look at the movie now and appreciate its brilliance, but it doesn't generate emotion, and I don't find it the least bit scary. For me, it's like looking at a beautiful object at a distance. The book is more of an intimate experience. But then again, books usually are.

Opinions? Comments? I've tried to avoid spoilers in this review, but feel free to talk about anything -- spoilers are permitted in the comments. (And if you haven't seen the movie or read the book, beware!)
Billie Doux loves good television and spends way too much time writing about it.


  1. Great review! This is one of those movies that I have been meaning to watch forever, but have never gotten around to. I've now moved it higher my list.

  2. It's a good movie but a poor adaptation of the book. The miniseries from the 1990's is a good adaptation of the book, but otherwise kind of a mediocre production. Choose your poison, I guess.

  3. This is a great film, but it is impossible for me to take it seriously thanks to The Simpsons.

  4. I felt the same as you did when I first saw the movie, Billie, and like you have also changed my mind since. Becoming a big fan of Kubrick made a difference:). Unlike you I do find the movie pretty scary - I certainly am invested in Danny while watching it. I remember being in a hotel bathroom once in DC that looked kind of like that bathroom and I couldn't get in the bath without thinking of the scene from the movie - brrr!

    When the miniseries came out, I was excited - at last, The Shining on screen exactly as King wanted it to be! Then I watched it and was bored to tears.

  5. Mark, I love that Simpsons sketch, too.

    Billie, what a great review! I'll watch this again soon; your review has put me in the mood.


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