The Shining: a globally recognized horror masterpiece; originally written by one of the most prolific and well known fiction writers; 571 pages of what some call pure gold. But when adapted by the renowned Stanley Kubrick, even the combined work of Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall couldn’t save it from a tedious doom. Lazily written, stereotypical characters and oversimplified plots make what was expected to be a brilliantly disturbing film into a hopelessly forgettable piece.
Based on Stephen King’s novel, The Shining follows an ex-private school teacher and author, Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson), as his old drinking habits and the supernatural power of the Overlook hotel – to which he is a caretaker – drag him through spiraling insanity.
He brings his wife, Wendy (Shelley Duvall), and his son, Danny (Danny Lloyd) along with him in an attempt to move on from their troubling past.
A relapse, chilling hallucinations of brutally murdered past guests, and a snowstorm (leaving his family nowhere to escape to) all bring Jack back to his violent roots. Released in May of 1980, the film is essentially cabin fever pushed to its limits.
Although it’s a good enough movie, it does the book absolutely no justice. Stephen King is known for his ability to craft disturbingly fascinating plots and characters, but Kubrick was able to capture very little of it.
He missed some of the most crucial scenes and dynamics, like the symbolic wasp’s nest or any explanation on Danny’s power, making the film seem like any old horror movie. Arguably one of the biggest elements he failed to portray was Jack’s character.
I understand that people love irredeemable, entirely evil antagonists who have no motivation but to kill, but that simply isn’t who Jack is.
Part of what made the book so unsettling and at times even sad was his forgivable nature.
In the book, how much he cared about his family and how far he’d come in regards to his addiction made his descent into insanity incredibly shocking. But in Kubrick’s adaptation, Jack is portrayed as an unforgivable character, one who has always had a genuine hate for his family and is merely acting on an almost animal impulse.
The power of the hotel is almost entirely taken away in favor of a much more obvious antagonist, as any sympathy or acknowledgment of humanity King makes the reader feel is gone.
Jack Nicholson may be a good actor, but not even he could fix this.
Dick Halloran’s character, the head chef at the Overlook played by Scatman Crothers, was also quite literally butchered.
His role as a father figure for Danny as he learns about his Shining abilities and well after the events of The Shining is very important to Danny’s development, just as their struggle to communicate with the power added to the suspense through the end of the novel. The foreshadowing he does in the beginning sets him up as a pivotal character, but
Kubrick simply threw all that out the window and treated him as he would any other minor role.
One thing he didn’t corrupt was Wendy, but this is mostly due to Duvall’s portrayal. I don’t think King or Kubrick wanted the audience to like Wendy, in consideration of both their problematic reputations writing and directing women.
There’s a possibility she was a manifestation of how Stephen King viewed the “nagging housewife” trope – an overbearing mother and spouse who won’t even let her husband take a seemingly well deserved break.
That being said, I think Duvall played her well, considering what both Kubrick and King allowed her. In the book, Wendy is Stephen King’s badly written projection of his own dissatisfactions with what he felt a wife should be. In the film, Wendy was Kubrick’s excuse to degrade and even traumatize Shelley Duvall.
Technically speaking, this doesn’t diminish its quality, but it does change how much credit I’m willing to give him for the work. He maintained a good relationship with Nicholson throughout filming the movie, even writing his ideas into the script, but acted far differently towards the actress.
He constantly insulted her acting and told the crew/her costars to do the same, demanding an immense amount of work from her. The aftermath of the way she was treated reflected in her performance, as many of her moments of distress are candid.
Her acting may have been remarkable, but the product should never be put in front of a performer’s well being.
In all honesty, Kubrick is given far too much credit for an entirely ordinary job.
But, aside from the widely appreciated elements of her performance (i.e. the classic horror movie scream), her interactions with her husband show a hopelessness despite her understanding and overly sympathetic surface, revealing a complexity to her character.
Part of what made this so clear in the book was her backstory, which the film glosses over. Her tumultuous relationship with her mother and the beginnings of her connection with Jack are crucial to understanding her character and why she makes choices that might seem overprotective or unwarranted.
In context of all other flaws of the film, I think Jack Nicholson portrayed his character decently, although unjustly. His intriguing dialogue and depictions of his character were mostly improvisations. The iconic and impromptu ‘Heeere’s Johnny!” line added to the audience’s perception of an already enraged man being pushed to fulfill his murderous desires.
Even considering moments of applaudable acting, Kubrick’s interpretation made Jack seemed deranged from the beginning, taking away a lot of the development necessary and creating an utterly dull character.
On the other hand, as a run-of-the-mill horror movie, The Shining is pretty much perfect. It fits into the genre even though it lacks a lot of the popular tropes, like jump scares, but is also responsible for later trends in horror, like the evil twins. The movie isn’t scary per se, but horror movies rarely are.
Despite its mediocrity, it’s interesting from an analytical perspective because of how it unintentionally points out a lot of the flaws in the horror genre – predominantly the inability to invoke anything but shallow, stereotypical thoughts.
Aspects of the movie that were of any value can be attributed to the work of the actors and very rarely Kubrick’s writing and directing. If you’re looking for an outstanding, properly scary horror movie, you won’t find it here. The Shining is a decent movie and it can’t be any more than that.
Title: The Shining
Directed by: Stanley Kubrik
Written by: Diane Johnson and Stanley Kubrik
Running Time: 2h 26min
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, and Danny Lloyd
Released: June 13th, 1980