Stanley Kubrick, Diane Johnson (Novel: Stephen King)
Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Danny Lloyd, Scatman Crothers, Barry Nelson, Philip Stone, Joe Turkel
Sometimes it takes great artists to expand a literary tome beyond the written page. The Shining is just such a film, expanding Stephen King’s classic novel into a cinematic landscape of unforgettable storytelling.
King’s novel focuses primarily on three characters. The foremost of these is Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson), the patriarch of the family, a recovering alcoholic seeking honest work and space away from civilization to work on his novel. Hired as the winter caretaker for a remote Colorado hotel, Jack brings along his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and young son Danny (Danny Lloyd). The historic Overlook Hotel is the setting where its troubled past becomes a horrifying experience for young Danny who possesses an extra-sensory ability referred to as the titular shining.
As the winter progresses and the family becomes snowbound, the hotel’s dark history begins to take its toll on Jack, driven back to the bottle by the ghosts that inhabit the remote resort. As Jack loses his grip on his sanity and Danny explores and becomes disturbed by the haunting visions he’s having, Wendy is the only moderating force, insisting on getting away from the place, recognizing the downward trajectory Jack is sliding towards as a prelude towards the kind of place where his past incidents of physical abuse against Wendy and, especially, Danny.
The film marked Stanley Kubrick’s first foray into the horror genre, adapting the film from King’s novel with the help of novelist and essayist Diane Johnson. Together, they craft a haunting and terrifying shell for a film that excels based on Kubrick’s singular artistic vision. Every moment in The Shining is uniquely crafted and calculated to elicit not just the right amount of tension and terror, but to give the film a timeless quality that has been often emulated.
Employing techniques seldom seen outside of Dario Argento’s giallo classics, Kubrick’s film is visually striking. A master of framing and photography, Kubrick uses classical styles to accentuate not-so-classical events. Before this, it was rare for horror films to exhibit such a polished and artistic sheen. It’s a film where individual scenes stand out dramatically, memorably, but also blend into the whole of the film to create a visceral, vivid masterpiece. These moments stand out in the mind, but feel interwoven into the narrative such that they cannot be easily extricated. The first incursion into Room 237, meeting the twin girls dressed in blue, and watching the elevator doors open for the first time are all cultivated elements that need to be seen within the proper context, but which will remain etched in the mind long after the film is over.
Nicholson’s brand of psychopathic glee was a perfect fit for this role, taking some modestly unhinged performances of the past, most notably in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and cranking them up to almost absurd degrees while making them feel genuine and earned. Duvall isn’t given a enough to do and Lloyd does well for a juvenile performer, his glassy-eyed countenance often standing in for our own. Scatman Crothers has a minor, yet pivotal role in the film as the hotel’s head chef who also possesses Danny’s abilities.
Although King has never appreciated the way Kubrick handled his themes of alcoholism and abuse, few filmmakers could have tackled this subject and not made a film as memorable as this. For many, this film might even be their first experience with an art film in general or Kubrick in specific. I know that for me, it was a gateway film that helped define my appreciation for the artform and Kubrick’s place within cinema’s rich and varied history. He might not have hit the themes as King would have wanted, but they still come through crystal clear.
The Shining isn’t one of Kubrick’s minor films. He never really made minor films, except in his early days working under the studios’ thumbs, and even then the end product often revealed far deeper and richer themes than his journeyman contemporaries. Yet, The Shining, which was his third to last film, was akin to the genre films of his past such as Dr. Strangelove and 2001: A Space Odyssey where he explored the essence of humanity in a way unlike any other filmmaker. This was a film in keeping with that tradition and although some might not go to the film as their first example of quintessential Kubrickian style, it nevertheless exhibited those traits and brought them to a new generation of film enthusiasts.
June 21, 2022