Why Kubrick's film adaptation of Stephen King's The Shining still haunts us nearly 40 years on
When Stephen King wrote Doctor Sleep, his sequel to The Shining, he was strictly following the path of his own 1977 bestseller about writer's block, cabin fever and madness in an out-of-season Colorado hotel. King has made no bones about his ambivalence towards Kubrick's 1980 film, which takes his novel, dispenses with half the plot, and runs off with it in various other mortifying directions.
To do himself justice, he even wrote a more reverential adaptation for American television.
With respect to King, it's no use: Kubrick's film has too powerful, too eerie a grasp on the material to be anything other than definitive. For many of us, there is no Jack Torrance other than the one Jack Nicholson plays, hulking around the corners of the Overlook Hotel's snow-encrusted maze with an axe. There's no Danny but Danny Lloyd, a mop-topped 70s child waddling away from his father in terror. King's The Shining is an enduring achievement, but Kubrick's is unforgettable.
American reviews in 1980 had been strangely hostile, given the reputation the movie now has as a horror masterwork: Variety said, not untypically, that "Kubrick has teamed with jumpy Jack Nicholson to destroy all that was most terrifying about Stephen King's bestseller". Many complained that it was too long. Kubrick responded by cutting the film by 25 minutes for its subsequent UK release - material that has subsequently been restored for what you might call the opposite of a director's cut.
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If further proof were needed that repeat trips down the Overlook's orange, hypnotically patterned corridors can induce an obsession bordering on the troubling, it arrived, too, in the shape of Room 237, a 2012 documentary. In it, five The Shining superfans advance their theories about what the movie is 'really' about. These elaborate subtexts range from the slaughter of Native Americans to the Holocaust, with one crackpot take claiming the film is a coded admission by Kubrick that he was involved in faking the Apollo 11 moon landing.
You may come away from Room 237 unconvinced by any of these analyses, but that isn't really the point. The film is about a mindset that The Shining appeals to, and it's a measure of Kubrick's genius that his vision of the Overlook, which succeeds in driving its caretaker insane, carries such a virulent trickle-down threat to the unwary or obsessive viewer too. Few horror movies, in the first place, might inspire such meticulous scrutiny that you could go so far as to map every available section of the hotel, as a further Room 237 subject has done, and expose Escher-like anomalies such as a seemingly impossible window in the manager's office. The Shining alone could make them interesting.
The mystique of the movie has only grown in the last 30 years, and the unanswered questions that bothered critics on first release now feel like crucial parts of its architecture. Is the hotel haunted or are its demons all inside Jack's head?
We know he has a history of alcoholism and once broke his son's arm. We also sense from the start that he's resentful of the special - psychic? - bond between Danny and his mother (Shelley Duvall). The Overlook, with its invitingly long bar, is a dangerous temptation into old behaviours, and it's remarkable how quickly and acquiescently Jack starts to mingle with its spectral residents. He really doesn't take much persuading.
The Shining's images of the ghastly, from a blood tide surging out of the Overlook's lifts to the twin girls Danny finds down a corridor, are rightly famous, even if the movie still doesn't get its fair share of credit as an extraordinary feat of creepy colour-coding and design.
Still, the image that perhaps lingers longest is its final one, of a man looking very much like Jack Nicholson in the foreground of a 1921 group photo. Think about the ambiguity of this too. Has he been newly absorbed into the picture or was he in it all along?
And if Jack Torrance has perhaps been an unreliable spectator, projecting illusory horrors from somewhere deep inside, it's all the more disconcerting that the film's many point-of-view shots should culminate with this one. There's nobody left to look but us.