There is a story, possibly apocryphal, which claims thattelephoned author Stephen King shortly before filming commenced on The Shining (1980). Allegedly, Kubrick asked King: “Do you believe evil exists, as an entity?” “Yes, I do,” King answered. “Well, I don’t,” Kubrick replied as he slammed down the phone. According to the anecdote, King then knew his pulp novel had been “taken away” from him. His budding 1980 fan base agreed, feigning outrage at cinematic liberties Kubrick was to take. Despite King’s fans, The Shining was largely a hit with audiences and critics, though hardly unanimous. Since then, it has developed an epic cult reputation and is considered by many to be one of the greatest horror films of all time. As per the norm with extreme opinions, both views are off-kilter.
Underrated by literary critics and overrated by housewives, Stephen King was already a household name by 1980, and a film version of his novel about a possessed hotel was inevitable. What King was not prepared for was a forceful filmmaker with his own ideas. To be certain, this is Stanley Kubrick’s Shining, not King’s, and for that we can be thankful (King later proved the point in a dreadfully faithful 1997 television remake).
In Kubrick’s The Shining, the face of evil is not the hotel. Rather, it is the bourgeoisie husband/father Jack Torrance (), with the hotel standing as an obvious symbol for man’s eternal evil. That very simple decision confused the hell out of its hyper-linear 1980 audience, although contemporary viewers seem less troubled by it. Yet, there are drawbacks; Kubrick does not make good on all of his promises. There is no substantial character arc for Jack. He is most interesting in the first half before being reduced to a monotone Looney Tune archetype. In sharp contrast, his wife Wendy ( ) emerges from her bedside banality, like a figure jumping off a Symbolist canvas, to become a torrent. Channeling modernist painters (Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, Amedo Modgiglini) is a recurring Kubrick theme. Casting Duvall was shrewd. Footage from a “making of” documentary reveals Kubrick was tyrannical when directing her. It paid off. Unfortunately, the development of the patriarchal antagonist is not as layered. Kubrick fails to reign in Nicholson, whose character solicits identification and sympathy only from the film’s thug demographic (much in the same way that the Al Pacino’s Tony Montana does). In painting Jack two-dimensionally, Nicholson and Kubrick open wide the door of identification for simpletons. The film falters in allowing the ink to dry on Jack. The banality of evil theme is as subtle as the second half of Nicholson’s performance, but of course, Kubrick’s The Shining is not relegated to a single character.
Kubrick’s The Shining is a far more complex machine than the source material’s rather conventional ghost story. In the book, the Overlook Hotel’s chef, Dick Halloran (Scatman Crothers), becomes the shining Mighty Mouse, rushing in to ultimately save the Torrance family. Kubrick retains the psychic bonding between Danny (Danny Lloyd) and Dick, but pulls the rug when jettisoning the rescue. The desicion serves a two-fold purpose. In deviating from King’s perspective, Kubrick strengthens Wendy’s resolve. Diminishing Dick’s vitality to the narrative shifts King supernatural theme from a lucid reality to a question. With Dick’s absence, and sudden demise, Danny’s sanity is suddenly a matter of speculation. Emphasizing this further is Kubrick’s smartest interpretive choice. In the novel, Danny has an imaginary friend named Tony. Living in Danny’s mouth, Tony gifts the boy with psychic vision, aka “the Shining.” King reveals that Tony is actually the adult Danny, warning his younger self. It is a hopelessly silly and predictable plot contrivance, which Kubrick wisely abolishes. Instead, Kubrick never explains Tony’s presence, which is revealing of his intent.
Kubrick’s The Shining is not a ghost story. The ghosts are visions shared by both father and son, indicating that there is potential for Danny to follow his father’s patterns of abuse. Wendy is briefly privy to a depraved vision as well; hysteria in the moment of flight, and a possible indication that her work with Danny will continue long after this ordeal.
Like most of Kubrick’s films, The Shining brilliantly utilizes pre-existing music. Gyorgy Ligeti (whose music Kubrick used in 2001: A Space Odyssey and Eyes Wide Shut) and Bela Bartok are two modern composers whose works memorably enhance the film. For the adagio from Bartok’s “Music For Strings, Percussion, and Celesta,” Kubrick chose the Deutsche Grammophone recording made by Herbert Von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic. Kubrick had previously used Karajan’s recordings of Johann Strauss for 2001. The conductor’s detached sense of high polish worked well juxtaposed against copulating spaceships. It works even better here with Bartok. Karajan’s earlier recording of the piece (for EMI) retained a feel for the composer’s muted Hungarian voice. In the later DG recording, Karajan further mutes Bartok’s indigenous qualities and the result is even more chilling, contemporary, and almost Germanic. Aptly, the preliminary hedge maze walk-through is among scenes choreographed to the adagio. Despite the autumn milieu, the use of Bartok’s adagio washes the scene in biting coldness.
With his third symphony, “Eroica,” Ludwig van Beethoven composed what may still be the most groundbreaking, influential work of art ever produced. From a portrait of Napoleon, to a bold anti-war statement, a pasotrale, pure rhythm, complete abstraction, and an ode to joy, Beethoven worked with different motifs in all of his symphonies. Kubrick conscientiously patterned his film oeuvre likewise, choosing to work in different genres (criminal melodrama, anti-war drama, anti-war comedy, historical epic, a western-which Marlon Brando fired Kubrick from—dystopian, science fiction, swashbuckler, war, erotic).
With The Shining, Kubrick ventures into his sole “horror” film. As Beethoven did with “Eroica,” Kubrick rethinks his theme, making it his own (genre be damned). However, “Eroica” succeeds outright because its composer began as a Napoleon supporter before passionately reversing his position. Thus, the heroic first movement (in mock praise of the “hero” Napoleon, to whom the Symphony was originally to be dedicated) gives way to the terror of the funeral march. We are not afforded such transformation in The Shining. We are never privy to a pre-alcoholic Jack. We are even informed of his having previously broken Danny’s arm in a drunken rage. The portrait we come away with is one of Jack having always been a monster. We fail to understand how Wendy could have fallen in love with and married him. Additionally, we do not see a single moment of affection between husband and wife, which is a near fatal misstep. Their marriage is painted as a cartoonish anti-“Leave It To Beaver” union. Yet, ultimately the film is about Wendy, and she is the eye of the hurricane that we come to love and root for.
Despite flaws, Kubrick’s film is a predominantly successful opus; a highly polished, modernist machine that could have used a bit more sloppiness, but the astute aesthetics, combined with Duvall’s performance, render it a triumph. By not succumbing to preconceived expectations (from either the author or genre fans), Kubrick indeed produced one of the most vital, fire-and-ice horror entries of the last half century.