Decided to watch this one for Halloween. I tackled the book some time before high school for fun, and remember it being really good. I’ll be reading it again for an upcoming special review, but I wanted to cover the movie and book separately, because The Shining is considered to be one of Stephen King’s greatest works, and I am in agreement with that assessment.
Released in 1980, this film stars Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance, the caretaker turned psychopath as he falls under the malevolent influence of the Overlook Hotel. Shelley Duvall plays Wendy, Jack’s wife who perhaps is the character that suffers the most. Since its premiere this film has been lauded as a classic within the horror genre, but this review will contend that The Shining is overrated, and while it achieves some level of terror, too much has been sacrificed from King’s original vision to make this film a worthy adaptation.
We’ll be looking at what the movie does right, what it did wrong, and finally we will consider what King had to say on the film itself. There will be some spoilers.
The film is most certainly a cinematic work of art. Shots are usually wide and arresting, and the camerawork is excellent, showcasing consistent technique whether we’re following Danny on his trike or being forced to stare into Jack’s insane gaze. The blood gushing from the elevator is a landmark scene representing the highest level of cinematic ambition and craftsmanship. This is all to be expected from Stanley Kubrick, a master of the art lauded for his revolutionary vision and far reaching influences. It is obvious that Kubrick had a lot of love for the project. Watching this movie is tantamount to watching a top professional flourishing in his craft and having fun while doing it.
The three main actors all deserve praise for their performances. Nicholson seemed a natural choice for playing the psychopath, though one could argue he may have been too natural (as King himself noted). Duvall’s fear on screen is palpable and disturbing, though this performance was achieved through some rather cruel and unusual means. Young Danny, however, did the best job in this reviewer’s humble opinion. Asking a kid to play a possessed boy is a tall order, but Danny does a fantastic job, contributing to the overall creepy factor of the film. Tony’s voice, with the potential of being completely ridiculous, was helped immensely by the look in Danny’s eyes and the rest of his body language.
Finally, before we get down and dirty, the last thing the film does well is how it portrays the theme of domestic violence. Every good horror film is based upon a relatable fear, and The Shining is so clearly a story about domestic violence that it’s disturbing. Jack Torrance is a former alcoholic who is in a difficult stage in his life. Consequently he takes out his frustrations on his family, albeit egged on by some mean spirits. Wendy isn’t just afraid of the haunted hotel, she is fearful of her own safety, as well as her son’s. That part is all too real, and while this theme may be masked by a traditional “haunted house” story, enough of the monster underneath is revealed for audiences to get the real message.
While the film serves as one of the most respectable examples of the art of film-making, it fails in being a genuinely scary and engaging story.
For something to be scary it needs invoke fear, and a big part of fear is mystery and that which is unknown yet tangible. Unfortunately, while The Shining starts off with an excellent premise, too many questions remain open for us to truly wonder, and when we don’t wonder our imaginations aren’t being engaged, and the imagination is where fear resides.
- Who or what is Tony exactly? Why did he or it choose Danny?
- What do the ghosts of the Overlook really want? Why drive men crazy and kill their families?
- What is the nature of “The Shining”? Why did two characters have this power when the story could’ve gone on as is without it?
- We never ever see Jack performing his duties as caretaker of the Overlook. What’s up with that?
Because these questions are never answered, they linger and prove to be distracting from the main narrative. By choosing to ignore these questions, The Shining devolves into an arbitrary premise and set up: make a guy go crazy and kill his family. While being satisfying visually and from a movie-making perspective, it is empty emotionally and psychologically. (1) What if Tony was another kid who had the “Shining” and met a gruesome end? (2) There’s an “Indian burial ground” mentioned but it’s a one-liner that feels like a cheap cop-out. What if we were told specifically that the natives had worshipped this particular plot of land as a place where one could interact with the dead? And the hotel has taken a life of its own to ensure its rooms are always occupied even when it closes down for the winter? What if this mania was derived from the insanity of the original hotel owner and his homicidal tendencies? (3) The book answers this question, but unfortunately the film ignores it. (4) This is what killed it for me, and made the story unbelievable. Since Jack never does any sweeping, mopping, or maintenance, and we only see him going crazy over his typewriter, we get the impression that he’s either lazy, incompetent, or both, and so when he does go crazy it’s impossible to sympathize with him. When it’s difficult to see a main character’s point of view or to understand the central supernatural plot point, any horror film falls from being something potentially gripping and intelligent to something that just wants to use horror as a tool to portray great film-making when it should be the other way around.
As such, on a modern viewing this film feels outdated and ineffective. Although it is most definitely creepy, it falls short of being scary because of plot holes and placing a priority on the cinematic aspect over telling a good horror story. Plus some moments are just plain silly.
Adaptations Gone Wild
Here is an interesting interview conducted by the Rolling Stone magazine and Stephen King.
We’ll focus on what the author had to say about the film, in particular his comment that the morphing of Wendy Terrance into what she is on screen was misogynistic.
I think King took a little bit too far. Perhaps Kubrick went overboard in how he conditioned Duvall to be in character, but in keeping with the film’s theme as described above, the movie did require a character for whom the audience would heavily sympathize with, and also to adequately express the suffering by which victims of domestic abuse go through, and in this case it’s on the extreme end of the reaction spectrum (and not the good side with rainbows and puppies either).
The book and the movie share an interesting relationship, as they have taken opposite stances on various things, including choice of theme, certain plot points, and visual interpretations of the setting. I believe adaptations have the right to explore side paths, and if it happens to be interesting and still related to the main plot, then why not go all the way? Despite my disappointment in the film as a horror movie and the lack of a substantial plot, the exploration of the theme of domestic violence remains engaging and tangential to King’s original work.
You’ve probably already seen this, or the good parts at least. If you haven’t, I’d recommend giving it a go just to see what the fuss is all about, though you won’t be missing much if you don’t. Many film-makers have taken what they learned from this movie and have created masterpieces. Scorsese, Spielberg, Cameron, Nolan; those are just some of the directors that have married Kubrick’s cinematic techniques with coherent plots, and that is indeed a whole lot of other movies to watch.
This has been a gamobo review. Thanks for reading.