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On Kubrick's The Shining

[The original version of this essay appeared as "On The Shining" in George Beahm's Phantasmagoria (#5 [April 1997]: 7-12). It has been edited and amended for appearance in StarShine and Shadows. A decade old, it does not address the intriguing question of comparisons between King's novel, Kubrick's film, and King's own film version, released as a television mini-series shortly after this essay was written.]

Stephen King's The Shining remains among his most teachable novels. In an informal discussion at the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts (1984), King in fact noted that when his works find their ways into university-level literature courses, The Shining is the most likely to appear.

Several points account for the novel's popularity as a class-room text. It is consciously (and often self-consciously) literary in its allusiveness, with references ranging from Shakespeare and Samuel Johnson to Arthur Miller and Truman Capote, with frequent stops along the way for brief nods to Emily Dickinson, T. S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, Peter Straub, and a host of other literary luminaries, including, not coincidentally, Edgar Allan Poe. It becomes in some senses a compendium of the literature which has preceded it, summarizing and transforming multiple themes, techniques and moves through its own narrative of hauntings and madness.

In addition, the novel is equally consciously an artifact concerned with the creation of artifacts--a metafiction of sorts. Jack Torrance stands not only at the center of King's narrative but at the creative center of his own literary work, his play-in-progress. The relationships between Torrance's life and his attitudes toward literature become an important motif in The Shining, until life and art finally merge as Jack creates his own imagined realities.

And finally, The Shining is unique among King's fictions for the strong thread of conscious symbol-making that functions as a corollary to Torrance's literary pretensions. Throughout, Torrance translates his experiences into symbolic statements, most obviously when he encounters the wasps while repairing the Overlook roof. For pages at a time, Torrance indulges in symbol making, explaining his life, with the wasps, the roof, and the Overlook itself as metaphors. From this perspective, The Shining is an ideal vehicle in itself to introduce and discuss the literary dimensions of contemporary dark fantasy and horror.

Perhaps these inherent qualities in the novel stimulated Stanley Kubrick's initial interest in filming The Shining; at the least, they contribute to the unique texture of the completed film, since Kubrick attempted to translate into film many of the literary characteristics of King's novel. The result is, as one might expect, certainly the most controversial film version of any King work to date; only The Stand and Pet Sematary, both now in production [1997], might lead to more difficulties in representation than did The Shining.

Initially, of course, the coupling of King and Kubrick seemed ideal--the most popular writer of horror fiction and the most prestigious director of science-fiction/fantasy films. Many looked to Kubrick's work on the novel to become a crucial statement (if not the definitive statement) on the nature of horror film. Dan Christensen's "Stephen King: Living in 'Constant, Deadly Terror'" noted that none of the projects relating to filming King's work was as "promising or intriguing" as what Kubrick was doing with The Shining. David Schow's "Return of the Curse of the Son of Mr. King: Book Two" went even further. The clear failure Salem's Lot to do justice to King on the television screen brought audiences, with trembling anticipation, into theaters to catch The Shining, whose attendant production mythology was enough to suggest a classic film at the very least, at the most a milestone in cinematic horror or something to justify the reactionary plaudits given the film by critics who, though zealous, were conspicuously few in number.

Even after production, King remained publicly enthusiastic about the film. In "Horrors," an article in TV Guide identifying the ten scariest films on videocassettes and discs, King listed The Shining as his fifth choice, commenting that while the film diverges greatly from his novel, it nonetheless "builds a claustrophobic terror in a relentless way" into the narrative. "Could it have been done better?" he asks, then responds: "Over the years I've come to believe that it probably could not. The film is cold and disappointingly loveless--but chilling."

Originally, Kubrick apparently intended to follow King's plot closely, although rumors circulated for some time that the film would probably diverge widely from King's text. In fact, when Christensen questioned King about the persistent rumors, King said that he had

asked Stanley how close he was following the plot and he said extremely closely. There are going to be some minor changes, but nothing substantial. In terms of plot, it's going to follow the book very closely; whether or not it's going to follow the book in spirit is something else again.

In terms of Kubrick's diverging from the original text, however, in an interview published in 1978, Peter S. Perakos elicited the following comment from King:

From the beginning, when I first talked to Kubrick some months ago, he wanted to change the ending. He asked me for my opinion on Halloran [sic] becoming possessed, and then finishing the job that Torrance started, killing Danny, Wendy, and lastly himself. Then, the scene would shift to the spring, with a new caretaker and his family arriving. However, the audience would see Jack, Wendy, and Danny in an idyllic family scene--as ghosts--sitting together, laughing and talking. And I saw a parallel between this peaceful setting at the end of the picture and the end of 2001 where the astronaut is transported to the Louis XIV bedroom. To me, the two endings seemed to tie together.

After further discussions with Kubrick, King apparently (and accurately) believed that Kubrick had abandoned that highly unlikely conclusion; such an overly optimistic treatment of the idea that spirit continues beyond life would contradict too strongly what had gone on before in the film. Kubrick's conclusion avoided that difficulty while raising a number of others.

If King had any immediate reservation about the project at that point, they apparently lay more with casting than with the screenplay. King's Wendy Torrance is strong, beautiful, and intelligent; Shelley Duvall, he noted, "just looks sort of nervous and overbred." Jack Torrance, on the other hand, was not "the Jack Nicholson type at all; not flamboyant, almost withdrawn. I had someone like Martin Sheen in mind. But nobody will talk about that sort of thing in preproduction. What they want to talk about is someone who's bankable--and Nicholson is that."

Certain elements of initial production led to odd parallels between King and Kubrick. One of the most daring divergences in the film is Kubrick's use of a hedge maze rather than a topiary garden--and a subsequent re-writing of major portions of the narrative. In an interview, King noted that it was

very funny to me that he chose a hedge maze, because my original concept was to create a hedge maze. And the reason that I rejected the idea in favor of the topiary animals was because of an old Richard Carlson film, The Maze. The story was about a maze, of course, but in the middle of the maze was a pond. And in the middle of the pond, on a lily pad, was the grandfather who was a frog. Every night, grandpa turned into a frog and so they had to put him into the pond. To me that was ludicrous. So I abandoned the idea of a hedge.

Kubrick's decision to replace the topiary animals with the hedge maze seems appropriate in the context of the film as completed. The maze as image is central to Kubrick--witness the subtitle of Thomas Allen Nelson's full-length of Kubrick's films, "Inside a Film Artist's Maze," as well as mazes and puzzles in films such as 2001 and A Clockwork Orange. In addition, trying to animate hedge animals might have led to the added difficulty of creatures that resembled Disney characters.

In her review of the film prior to its release as a network film, Judith Crist noted that it "provides us with the ultimate in horror." Although she is aware of the changes Kubrick introduced into the structure of the narrative--particularly Kubrick's emphasis on family relationships rather than setting--Crist states that

As the sense of menace unreels in the brightly lit and handsomely furbished public rooms, in the mysteries behind a locked door, the echoing footfalls and the flashes of horrifying hallucination, the child becomes our medium, the father our menace. The film's triumph is Nicholson's in his minutely portrayed transition from ordinary householder to Mephistophelean madman: his is the true tool of terror."

Thus far, we have been concentrating on the film as reflecting (however variously or skewed) Stephen King. More than any other of the films based on King's novels, however, The Shining requires more. Kubrick is, after all, responsible for several of the most successful--and most controversial--films over several decades. From the beginning of his career, Kubrick attempted to incorporate his personal vision into every film he made; and, with few exceptions, he succeeded in this attempt. His earliest films were experimental or documentary shorts: Day of the Fight (1951); Flying Padre (1951); The Seafarers (1953). In 1953 he produced, directed, photographed, and edited Fear and Desire; two years later, he co-produced, directed, photographed, edited, and scripted Killer's Kiss. The next two films, The Killing (1956) and Paths of Glory (1957), were products of Harris-Kubrick Productions, with Kubrick directing and participating in writing the screenplay.

With Spartacus (1960), Kubrick's role was radically limited. Stepping in to replace director Anthony Mann, Kubrick was restricted from many of the freedoms he had enjoyed; he found himself instead in the position of a typical Hollywood studio director: responsible for directing the actors, composing shots, and supervising editing. "What is missing from the list," Nelson points out, "is that script control which was crucial to the artistry of The Killing and Paths of Glory, and which has lent distinction to all his films since Paths with the lone exception of Spartacus." The result was less Kubrick-on-film that Kirk Douglas and Dalton Trumbo.

Following Spartacus, Kubrick reasserted his particular vision on his films by retaining greater control over the finished products. He directed Lolita (1962) and co-produced, directed, and partially scripted Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). With 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Kubrick's hand became even more apparent. He produced and directed the film, working with Arthur C. Clarke in writing the screenplay (as an interesting sidelight, Clarke frequently watched the day's rushes before writing portions of the novel; in a sense, novel and film were produced simultaneously, a daring oddity in this day of novelizations from commercially successful films). In addition, Kubrick received screen credits for designing and directing special photographic effects and, given the increasingly complex and sophisticated integration of classical music into the backgrounds of Kubrick's subsequent films, it might be assumed that he played a major role in selecting the music as well--by Richard Strauss, Johann Strauss, Aram Khachaturian, and Gyorgy Ligeti.

In one of Kubrick's most powerful, impressive, and artistically designed films, A Clockwork Orange (1971), Kubrick again retained control by producing, directing, writing the screenplay from Burgess's novel, and setting the visual image to music from Beethoven, Edward Elgar, Rossini, Purcell, Rimsky-Korsakov, and others.

Kubrick's 1975 version of Barry Lindon, while not a commercial success, continued his exploration of a specific vision. He again acted as producer, director, and screenplay writer, with John Alcott in charge of photography for a second time (the first time had been in Clockwork)--he would also direct photography for Kubrick's next film, The Shining. Music, as before, was drawn from a variety of sources: Bach, Frederick the Great, Handel, Mozart, Schubert, Vivaldi.

By the time we arrive at The Shining, then, several patterns had become apparent in Kubrick's work, most critically his determination to retain control of a film's final form. By doing so, he was able to stamp the text--whether original or based on well-known novels--with his own particular trademark. His choice of John Alcott for a third film suggests that he found Alcott's work especially appropriate in expressing visually what Kubrick saw as the underlying conceptions of a film. And the background music for The Shining, while not as intrusively present or inextricably connected with the narrative as was Beethoven to A Clockwork Orange, nonetheless furthers Kubrick's explorations: the eerie sounds of Bartok, Ligeti, Krzystof Penderecki, Wendy Carlos, and Rachel Elkin develop almost an independent existence within the context of the film.

It is not surprising, then (or rather, should not have been surprising, since many viewers of the film claimed surprise) that The Shining should turn out to be as much Stanley Kubrick as Stephen King, if not more so. Nor is it surprising that viewers expecting "Stephen King" should react angrily, often venomously, when given a different "SK": Stanley Kubrick. Schow's vigorous conclusion is simply that Kubrick proved himself incapable of handling King's material: "And if The Shining is really that American Gothic portrait of the death of a family relationship, just what is Kubrick--an American expatriate--doing filming it?" The film is, in a word, "boring."

Nevertheless, the film and its director-producer-screenwriter were not without their supporters. F. Anthony Macklin begins his "Understanding Kubrick: The Shining" by acknowledging that most viewers dislike the film. There are, however, good reasons for that dislike--and, he contends, for ultimately appreciating the film, in spite of the fact that it diverged from King's text and that it did not use conventional treatments to create terror or horror. Instead, one must approach the film from a different perspective, namely, that the film represents not King, not horror as a genre, but the unique vision of Stanley Kubrick. To do so brings five main points in focus.

First, the characters in the film seem flat and banal because Kubrick wants them to; the texture of the film is in fact carefully constructed, resulting not from miscasting but from Kubrick's underlying philosophy. In this sense, the film should be compared to Kubrick's own 2001 instead of to King's novel. The interview with Ullman, Macklin points out, owes more to the intentionally uncommunicative briefing scene in 2001 than to King's crisp, precise dialogue.

Second, Kubrick's films continually explore outlets for aggression--most specifically the apes in 2001, Alex in A Clockwork Orange, and certainly Jack Torrance in The Shining. Jack's aimless wanderings in the Overlook, his pointless one-man games of catch, his obsessive typing of a single line indicate his lack of outlet. The point is underscored, Macklin notes, by Kubrick's recurrent use of Roadrunner cartoons as background. Danny watches one at the beginning of the film; Larry Durkin's television shows one when Hallorann arrives to rent a Snowcat; and Danny is again watching one when Wendy goes downstairs and sees Jack's manuscript. The explicit violence in the relationship between the Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote has specific analogues throughout the film.

Third, for Kubrick, objects and machines are almost more important than people. Certainly in Dr. Strangelove and 2001 that sense emerges; in The Shining, Kubrick focuses on the maze, for example, as an external object that reveals Jack's inner nature, as well as Wendy's and Danny's.

Fourth, the problems most viewers had with characterization in the film are in fact responses to Kubrick's intentions. Nicholson has been accused of "everything from being boring to overacting, Macklin notes. More accurately, however, Nicholson is responding to a difficult task. He must blend the banality and the absurdity of Kubrick's vision of the character, constantly destroying his own chances to rise above either. Consequently, he "changes from the banal would-be writer in the interview to the absurd, impulsive extrovert at the bar to the lively, vicious killer at the end." To do so requires that he not give a coherent, polished performance--and viewers disparage him for not doing so.

And fifth, Kubrick's The Shining is satirical in ways that King's novel is not. Kubrick sees American culture as "a cartoon and a caricature," Macklin concludes, intruding parodies of Nixon and Johnny Carson at seemingly inappropriate moments. Even the concluding photograph implicitly critiques contemporary American society by juxtaposing it with an image of 1921, postwar, celebratory America which no longer exists. Given these five points, Macklin argues, viewers are almost bound to misinterpret Kubrick's intentions. The film is complex but repays careful attention. Visual techniques impel interest, and, "with the added awareness that banality, aggression, objects, ordinary characters, and satire often play a meaningful part in a Kubrick film, we should be able to deal with it."

Approaching Kubrick from another perspective, Greg Keeler refers briefly to King's article in the January 1981 issue of Playboy, citing the comment that horror films are like "lifting a trap door in the civilized forebrain and throwing a basket of raw meat to the hungry alligators swimming around in the subterranean river beneath." He then compares several mainstream films about the disintegration of the family--Ordinary People, Tribute, Kramer vs. Kramer--to such films as Burnt Offerings, The Amityville Horror, and The Shining. "Though they all ostensibly deal with uppity houses," he says, they "are also about families going to pieces. They are gatorland's answer to the touching melodramas of the forebrain." Point by point, Keeler analyzes Kramer vs. Kramer, identifying theme, plot, characterization, language, and episode. For each, he finds horrific analogues in The Shining, a dark counterpoint focusing on the nightmare rather than the melodrama. The comparisons lead to the conclusion that "no matter how one views the differences between these films, there is no doubt that the family has to disintegrate for the characters to survive, either physically or psychologically."

Yet another approach to The Shining concentrates on its place in Kubrick's oeuvre. Nelson's "Remembrance of Things Forgotten: The Shining" forms the final chapter in Kubrick: Inside a Film Artist's Maze. As such, it suggests ways in which the film culminates much that had gone on before in Kubrick's work. Nelson carefully details themes, images, cinematic details of set, characterization, casting, and editing--all pointing to Kubrick's control over the final film. Additionally, Nelson casts back to suggest references throughout The Shining to Kubrick's earlier films, including a half-facetious discussion of the number 21 in interpreting Kubrick's maze/puzzle images. "Numerically speaking," he concludes, "The Shining is 2001 in reverse gear."

All of this is to argue that perhaps the best approach to Kubrick's The Shining is to divorce it from connections with Stephen King--not because Kubrick failed to do justice to King's narrative but simply because it has ceased to be King's. While the film's opening panorama effectively sets the mood for both the novel and the film, the first shots of the Torrances suggest how radically Kubrick has in fact departed from King's original. Casting does create serious problems if one insists upon King's Torrances; yet Kubrick's Wendy is appropriately dissociated from romantic love. There is nothing in Duvall's performance to suggest the relationship between King's Wendy and Jack. Instead, she clearly represents an exclusively maternal figure, standing between husband and son as protector for the latter, antagonist to the former. For her to do so alienates the viewer expecting King's Wendy; her stance is, however, critical to Kubrick's.

Similarly, Nicholson's performance remains ambivalent. He is not King's Jack Torrance. King makes is clear that the evil in his novel is centered in the Overlook itself. The manta-shaped shadow that escapes from the shattered window of the Presidential Suite is an external evil that has dominated the hotel; once it escapes, the Overlook becomes merely an empty hull, justifiably destroyed in cleansing flames. Evil has not been defeated, merely displaced; in fact, not until It will King allow a clear and permanent defeat of an evil force.

This sense disappears in Kubrick's film. Nicholson's Jack Torrance in large part replaces the Overlook as focus of evil. From the opening scenes, he is clearly dissociated from his family--and from himself. There is no emotional connection between him Wendy or Danny. His progress in the film details increasing fragmentation and degeneration. Yet in an important way, he stands at the center of the tragedy, displacing Danny in crucial scenes. The film-Danny escapes, not through Hallorann's aid as in the novel, but by luring his own father into the frozen maze and abandoning him--effectively killing his father and rescuing his mother in what may be an oddly Oedipal image. And since the film-Jack has also largely supplanted the Overlook as well, there is no need to destroy the structure; given Kubrick's re-interpretation of the narrative, to do so would be to resort to stereotypic pyrotechnic special effects for a climax. Instead, he literally focuses on Jack Torrance, on the photograph in the empty hotel.

Again and again, Kubrick replaces critical points in the novel, constructing his own narrative that touches only tangentially on King's. The wasps disappear, and along with them Jack's opportunity for conscious image-making; Kubrick's Jack is incapable of such depth of perception. For him, the replacement image of the maze is doubly appropriate--visually as Jack loses himself in the maze-like corridors of the hotel (which he never leaves until the final scene; leaving it means death for Jack), and psychologically in the mazes of his own madness. The roque mallet also disappears, replaced by the more overtly violent axe, which in turn juxtaposes nicely with Nicholson's insane "Here's Johnny!" parody as he breaks into the apartment. Even the animated fire hose--which King notes actually formed the initial image for writing the novel--disappears.

In exchange, Kubrick adds his own imagistic complexity to the film. Mazes appear and recur…in the carpeting, in the intricate angles of corridors and rooms, in the model inside the hotel, in the actual maze outside. In an interesting cut-shot, Jack stares down at the model; as the camera draws nearer and nearer, the viewer discovers Wendy and Danny walking at the center of the maze, and Kubrick has neatly bridged inner and outer, Jack's inability to solve mazes with Wendy and Danny's need for experience outside the hotel.

Similarly, Danny's incessant riding through corridors on his big-wheel not only touches on the maze image but reflects Kubrick's treatment of sound and silence in 2001. As the big-wheel crosses from wooden floor to carpet (usually with an intricate maze-like pattern), the abrasive sound ceases, creating an irregular regularity in sound and silence reminiscent of the astronauts' breathing in the earlier film. And, also reminiscent of 2001, Kubrick consistently frames shots through stark, angular, geometrically precise openings, with organic movement and shape caught within unmoving, artificial regularity.

Throughout the film, at every level from script to casting to set design, Kubrick imbues The Shining with his own personality, his own vision. And his images work. They are not King's, but they do work. To that extent, Kubrick's film does resemble King's novel. Both are eminently "teachable," self-consciously literary/artistic manifestations of theme, imagery, symbolism. Both demonstrate creative talents focused on a single narrative, exploring the possibilities of verbal and visual representation, of novel into film.

Works Cited

Christensen, Dan. "Stephen King: Living in 'Constant Deadly Terror.'" Bloody Best of Fangoria (1982): 30-33.
Crist, Judith. "This Week's Movies." TV Guide (April 30-May 6, 1983): A5-A6.
Keeler, Greg. "The Shining: Ted Kramer Has a Nightmare." Journal of Popular Film and Television (Winter, 1981): 2-8.
King, Stephen. "Horrors!" TV Guide (October 30-November 5, 1982): 54-58.
--. "Why We Crave Horror Movies." Playboy (January, 1981): 150-154, 237-246.
Macklin, Anthony F. "Understanding Kubrick: The Shining." Journal of Popular Film and Television 9:2 (Summer, 1981): 93-95.
Nelson, Thomas Allen. Kubrick: Inside a Film Artist's Maze. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1982
Perakos, Peter S. "Stephen King on Carrie, The Shining, Etc." Cinefantastique 1:8 (Winter, 1978): 12-15.
Schow, David J. "Return of the Curse of the Son of Mr. King: Book Two." Whispers No. 17/18 (August, 1982): 49-56.
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