I need to stop writing things after 10 PM. My brain stops working at 10 PM. I don’t know what I’m talking about anymore.
And also, I’m writing about The Shining. I assume that either a) you’ve seen it or b) you know the basic plot. I’m not so much worrying here about spoilers or plot summaries.
Or sense apparently. Hopefully I talked at least some of that.
The Shining – USA, 1980. Dir. Stanley Kubrick. Starring Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, and Danny Lloyd.
Did you believe me when I said there would be more Stephen King? Because you should have. There’s always more Stephen King.
I’m writing today of course about Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining. I have an interesting relationship with The Shining both as a book and as a movie. As a book, The Shining was one of the first, and still one of the most terrifying, adult horror books I ever read. I wrote a bit about that the other day when I posted my entry on The Pit and The Pendulum. The film I watched later, after I had already discovered Kubrick through 2001: A Space Odyssey and Dr. Strangelove. Approaching the movie then I knew both the story and the storyteller. To an extent I knew what I was getting into: a scary story that would be told through a well crafted film.
I love this movie and I feel like I really get something different out of it every time I watch it. For example, as good as I always thought Shelley Duvall’s performance is in this movie, it was really only during this last viewing that I came to appreciate how truly excellent her performance is. While the book has remained for me what it always was, a paperback horror story read under the sheets late at night, the movie has twisted and transformed and become something entirely new almost every time I’ve watched it.
At first it was a horror movie different from but still based on a book. In 1997 when the made for TV miniseries premiered, Kubrick’s version was distanced from the novel. It was now Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining whereas this new miniseries starring Steven Weber was Stephen King’s The Shining. The authorship was reassigned, the 1980 movie wasn’t really Stephen King’s story anymore, it was Stanley Kubrick’s. I came to acknowledge what I really already knew, that as much as I loved Kubrick’s film it really wasn’t a very good adaptation of King’s novel. And King knows it.
Maybe that’s not an entirely accurate way to put it but it’s the simplest. Kubrick takes King’s ghost story and uses it to tell the story of a different sort of haunting. Rather than the story being about a haunted hotel, it’s more about a haunted man. There are ghosts sure but they’re not really the trouble here. Jack Torrance’s struggle in the film is not with the external forces, they are with his inner demons.
Earlier this month TCM premiered a special A Night at the Movies: The Horrors of Stephen King. In it King talks about a number of his favorite horror films, his influences, and the adaptations of his work. When it comes time for him to talk about The Shining he says “I have a real problem with The Shining” and then goes on to describe his feelings which are more or less what I’ve said above. The difference between the two can be summed up simply by looking at the difference in their endings: in the book, Jack burns; in the novel, he freezes. Pick your hell.
Still I think it’s possible to love them both for what they are (unless maybe you’re Stephen King). While Kubrick’s movie may not be a great adaptation, it is still a great film. They each do something different but in the end they both accomplish what they’ve set out to accomplish. They are both terrifying.
This post isn’t about the book though so I will leave that discussion for another day. Tonight I really just want to talk about Kubrick’s movie.
This isn’t the first time I’ve written about The Shining although it is the first time I’ve written about it for this site. Actually, I spent quite a bit of time with The Shining around the same time I was obsessing over May. For one of the same classes. In my defense, while May was entirely of my own choosing, my papers focusing on The Shining went along with Fredrick Jameson’s piece Historicism in The Shining which, I might add, my professor assigned to us. So it wasn’t my fault I spent so much time writing about horror movies. Right?
Jameson’s piece is probably much more than you may be interested in reading, it’s all academia and cultural theory, post-modernism, pastiche, and nostalgia. Jameson is using the text of the film to get at a wider cultural shift that was happening in the late 70’s to early 80’s. America had changed, was changing still, from post-WWII to the hippies and free love, Vietnam to the rise of consumerism, America was in the midst of a significant change. Soon we’d be facing Reaganism and everything that came after, for better or worse, from the end of the Cold War to everything that has led to where we are today.
Like many horror films, The Shining reflects the anxieties of the time. Kubrick’s Jack is not King’s Jack. King’s Jack Torrance was something of a reflection of the author himself. That Jack was a moderately successful writer and an alcoholic, much like the Stephen King who wrote The Shining. Kubrick’s Jack is different, Kubrick’s Jack is an alcoholic, yes, but that’s where the similarity ends. The Jack Torrance of the movie is a failed teacher with a romanticized notion of what a writer should be, he is not actually a writer himself. Movie Jack is coping with his failures, his failure in society, his failure as a father, and he is making one last desperate attempt to avoid the final failure, as husband and provider. The job at the Overlook gives him a tenuous hold on his position as Man of the House and even a chance to redeem himself. If he can become a Writer, then his past failures no longer matter. He will no longer be an alcoholic, that sad, pathetic creature. Instead his drinking will be a result of his artistic nature, it will signify not sickness but sensitivity.
This of course does not happen. It wouldn’t be a horror film if things were that easy. Jack is for all his pretensions not really a writer. It is not redemption that he seeks, it’s validation. He yearns for a sense of stability and returned power. As his failure to cope with his situation and his family solidifies, he retreats to his former crutch, the bottle. The Overlook soon has him in its thrall and Jack finds himself there willingly. He longs to be a part of the vision that the Overlook presents to him, the glamour and perceived freedom and ease of the 20’s. It was the golden era of the hotel and of the vision of the American writer who Jack wishes he was; it is the time of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, Pound and Stein. Jack longs to be a part of that world. He longs to be a part of a world that no longer exists and never really existed in the way he imagines to begin with.
The horror that Jack faces then is not the horror of the haunted hotel, that is for Danny and Wendy. The horror for Jack is bigger, it is immense. What he faces is an existential emptiness. Whether or not he ever could have been a writer in a different time or place, in this time and place there is no hope for him. His is completely isolated, in the physical sense as he and his family are snowed in for winter, in the cultural sense as the culture itself has become devoid of substance, in the historical sense as his world has become detached from the past it has left behind. In this historical moment, Jack is completely lacking any sense of identity or connection to his family and to a larger community and society as a whole. His horror comes from his inability to write and his inability to write comes from the emptiness of his soul.
Kubrick presents us with all of the tricks of the horror genre: the ominous premonitions, the suffocating score, the shocks, and the violence. Yet all of these elements are as detached from each other as Jack is detached from a sense of community. We look for cues that will let us know when to expect and they certainly do begin to emerge. Sounds cue Danny’s psychic episodes, mirrors indicate the moments of Jack’s madness as well as his encounters with the Overlook’s ghosts. Visual motifs are repeated, such as Danny shot from above, the center piece in some sort of geometric pattern. Yet all of these thing occur so deliberately that they feel like separate pieces never really coming together in any sort of coherent way. I don’t say this as a bad thing, it’s disconcerting.
There is an unsettling disconnect from the very beginning as the film opens with the soaring camera over the picturesque landscape juxtaposed with the heavy, synthesized notes of the horn. As we absorb this, we are presented with this monstrous difference in scale. First in these opening shots as the tiny car navigates the mountain roads, then as Kubrick cuts between Jack in the vast lobby of the Overlook to Wendy in their modest Boulder apartment. They are all so small in the face of something so massive. In the halls of the hotel, in the center of the maze, in the midst of the snow storm, again and again we are reminded of their insignificance. Even if they ever manage to escape, what is it they hope to escape to?
The Shining is such a successful horror film not just because it includes all of the required jumps and scares of the genre. It works so well because it gets at the insecurities and anxieties we all face in our daily lives. Kubrick is able to take a story that amounts to not much more than a ghost story, a writer beating out some demons, and turn it into a manifestation of the collective unease of a society lost in the present and longing for the past.
Whether or not this nostalgia is a positive… well, the film doesn’t end with Wendy and Danny, we do not dwell triumphantly on their escape. Instead, in the end Kubrick leaves us with the frozen, sneering face of Jack. The final image of Jack in the maze is horrific in and of itself. Wendy and Danny may possibly escape into the future. Kubrick however chooses to leave us stranded with the ghosts in the past.