Successful writers have often featured prominently in the work of Stephen King – the published novelists Ben Mears in ‘Salem’s Lot and Bill Denbrough of It, the poet James Gardener of The Tommyknockers, and closest to his own experience, Thad Beaumont of The Dark Half whose story was a reflection of the outing of King’s pseudonym Richard Bachman, and Jack Torrance, a former teacher attempting to establish himself as writer with a wife and young son to support, but unlike King who found success with Carrie and ‘Salem’s Lot, Torrance’s career floundered when he accepted the job of the winter caretaker at the Overlook Hotel.
Like Jack, Wendy and Danny Torrance, the King family, Stephen, Tabitha and their children Naomi and Joseph, spent time in in a near deserted hotel in Boulder, Colorado, where The Shining is set, and Joe, to whom the novel is dedicated, would have been less than five years old when it was written, slightly younger than Danny. Also like Jack Torrance, following the death of his mother, Nellie King, in 1974, King has confirmed that he drank heavily in his early years of writing.
Released in the summer of 1980, Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of The Shining made use of the stunning location of the Timberline Lodge in Oregon for the establishing shots of the Overlook, though all interior shooting took place on a cavernous enclosed set on a par with the elaborate Discovery sets for2001 A Space Odyssey, making pioneering use of the new Steadicam system, and the majority of the exterior shots made use of a full scare recreation of the hotel in Elstree Studios. Despite the scale of the production, the principal cast was small – Jack Nicholson as Jack, Shelley Duvall as Wendy, Scatman Crothers as the head chef Dick Hallorann and Danny Torrance as Danny, aged six at the time of filming.
The plot is well known and linear; during winter the passage to the hotel is blocked by deep snow, so the Torrances will be isolated, Jack tending the hotel during the day and writing at night. They are warned of a previous tragedy, when the caretaker Grady killed his daughters, his wife and himself, but Jack is enthusiastic regardless, seeking solitude to work on his novel. His son, however, begins to experience manifestations, seeing blood washing down the corridors and two girls in matching dresses, and soon Jack begins to see visions surrounding the main function suite, the Gold Room, and the supposedly locked room 237.
Kubrick was notorious for demanding perfection, and while technically the film is stunning, from the sweeping helicopters shots of the opening passages, the opening titles in the form of an end credit scroll rather than the more typical flashcards as though the story about to be told is the appendix to another tale, the characters themselves are stilted, dehumanised, filmed in a frozen documentary style, repeated takes draining them of life and energy. Kubricks’ focus on technical aspects of film led him to concentrate on diction of dialogue rather than nuance or strong emotion, preferring that the words should be clear and unambiguous to the microphone.
The victim of the film in every sense, Duvall’s Wendy, throughout in shapeless and unflattering hausfrau couture, is worst affected by this decision, for example in the scene where she discusses her son with the doctor following his seizure. Filmed as a talking head delivering her lines to an offscreen questioner almost as though she is running a line check with a production assistant, the editing emphasises the pauses as she waits for her cues before speaking, making her delivery seem vicarious, her character weak and distant.
An actor usually without subtlety or grace, Jack Nicholson becomes typically unhinged as the film progresses, tortured by the presences within the hotel, but special praise goes to both Crothers and Lloyd, whose performances are warm and honest from the outset, Lloyd’s performance particularly astonishing for its strength considering his age and inexperience at the time of filming. It must have been galling to Kubrick that there are continuity errors in Lloyd’s scenes, eating a sandwich with his mother, then with a chocolate ice cream smile that comes and goes throughout a scene with Hallorann, but child labour laws would have prevented him from reshooting repeatedly in the manner he did with his adult actors. Indeed, Crothers’ best scene is with Lloyd, possibly because it was necessarily filmed as a genuine encounter between the child actor and the veteran entertainer.
The product placement is at times overwhelming – Libby’s, Kellogg’s, Heinz, 7 Up, Maxwell House and Jack Daniels – though in some respects this is in keeping with the style of King’s writing. Although his work emulates the classic works of gothic fiction, those were the principality of aristocracy or at least the wealthy and educated, set in castles and mansions, whereas King’s protagonists were always profoundly suburban, hard working even when their living was through writing, the reality of their situations emphasised by the everyday brands they would use in their lives. In the same way as Ira Levin brought horror to modern town of Stepford or terrorised Rosemary Woodhouse in her upmarket New York apartment, King makes his characters accessible to readers who had no connection with landowners in middle Europe.
It is interesting that a story that is in many ways about the writer’s fear of a blank page owes so much to another work. King is an acknowledged admirer of Shirley Jackson (“who never needed to raise her voice,” as the dedication of Firestarter reads) and the influence of her most famous novel The Haunting of Hill House is seen throughout The Shining, but most specifically when Jack says “I’ve never been this happy or this comfortable,” echoing the words of Eleanor Lance, driven slowly mad by Hill House but unable to leave it, and in the suddenly open door of room 237, akin to the nursery of Hill House where Abigail Crain lived and was left to die.
An interesting addition to the film of The Shining is the maze beyond the hotel, which does not feature in the novel nor The Haunting of Hill House in any way, but was an image used to advertise Robert Wise’s 1963 adaptation, and another reminder is in the Humphrey Searle soundtrack to that film, some passages of which can be heard echoing in The Shining , as can Jerry Goldsmith’s soundtrack to Alien, released the year before. A work of rare menace by Wendy Carlos and Richard Elkind alongside classical works from several composers including György Ligeti, who Kubrick had used for 2001, it remains modern and effective more than thirty years on.
The idea of a haunting on the site of an Indian burial ground has become a default horror idea when nothing better is to hand, most obviously reused in Poltergeist and even spoofed in Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s fourth season episode Pangs, but more recently the first season of American Horror Story has taken much from The Shining both in the idea of ghosts who can physically manifest and affect the real world, who have motivations and manipulate the living towards specific goals whether they are revealed to the audience or not, and also in visual references, from the elaborate location to the simple use of a ball rolling out of nowhere to draw the characters into the realm of darkness. By coincidence, a bouncing rubber ball was also used in a similar manner to great effect by Peter Medak in his underrated film The Changeling with George C Scott and Trish Van Devere, released mere weeks before The Shining.
That there are many other iconic moments is undeniable, from the sweeping Steadicam as it tracks Danny’s tricycle to the lift doors unleashing the inescapable torrent of blood, splashing walls and overturning furniture before engulfing the camera, and finally Nicholson’s assault on the bathroom where his wife is cowering, but these are flashes in a film that is, for the most part, the waiting game that Kubrick loved so much, a focus on the process of getting from location to location and slow fades between shots, the few jump scares infinitely preferable to the current predilection for horror so loaded with artificial scares they become meaningless.
Two key scenes are notable in that almost the whole hotel is explored and known to the audience early in the film, the exceptions being room 237 and the innocuous perfection of its bathroom and the Torrance’s own more modest bathroom, glimpsed but never entered until Wendy barricades herself against her husband’s rampage. Working in synchronicity with the domesticity of King’s horror scenario, Kubrick turned the ubiquity of a hotel, the unconscious, interchangeable background of so many travellers, into a place of horror, with the worst terror lurking in the safest place. Who can now walk down the long corridors of patterned Axminster without thinking of the Overlook and whose steps they might be following?
Little elucidation on the nature of the forces that possess Jack and Danny is given; they are apparent and undeniable but unresolved. Jack’s seems to originate in the hotel, possibly even before it, whereas Danny’s friend Tony has travelled with him for some time. Jack’s is undeniably violent and driven, and while “Tony” is not so malign, nor is it entirely benign or cooperative. The nature of the deeper mystery of the Overlook is only directly addressed by the spectral barman Lloyd – “It’s not a matter that concerns you. At least not at this point” – but remains firmly off the menu.
With its origin as a book and a writer as a central character, it is no surprise that books feature prominently in the background and as props in many scenes, and why when Danny draws comfort from his stuffed toy animals, should it be a surprise in perhaps the most inexplicable moment of the film that others should also enjoy stuffed animals? Kubrick was never a director to give any answers to the question he himself posed, though the final shot of the film, the closeup of the July 4th celebration from 1921, with Jack Torrance, or a manifestation of him, front and centre, seems to add credence to at least part of the claim “You’re the caretaker, you’ve always been the caretaker. I should know. I’ve always been here.” Apparently, like the Hotel California, you can check out, but you can never leave.
The Shining is currently on general release, as is Room 237, a companion documentary that investigates the mysteries of the film.