- Stanley Kubrick
Perhaps Stanley Kubrick's most celebrated and dissected film today is his mysterious, multi layered and utterly addictive adaptation of Stephen King's hit horror novel The Shining. Telling the tale of ex alcoholic struggling writer Jack Torrance, who, with his wife Wendy and son Danny, takes over as winter caretaker at the remote and imposing Overlook Hotel, the film descends into a disturbing whirlwind of unexplained (and indeed unexplainable) paranormal encounters, visions, apparitions, symbolic family dynamics, grizzly murder and frightening insanity. Kubrick tackles the horror genre to the ground, mercilessly reshapes it and leaves it there lying in blood. Dare we step nearer to take a closer look?
After the deflating reactions to Barry Lyndon, people have noted that Stanley maybe felt he was lagging behind. Younger directors were coming in and blowing the socks off movie goers and he hadn't caused a serious dint since 1971's A Clockwork Orange. He hadn't intended to make a horror film, but he found himself drawn to the idea of making a decent addition to that genre, as he had with science fiction for 2001. Kubrick had seen William Friedkin craft the ultimate horror experience with 1973's The Exorcist, and knew that if he were going to contribute to the well worn genre, it had to be something extra special. Even at this stage, 25 years into his professional movie career, he had tackled and made the ultimate examples of several key movie genres; the war movie, the crime flick, the historical epic, the anarchic comedy, the risqué study of male sexuality, the ultimate space experience, the violent sci-fi black comedy and the period costume drama. No genre, theme or era was off limits for Stanley and he repeatedly redefined his chosen field with each project he took on. And of course, "took on" is a vast understatement when we are talking about the artistic input of a filmmaker of Stanley's magnitude and his level of passion for the project. Kubrick spent years on his films - researching, designing, casting, and then of course filming - and The Shining was no exception. In fact it proved to be one of the most detailed and thoroughly executed movies of his career.
When I asked Anthony Frewin (Kubrick's long time assistant and now representative of his estate) whether Kubrick had ever really wanted to make a horror film before this, or whether every kind of story was an open ended possibility, he replied with what I really already knew. "I don’t think Stanley Kubrick necessarily wanted to make a ‘horror’ film, if, indeed, that is what The Shining is. What appealed to Stanley was story."
Horror or not, what makes The Shining one of the most important films categorised in the horror genre ever made, and possibly the single most seminal masterpiece of its genre? Well, it's largely because Kubrick manages to "de-schlock" the well worn format and make it an admirable artistic art form, an entity in its own parallel reality which fuses dimensions together, never explains itself and remains a cloaked enigma to the viewer. It is the one Kubrick movie with which you could also be describing the man himself. With his take on The Shining, he gave horror a sense of dignity, style and class. It was a film for the mind, not just a piece of run of the mill gory trash. If Nightmare on Elm Street, for all its minor fun, was a cartoon scribble, then The Shining was the work of Michelangelo. Its iconic stature is also down to the sheer entertainment value, the acting, the dialogue, the memorable images, the disturbing multi layers, the aggressive deconstruction of the American family and so much more besides.
There have been books written about Kubrick's take on The Shining, but in this short article I hope to pin point a few factors which have made The Shining a total and utter phenomenon.
It's well documented that Stanley often took years to find the "right" story for his next picture, and it was a highly complex and strange process in itself. He actually had "readers", people employed through his assistant Anthony Frewin who would trawl through books for "Frewin's boss", Kubrick, whose true identity was never revealed to them as they worked their way through stacks of dog eared paperbacks and manuscripts. It was once reported that a stack of horror books made their way right to Kubrick, who could be heard slamming each one against the wall in frustration; until, of course, he got to Stephen King's The Shining. A shame, then, that this story isn't true, even if it is one that many would like to be true, adding to the Kubrick mystique.
Kubrick was asked by trusted interviewer Michel Ciment what drew him to the book. He went into a lengthy answer about the film's supernatural elements and how they don't tie the viewer to believing in the ludicrous. "I've always been interested in ESP and the paranormal. In addition to the scientific experiments which have been conducted suggesting that we are just short of conclusive proof of its existence, I'm sure we've all had the experience of opening a book at the exact page we're looking for, or thinking of a friend a moment before they ring on the telephone. But The Shining didn't originate from any particular desire to do a film about this. The manuscript of the novel was sent to me by John Calley, of Warner Bros. I thought it was one of the most ingenious and exciting stories of the genre I had read. It seemed to strike an extraordinary balance between the psychological and the supernatural in such a way as to lead you to think that the supernatural would eventually be explained by the psychological: "Jack must be imagining these things because he's crazy". This allowed you to suspend your doubt of the supernatural until you were so thoroughly into the story that you could accept it almost without noticing. It's what I found so particularly clever about the way the novel was written. As the supernatural events occurred you searched for an explanation, and the most likely one seemed to be that the strange things that were happening would finally be explained as the products of Jack's imagination. It's not until Grady, the ghost of the former caretaker who axed to death his family, slides open the bolt of the larder door, allowing Jack to escape, that you are left with no other explanation but the supernatural. The novel is by no means a serious literary work, but the plot is for the most part extremely well worked out, and for a film that is often all that really matters."
Sets were built at EMI's Elstree Studios in Borehamwood, while the exterior for the hotel itself was the largest ever seen there. To get the interior look just right, Kubrick sent people out all over the world to photograph rooms in countless hotels, and when gathering the photos together, Kubrick selected the décor and furnishings to fit each room in the Overlook exactly. It sounds obsessive, but again, it's the only reason the film looks so perfect.
"To date it cannot be said with complete conviction that the Steadicam has revolutionized the way films are shot," he wrote. "However, it certainly had a considerable effect on the way The Shining was shot. Many of Kubrick's tremendously convoluted sets were designed with the Steadicam's possibilities in mind and were not, therefore, necessarily provided with either flyaway walls or dolly-smooth floors. One set in particular, the giant Hedge Maze, could not have been photographed as Kubrick intended by any other means. I worked on The Shining in England at the EMI Studios in Borehamwood for the better part of a year. I had daily opportunities to test the Steadicam and my operating against the most meticulous possible requirements as to framing accuracy, the ability to hit marks and precision repeatability. I began the picture with years of Steadicam use behind me and with the assumption that I could do with it whatever anyone could reasonably demand. I realized by the afternoon of the first day's work that here was a whole new ball game, and that the word "reasonable" was not in Kubrick's lexicon."
With sets built, Kubrick now needed to cast his picture. The search for Danny, the little boy of the family, took an age and thousands of boys were seen. In the end, the role went to the brilliant Danny Lloyd, who to everyone's loss didn't carry on acting in motion pictures (he's now a teacher). For Wendy, Kubrick cast Shelley Duvall, with whom he would have more than a little friction with during filming. In truth, he pushed her to breaking point to get the right emotions from her performance. As a result, she suffered a bout of ill health. Whether Kubrick was genuinely irritated by her or was pushing right to the limit in order to get the desired fatigued and worn out effect remains a mystery, but as Duvall says in the Making of The Shining, shot by Stanley's daughter Vivian, it was well worth the upset for the finished result. How Duvall feels now is anyone's guess. She was last seen on Dr Phil's TV show and was clearly suffering from a severe mental illness.
The most vital casting was that of the part of Jack Torrance. Never one for huge star names, Kubrick knew it had to be someone with serious ability and charisma, and if they needed to be well known, they had to have the talent to back it up. Years earlier, after seeing him in Easy Rider, Stanley had contacted Jack for the possibility of playing Napoleon in his ill fated attempt at filming the dictator's life story. Jack did a reading for him, but as the project never came to light, that was the end of that. Stanley though, greatly admired Jack and had kept him in mind for future consideration. When it came to The Shining, he had no one else in mind but him.
"I believe that Jack is one of the best actors in Hollywood, perhaps on a par with the greatest stars of the past like Spencer Tracy and Jimmy Cagney," Kubrick said, after adding that Jack was his first choice for the part of Torrance. "I should think that he is on almost everyone's first-choice list for any role which suits him. His work is always interesting, clearly conceived and has the X-factor, magic. Jack is particularly suited for roles which require intelligence. He is an intelligent and literate man, and these are qualities almost impossible to act. In The Shining, you believe he's a writer, failed or otherwise."
The screenplay was knocked out by Kubrick and Diane Johnson, a novelist of whom Kubrick was something of a fan. It proved to be a great pairing and they got along fine as friends and collaborators. "Diane and I talked a lot about the book and then we made an outline of the scenes we thought should be included in the film," Stanley said, revealing what sounds like a fairly straight forward writing process. "This list of scenes was shuffled and reshuffled until we thought it was right, and then we began to write. We did several drafts of the screenplay, which was subsequently revised at different stages before and during shooting."
It soon became apparent that Kubrick wasn't going to follow the book page by page, and he got rid of a few things for starters, like the moving animal hedges, and added in the maze and various other scenes. The ending of the book has the Overlook explode, while Kubrick chose to have Jack freeze to death in the maze while his family escape. Understandably, King himself has since vocalised his distaste for Kubrick's adaptation. In a recent interview he complained, "The character of Jack Torrance has no arc in that movie. Absolutely no arc at all. When we first see Jack Nicholson, he’s in the office of Mr. Ullman, the manager of the hotel, and you know, then, he’s crazy as a shit house rat. All he does is get crazier. In the book, he’s a guy who’s struggling with his sanity and finally loses it. To me, that’s a tragedy. In the movie, there’s no tragedy because there’s no real change."
He also thought the film was empty and cold, which he said was his greatest regret, as he feels his books are warm and very inclusive with the reader. But he found The Shining on screen to be depressing, with no resolve or true meaning. "I think The Shining is a beautiful film and it looks terrific and as I’ve said before, it’s like a big, beautiful Cadillac with no engine inside it," he later remarked. "In that sense, when it opened, a lot of the reviews weren’t very favourable and I was one of those reviewers. I kept my mouth shut at the time, but I didn’t care for it much,"
One of King's major concerns was how Kubrick changed Wendy's character. In the book she is strong, much stronger than Jack Torrance in fact, while in the movie, Shelley Duvall portrays her, perhaps against her own will, as a quivering wreck, put down by her abusive husband who she clearly loves more than he loves her. I believe that because Wendy begins the film so weak and slightly pathetic in the face of Jack's bullying temperament, it makes her resistance in the closing chapters, and her subsequent survival, all the more powerful. But then I didn't write the book. I love King's book, and find it thrilling in its own way, but Kubrick didn't so much adapt it to the screen, but re-imagined, reinterpreted and reinvented it. In the book, the hotel holds the true evil, it's haunted beyond comprehension and Jack, the weak ex drunk failing to stay clean and stable, is dragged down by the horrors of the Overlook. In the film, it's clear that Jack doesn't have all that far to go before hand anyway, and the darkness of the building itself merely absorbs his malevolent evil. Two very different tales, with drastically different messages behind them. Like A Clockwork Orange, it's the contrast between personal choice and inevitability.
I must have seen The Shining over a hundred times now, although I have no real way of knowing the exact figure. Yes, that sounds unhealthy and slightly obsessive (in truth it makes me sound like one of the voices on the charming Shining documentary 237), but this is from the age of 14 or so and in varied forms of viewing. I went through a phase of watching it every week, or at least having it on in the background, and found myself strangely eased and comforted by its atmosphere. Like David Lynch's Eraserhead (a film Stanley screened to the crew during production to signify the vibe he was looking for), it has a menacing air that is also soothing, consistent and smooth. Though disturbing and scary, The Shining is also a film you can enjoy as pure entertainment alone; its iconic scenes, quotable dialogue and powerful imagery make it one of the most enjoyable films of the past fifty years. Though a horror film, it need not be defined as such. It is, essentially, a warning about the dangers of the human mind, with very dark humour, charismatic performances and some of the most unforgettable moments in movie history to boot.
The film has so many layers to it that there have been vast volumes dedicated to it, namely the essential and now very collectable Studies in Horror: Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, which features interviews with just about everyone involved in the film and a host of essays dissecting every facet, theme and underlying subtext in the film. Indeed, The Shining seems to have sparked off a whole obsessive sub culture of its own, with tribute websites, theories and documentaries dedicated to its supposed hidden messages and meanings. The plain bonkers but also very watchable documentary Room 237 takes a look at these secret messages and each theory is narrated by a different fan/interpreter of the film. Is it about the Holocaust? Is it about the plight of the American Indians? Are there subtle confessions from Kubrick that he did indeed fake the Apollo 11 moon landings? Can you see his face in the clouds at the start of the film? According to Room 237, the answer to all these questions, and more, is a resounding yes. The truth is, of course, that none of this stuff is true, but it certainly is very entertaining to listen to. The bottom line is that all this obsession is actually harmless. It enhances the myth of an already mythical film and makes Stanley Kubrick even more of a legendary figure. It's also a fitting tribute to the power of The Shining, a film crammed full of wacky ideas, morbid complexities, heavyweight metaphors, and frightening mystery.
It's amazing to think that The Shining, a film now so cemented into film legend, actually received a mixed reception at the time of its release. As is the case with all of Kubrick's work though, first and second viewings are but a drop in the ocean in fully understanding the film in question. Over time, The Shining would gain popularity, slowly climbing the ranks as his most adored and well known picture.
In their review at the time, New York Times were one of the underwhelmed voices, who praised Jack's "devilishly funny" performance, but seemed uncommitted to anything else. The segment reading, "The Shining begins to show traces of sensationalism, and the effects don't necessarily pay off. The film's climactic chase virtually fizzles out before it reaches a resolution," best illustrates their lack of excitement for the movie.
Variety seemed to hate everything about the film, savagely writing, "With everything to work with, director Stanley Kubrick has teamed with jumpy Jack Nicholson to destroy all that was so terrifying about Stephen King’s bestseller. In his book, King took a fundamental horror formula – an innocent family marooned in an evil dwelling with a grim history – and built layers of ingenious terror upon it. The father is gradually possessed by the demonic, desolate hotel. With dad going mad, the only protection mother and child have is the boy’s clairvoyance – his ‘shining’ – which allows him an innocent understanding and some ability to outmanoeuvre the devils. But Kubrick sees things his own way, throwing 90% of King’s creation out. The crazier Nicholson gets, the more idiotic he looks. Shelley Duvall transforms the warm sympathetic wife of the book into a simpering, semi-retarded hysteric."
By the decade's end however there was something of a turnaround in the film's appreciation, which seems to be rocketing more and more with each passing year. It's now taken on a life of its own, and like A Clockwork Orange, has become a mythical piece separate from the rest of Kubrick's illustrious filmography.
The appeal lies in the mystery, the fact that so little is truly explained and defined. Modern film is all too blatant, and the intentions and meanings are as clear as day, revealed to us by the filmmakers during the duration of the picture. Kubrick - in all his films but especially with The Shining - invited us to make up our own minds, come forth with theories and ideas. He also encouraged repeated viewings, where each sitting revealed a new layer, a new level of potentially decipherable puzzles. There's a dark, unexplained void in the centre of The Shining and it's there for us all to fill in our own way. Are there ghosts in the Overlook, or is everything stirred and brewed up by the power of the human mind, the darkest machine of all? A firm belief in the afterlife is not essential in taking away satisfaction from The Shining, and unlike modern schlock horror films like Paranormal Activity and such, the viewer is not told what to see, believe and feel. The surrealist in all of us can delight in the visions throughout The Shining, and the philosopher in us can ponder, theorise and dissect until the cows come home. For a director to leave their film so open is rare these days, but with The Shining, Kubrick invited us all along for the ride, despite what King might have said about its apparent coldness.
This article also features in Chris Wade's book
STANLEY KUBRICK ON SCREEN...