Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is one of the most famous horror films out there, adapted from Stephen King’s The Shining (1977). The classic horror book blends supernatural thrills with psychological terror (and a hotel).
Kubrick had a tough job on his hands to do justice to the book.
But the film is thought of as a classic, so most would say he was up to the task. Now, over 40 years after its release, let’s get our shine on and see if it lives up to its legendary status.
Kubrick’s The Shining Delves Into True Psychological Horror
Back around 2000, when as teenagers we were watching as many classic movies as possible, we got to The Shining. On VHS, we watched the thing once—we remarked on our review of the King novel we weren’t bowled over by it.
Over 20 years later, we watched it again. Then again the next night. It’s fair to say we were rather impressed indeed this time out.
Kubrick gradually ramps up the intensity to the point of lunacy, with a magnificent closing section to The Shining.
The film is so intricately layered with minor details.
From the clothes the characters wear, Nicholson’s odd mannerisms, to the way the soundtrack blends diegetic and non-diegetic sound. It’s all rather unnerving and has created a 1,000 fan theories, ranging from Wendy being a schizophrenic who imagines everything to the film being an admission by Kubrick he faked the Moon landings.
The Shining’s plot closely follows King’s novel, with the Torrance family taking a caretaker job to look after the remote Overlook Hotel during its winter season.
For Jack Torrance, a writer, the solitude affords an opportunity to complete his latest work.
Whilst there, Jack (Jack Nicholson) starts losing his mind as the hotel’s supernatural powers twist his mental state. Meanwhile, his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and son Danny (Danny Lloyd) must deal with the consequences—the latter is prone to supernatural bursts of psychic powers.
And all whilst the hotel seems to take on a bizarre life of its own, with ghostly apparitions emerging from previously empty rooms with a malicious, otherworldly plan.
As with King’s novel, it’s a slow burner. And on first viewing you may wonder what Kubrick and Jack Nicholson were doing, as the latter blends his charismatic Nicholsonisms into the performance.
But then stuff like this starts to happen, where the Hollywood star plays against type. Looking around online, this appears to be many a fan’s favourite scene from The Shining (and, yes, the below clip is a bit out of sync—it isn’t your computer’s fault).
Note the way the soundtrack tos-and-fros with the back and forth conversation between father and son.
The music of Hungarian composer Béla Bartók (1881-1945) is at work throughout The Shining, notable in the scene above.
Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta, Sz. 106 (1936) is the piece.
It’s an example of how mediums can work with each other to make each other iconic, as Kubrick’s use of Bartók’s work ensures that piece now has a timeless quality.
Some of the soundtrack for the film was composed by Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind. But Kubrick threw out a lot of their new compositions in favour of Bartók. The director then left music editor Gordon Stainforth to match the passages of music alongside the scenes.
Kubrick also researched popular foxtrot songs from the early 20th century, such as Midnight, the Stars and You, to add in for The Shining’s famous bar scenes.
The first one, minus music, is where Jack Torrance and barman Lloyd (Joe Turkel) exchange a curious conversation in what’s supposed to be an empty hotel.
Away from all the supernatural stuff, as with the book, the story is a disturbing take on domestic abuse. Something that, so very sadly, remains a major issue in society.
You can see elements of this psychological terror in the 1990 adaptation of King’s Misery, which ramps up the sense of claustrophobia all over again.
But in The Shining, Nicholson’s shifting in character is very notable, as he moves from trying to keep his doting husband sensibility together. But the hotel’s enigmatic power is twisting him from mild-mannered writer into a monster.
It’s fair to say Jack Torrance then loses his mind and goes on a rampage, as instructed by the nefarious ghostly apparitions in the Overlook.
Which leads to the famous axe/door scenes, which Nicholson was well prepared for—before his acting career, he worked for the fire service. But these were very real doors he had to smash his way through.
These scenes will be particular distressing for anyone who’s had to deal with this type of thing in life. But it’s terrifying enough as it is without that—a loved one, supposed to be looking after you, turning into a lunatic.
Cripes, you can’t help but feel bad for Danny and Wendy. The latter who was just looking forward to a fun family retreat in a beautiful hotel.
If you’ve seen the film, and spoiler alerts here, Jack Torrance is later tricked by his son in the hotel’s icy maze complex. And he freezes to death, with the hotel seemingly morphing him into its very being.
Danny and Wendy do escape. King’s 2013 sequel, Doctor Sleep, advances on from their story there. With adult Danny looking for closure on the whole thing.
But the ending to Kubrick’s The Shining is so paranormal and surreal it’s what drives on the many, many fan theories. And fans really do obsess about the film wildly.
As we cover below, the film has its critics. Some see it as flawed, others think it’s a total masterpiece. We’re leaning towards the latter.
With its excellent performances and unnerving grace, it’s something you should watch alone at night so you can come out the other side determined never to rent a hotel room ever again*.
*Fan theory: Perhaps that was Kubrick’s goal all along, as remonstration for hotel room costs when on a production shoot. Think about it. Makes total sense!
The Production of The Shining
Yes, as we mentioned above, The Shining wasn’t much of a critical or commercial success in 1980. Off its $19 million budget it recouped a disappointing $47.3 million.
Critics didn’t really get the film, with mixed reviews from the likes of The New York Times and Variety. It was even nominated for two Razzie Awards (the ceremony for the year’s worst films), with Kubrick for Worst Director and Shelley Duvall for Worst Actress.
Duvall’s nomination was retracted in March 2022.
The negative reaction wasn’t helped in 1980 as Stephen King didn’t like the film and criticised it openly, unhappy with its deviations from his novel.
However, in subsequent decades The Shining has had a total reappraisal. It was ranked the 75th best film in a 2012 Sight & Sound directors’ poll. And modern film critics seem to view it as a cinematic masterpiece.
As for the production, Kubrick intended Jack Nicholson for the role right from the start. Had he been busy, other options were Robert De Niro, Robin Williams, and Harrison Ford. Stephen King wasn’t happy with any of these and, specifically, disavowed Nicholson.
This was due to the actor’s, then recent, performance in 1975’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. King felt it’d be obvious what was going to happen if Nicholson was there.
However, King was told the situation was non-negotiable.
For Wendy, Jessica Lange was suggested by Nicholson. But Shelley Duvall was cast early on for the role, with significant differences from the book. She’s much more capable in King’s work than the film adaptation.
Kubrick was famously intense as a director and often demanded 100s of takes per scene, which drove Duvall half mad during production.
It was so bad her hair began falling out due to stress.
For the role of the young boy Danny Torrance, this advertisement was put out across US newspapers.
Due to the horrific nature of the film, the first choice (Cary Guffey from Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind—1977) dropped out at the behest of his parents.
In the end, Kubrick sent a team out for an interview pool of 5,000 boys in Denver, Chicago, and Cincinnati. Out of that came Danny Lloyd. Kubrick took great steps to prevent any emotional trauma, with the child told he was shooting a standard drama movie.
Lloyd is now 50 and decided against an acting career.
Of the location, The Shining’s famous intro sequence was filmed at Saint Mary Lake. It’s the second largest lake in Glacier National Park of Montana.
Various sets were used for the hotel, with the Timberline Lodge in Oregon used for the exterior shots.
This led to a bit of a gaff from the meticulous Kubrick, as you can see there’s no hedge maze behind the hotel, which is so prevalent in the film’s famous closing sequence.
Interior shots of the hotel were built, and filmed, at EMI Elstree Studios in Hertfordshire, England. With these designs based on the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite National Park, California.
King didn’t have much to do with any of this, which is perhaps why he was so put out by it. So much so he eventually wrote a belated sequel, which was turned into a 2019 film (we’ll review that soon enough).
To note, he did have more of a say in a 1997 three-episode mini-series called Stephen King’s The Shining. The writer is much happier with this TV version than what Kubrick did, despite the show being pretty hammy, not scary, and a bit on the crap side of things.
Despite that, it was acclaimed at the time by critics. It won two Primetime Emmy awards and two Saturn Awards. We’ve watched the episodes. Subjectivity and all that, but it’s rubbish.
And yet Kubrick’s offering was lambasted in 1980… weird how it works, isn’t it?
One could say it’s almost…