Stephen King Horror-Thon: The Shining (1980)
Few Stephen King films on this list are so divisive among Stephen King die-hards. While the Stanley Kubrick-directed psychological horror adaptation of Stephen King’s chilling 1977 novel of the same name received acclaim among critics and academic scholars alike since its 1980 release, The Shining deviates greatly from the source material– so much so that Stephen King himself described the film as a poor adaptation.
But analyzed by its own merits (free from decries regarding the countless creative liberties it takes that are inconsistent from the source material), The Shining could easily be considered the sharpest Stephen King horror adaptation every crafted– and one of the best for thorough analysis.
The Shining follows Jack (famously played by Jack Nicholson), a writer/teacher and recovering abusive alcoholic. Jack heads off to an isolated historic hotel in the Colorado Rockies called the Overlook Hotel (which Stephen King based on The Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado), where he’s accepted a position as the hotel’s winter caretaker. Each winter, the hotel becomes snowed-in and shuts down.
With the intentions of using the isolation to help him write, he takes his wife Wendy and son Danny to the hotel– despite warnings that the previous winter caretaker developed cabin fever and chopped his family up with an ax before taking a shotgun to his own head. Also the hotel is built on an old Native American burial ground, giving some scholars reason to interpret the film as a whole as a metaphor for the genocide of Native Americans (source).
A month into their stay at the hotel, the hotel is snowed in by a winter storm– forcing Jack’s family to be totally bound to the inside of the house. Jack is unable to write and slowly loses his sanity, becoming increasingly abrasive and violent towards Wendy and Danny.
The titular “shining” refers to the supernatural abilities possessed by both Danny (who is able to predict the future and also see the violent history of the hotel) as well as the hotel’s cook, Dick (who can communicate telepathically). Due to their abilities, both seem to be the only ones explicitly aware of the evil that floods each room and corridor of the Overlook Hotel.
The Shining is elevated to horror masterpiece status by its performances by Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall (Wendy), and Danny Lloyd (Danny). Kubrick is perhaps best known for methodical film-making process. Some might even call Kubrick’s directing techniques bordering on the abusive. On the set of The Shining, Kubrick and Duvall would frequently argue about her approach to acting as well as the script (which would go through changes so frequently that actors on set would sometimes be forced to learn their lines minutes before shooting scenes).
Stephen King was suffering from alcoholism when he wrote The Shining, which is why the novel seems so personal and at times autobiographical. In Kubrick’s film, Jack is established in the first act as having a dark side– a possibly unavoidable assumption from the audience given Jack Nicholson’s famous performance five years prior in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Jack’s descent into madness is intensified by the chilling symphony score and Nicholson’s increasingly over-the-top, manic takes. By the time the final act rolls around and Jack has lost all semblance of inhibition, audiences are really just holding on for dear life.
Jack: Little pigs, little pigs, let me come in. Not by the hair of your chiny-chin-chin? Well then I’ll huff and I’ll puff, and I’ll blow your house in.
[axes the door]
In 1980, The Shining deviated from many horror film tropes at the time. The film originally premiered in theaters at 146 minutes, which gave the film an exhausting, slow-burning impression on audiences. This might be why initial reactions to the film were so critical of Kubrick’s interpretation of King’s novel, which many describing it as self-indulgent. But early criticisms of The Shining are also some of the same things that horror fans adore about the film now. The slow pacing of The Shining allows for a deeper dive into the Jack’s descent into madness/possession and give a viewers a closer look at the dark corners of the haunted hotel.
Additionally, American audiences at the time expected cohesive stories led by relatable protagonists with clear motivations. Audiences wanted an unambiguous story that tied up every loose end of every subplot. But that wasn’t the sort of film Kubrick wanted to make. Was Jack’s malicious actions in the final act a product of Jack’s internalized sexism, alcoholism, masculine insecurities, and frustration with writer’s block? Or was he predetermined to repeat the hotel’s sinister history the moment he agreed to be its winter caretaker?
Does the film’s final shot panning to a photograph of Jack attending a party 60 years prior at the Overlook hotel confirmation that he has been reincarnated as an earlier hotel employee or was Jack somehow “absorbed” by the hotel?
Like so many of Kubrick’s films, The Shining demands multiple viewings. Each re-watch may not necessarily help to answer any of the film’s lingering questions or alleviate its general lucidness. But really who cares? Clear-cut answers to the Kubrick’s narrative uncertainties would subtract from the brilliance of what might be one the greatest horror antagonist ever constructed– not Jack, but the Overlook Hotel.