Stephen King movies revisited: looking back at The Shining

Our lookbacks at the screen adaptations of Stephen King arrive at the door of The Shining...

This article contains spoilers for The Shining.

The film: Well, you likely know. Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) is a writer in need of a job and so he takes the opportunity to spend the winter at Colorado’s Overlook Hotel, up in the mountains. With him is his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and his son Danny (Danny Lloyd). Danny has an imaginary friend named Tony who warns him that heading to the Overlook is a really bad idea. When there, Danny talks with the cook, Dick Halloran (Scatman Crothers) and the pair reveal that they can communicate telepathically, something which Dick calls ‘shining’. Soon, the family are left on their own for the winter and the malevolent forces begin to take hold of Jack, threatening the lives of Wendy and Danny.

Like Brian De Palma’s Carrie, Stanley Kubrick and Diane Johnson’s adaptation of King’s 1977 novel, The Shining, has entered into the canon of horror classics. There’s a rich iconography to the film that is instantly recognisable – from the blood cascading out of the elevator and the Grady twins in their hallway to that “Here’s Johnny” moment. It has become one of those films that is more than a single entity, giving rise to conspiracy theories, multiple subtextual readings, and a near-legendary status in cinema.

Kubrick’s film is, famously, one of King’s least favourite adaptations of his work and, though the author’s comments remain somewhat contradictory on this topic, he has been vocal over the years of his disgruntlement towards Kubrick’s film. It is understandable why King would be more than a little peeved with Kubrick’s much nastier, less hopeful rendition of the demise of Jack Torrance, but one cannot deny that to watch this film is to see a master at work.

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The Shining is often cited as one of the scariest films of all time, something with which I would agree. Kubrick doesn’t rely on cheap tactics or smoke and mirrors to frighten his audience, instead creating a world that feels at once both intricately designed and terrifyingly raw. It is a two-pronged attack designed to subtly unnerve you before unleashing itself in an assault on your senses. The location of the Overlook is a handy example of this; the managed aesthetic of the hotel building both complements and contrasts the jagged mountain range in which it is placed, while the suggestion that it is built on Native American burial lands represents the underlying horror at work here.

Kubrick presents us with many swooping and expansive shots through the landscape to emphasise its isolation, particularly in the journeys taken first by Jack on his own and then his family later: their little yellow Beetle a vulnerable bright spot in a dangerous setting. That vastness in itself feels overwhelming, an awe-inspiring, sublime moment that is returned to throughout the film, whether it is showing the massive snowdrifts trapping the family inside the building or the wider isolation of the mountains that the family must contend with.

Kubrick’s framing of the narrative within the walls of the Overlook continues this sense of distance. While King takes you right into the heart and minds of the family, Kubrick operates instead as a puppet master, manipulating both his audience and his characters and moving them across the chessboard that is the Overlook Hotel. There’s always a certain emotional distance at play; we’re not feeling the breakdown as we do in King’s novel, but observing it. The horror in both is that there is nothing we can do but watch.

When we see Danny and Wendy move through the hotel, it is from behind, following them rather than walking alongside them through their narratives. One of the film’s most beautiful shots is overlooking the hedge maze as Danny and Wendy lose themselves in it, depicting not only their near-impossible situation, but also their separation from Jack, looking over the hedge model on the hotel itself. Elsewhere, we often see Jack in close-up, emphasising both his physical and mental decay throughout the film. It furthers that sense that Kubrick is almost taunting us with that emotional distance as well as suggesting the forces at play that are beyond both our understanding and that of the Torrance family.

In keeping with that cold and distant feel, Kubrick also offers a much harsher judgement of Jack Torrance. King’s version of the patriarch is someone who is trying to get better for his family, but can’t quite make it stick. The Overlook takes advantage of this, but it is Jack who wins in the end, unable to kill Danny and thus achieving some kind of redemption.

Kubrick gives Jack no such chance. From the start, there is always something slightly off-kilter about him and his interactions with his family. The first signs of his irritation with Wendy are in the car on the way to the hotel, continuing with when she brings him breakfast in bed. When he finally succumbs to the violence teased out by the Overlook, he dies trying to kill Danny, an ending considerably less hopeful than its literary counterpart.

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The sound design, in particular, feels like an assault, especially for the high-pitched note that accompanies instances of Danny’s shining. It sets your teeth on edge, even before any visions of bloody hallways take over. Think too of the tracking sequence in which we follow Danny through the halls on his tricycle, loudly rolling over the wooden floors before sudden near silence over the rugs. The veering between the two extremes is unsettling, producing an almost dizzying effect as the boy whizzes past the looming walls of the hotel. Wendy Carlos’ score takes a similar approach, designed to unsettle and give even the most banal of scenes a disturbing undertone.

It is easy to understand why The Shining has captured so many imaginations since its release in 1980, be it the minds of the conspiracy theorists, the horror nuts or those who revel in Kubrick’s kind of meticulous filmmaking. The film remains a deeply unsettling work and the kind of experience that burrows into the psyche; not only does it chill you in the viewing of it, but afterwards too, rearing up in nightmares (in my case, at least).

Scariest moment: Danny gets creative with his mum’s lipstick as Tony utters the dire warning of “REDRUM! REDRUM!”

Musicality: Alongside the score, the director trademark of non-original music is also used, selected by Kubrick and worked into the film by sound editor Gordon Stainforth, is a combination of classical and contemporary composers. The fragmented use of works by Gyorgy Ligeti, Bela Bartok and the jazz stylings of Al Bowlly add beautifully to the film’s unique and eerie soundscape.

A King thing: The breakdown of a family caused by something supernatural. Domesticity is never bliss for long when King is around.

• You can read all our revisits of Stephen King movies here.

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