Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s haunted hotel story The Shining is a classic horror movie in spite of the director’s intent. The author is on record as saying he was more than merely disappointed in the liberties the filmmaker made. One of those variants was perpetuated to avoid a cinematic cliché, the ending. Jan Harlan, who executive produced the film, and novelist Diane Johnson, who wrote the screenplay with Kubrick, gave up the ghost about some of the different original endings that Kubrick considered for The Shining.
King’s novel ends with Jack Torrance, played by Jack Nicholson in the film, trapped inside the Overlook Hotel as it was devoured by flames. His wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall in the film), his psychic son Danny (Danny Lloyd in the film), and the psychic Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers in the film) all survive the night. In the 1980 movie Jack whacks Dick with an axe and freezes to death in the Overlook Hotel’s wooded labyrinth. The hotel is left standing.
“The ending was changed almost entirely because Kubrick found it a cliché to just blow everything up,” Diane Johnson told Entertainment Weekly. “He thought there might be something else that would be metaphorically and visually more interesting.”
“Danny’s relationship with his father was the thing that most interested Kubrick,” Jan Harlan told EW. “He was emotionally involved with the point of view of a little boy who is afraid of his father. I remember Kubrick saying that visually he could imagine a small yellow chalk outline on the floor like that they put around the bodies of victims. And Kubrick liked that image. But he was too tender-hearted for that ending and thought it would be too terrible to do.”
Johnson explained that there were versions of the screenplay where Wendy killed Jack in self-defense, and where Jack killed Danny.
“In the book, nobody gets killed except Jack,” Johnson told EW. “And Kubrick really thought somebody should get killed — because it was a horror movie. So we weighed the dramatic possibilities of killing off various characters and did different treatments. We actually talked it over in detail the possibility of having different people getting killed.”
In spite of the slaughter of innocent victims, the director didn’t want to leave audiences on a cute and cuddly note.
“The maze chase grew out of the topiary animal hedges that move around in the book,” said Johnson. “Kubrick thought topiary animals might be too goofy and cute, but he always liked the idea of a maze. Kubrick didn’t want it to be too gory, he thought a lot of blood was vulgar. He wanted it to be mostly psychological. Of course, there’s the image of the blood coming out of the elevators, but that was more ornamental and metaphorical. So there was some discussion about trying to find a way of ending it without a lot of blood.”
Kubrick didn’t necessarily envision the movie as a genre picture.
“Stanley was fundamentally not interested in a horror film,” said Harlan. “He doesn’t believe in ghosts. When the book was offered to him by Warner Bros., he said, ‘Well, all right, it might be challenging to do this, but I must have the freedom to change whatever I like.’ Stephen King was perfectly happy with that [at the time], it’s obviously a prerequisite to making a film. And Stanley certainly changed it drastically.”
One of the treatments saw Hallorann get possessed by the Overlook Hotel as in a different twisted ending.
“We always had the powers of the hotel in mind,” Johnson said. “So the hotel would have been warping Hallorann’s mind for quite a long time. It was an attractive idea that Hallorran is good [throughout the film] then he gets there and is possessed by the hotel into a monster surrogate for Jack.”
Johnson and Harlan told EW about the deleted and destroyed hospital scene which spiked the ball and confused audiences at early screenings in New York and Los Angeles.
“The tennis ball is the same thing as the photograph — it’s unexplainable,” said Harlan. “It makes Ullman now another ghost element. Was he the ghost from the very beginning? The film is complex enough because nothing is explained. That non-explaining is what was bad for the film initially.”
“The fact they were left puzzled was exactly what Stanley Kubrick wanted. And when the film [screened for critics] and wasn’t well received, Warners quite rightly suggested, ‘It’s enough, just take [the hospital scene] out.’ So Stanley did it. He’s not stubborn, especially since this is a film mainly to entertain people. But Stanley was actually very sad that he misread the audience, that he trusted the audience to live with puzzles and no answers, and that they didn’t like it.”
As to the puzzling coda to the film, the photograph showing a smiling Jack standing at the forefront of a Fourth of July ball in the hotel’s Colorado Lounge in 1921.
“The photograph was always in the ending,” said Johnson.