Stephen King On The Big Screen: Stanley Kubrick’s ‘The Shining’ – by Mark Browning

Far from showing an ignorance of horror, as King asserts, the film shows Kubrick's depth of knowledge of film form and its possibilities.

by Mark Browning

there may be some truth in that idea that houses absorb the emotions that are spent in them, that they hold a kind of …dry charge. Perhaps the right personality, that of an imaginative boy, for instance, could act as a catalyst on that dry charge, and cause it to produce an active manifestation of …of something. I’m not talking about ghosts, precisely. I’m talking about a kind of psychic television in three dimensions. Perhaps even something alive. A monster if you like.
—Ben to Susan in Salem’s Lot1

at the centre of the maze there’s an encounter with one’s self.
—Carol Shields, Larry’s Party2

King has talked about literary archetypes of the haunted house horror sub-genre, such as the so-called Bad Place, usually in the lowest or highest point, i.e. cellars or attics.3 In King’s The Shining, the boiler is a clear symbolic trigger which will explode at some point and in Graveyard Shift and The Mangler it is below the lowest level of the main setting, the mill and the laundry respectively, where the true evil resides. 1408s setting right in the middle of the building seems a conscious decision to move away from such archetypes and designate psychic space by what has gone on in a room. The Shining uses several classic haunted house elements – a large structure, isolated by distance and the elements (in severity and duration) from the nearest human contact. Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) and Mick Garris’ 1997 remake, in partnership with King himself, provide interesting mirror-images of one another. Garris’ version dramatizes a haunted house; Kubrick’s a haunted man. For Garris, the house projects its evil onto the man; for Kubrick, it is the other way round. Kubrick departs from King’s novel and submitted script; Garris’ reinstates excised elements. King’s TV work develops these ideas with the Marsten House in Salem’s Lot, a more objective pursuit of psychic phenomenon in Rose Red and a whole surreal, David Lynch-like apparatus around the Kingdom Hospital series.

Far from showing an ignorance of horror, as King asserts, the film shows Kubrick’s depth of knowledge of film form and its possibilities. It may show a disinterest on Kubrick’s part about audience expectations, something King is far more adept at meeting (in literary terms at least), although it could also be said that individuals like Kubrick, and to a lesser extent, De Palma and Cronenberg, are not seeking to meet audience expectations quite as keenly as other directors. Genre theory places a strong emphasis on the audience and the ways in which they read or ‘consume’ the film but a small number of influential directors, especially by the time they have established themselves in their careers, may care less about meeting those expectations and are willing to accept that a film may find critical acceptance, and a more appreciative audience, over time. In this sense, Carrie, The Dead Zone and The Shining, may be critically received as the next instalment in the sub-genre of De Palma, Cronenberg and Kubrick auteurist statements, i.e. as chapters in an oeuvre.

The film firmly denies us those pleasures that we might expect from a horror film – the pace, like the camera movement, is leisurely, not frenetic; the level of gore is paradoxically restrained and repetitive (in Danny’s vision of the girls in the corridor); dialogue is slow and apparently inconsequential at times; and shots are held longer than we are used to, encouraging (possibly even demanding) that we scan the whole frame for meaning, slowly. We are not given a gothic mansion with dark corners, typical of the ‘evil house on the hill’ subgenre. Kubrick chooses neither an imposing gothic facade for his film or to shoot scenes in shadowy corridors and dimly-lit rooms. The building is clearly an inhabited space (during the non-winter months) and commercially viable as a hotel, not a museum. Even when Halloran returns at night, the rooms are sufficiently well-lit to be able to make out everything clearly. There is some element of a closure in the ending as the mother and child escape but exactly what they have escaped from and how they have managed this, are far from clear. The difficulty even of summarizing the plot suggests that the real horror is achieved by presenting us with a phenomenon which we might describe as impossible and then making no attempt to explain it.

Kubrick is still credited in the Guinness Book of Records with the greatest number of retakes in a scene – 125 for when Wendy climbs the stairs for the final time at the end of the film. Such practices suggest an attempt to capture something not seen before rather than fit the expectations of a genre. Furthermore, is it really likely that a man like Kubrick, known for the time he takes between film projects and who is known for meticulous approach to shooting, would somehow make a mistake with the paper in the type-writer? If a new piece of paper appears in the machine shortly after Jack tore it out, we must assume the director meant it to be there. It is extremely demeaning to Kubrick to assume that such actions are in some way the sign of amateurishness or carelessness. Michel Ciment asserts that The Shining is ‘most subservient to the laws of genre’ but actually Kubrick systematically undermines horror tropes in The Shining to show the failure of cinematic forms of representation in conveying evil.4 When we see Wendy in the bathroom and Jack strikes the door with an axe, Kubrick shows us the events on the other side of the door because he wants us to see them. Rather than this being a sign of a horror amateur who does not know how to generate cheap frights in his audience, Kubrick is repeatedly giving us the generic elements of a horror film but denying us the cathartic pleasure of a genre picture.

Geoffrey Cocks places Kubrick’s films at a particular moment in history, seeing holocaust imagery as the means to best explain several aspects of The Shining, so that the sequence of the vision of blood pouring from an elevator is taken to represent ‘the blood of centuries, the blood of millions, and, in particular, the blood of war and genocide in Kubrick’s own century.’5 It is perhaps Kubrick’s reluctance to trivialize evil and suspicion at cliched representations of cinematic evil that leads to a contradictory impulse to undercut horror film tropes as soon as he starts to use them. Cocks links fairy tale references, such as the wolf at the door, with the rise of fascism, but equally as powerful, especially to an audience in 1980, is the ubiquitous nature of Disney cartoons, including ‘Three Little Pigs'(Burt Gillet, 1933), and catch- phrases from prime-time entertainment shows, which dominates Jack’s speech in the closing third of the film. Jack Nicholson’s seminal ‘Here’s Johnny!’ only really makes sense as a parody of Johnny Carson’s familiar call to his nightly audience as presenter of The Tonight Show (1962-1992).

Kubrick, a notoriously reclusive figure, gave virtually no interviews during his career, made relatively few films and said very little about them, content to let others argue over their meaning. As a result, critical viewpoints tend to divide quite sharply between those who see the work as immensely profound or as just plain pretentious. Different critical positions read the film as a cautionary tale about the evils of patriarchy (Patricia Ferreira), the breakdown of the family, the failings of US capitalism (Frederic Jameson), a study in madness (Thomas Allen Nelson) or even an anti-colonial statement (Bill Blakemore).6 It was the first of King’s movies to be remade and, on its release in 1980, The Shining provoked one of the strongest negative reactions from King himself, whose own script had been rejected during the process. He seems to have mellowed slightly in his views over the years – possibly his own experience at directing in Maximum Overdrive in 1986 was a humbling experience. Kubrick’s film may have drawn critical attention because the film includes devices that draw attention to themselves, such as languorous camera movement, slow motion, painterly picture composition and deliberate breaks with conventional continuity style of editing.

The grandeur of the opening sequence, especially the helicopter shots following a car as it travels along a winding country road, is a trope palely echoed in Dreamcatcher, but shares little of Kubrick’s majestic power. Here, the camera appears to close in on the car ‘like a bird of prey’, as Nelson calls it, and at the point of catching up with it, we cut away, creating a sense of brooding threat and of something waiting to attack the family in a confined space – here a car, later the hotel and finally the maze.7 On several different occasions and in slightly different forms, King has retold an anecdote of Kubrick calling him in the middle of the night to ask bluntly whether King believed in God, which would thereby suggest an optimistic belief in some continued existence after death. Kubrick seems to have found notions of an afterlife troubling and his film emphasizes the development of human, rather than supernatural, evil. King asserts ‘because he could not believe, he could not make the film believable to others,’ claiming also Kubrick did not really understand the horror genre and, therefore, the film was doomed to fail.8 However, that assumes that a horror film was what Kubrick was trying to make. It is not a trivial observation that Joey from Friends keeps his copy of the novel in the freezer because it is so scary, not the video. King is dismissive of ‘playing games… playing the artiste’ but seems to imply it is a simple matter of ‘getting the reader or viewer by the throat and never letting go’.9 However, a similarly-phrased ambition lay behind his script for Creepshow and his directorial debut with Maximum Overdrive, and not even the kindest critic would suggest that such an effect is achieved there.

As King’s novel can be seen as a novel about writing, so Kubrick’s film is, in many ways, a film about filmmaking. Many of Kubrick’s films are about the inadequacy of language, and how the language of film can suggest what the spoken and written word alone cannot. Halloran and Danny’s imaginary friend, Tony, both tell him not to be afraid of visions that he might see as they are ‘just like pictures in a book’. The film that we are seeing is composed of ‘moving pictures’, which we, too, know are representing a manufactured view of ‘reality’ but which may feel real in the context of a cinema. Kubrick made this film prior to the widespread use of video and so the film is designed to be watched without access to freeze-frame or reverse functions, i.e., the exhibition context for which the film was produced is the visceral effect of it being seen once at normal speed in a cinema setting. This concern with visual story­telling might even extend to the intriguing possibility that, prior to the blocks of repeated text that Wendy sees, Jack Torrance is actually writing the unfolding narrative that we see in The Shining – a very Nabokovian device that would be in keeping with Danny’s retracing of footsteps in the snow at the end: in a sense playfully ‘cancelling’ the character being pursued and, with it, the chase sequence and the life of the protagonist. In a film about communication in its widest sense, body language is important too. Whilst Wendy and Danny are lost in the maze, Jack is also feeling strangely constricted. He unleashes a final aimless throw in the hall and does not wait for a rebound. He starts to develop the visual tics of a bored teenager, venting his pent-up frustrations in shaking out his arms (an action he repeats before entering the ballroom later) – an almost ape-like gesture (an echo of 2001) that gains in prominence as the film progresses.

Like Mike Enslin in 1408, Jack Torrance tries to explain to those around him what it is like being a writer, but he cannot. Far from being blocked, Jack’s problem is that Wendy does not understand the process of creation at all. When he sarcastically agrees with her that ‘it’s just a matter of getting back into the habit of writing every day. Yep, that’s all it is’, this is partly King the prolific writer replying to critics who would equate volume of output with literary weakness. Later, Nicholson adds a manic smile and a gesture, as if typing were an easy childish game. The act of creation, writing or filmmaking might seem easy enough but Kubrick suggests it is not. The first cut to the typewriter in the very centre of the shot, from which we zoom out, is only part of the apparatus of the persona of a best-selling writer. We see a cigar and paper laid ready – the material preparations are all meticulously observed but the act of original creation is much harder to define (and harder to create on film). In part, Jack’s throwing a ball against a wall is as much a literalization of his inability to generate ideas as a sign of his failing sanity. The novel that Jack writes is not nonsensical, merely a different kind of writing (it is carefully laid out in paragraphs with indents), and the film that Kubrick produces questions its own form.

This is reflected in Danny’s visions where the blood pouring out of lift doors (also coloured red), running down the hallway, cannot be real since blood would coagulate and not flow like water. Indeed, it moves in slow motion, like a special effect on Thunderbirds, and also ultimately overflows its channel, washing up over the camera lens – highlighting the existence of a ‘fourth wall’. What is particularly unsettling here, apart from the flash-cuts of uncanny identical twin girls, is the direction of gaze (directly at the camera) and the framing, which, via the combination of low-angle and wide-angle lens, makes the girls seem like giants, as high as the window behind them and overtly referencing Diane Arbus’ photograph ‘Identical Twins, Roselle, New York, 1967’, with which Kubrick was familiar.10 Cocks sees Halloran’s effective rescue of Wendy and Danny, by distracting Jack and with his subsequent murder, as evocative of Nazi racial persecution but Kael’s complaints about the somewhat perfunctory dispatching of Halloran, after a lengthy build-up in terms of screen-time and space, plenty of cross-cutting – all suggestive of dramatic import only to end with the thud of an axe in his chest, is more pertinent here. Kubrick is apparently offering but ultimately denying us the pleasure of suture and of generic expectations fulfilled. Kubrick holds shots slightly beyond the ‘content curve’, that is, as Louis Giannetti explains, ‘the point in a shot at which the audience has been able to assimilate most of its information.’11 This creates a sense of time being extended, like in a dream or, as with Danny, a vision. Kael is right to observe that ‘the horrors involved in the hotel’s bloody past usually appear in inserts that flash on like the pictures in a slide show’ but rather than a weakness of the film, this is what repays, and even demands, repeat viewings.12 Once at the hotel, precise time ceases to have any real meaning. It is wintertime, but day or night seems irrelevant because of electric lighting and, by the ‘Wednesday’ intertitle, the sense of time has largely been lost. This effectively creates a sense of disorientation but weakens the attempt to increase the tension towards the end by using specific time references, like a clock running down, after Jack is locked in the cupboard. Possibly due to its exhibition context on TV, with commercial breaks, Garris’ version re-orientates the viewer a little with a greater number of subtitles, more precision in the dates and a greater use of ‘weather shots’, purely to signal the passing of time.

Periodically, to disorientate the viewer and draw our attention to the film-making process, Kubrick breaks the conventions of continuity editing. At the bar, Jack looks directly into the camera lens to order a drink. He is already using Lloyd’s name and, in combination with Nicholson’s great performance as a manic drunk (looking both ways in an empty room), his crazed laugh makes it clear that he is already possessed. In this context, when Wendy staggers in and claims that someone has tried to strangle Danny, Jack’s perfectly measured response, ‘Are you out of your fucking mind?’ is both deeply ironic, given the condition of the speaker, and very funny, drawing on Nicholson’s sense of comic timing, also seen in Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper, 1969). When Wendy mentions the possibility of leaving the hotel, Jack reacts angrily and storms out of the room, giving a tiny glance directly at the camera. Nic Roeg’s Bad Timing, released the same year as The Shining, also features an A-list actor, Harvey Keitel, performing a similar little in-joke. Later, the transition from Jack to the reflection in the mirror, showing a decomposing old woman, is conveyed via a whip-pan, stressing his shock and horror at being confronted by his own mortality (and possibly shame at his own weakness), the shock of Wendy, in seeing ‘Murder’ reflected in a mirror, is conveyed by a crash zoom, and Kubrick saves the technique for which he gained notoriety with 2001 (1968), the jump cut, for Jack in the maze, linking his collapsed state to his petrified one in the morning.

Sudden bursts of deep synthesizer score blend György Ligeti, Krzysztof Penderecki and Béla Bartok – the last especially apt as he is named in the novel as one of Wendy’s favoured composers.13 This might seem clumsy and inappropriate but such intrusive editing evokes Jean-Luc Goddard’s use of sound as an alienating device, cutting in over the domestic chatter between Wendy and Danny early on and also, later, in the dried goods-cupboard scene. This suggests that something is not right and, perhaps more precisely, expresses an otherworldly ‘language’ of the hotel trying to contact Danny. Along with the heartbeat, which comes up on the soundtrack when Jack is under stress (such as when he goes to the radio room after the scene in the bathroom with Grady), such sound effects complement the literalized idiom when Grady informs Jack that free drinks are part of ‘orders from the house’ (the dialogue blending King’s original chapter title ‘Drinks on the house’ with Grady’s dialogue ‘Orders from the manager’.14 The synthesizer that cuts in as we see Wendy and Danny playing in the snow outside feels a little like radio interference, a signal which only Jack picks up, reflected in the zoom up to a close-up of him watching them, head down, brow-furrowed, struggling to synthesize the noises that he (and we) hear. Another favourite of Goddard’s, the use of intertitles without music, particularly the first one here, ‘The Interview’, is a little reminiscent of silent film format. For a modern audience, this may seem a little heavy handed, telling rather than showing, but the foregrounding of the film form, such as the fake-looking blue screen shot in the car, underlines the superficial and fragile nature of family harmony as just a veneer. Underlighting is used to make Jack seem slightly less stable, such as when he does the typing mime for Wendy and more obviously at the brightly-lit bar with Floyd, a device that Garris picks up but uses in a more blatant, expressionist and arguably unsubtle fashion.

The interview itself with Ullman, the Manager, forms a strong parallel with a similar scene in Milos Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, his last major role. There, Jack Nicholson, as the mentally unstable but charismatic R.P. McMurphy, undergoes a psychological evaluation with the purpose of trying to determine whether he is faking insanity or not. The rhythm of the question and answer exchange where Nicholson’s character is asked for his opinion across a desk and where he gives a spirited, humorous reply to a formal question that is laced with ambiguity as to whether he means the exact opposite of what he says, is strikingly similar. In both examples, the veneer of formality in Nicholson’s delivery, speaking as if to a friend in confidence, suggests a suppression of the character’s true nature. The same room is used to house the radio, providing a useful reminder, later, when Jack enters the room again and we can see how far his character has changed. As Jack Kroll notes, ‘You suspect that Kubrick cast Nicholson in the part chiefly because of Nicholson’s unique face – the sharp nose, wide, mobile mouth and angled eyebrows that can redeploy themselves in an instant from sunny friendliness to Mephistophelean menace.’15 It is Nicholson’s face that carries key scenes of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – think of the World Series, animated by his quick-fire commentary and facial vitality reflected in the blank TV monitor or the penultimate return to the ward and his unbroken resistance, conveyed by his clowning imbecility. The same is true here. Although in his later career, in playing characters like The Joker in Batman (Tim Burton, 1989), all he had to do was pull faces, in The Shining it is the depth and range of emotion that Kubrick manages to coax from him, and which he captures in close-up, that give the film its power and true metaphysical horror, not cheap scare tactics.

Scatman Crothers also appears in both films. In Forman’s work, he is the night watchman, apparently impotent, susceptible to drink and open to bribery as the inmates briefly take control of the facility. In both films, Crothers’ character presides over a largely empty space, here a kitchen, touching upon his sexual weakness, he is manipulated by others and ultimately betrayed by them. In King’s version, the posters that adorn his bedroom seem like an excessive, strident pose of sexual bravado, masking something less confident. The fact that shots of him, wide-eyed with horror, are followed by the sequence in Room 237 might even suggest that this is his vision or that he shares it with Jack and, therefore, the naked woman becomes his sexual fantasy more than Jack’s. That is not to say Kubrick makes Halloran particularly prominent – fans of the book might complain that he cuts too much but that intertextual allusions add depth to even a fairly minor part. King’s version, although restoring more lines of dialogue and screen time, does not actually add any further complexity to his character.

In the car on the way to the hotel, Wendy starts to talk about the Donner party and cannibalism. Jack reacts angrily that they should not be discussing this in front of Danny, to which she assures him that he has already seen a documentary about it. Jack’s reply (‘You see, it’s OK. He saw it on the television’) and his unsubstantiated claims, during the interview, that his wife loves ghost stories and horror films, suggest Jack, and possibly Kubrick too, share a McLuhanesque cynical scepticism about the visual mass media.

Wendy (Shelley Duvall), in the version seen by most cinemagoers, is reduced to a shrieking mess. Her physical movement is as ineffectual as her character so that her flailing the baseball bat at Jack from the top of the stairs, her racing out into the snow, her arms flapping stupidly or, at the end, her running to Danny make her look like one of Jim Henson’s muppets. Her dialogue is shorn of all depth, leaving her with statements which are so banal and repetitive (her empty comments on the radio about the weather are cut short by the police officer) that in context they seem funny rather than pathetic, especially with an annoying verbal tic at the end. Several beats into Halloran’s tour of the facilities, she comments ‘This is the kitchen, huh?’ or the unfunny joke she makes when Ullman tells them that soon everyone will be gone: ‘just like a ghost-ship, huh?’ In her dialogue, metaphors are literalized (the kitchen is ‘such an enormous maze’) and fairy-tale elements are made blatantly obvious (‘I’ll have to leave a trail of breadcrumbs’). Momentarily, Wendy shares Danny’s vision of the corridor of blood but this is ambiguous as there is little previous indication that she, too, has any psychic gift, indeed rather the opposite. In terms of appearance, Kubrick has her wear red tights, a shapeless blue dress and a hideous yellow jacket so that she comes across as an unattractive, bug-eyed whiner. However, in the initially-released, US version, 25 minutes of additional footage make her character more balanced, with scenes where she takes Danny to see a doctor, contemplates escape and comes across a room full of celebrating skeletons – all of which, in some fashion, Garris restores.

King claims that he rejected the idea of a maze as it had already been used in The Maze (William Cameron Menzies and Richard Carlson, 1953), although such high principles did not prevent him from basing the basic possession plotline of Carrie from another 50s B-movie, The Brain from Planet Arous (Nathan Juran, 1958).16 However, Kubrick’s maze imagery not only provides a suspenseful climax but pervades the film. The paradoxical pleasures of mazes, blending controlled constriction with apparent freedom, reflects Kubrick’s aesthetic of an intellectual game with sporadic moments of panic. Wendy’s decision to take Danny into the maze without a map touches upon this as well as showing her naivety (exactly how they get out again is glossed over).

Carol Shields talks about how ‘a maze… is a kind of machine with people as its moving parts’ and there is a sense of this here as Kubrick’s fascination with technology meshes with his portrayal of a fragmenting psyche.17 The blending of Jack’s slow gaze down onto the model of the maze with a bird’s-eye view of the actual maze with Wendy and Danny (a shot Magistrale strangely thinks has been overlooked critically), gives Jack the status of a God-like entity, or suggests that perhaps much of what we see in the latter part of the film only occurs in his head. Danny is seen, later, playing with cars on a carpet with a maze-like pattern, making the toys themselves into a similar structure at which point a tennis ball rolls, unmotivated, into the maze. As a symbol or an actual manifestation of the hotel trying to reach him, it is an interesting effect (one which Garris translates to a croquet ball) but it is a little ambiguous as it might also suggest the means of his ultimate salvation, i.e., it remains unclear whether Jack or Danny (or both) are really the object of the hotel’s evil.

We cut between Wendy hearing voices in the boiler-room to Jack asleep at his desk, mumbling to himself in sleep, almost as if he were producing the voices. He wakes and confesses his dream, seeming like a ‘normal’, loving father for a moment but this only lasts until she spots the marks on Danny’s neck, instantly accusing him of being responsible. The veneer of trust between the couple is broken. As Jack walks from the empty corridor, with hazy lighting, to the packed ballroom, full of noise, the transition of colour, music and scale provokes no reaction from Jack, suggesting that he is in equilibrium with the hotel. Later, in the bathroom with Grady, Jack is sporting a maroon jacket, bringing him closer to the dominant colour of the decor of the hotel. The jumping of the 180 degree line conveys Jack’s disorientation, and the reality that he is Grady’s alter ego is underlined by the proxemics, placing them as mirror images of one another, reminiscent of the exchange in 2001 (1968) between Bowman and Poole, shown without dialogue. The gradual realization that he has ‘always been the caretaker’ is explicit in the close-up showing Jack’s fading smile (highly reminiscent of the tragic moment of dawning awareness in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest when he realizes that most inmates are voluntary).

Cynthia Freeland’s description of the film, terming Kubrick’s vision as ‘dark and bleak’ (although actually not as bleak as King’s novel, in either early drafts or finished form), is compromised by assuming from the outset that moral judgements can be made about horror film’s presentation of evil.18 Often, such concepts either lie totally outside the moral scope of horror or are clearly redefined by it, i.e., it is highly debatable how far rigid categories of what constitutes ‘evil’ can, without major caveats, be applied to a genre which often challenges, or even ignores, what might be seen as cultural norms. It is true that the generic expectations of visceral pleasures of horror or a sense of tension-and-release are not much in evidence in The Shining. Stylistically, the film is full of leisurely tracking shots, especially behind pillars, as in The Gold Room, or through walls, (Freeland strangely says ‘as if’ this movement were happening but it is, literally so) like in the storeroom or the Torrances’ sleeping area.19 This is sometimes taken to be a weakness of the film, giving it a cold, glacial feel so that we do not empathize closely with characters in a more conventional way. However, this may be precisely Kubrick’s intention. Like the long, fluid tracking shots in Peter Greenaway’s work, such as The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1990), it draws our attention to the process of composition and the set as a set. Rapid cutting, especially around Danny’s visions, the juxtaposition of images without a comforting voiceover, subtitles or even a character within the fiction (a typical King feature), helping us articulate or understand what we are saying, force us to think about the meaning of what we are witnessing when we see Danny’s second vision of the twins, who just look at each other and then walk away, or Wendy’s glimpse of two men at the end of a long corridor, engaged in some kind of sex act, one dressed as a bear (foreshadowing Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, 1999).

The extensive use of slow-moving Steadicam, rather than cutting in on the action, creates some of the sense of floating otherness used in Alien and, especially, the opening of Halloween, which also conveys unease in a domestic space. Jack’s entrance into Room 237 is a good example where this helps to establish a sense of claustrophobic subjectivity but also limits our available viewpoints. We cut between Jack’s POV and reverse tracking shots to record his reaction as we explore the room through his eyes, his hand coming into the frame to push the door open. The shots following Danny on the Big Wheels trike, especially when he swings round corners, effectively conveys the childish pleasure in pure, visceral speed (although there is no explanation of how Danny moves between floors with what looks like a heavy trike), complemented by the use of different sound perspectives, such as the rolling wheels of Danny’s trike across bare flooring and then over carpet, muffling the sound. Freeland claims that ‘our perspective is not quite identified with his in these scenes’ but that is not actually so.20 We occupy his eye-line directly in looking back at Room 237 and, later, looking up at the visions of the twins. The precise positioning of the camera, i.e., right behind Danny’s head, is less-often noted, making it the internal counterpoint to the opening helicopter shots. Later, when Danny pedals furiously away from Room 237, it is the break in expectation, the fact that the camera suddenly stops and follows his progress into the distance and round the corner from a static position, which in theory lessens the tension but in effect maintains it. The camera no longer has to literally ‘chase’ the little boy to convey the sense of him being pursued – the demons are in his head.

As the visions intensify in detail, so the methods of introducing them change. On the third occasion of seeing the girls, Kubrick tracks Danny with Steadicam, lets him move away from the camera and then, as he disappears around the corner in the distance, adds a sudden, dramatic violin note. We cut to his vision of the girls, accompanied by a cymbal crash. The hotel and its apparitions are becoming more powerful, reflected in the fact that the girls address him directly by name and invite him to play. Kubrick rapidly cuts between them lying dead in the corridor, with an axe lying on the floor and blood up the walls, a close-up of the girls as they are now and Danny’s horrified reaction, moving to closer shots of this same sequence. The final chase brings the stylistic motifs together. Low angle forward and reverse tracking shots (now at the boy’s standing head height) convey the hunter/hunted battle through the maze, whilst a motivated light source (Danny’s torch) and a wide angle lens create a ghostly otherworldly quality to the setting. In simple plot terms, we have been prepared for the fact that the boy knows the way round the maze, whereas his father does not. Jack’s POV, looking down at the prints, suddenly stops as the prints disappear and the camera tilts up to show his bemusement. In theory, having escaped his pursuer, Danny might be safe but in sprinting away, and in shifting to his POV, we (and he) no longer know exactly where the pursuer is, making this sequence more frightening. Shots of Jack slowly limping forward, however, dissipate this effect and, like this physical movement, the tension now runs down as Danny escapes and Jack collapses. The final Steadicam shot draws up to the picture hallway outside The Gold Room and, via a series of dissolves, we see Jack as the caretaker back in 1921, suggesting a destiny he was bound to play out.

Jack is framed, with the typewriter in the background, in The Colorado Lounge, whose scale and grand furnishings dwarf the human figure, increasing the pressure bearing down upon him. Swirling, discordant music makes clear that something is not right here, underlined as it abruptly stops when Wendy wanders up, oblivious to this subtext, and Jack takes the paper out before she can read it. The sound feels almost like the ‘voice’ of the hotel, which is exerting an increasing influence over Jack and warns him of her impending approach. Although Wendy asserts ‘OK, I understand’, it is clearly a language from which she is excluded. Reading the sound in this way recasts the opening as a call to Jack from afar, and to which he is unwittingly drawn, even from the outset. It would be an overstatement to cast the film as possessing the depth of a Shakespearean tragedy (although interestingly, King did originally conceive the novel in the form of a five-act tragedy) but there are echoes of Macbeth, here, in the character trajectories of a couple who cease to talk to one another and the husband drawn increasingly to murderous thoughts under supernatural influences. One of the interesting aspects of such a parallel is the possibility that Jack had such dark thoughts from the beginning and that he was selected as someone who could be manipulated. In Jack’s interaction with Danny, there is something of the Macbeth-Banquo relationship – an apparently loving, close relationship underpinned by plans to murder (when Danny sits on Jack’s lap, there is no eye contact between father and son until the hotel is mentioned). Magistrale notes the tendency to frame Jack in mirrors, in his bedroom, the hallway, the bathroom with Grady and in Room 237, suggesting either that Jack has a darker schizophrenic side or that, more existentially, he is already a ghost.21 Like Macbeth, Jack is tortured by nightmares, including murderous thoughts, and Grady’s offer to clean up the drinks spilled down Jack echoes Lady Macbeth’s ‘a little water clears us of this deed’. There is the sense of him being offered expatiation but for future, rather than past, sins. Interestingly, in cutting from a forward tracking shot that ends in a close-up of Danny, eyes wide in terror, to a further corridor vision of the girls, Kubrick is referencing a famous cinematic manifestation of Shakespeare, echoing the filmic means used to introduce Lawrence Olivier’s ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy in Hamlet (Olivier, 1948).

Wendy’s discovery of Jack’s writing is conveyed in a powerful, extremely low-angle shot as her face emerges, looking over the machine. The real horror is not only that he is clearly mad but that to produce such a volume of ‘work’, he has been mad for some time. It makes her (and us) wonder exactly how far back this mania stretches, making us rethink the apparent normality of earlier scenes. The discordant strings that accompany the scene grow progressively louder and we cut to a POV from behind a pillar while she is still looking. As Danny experiences a further vision of the hotel corridors running with blood (with furniture being carried away, like in DH Lawrence’s The Virgin and the Gypsy (Christopher Miles, 1970), Jack confronts her, playing out more fully the roles of hunter and hunted as we repeatedly cut between alternating forward and reverse tracking shots. Kubrick gives us fourteen shot- reverse-shot patterns, including closer over-the-shoulder shots, as Jack slowly stalks Wendy across the hall and up the stairs, growing more and more like the Big Bad Wolf character, building to his fake clawing actions on the stairs and his overt speech at the bathroom door later (‘Little pig…’). Wendy, here, is little more than a grizzling mess, cruelly mimicked by Jack (possibly deliberately created by a merciless Kubrick, who insisted on at least 45 takes for the scene). Although, in some senses, she is in a dominant physical position, above him on the stairs, emphasized by the low angle, and she has a weapon, she seems powerless, reflected in the way she backs off and the symbolic, ineffectual swipe she gives halfway up the stairs. His appeal to her (‘Wendy, darling, light of my life’) alludes to the famous opening lines of Lolita (1962), a previous Kubrick project (also featuring a child abuser), and there is a similar knowing playfulness, mixing absurdity with comedy, in Jack’s repeated command to ‘Give me the bat’, to the extent that he sounds like an actor trying out different ways to deliver the line, including a jokey, ridiculous, deep-voiced parody. The scene constitutes a domesticated version of a standard feature of swashbuckling movies, a fight on the stairs, but Jack expresses surprise and shock in the pain caused by a blow first to his hand and then to his head, which sends him tumbling to the foot of the stairs, releasing the tension that had been building as he slowly ascended towards her.

Although Conner describes The Shining as ‘an ‘anti-horror’ film’ and Collings asserts that Kubrick ‘did not use conventional treatments to create terror or horror,’ the film does draw on some standard tropes of the horror film, as when the decomposing woman walks forward, arms outstretched, like a mummy from Scooby-Doo, but it is true that, generally, cliches are avoided.22 As Wendy pulls Jack through the doorway to the dry-store cupboard, Kubrick avoids the temptation to have him grab either the doorframe or her. Kubrick uses creative, unusual camera placement, such as at the bathroom door, when we see Nicholson with his head leaning against a door, shot by Kubrick lying on his back below, looking up. This makes the door seem like a constrictive ceiling and suggests an immense pressure bearing down on the central character who, with hair falling past his ears, and with the light on the door, has the look of a caged and deranged animal. Garris’ argument that he did not want to show Grady opening the door, as it would be distracting, really makes no sense. Here, we hear his voice and the bolts slide back. As the door can only be opened from the outside, we need to have some clue as to who or what frees Jack to maintain the coherence of the film.

Nicholson’s performance can be criticized as histrionic but he has produced moments of lasting iconic power, particularly the ‘Here’s Johnny’ at the bathroom door. King’s criticism of the casting is, in retrospect, quite naive. He may decry Hollywood’s preference for a star who is ‘bankable’ but that is exactly what he himself has become and one of his suggestions, Michael Moriarty, went on to give a fairly awful, wooden performance in Return to Salem’s Lot (1 9 8 7).23 Besides, Nicholson’s performance contains many examples of great subtlety too, all too often missed, like his little shimmy in the ballroom, made much more theatrical by Stephen Weber in the Garris remake. Collings’ assumption, echoed by Magistrale, that the film fails because ‘it has ceased to be King’s’ is just too simplistic in assuming one can only be ‘faithful’ to a novel if the script is written by the same author.24 The Shining (1997) is a good example of how greater ‘faithfulness’ to a source text does not, in itself, yield a more memorable film. Film is not in the business of producing fully-rounded, psychological entities. The remake may include more depth to Jack’s alcoholism, fractured marriage and psychic breakdown but, in filmic terms, that does not in itself produce a better product. In the closing fifteen minutes, Magistrale dismisses Nicholson as just ‘a monster’ and it is certainly true that he becomes a blend of howling Big Bad Wolf, and a loping, limping Hunchback of Notre Dame figure (fusing both in the maze), appearing absurd.25 However, King does describe his character as ‘It’ just prior to the boiler explosion in the novel and, even so, there are also several examples of an engaging and tragic wounded childishness, such as when he is hurt with the bat or the knife, or the few seconds of calculation in phrasing an appeal to Wendy, when he is locked in the cupboard, alternating between crying, begging and throwing an outright tantrum. In the food locker, when Jack comes round, it is only when he tries to stand that he winces in pain at an injury to his ankle, which is logical as he has been dragged to that particular spot.

King himself felt the film was emotionally cold and, unlike his book, foregrounded Jack’s mental instability, thereby making a descent into madness impossible. Lack of ‘faithfulness’ to the novel was reason enough to damn the film in some fans’ eyes (and implicitly exonerating King, who as Beahm claims, ‘had nothing to do with it’).26 However, ultimately, it is unfair to see The Shiningas failing in this sense or as a horror film when that is not what it is trying to be. King’s assertion that Kubrick does not understand horror film may or may not be true, but if the film of The Shining is about horror, it is a different kind: the horror of mortality, the horror of being trapped in a confined space (even with those you love) and, perhaps, King’s greatest fear, the horror of having to write when inspiration eludes you. For some, it will always be a cautionary tale that too much Steadicam is bad for your health but it also shows Kubrick’s ready embrace of developing technology. Kubrick claims that ‘I wanted very much to make a film in which the story is told in ways different from those to which the sound film has accustomed us…I believe that without doubt there is a more cinematic manner of communicating, closer to silent film.’27 In the multi-layered soundtrack, the allusions to Cuckoo’s Nest, and the deflating of audience identification with horror conventions, Kubrick is reflecting an aesthetic that is inherently intertextual and thereby requires viewing strategies from the audience that are equally sensitive to marker of genre and textual allusion. Compared to the Garris version, it is a film about the potential of film-making rather than demonstrating its limits.


1. Stephen King, Salem’s Lot (London: New English Library, 1976), p. 43.
2. Carol Shields, Larry’s Party (London: Fourth Estate Ltd, 1998), p. 313.
3. See King, Danse Macabre  (New York: Berkeley Publishing, 1981), pp. 296–330.
4. Michel Ciment, ‘Kubrick & The Fantastic’ in Kubrick (trans. Gilbert Adair, New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1983), p. 126.
5. Geoffrey Cocks, The Wolf at the Door: Stanley Kubrick, History, and the Holocaust (New York: Peter Lang, 2004), p. 2.
6. See Patricia Ferreira, ‘Jack’s Nightmare at the Overlook: the American Dream Inverted’ in The Shining Reader, Anthony Magistrale (ed), (Washington: Starmont House), pp. 23–32; Frederic Jameson, ‘Historicism in The Shining’ in Social Text 4 (1981), pp. 114–125; Thomas Allen Nelson, Kubrick: Inside a Film Artist’s Maze (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982); and Bill Blakemore, ‘The Family of Man’, San Francisco Chronicle, 29 July (1987), available at
7. Nelson, op. cit., p. 203.
8. Stephen King, interview with Eric Norden, Playboy (June 1983) in Tim Underwood and Chuck Miller (eds.), Bare Bones: Conversations on Terror with Stephen King (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1988), p. 29.
9. Stephen King, cited in Tim Underwood and Chuck Miller, Feast 85, p. 100.
10. See Vincent LoBrutto, Stanley Kubrick: A Biography (New York: Penguin Books, 1997), p. 411.
11. Louis Giannetti, Understanding Movies, (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1987), p. 159.
12. Pauline Kael, ‘Devolution’, The New Yorker, June 9, 1980, p. 130.
13. Stephen King, The Shining (London: New English Library, 1977), p. 209.
14. Ibid., pp. 319 and 321.
15. Jack Kroll, ‘Stanley Kubrick’s Horror Show’, Newsweek Magazine, June 2, 1980, p. 52.
16. See Conner, Stephen King Goes to Hollywood (New York: New American Library, 1987), p. 5 and p. 22.
17. Carol Shields, op. cit., p. 218.
18. Cynthia A. Freeland, The Naked and the Undead: Evil and the Appeal of Horror (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 2000), p. 223.
19. Ibid., p. 219.
20. Ibid., p. 218.
21. See Magistrale, The Shining Reader, op. cit., pp. 94–95.
22. See Conner, op. cit., p. 28 and Collings, The Films of Stephen King (Washington: Starmont House, 1986), p. 59.
23. Stephen King, ‘Shine of the times’, an interview with Marty Ketchum, Pat Cadigan and Lewis Shiner cited in Underwood and Miller (eds.), op. cit., p. 122.
24. Collings, op. cit., p. 62.
25. Magistrale, op. cit., p. 100.
26. George Beahm, The Stephen King Story (London: Warner Books, 1994), p. 118.
27. See Ciment, op. cit., p. 187.

Published in Mark Browning, Stephen King on the Big Screen (Intellect Books, 2009), pp. 198-211


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