As an avid reader that is an equally avid cinephile, it is not uncommon for me to watch movie adaptations of books I simply adore. While I’m not one of those literary snobs who can’t get past differences between books and movies (thankfully because I understand the different needs of the two genres), there are still times when I’m incredibly disappointed with one director’s interpretation of a beloved work (I can count on one hand the number of movies that I actually prefer to the book: Lord of the Rings, The Road, The Mist, and The Shawshank Redemption). Stephen King’s novels are especially prone to terrible adaptations (Thinner, Needful Things, Pet Sematary) as his in-depth characterization is often ignored solely for the horror element even though the neuroses and psychological flaws of his heroes is often more important to his actual texts. The original 1980 film version of The Shining (as opposed to the made for TV movie from the 90’s with Stephen Weber and Rebecca De Mornay) is the rare film adaptation that completely eschews all but the barest semblance to the source material but still manages to maintain an intriguing and ambitious artistic voice. I may prefer Stephen King’s original novel, but there is no denying the artistic tour-de-force that is Stanley Kubrick’s bold re-imagining of the original text.
Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) is a former schoolteacher and a recovering alcoholic. Currently unemployed (for vague reasons not clearly stated in the movie) and hoping to write a novel, Jack takes a job at the scenic Overlook Hotel in Colorado as the winter caretaker. Along for the ride are his meek wife Wendy (Shelley DuVall) and his psychic son Danny. As explained by the cook Dick Halloran (Scatman Crothers) before the rest of the staff leaves for winter, Danny has what is known as “the shining,” a psychic ability to hold mental conversations with other psychics as well as some slight precognition. As winter marches forward, Jack slowly starts to succumb to cabin fever, and minor aggravations with his family begin to mutate into psychopathic, murderous rage as the supernatural elements of the Hotel begin to work their voodoo into Jack.
Just as a heads up, this is going to be a fairly meaty review because the things I like about this film (Jack Nicholson’s performance, Kubrick’s direction, the stellar camerawork, the musical score) are just as noticeable as they things I loathe (the shallow characterization, Shelley Duvall, poorly paced plotting). First and foremost, it’s hard to say who sells this film more: Kubrick’s cinematic wizardry or Jack Nicholson’s bravado performance. Every single second that Jack Nicholson is on screen you have this inescapable sense of dread and foreboding. He is a man who has made a career off of frenetic energy and startling intensity, but Jack Nicholson has potentially never been more intense than he has in this film. While I really do not enjoy this particular characterization of Jack Torrance, that is the screenplay’s fault and not Jack Nicholson who consistently takes Torrance’s crazy factorto new and new heights. This is the psycho performance to top all psycho performances.
I am not always a huge Stanley Kubrick fan. I adore A Clockwork Orange, Dr. Strangelove, and (the first half of) Full Metal Jacket, but by that same token, I think 2001: A Space Odyssey is among the most over-rated films of all time and that last half of Full Metal Jacket is a mess (and don’t get me started on Eyes Wide Shut). However, during this particular viewing of The Shining (the first time I had watched it since high school), I was stunned by all of the little touches either in set direction, lighting, coloring, and general composition of shots. All of the long, abandoned corridors helped to contribute to the sense of isolation and dread and the recurring technique of framing a shot through a doorway was very interesting. During scenes where Jack was starting to lose his grip on sanity, there would be a very subtle but noticeable “heartbeat” effect in the color of the scene and it helped add to the disorientation. This was one of the pioneering films in the use of a “steadicam” for the tricycle scenes. At times, you could notice how the images were warped at the edges to further disturb audiences who could just notice something was not right even if they couldn’t say what it was. All in all, this film was always an absolute treat to look at (even when the story faltered as I’ll get to in a moment).
The film’s most unforgivable flaw is its treatment of Jack Torrance’s character. Jack Torrance remains one of my favorite Stephen King heroes (even though he ends up a bad guy, he is still the main protagonist of the tale alongside his son Danny) because he was a heavily autobiographical creation of King’s own battles with alcoholism and violence. Jack was complex and watching his gradual transformation to madness (and ultimate redemption through his son) was very rewarding and terrifying. Jack seems to already be a deeply troubled person when he gets to the Overlook in the film, and there is very little reason given for his seemingly instantaneous transformation into an ax-murderer. In the book, the Overlook was able to draw on the boiling tensions of this alcoholic who was otherwise a good man and use it to tempt him to the dark side because it fed off of the darkness in his heart. In the film, Jack seems to get one fake bourbon from a ghost who may or may not have been real in the first place and that shoots him off to crazyville. It all just seemed to heavy-handed for my tastes and while subtlety isn’t usually Stephen King’s forte, he is far more subtle about a journey into madness than Kubrick came close to achieving with this film.
This is a horror classic. There is simply no debate there. Stanley Kubrick laid the groundwork for so much of the slasher and serial killer stories to follow in how he crafted this film, and perhaps, if you take this film out of the context of its source material, then it would simply be amazing. However, I would hope that even without King’s original tale, the simple lack of context for much of Jack’s actions in the film and the rushed nature of its climax would leave me a little cold. With the exceptions of A Clockwork Orange and Dr. Strangelove though, perhaps that is Kubrick’s thing. He makes gorgeous films that are perhaps more fun to look at than actually parse for plot and characters. I would never deny that 2001: A Space Odyssey isn’t a stunningly beautiful film, but by that same token, I also think it’s a pretentious and bloated beast that is more fun for stoners than for people who want any deeper meaning. All horror fans should watch The Shining, but then you need to read Stephen King’s book and see how a real horror master does it.
Final Score: A-