The Shining is a collision of two great American creators. The movie is an adaptation directed by arguably cinema’s greatest filmmaker, using source material from one of the most popular novels, written by one of modern American literature’s most prolific authors. It’s no wonder that these two powerhouses of their respective mediums came to odds while the film was in production.
To be clear, there are many accounts of mutual admiration between director Stanley Kubrick and author Stephen King, although those sentiments are less frequently publicized. Kubrick praised the novel for it’s well executed balance between the supernatural and the psychological. King has repeatedly stated his respect for Kubrick’s intellect and film making abilities. It’s clear they both love the genre, and have great respect for each other as artists.
However, Stephen King vocally disdains Kubrick’s interpretation of his novel. These sentiments were reiterated in a recently released interview with Deadline. There have been suggestions that the negative feelings cut both ways, and the tension began surfacing before filming even began — with King questioning the casting of Jack Nicholson in the lead role, as well as Shelly Duvall. Many fans believe that the crushed red VW bug that Dick Hallorann passes en route to the Overlook hotel is an intentional dig at the author —King specifies in the novel that the Torrance's own a red bug, and yet we first see them in a blue VW early in the film.
King’s most potent criticism of Kubrick’s The Shining is that it’s beautiful on the outside but hollow within. In his wonderful work On Writing, he elaborates on his confusion when fans tell him that the film is the scariest movie they’ve ever seen. To King, the film lacks teeth because Jack Torrance fails to change as he does in the novel. In the book (which is very long) Jack Torrance struggles with alcoholism and makes an effort to do right by his family — he wants to be good.
Kubrick’s Torrance is introduced at the hotel for the first time, there’s no back story and no quest for redemption. King interprets this as Kubrick suggesting Torrance’s evil tendencies predate The Overlook, simmering beneath the surface of his existence, waiting for an opportunity to be exposed. To King, this negates the tragedy embedded in his story — a tale of a good person breaking bad is much more disturbing than a bad person finding an opportunity to do bad things. This underlying question, what makes The Shining scary, is worth exploring to better understand why this film is considered great.
To be clear, Kubrick is an auteur, and this film showcases his talent as much as his other work. There is symbolism at every turn, no shot or line is wasted, and there are countless, vivid, visually, disturbing scenes that rightfully remain recognizable in contemporary pop culture. The gallons of blood spilling from the elevator doors in slow motion or the ghosts of the murdered twin girls in matching dresses holding hands, for example. The excellent documentary Room 237 unpacks a lot of thematic elements of the film, with close attention paid to the carpeting in the hotel, which you can now buy printed on coffee mugs and cardigans. And yet, as much as these moments spark synapses and fear centers, the true horror of the story is Jack Torrance’s descent into madness.
The plot contains classic haunted house tropes. The hotel was built on an “Indian burial ground” (can we please come up with something else? I know the film was made in the late seventies, and maybe that plot line wasn’t as tired as it is now, but… enough already). However, there are no traces of this lineage in the rest of the film, except for some choice set dressing of Calumet baking powder labels, which depict a native American man in a traditional headdress. When Robert Ullman, the hotel manager who hires Torrance, relays the details of other horrific events that occurred on the property, he asks for Torrance’s reassurance that that history would not present challenges for his family’s move. Torrance reassures him, stating, “Well, you can rest assured Mr. Ullman, that’s not going to happen with me, and as far as my wife is concerned, I am sure she’ll be absolutely fascinated when I tell her about it. She’s a confirmed ghost story and horror film addict.”
This feels like another dismissal of the source material on behalf of Kubrick, and a further admonishment that the hotel itself is the source of evil. Instead, the Overlook Hotel enables the evil that exists within Jack and others to manifest, as a result of its isolating location and twisted, maze-like, design. This is how “the shine” integral to the hotel and Jack’s own shine syncopate. We learn from Hallorann’s talk with Danny early in the film that many who possess the shine don’t know how or are too afraid to harness its power, and that places can contain a shine as a result of traces left behind from horrific events that occurred in the past. We can also make an educated assumption that the supernatural ability is at least partially genetic as Hallorann regales Danny with the tale of sharing it with his grandmother, thus if Danny can shine so strongly, it’s safe to assume that Jack contains some ability to connect to that frequency.
There are many labyrinths in the film, not just the hedge maze outside which sets the stage for the brilliant sequence of Jack transforming into a Minotaur, attempting to hunt down his son after he completely loses sanity. The interior of the Overlook is also twisted and confusing, as we observe from the back seat of Danny’s big wheel as he tears around its twisted corridors. Wendy states early on that she’s tempted to leave a trail of breadcrumbs behind her to avoid getting lost in the space. This lack of orientation is what seeds Jack’s descent into madness.
To me, what makes The Shining scary is that Jack’s physical isolation and quest for “peace and quiet” to work on his book leads to his mind navigating the tangled pathways of his brain, heart, and personal history. He is narrowing in on the center of his human maze, home to his most base existence — his depraved and buried sense of self. The traumas that he’s carried with him to the Overlook are teased out by the bartender in the ballroom scene, and once exposed, they come to exist alongside those traces of evil left behind from traumas that occurred within the hotel itself.
There is an implication made in the film that the scars we’ve collected as part of our own journeys can reflect or mask the traumas that permeate our surroundings — leading to the calming or exacerbation of our most repressed responses to disruptive emotions, urges we no longer recognize or expect can be excavated from the wells of our souls.
The snapping of Jack’s exterior, sane, self, into his Overlook, sadistic, self, seems to occur when he converses with his predecessor, Delbert Grady in the bathroom during the ball. When Grady insists that Torrance has “always been the caretaker” and when this assertion is reaffirmed by the photo of Jack at the July 4th, 1921 ball, we receive confirmation that Jack’s cruelty is intrinsic but also normalized. He’s a man who gets frustrated with his wife and child. A perfectly normal feeling. Yet, the extremity of his response to those feelings is influenced by extrinsic factors including the ghosts, isolation, and confinement.
This intrinsic capacity for wickedness that could, and probably does, exist within every one of us is the true source of terror in The Shining. It suggests that if any of us were to be haunted by the stunning cruelty of human history and permitted to follow the labyrinth of our deepest, internalized self, we too might find ourselves rotten at the core. King himself suggested that Kubrick may have wandered down the outer edges of those pathways, when describing his encounters with the lauded director he stated:
I met Kubrick and there’s no question he’s a terrifically smart guy. He’s made some of the movies that mean a lot to me, ‘Dr. Strangelove,’ for one and ‘Paths of Glory,’ for another. I think he did some terrific things but, boy, he was a really insular man. In the sense that when you met him, and when you talked to him, he was able to interact in a perfectly normal way but you never felt like he was all the way there. He was inside himself.