It’s been interesting that while writing all of these reviews, I’ve been surprised how many have been adapted from books: the likes of Misery, Marathon Man, M*A*S*H and Manhunter. Maybe it’s just because they begin with M, but in order to try and break the funk, I’ve gone for another Stephen King adaptation – although ‘adaptation’ may not be quite the word…
Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson), a writer and former alcoholic, gets the job of caretaker at the isolated Overlook Hotel, and takes his wife, Wendy (Shelley Duvall), and his psychic son, Danny (Danny Lloyd), with him. Little do they know, the Overlook is full of sinister presences and a haunted past, and soon Jack’s sanity slowly begins to slip away from him…
What’s different from this review and others above is that I’ve actually read the original book. And it was great read – one I would recommend and thoroughly enjoyed. Yet I was left a little underwhelmed by the supernatural events in the hotel. I was hoping the film would be able to fill a few of those holes. You knew there was some great potential for fantastic imagery. So, did it live up to my expectations?
My advice would be simple. Don’t read the book and then watch the film. It’s a terrible idea, and probably ruined the whole experience for me. Because I enjoyed the book, and then Kubrick rips it apart in such devastating fashion, I can certainly empathise with King’s initial reaction – which was to simply hate it.
There are some great things in The Shining that I love: some beautiful impressions and symbolism, the nail biting tension, the surprisingly witty and amusing lines. That scene where Jack stalks Wendy up the stairs swinging a baseball bat is astonishingly good (below). This is most certainly a film that seems to grow better and better as it goes on.
In fact, I think that baseball bat scene alone highlights some of the major strengths and some of the major weaknesses of the film right there.
What’s great about King’s novel is the exposition of the abusive and drunkard father. He’s not simply a two dimensional character, but someone with thoughts and feelings and their own devastating backstory. Like many of these psychological horrors, it’s a character study. I think this is something Kubrick’s manages to capture – abuse is one of the main themes throughout. Kubrick himself basically abused the cast, as a very cold and distant man, until Duvall’s hair started falling out. Tying in with the nature of Jack Torrence, it creates an incredibly effective atmosphere to the whole story.
It is also beautiful and disturbingly visual. The set is amazing, and varying from the blood pouring from the lift, the ageing corpse in room 237, the two terrifying twins, or even the use of the steady cam, you can’t help but feel your eyes widen. When Jack goes to the bar and talks with his favourite bartender Lloyd, it’s a stylistic triumph. When Wendy discovers ‘all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy’, it’s a brilliant piece of construction. When Jack chases Danny in the icy cold maze, your mind is completely devoted to this one image. These are simply moments that are burned permanently in the memory.
Kubrick is the ultimate artist of the cinema, and manages to create a visual language that is never forgotten. Perhaps an emotional centre is lacking, but it’s undeniable that the man is a one of a kind genius. He’s one of the most important filmic artists ever. Even an indignant King said:
Even when a director such as Stanley Kubrick makes such a maddening, perverse and disappointing film as The Shining, it somehow retains a brilliance that is inarguable; it is simply there.Stephen King
Kubrick is, no doubt, a challenged and flawed man, damaged by his own ego and perfectionism, but ultimately, we will never see his like again.
Weaknesses? That incredibly annoying score is one. Wow, did they over blow it. It just feels so distractingly unnecessary at points. Perhaps part of it is trying to unnerve the audience – similarly to the half a beat too late cutting of the dialogue at the start, or the dizzying dissolves between every single scene – but I just found it all irritating.
The acting is also a massive talking point. To be honest, I don’t think Shelley Duvall is as bad as people make her out to be in this film. She has a few awkward moments, sure, but she seems truly terrified in that scene above. Jack Nicholson is the man I want to talk about.
At this point in his career, he’s already firmly established himself as a big name with the likes of Chinatown and One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. He’s sitting pretty, and nothing really needs to motivate him in a role. And this flares through. He so dramatically overplays it ends up being comedic rather than scary. Jack Torrence is a well rounded, fascinating character in the book, with incredible depth to him and his psyche. King was sympathetic to the character, struggling with alcoholism himself at the time. He wanted an everyman actor to play the lead. But Nicholson plays his own stereotype and just completely butchers that whole idea.
He seems crazy from minute one. It’s not a slow burning decline or change, which is strange for a two and a half hour film, because that’s certainly possible to do. This was one of the most disappointing parts of the film for me. Jack is a turbulent man in the book – in the film, he’s just a crackpot. This is one of his worst performances ever, in my humble opinion.
Another aggravation was that I don’t think I’d truly be able to understand the plot at all without reading King’s version. The symbolism is meaningless, and Kubrick changes the story so much its virtually unrecognisable. You don’t have any backstory and explanation, and while I understand things have to be cut, it ends up feeling like The Shining should have been about twice as long and was mangled in the editing room.
When this film first came out, it was met by critical reviews and a general bad reception. Even later, in October 2013, journalist Laura Miller wrote:
In King’s The Shining, the monster is Jack. In Kubrick’s, the monster is Kubrick.Laura Miller
And it’s a sentiment I can’t help agreeing with. Yet even after watching The Shining, it is a film that you struggle to forget. With age, you can’t help but want to go back for another rewatch. And because of that, I think it’s not only become a cult classic, but widely regarded as one of the best psychological horrors ever. Is it? No, definitely not. But it’s undeniable that it’s unlike anything else.
The Shining – 8 out of 10