Endurance and Growth
As soon as we sat down to plan SideWays Cinema’s October 30th launch, it became clear that ‘The Shining’ (1980) and ‘Hellraiser’ (1987) had to feature. But whilst ‘Hellraiser’ is returning to cinemas to celebrate its 30th Birthday, ‘The Shining’ has simply become a staple of the Halloween release slate, filling auditoriums year on year as its reputation both endures and grows.
But in the 37 years since its release, we’ve heard it all. From quirky interviews with on-set electricians to feature-length docs exploring the themes, and I questioned what there was to say about ‘The Shining’ that hadn’t already been said.
The film’s a cultural phenomenon, capturing the imagination (and shredding the nerves) of millions. It’s spawned countless imitations and parodies (see below), and the web is bloated with references direct and obscure. But for me, it’s the unique ‘underworld’ of fan-made art that best captures the essence of the film.
The ‘Hellraiser’ franchise may span ten books, a comic series and more, but it’s ‘The Shining’ – one film based on one novel – that’s created an entire subculture.
So what is it about the film that’s enabled it to burrow so deep into the minds of so many?
Of course the storytelling double-hit of Kubrick and King is crucial, but there must be something else. Something deeper. ‘The Shining’ isn’t just a well-regarded horror, it’s one of an elite handful of movies whose characters and images have transcended film to become everyday references.
I decided to make this ‘subculture’ an integral part of the retrospective. Not just by showcasing the best examples of ‘fan art’ throughout, but by speaking with those who created it. The artists interpreting these images could surely explain better than me why they’re so intoxicating.
So I cracked open my steelbook, cranked the volume on the sound bar, and braced myself. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d watched the film in full, just it’s truly disturbing, genuinely iconic moments.
The first frames hit me – those sweeping shots of the Rockies, those ‘Dies Irae‘ horns – and I realised… I was more than happy to revisit ‘The Shining’ after all.
The Two Jacks
After the opening titles we’re straight into ‘The Interview’. And it’s here that we’re instantly exposed to an element of the film Stephen King takes issue with.
Oh, I should probably mention: I think its important we talk about King’s problems with the film. Yes, ultimately it’s Kubrick’s work, but behind it lurks an infamous division between writer and director, and now seems as good a time as any to start discussing it.
By 1980 Jack Nicholson had cemented his star-quality (‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’, ‘Chinatown’) whilst lesser known work (‘Five Easy Pieces’, ‘The Passenger’) showcased a subtler side. But King disagreed with his casting in ‘The Shining’, and it’s an opinion he still holds. His primary criticism is Jack’s character arc, or lack thereof. “(In the book) you see this guy, Jack Torrance, trying to be good, and little by little he moves over to this place where he’s crazy” he told Rolling Stone in 2014. “(But) when I saw the movie Jack was crazy from the first scene”.
I kind of see what King’s saying. There is that mad-Jack glint in Nicholson’s eye during the interview, and it’s at its most notable as we transition to his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and son Danny (Danny Lloyd). But Kubrick is a man who doesn’t do things by accident, and I doubt it’s by chance that it’s at this moment – the introduction of ‘family’ – that we first glimpse the demonic spectre of the Torrance to come.
King summarises his concerns over the Jack arc with a question: “where is the tragedy if the guy shows up for his job interview and he’s already bonkers?” It’s a point that forms the crux of the novel vs. film debate. But whilst King’s attachment to his ‘Jack’ is understandable, does it mean the Kubrick ‘Jack’ is any less powerful?
Away from the King/Kubrick beef (for now), let’s talk screenplay. Ten minutes in and we’ve got the tragic Overlook Hotel backstory; the bones of the Torrance character – job, disposition, ambitions; and we’re introduced to his family, complete with potentially disturbed son with definitely disturbed finger. Plus, we get that tsunami of blood slow-rushing towards us and a snap cut to those twins.
Now, to get all that ‘information’ across, along with an ominous tone firmly of the horror genre… Well to me that’s just damn good screenwriting. They say a Hollywood reader moves on after the first ten pages if they’re not compelled to turn to page eleven (1 page = 1 minute). And whilst I appreciate this script was never slumming it round the basement of a studio, hoping to be discovered… If it had been… Well the chances are it would’ve been pushed upstairs pretty quick.
A few more minutes and we’ve discovered Danny has ‘blackouts’ and Jack’s a recovering alcoholic. Sober for five months now and loyal Wendy believes he’ll remain so. Drunk Jack isn’t so nice. Drunk Jack accidentally dislocated Danny’s shoulder once. So will Jack stay sober? And seriously, what’s up with Danny?
The (Actual) Shining
‘Closing day’ and a candid chat about the ‘shining’ – seems things that happened a long time ago leave a trace. A ‘shine’.
For Danny, this means… Look. If we get into the mechanics of it now we’ll be here all day. But I will say that what’s essentially the ‘B’ story still wonderfully feeds our central theme: the past comes back to haunt us. Thank God Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers) is around to explain things so succinctly… Stay out of room 237 though, yeah?
A month later and we’re tracking Danny through the corridors. Looks cool. Is cool…
And then the maze – a symbol of Jack’s slide into the Overlook’s grasp. Our story is literally journeying deeper ‘into the woods’ as Wendy and Danny travel further into the maze. All our characters are ‘getting lost’. Losing their way, in their own way.
Tracking Danny through the corridors again. Looks cool. Is cool… Wait that’s room 237… But, Scatman said—
These are the recurring visual motifs that really haunt the audience, but Jack’s slump into madness is the skeleton that gives them purpose and meaning. Stephen King isn’t convinced, calling the film, “a Cadillac with no engine in it… You can’t do anything with it except admire it as sculpture.”
While we’re with King, let’s return to his core question. If Jack wasn’t “already bonkers”, then by the time he’s telling Wendy to “get the fuck out of ” his ‘office’, he certainly is. It’s underlined in the following scene – a demonic off-camera gurn as Wendy and Danny frolic in the snow.
This has to be our Iconic Moment Number One. “What do I like about the Shining?” Asks Veronika Vulpes of Moscow-based Paper Films. “Style, music, hidden meanings, countless interesting details. And Jack Nicholson of course”.
The artist’s attention to detail, style, and her admiration for Nicholson’s performance all materialise in her powerful work. She seamlessly evokes the cold psychosis of Torrance whilst nailing the key cult elements of the film.
Horror On Repeat
Tracking Danny through the corridors (again). Looks cool. Is cool… In all seriousness though, the repetition of the maze-like carpet trawl – Danny on his ‘Big Wheel’ – does offer a labyrinth-like insight into Jack’s psychological descent. It’s a clever concealment of the speed with which Torrance’s sanity actually declines, and it’s a trick that’s only possible with visual storytelling.
The book, too, has a strong focus on repetition. But rather than Danny and his Big Wheel, King’s repetition can be found in his recycling of particular words and phrases: the wasps; the bar doors; the mist. The author’s themes also concern repetition: Jack’s struggle not to become his Father; his journey towards repeating the same horrific behaviour as his predecessor… Could Kubrick’s use of repetition be a visual nod to King’s?
This repetition led ‘RocknRollBitch‘ of Rock n Roll Bitch Art to explore the iconic set-design. “I just remember feeling asphyxiated by the colour red – the carpet is terrifying in itself” she says. “The claustrophobic space (and) the vastness of the hotel… It still resonates with people”. RocknRollBitch‘s dramatic representation of that c21arpet reveals both the vastness and claustrophobia she describes, and you can read more from her here.
“people become immersed in the imagery and intensity of how a set can become a performance in its own right”
Iconic Moment Number Two is the first real appearance of the ghost-twins. Shaun Edwards is founder of Colours Fly Art Prints, Bristol, and he captures the moment perfectly. “There are so many stand-out scenes in the film”, he says, “but the one that freaks me out most is the ‘Come play with us Danny’ scene featuring the Grady twins… Terrifying!”
By eschewing the twins finer characteristics in favour of white silhouettes, Shaun conjures even more dread. And by utilising that maze-like carpet as his backdrop, he eerily rebuilds the scene in our minds… The blood splatters help too.
Lets talk Father-Son bonding, ‘Shining’-style. “As a young father (I) was horrified by my occasional feelings of real antagonism toward my children,” King told The Paris Review in 2006. They’re feelings he explores in the novel, but how does the film handle the decaying line between Jack’s love and resentment towards his family? For me, I’d say the scene could be more powerful.
Nicholson’s acting is fine within the confines of Kubrick’s Jack, and I disagree with the Paris Review sentiment that he, “was playing the same motorcycle psycho (from) all those biker films”. But I can’t help feeling there’s a missed opportunity to explore something deeper. To explore more of King’s Jack and the “desperate love” he feels towards Danny. It’s all a bit 80’s stock-horror and that works against the film’s better moments.
In my view, it’s also one of a few instances where the music (Bella Bartok – jarringly ineffective) detracts from a scenes emotional content . Perhaps it’s a moment King was considering when he said Kubrick showed, “no sense of emotional investment in the family whatsoever.”
Unexplained bruises on Danny lead to inevitable accusations and Jack winds up in the ‘Golden Room’. He’s back on the booze and demons are surfacing in more ways than one. The bartender, the beautiful woman who’s in fact dead and decaying, and the family – a unit of togetherness – falling apart. Duality, right? Well right or wrong, it’s undeniably shit-scary.
Delbert Grady – former caretaker of the Overlook knows Danny’s using his ‘shine’ to get Scatman back in the game. He also has an idea: Jack should stop Wendy and Danny from involving themselves in his business by “correcting them”. After all, he’s “always been the caretaker”.
Alright. I’m skimming over the good parts now, but don’t worry. There’s so much more good to get to.
Speaking of Scatman, let’s briefly skip to the end here and deal with another novel deviation: Dick Hallorann’s death. He’s the most likeable character, we’ve just followed his treacherous journey back to the Overlook, and he’s oh-so-close to saving the day before taking an axe to the belly.
When the film was released it had King fans in uproar. But when I first saw the scene (and with no knowledge of the book), I have to admit the shock-horror moment shook me. It reminded me of Arbogast’s investigation in ‘Psycho’ (1960). The detective was oh-so-close to discovering the shocking truth of the Bates Motel, only for ‘Mother’ to come out of her room, knife raised…
All Work And No Play…
Iconic Moment Number Three: The One Where Wendy Discovers The Fruits Of Jack’s Labour.
His literary efforts amount to endless reams of ‘ALL WORK AND NO PLAY MAKES JACK A DULL BOY’. Like the twins, it’s an iconic moment that’s much imitated, never bettered. Full credit to Shelley Duvall for Wendy’s horrified reaction. The scene would have nowhere near the impact it does if the actress (who reportedly had a torrid time on set) hadn’t given it the human response the other elements so desperately need to… Shine.
Like Jack, Kubrick’s Wendy is another character Stephen King takes issue with. In 2013 he told the BBC, “Shelley Duvall as Wendy (is) just there to scream and be stupid and that’s not the woman I wrote about.” His Wendy is indeed a deeper character. Her unwillingness to display her Mother’s traits mirrors Jack’s struggle to accept the sins of his Father as he unbearably slides towards repeating them. Whilst Kubrick’s film is undoubtedly a horror, King’s book is equally a tragedy.
The reveal of the writer’s work propels us towards the finale. Jack is now fully in the Overlook’s hold and it’s ‘run or die’ for Wendy and Danny. Nicholson’s mad, murderous Torrance of the final act is the most iconic ‘character’ of the film, and whilst it’s these sequences that have inspired the most frightening fan-art, they’ve also led to the silliest parodies.
It’s not long before we have Iconic Moment Number Four. And it’s surely the most iconic of all.
A line that was improvised by Nicholson is now not only the most famous line from the movie, but one of the most famous lines from the movies. Somewhat ironic then, that Nicholson’s dialogue was lifted from the small screen‘s ‘Tonight Show’.
JD of Print MEME, based in San Francisco, echoes the thoughts of thousands of film fans worldwide. “‘The Shining’ is the first movie that truly scared me, and Nicholson smashing his way through the door has always stuck with me” he says. “It’s such an iconic movie image, so being able to distil it down to pure black and white was a great way to highlight what made it so scary”.
He says it’s the “expressiveness in Nicholson’s face as he leers through the door” that really gives the audience the creeps, and it’s hard not to agree with the artist. I love the way the image is depicted on JD’s website. It neatly illustrates one of the key points of this article – that for all the horror and psychosis in the film, it’s characters and images have still managed to penetrate the everyday lives of millions of normal people.
Fire and Ice
The climax of the film sees Kubrick’s Jack end his rampage by tracking Danny through the maze. Danny escapes. Jack freezes to death. That look on his face though… Lets be honest, it’s verging on comedic as all the parodies spring to mind. Nevertheless, it has to go down as our Iconic Moment Number Five.
Ciaran Monaghan runs Ciaran Monaghan Art in Belfast, and his depiction of Torrance’s final rampage draws into focus yet another distinction between Kubrick’s Jack and King’s original. “The book is hot, and the movie is cold; the book ends in fire, and the movie in ice” King told Rolling Stone. Monaghan’s picture depicts the ‘ice’ of the movie, but his warm colours represents the ‘fire’ of the book.
King leaves no doubt in the novel that it’s the Overlook possessing Jack – it even alters his physical appearance. But frozen Nicholson’s crazed grin is Kubrick’s only admission to this part of the book’s narrative. King’s own 90’s TV adaption fully explores Torrance’s physical transformation, but poorly judged acting and budget constraints mean this comes off as more slapstick than effective.
One powerful aspect of the book that the film sadly does lack, however, is the crushing moment Danny gets cornered and begs with his Father for his life. Here, King allows Jack to momentarily remember who he is – to control his body. He’s even agonisingly able to tell his son how much he loves him, giving Danny the opportunity to escape. Ultimately, King’s Jack does then indeed die in fire when the Overlook goes up in flames. It’s a flawed hero’s sacrifice, and an emotional ending to a powerful book. Kubrick ignored it.
The director told Michael Ciment in 1981 that, “the novel is by no means a serious literary work, but the plot is for the most part extremely well worked out, and for a film that is often all that really matters”. Kubrick is not a man who needs to explain his creative choices. Like King, his reputation and breadth of work speaks for itself. Bottom line? His film works – both as an adaption and as a spectacle.
King’s reaction is completely understandable though, and for me his most relevant criticism concerns the arc of his central character. King poured his heart into ‘The Shining’, burying his deepest feelings and darkest fears within Torrance. And it’s true: the film’s Torrance descends into ‘crazy’ awfully quickly. But it’s a slide that’s handled with such visual wisdom and cinematic style that it’s rightly celebrated.
Kubrick took feelings out of the equation in his quest to maximise a novel’s big-screen impact. In the end, I view his ‘ice’ to King’s ‘fire’ as a metaphor for Kubrick’s treatment of the authors book: a cold, calculating approach to someone else’s warmly individual work.
I guess you could say the director took something deeply personal and made it ‘nothing personal’. Ironic then, that his film has become something very personal to millions of fans worldwide. I’ve focused on the artists, but there are writers, filmmakers, musicians, designers… Countless creative individuals touched and inspired by Kubrick’s work.
And it shines both because of, and in spite of, the book it’s adapted from.