The Light House Cinema Book Club: The Shining

by Padraic Coffey

Though revered among critics, Stanley Kubrick’s reputation as a cold, clinical filmmaker seems unlikely to dissipate, even in his death. An examination of his filmography exposes the erroneousness of such an argument; few could sit through Paths of Glory or Barry Lyndon without experiencing surges of pathos. That said, there are certain Kubrick films where emotion and humanity take a backseat to technical wizardry, and the source of this perception of detachment is rendered more explicable. The Shining is one such film.

Released in 1980, The Shining saw Kubrick, still smarting from the somewhat underwhelming critical reaction to Barry Lyndon in 1975, collaborate with Stephen King, one of the most popular novelists in the world. King’s novel, published in 1977, was pure psychological horror, typical of the New England native; reformed alcoholic and disgraced school-teacher Jack Torrance accepts the role of caretaker in an isolated, snowbound Colorado hotel with his wife, Wendy, and five-year-old son Danny. Seen as a chance to decamp and produce a literary masterwork, Jack slowly succumbs to the overwhelming forces at work in the Overlook Hotel, with which Danny shares a psychic kinship.

King’s novel was instilled with reams of subtext; references abound to the Watergate scandal (President Nixon having allegedly stayed in the hotel), the Vietnam war (Jack’s brother having been killed in combat), the Stonewall riots (disparagingly referred to as the product of “hommasexshuls” by incumbent caretaker Watson) and the assassination of John F. Kennedy, detailed in the mammoth scrapbook found by Jack in the hotel’s basement. “I think this place forms an index of the whole post-World War II American character”, asserts Jack in the original text, beholding several events that have taken place since the hotel’s inception.

King’s disappointment with Kubrick’s adaptation was therefore understandable. Having resided in England since 1962, Kubrick perhaps did not feel the need to incorporate such weighty subject matter into the film. Instead, he streamlined the book’s narrative to its bare essentials, particularly in his preferred European cut, 25 minutes shorter than its American counterpart (the version currently doing the rounds in British and Irish cinemas is the extended edition). While setting the film almost entirely within the confines of the Overlook affords Kubrick the opportunity to heighten the claustrophobia at the core of novel, it nonetheless undermines the characterisation present in King’s novel.

The first scene, Jack’s interview for the role of caretaker with manager Ullman, is an incredibly sanitised take on the book’s opening chapter. In King’s novel, Jack and Ullman clash antagonistically, the manager grilling him on his alcoholism, his dismissal from the school in which he was teaching and his seeming inappropriateness for the job. In the film version, Jack and Ullman’s conversation is a rather stilted exchange, with overly formal and unconvincing dialogue (would Ullman really inform a potential employee of a murder-suicide tragedy in such sensationalist language as “he killed his family with an axe”?).

Proceedings are not aided by the casting of Jack Nicholson is the role of Torrance. Though Nicholson had proved himself one of the finest screen actors of the 1970s in films such as Chinatown and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Shining marks a transition towards the exaggerated performances that would dominate the later stages of his career, relying heavily on facial tics and arched eyebrows. King was unhappy with the casting of Nicholson – his favoured choice was Jon Voight – though he had already exercised his veto on Robert De Niro, Harrison Ford and Robin Williams for the role. Nicholson and co-star Shelley Duvall, as Wendy, share little chemistry, raising the question not of whether their marriage is disintegrating before the viewers’ eyes, but how it could have possibly lasted in the first place.

Duvall not only suffered on set of The Shining – Kubrick demanded multiple takes of emotionally draining, tearful scenes – but in the aftermath of the production, nominated for Worst Actress at the 1980 Golden Raspberry Awards, though, in many ways, her performance is stronger than Nicholson’s. Many are divided on whether the portrayal of Wendy panders to notions of the helpless ‘final girl’ trope – common in horror cinema from the 1970s onwards – coined by film theorist Carol J. Clover, or whether Wendy is, in fact, a more self-reliant character, capable of defending herself and Danny from the far-gone Jack towards the end of the film. The latter argument was supported by film historian Kim Newman, who regarded the extended version as far superior to the European cut.

Duvall was not the only member of the cast and crew held up in ridicule; Kubrick himself was nominated for Worst Director of 1980 at the Golden Raspberries, a notion that seems ludicrous in light of his technical achievements on the film. Regardless of its ruthless condensing of the source material, The Shining is a remarkable film both visually and aurally. Kubrick enlisted Garret Brown, inventor of the then-state of the art Steadicam, to capture extended tracking shots through the corridors of the Overlook, a feat made all the more impressive considering the propensity for modern filmmaking to digitally splice numerous takes together in a deceptively seamless fashion.

The film’s reputation as one of the most frightening ever made is borne more out of slow-burning tension – aided by a truly sinister synthesiser-heavy music – than traditional shocks or gore. Ironically, King’s book is far heavier on violence and histrionic horror motifs, with animated topiary animals attacking characters towards the novel’s literally explosive climax. Endless parodies on television shows like The Simpsons may have blunted the effectiveness of Kubrick’s version, though the mischievous and quite incomprehensible closing shot still has to power to send patrons into the foyer debating its metaphysical implications, as was done in the thoroughly enjoyable group discussion, chaired by Chelsea Morgan Hoffman and Charlene Lydon, in the Light House Cinema on Monday 5th November.

The next Light House Cinema book club event takes place on 3rd December, 2012. The topic for discussion is William Goldman’s The Princess Bride, following a screening of Rob Reiner’s cinematic adaptation.

Twitter: Padraic_Coffey

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One thought on “The Light House Cinema Book Club: The Shining

  1. Pingback: To Flee or Freeze? Neural Circuits of Threat Detection Identified | Brain Waves

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