The Shining (1980)
–I dreamed that I, that I killed you and Danny. But I didn’t just kill ya. I cut you up in little pieces. Oh my God. I must be losing my mind.
Stephen King famously had problems with Stanley Kubrick’s version of King’s novel, The Shining. In recent years, he has admitted that Kubrick made a good film, but that he doesn’t agree with the adaptation of his work. King felt that the protagonist, Jack Torrance, was too far removed from his original vision of the character, and that the casting of Jack Nicholson for the part was a bad choice. It seems odd today, to think that King would dislike Nicholson for the role since it has become so iconic. Yet, I think I understand why he felt that way.
In the novel, Jack Torrance is obviously affected by the ghosts of the hotel. There is a slow progression in his degeneration. In the Kubrick film, Jack Torrance looks a little crazy from the start. He’s wrapped too tightly…too eager to please, too desperate for this job as caretaker for the Overlook hotel deeply isolated in the Rocky Mountains. In fact, he comments on how much the isolation appeals to him as an aspiring writer. It feels much like running away from the rest of the world and his considerable problems.
Shelley Duvall’s Wendy Torrance frequently comes under fire for being too mousy, too meek, too passive. What strikes me as I watch is her extreme nervousness before they ever get to the Overlook. She smokes with trembling fingers and explains to the doctor how Jack dislocated Danny’s shoulder. The doctor’s face is priceless. She is in shock and doesn’t know quite how to respond to this disturbing tale. Wendy, to me, feels like an abused wife. Yes, she can be a little annoying, but her goal at all times is to provide whatever is best for the needs of her family.
For such a prolific writer, Stephen King has always excelled in depicting writer’s block. In The Shining, we are presented with writer’s block in its most vicious form – one that threatens the life of a family quite literally. As a writer, myself, I could empathize with Nicholson’s frustration about being given advice by a non-writer about how to overcome a block. It’s obvious he’s still a little in control of his impulses in that scene or he would have tried to kill Wendy right then.
The Shining is a scary film, but for me it’s not really the acting or the plot that give it that spookiness. It all lies with how Kubrick shoots scenes and the way the film is scored. I’ve used the opening scene in an exercise with my students. They watch it with no sound and then with the score turned up. Since, all of my students live in the mountains they don’t find the setting claustrophobic. Instead, their thoughts are much more to run along the lines of, “Wow, that’s gorgeous. I wonder where it is. Maybe I can talk the family into going there on our next vacation.” It’s only with the score restored that they feel a sense of menace. At the end of the film, I’d swear that there is an homage to the shrieking strings of Psycho.
Stephen Spielberg tells a story about talking to Stanley Kubrick about The Shining. Spielberg felt that Jack Nicholson went over the top. Kubrick asked him to name his top five greatest actors. Spielberg named people like Spencer Tracy, James Stewart, Clark Gable and Cary Grant. Kubrick noted that he hadn’t listed James Cagney. Spielberg realized this was true and Kubrick pointed out that even though Spielberg liked Cagney he didn’t consider him to be in the top five greatest actors of all time. Kubrick did and it’s why he doesn’t consider Nicholson’s performance to be too much. It made sense to Spielberg and does to me too.