While the cultural impact of The Shining is one of pure infamy, it is why it has such a long-lasting impact that is of interest to me. Would it not be easier to say that it is the direction and vivid, influential work of Stanley Kubrick that makes it so? Possibly, yes, as that is such a huge part of what makes The Shining so engaging as a thriller. But it stretches to far more than direction, which is incredible through and through. What this adaptation of the Stephen King classic manages to do, though, is make itself far removed from the literary text, something that Kubrick was no stranger to. He would often meddle with the prose of original texts to suit his image better, take 2001: A Space Odyssey or Traumnovelle, which would eventually become Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. Is such flagrant dismissal of the author a great championing trait or a spit in the face of the creatives that aided Kubrick, years later, to success?
It is both, that is the easiest answer to give. The Shining is, according to King, not all that similar to his book. No surprise there, but it is the reasoning for their butting of heads that strikes up the best conversation. Kubrick goes against the ethics and merits of what King had attempted with his tale of Jack Torrance and the powers of the Overlook Hotel. “Five months of peace is just what I want”, is the reason Torrance wants to stay as the caretaker of the hotel, so he can work on his book and enjoy the quiet months with his family. In any other setting, it would be idyllic and calming to those that wish to be whisked away into the quiet solitude this isolation can provide. That is the obvious draw to make, but Kubrick never felt comfortable trying out the ordinary topics of the thriller or horror. An eventual build-up of bumps in the night and eerie scenes of ghostly and haunting encounters are present, but it is how they are conducted that changes the pacing and shifts the dynamic away from what King had first envisioned.
Much of this is channelled through Jack Nicholson’s performance. Even from these early moments where Torrance is applying for the job, there is a lack of sympathy or sincerity found on the face of this soon-to-be maniac. Perhaps that is a by-product of Nicholson, though, for his main draw as a leading man is the menace he can produce on his face almost out of nowhere. The raise of those eyebrows and the creepy smile as he hears his son has seen cannibalism on the television is just one of the many pockets that provide Nicholson with the overwhelming notion that he is, absolutely, beyond terrifying.
Still, it is not often he relies on this face, only when Nicholson demands it. Most of the time, Kubrick relies on his lack of presence. Aside from the sudden, extreme-close ups and zooms, he is free and happy to leave the camera lingering on one particular place or person. His camera moves with the characters. If they turn their head to peer around the doorframe, so too does the camera. We are latched onto Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and Danny (Danny Lloyd) rather immediately with this strange intimacy. How Kubrick formulates horror is through the same methodology he used in 2001: A Space Odyssey. He is not in any rush to take these characters anywhere, and even then, they move along with steady pacing and intense camerawork. Encroaching fear and the absence of real terror is far more effective than showing what these characters should be fearful of.
The Shining is more engaged with its author who cannot write than it is of its titular surrealism that allows contact between those who shine. That is lost almost entirely to a series of scenes that become angered, well-written character studies that are filmed to perfection. There is hesitation and anxiety between many families, but not as much as there is between the Torrance unit. Danny and Jack, in particular, their icy relationship spirals rapidly. Are these the actions of Danny or the spirits that torment him? Kubrick doesn’t want to reveal it, and it is better that way, for it has opened the doors to so many theories, all of which are probably quite far from the truth at the heart of the Overlook Hotel.