The Shining – Kubrick vs King


Lost in The Labyrinth

In 1977, Stephen King added a third blockbuster to his ever-expansive bibliography of horror stories in that of The Shining. Given its success, The Shining was destined to become a tentpole movie, but it was also one of the most personal stories King had written in how it took inspiration from his own experience as a father and as an alcoholic. Despite the difficult subject matter, it isn’t hard to see why Hollywood would take such an interest in the tale. At the time, The Exorcist had just broken box office records around the world, so horror was very much the genre of the day, and the tortured character of Jack Torrance was a part any movie star would sell their soul to play. It’s curious then that it was Stanley Kubrick who expressed an interest in bringing the story to screen, a director who for much of his career preferred projects that examined their leads as representations of humanity as a whole rather than in ones that were exclusively focused on the soap opera drama of a standard character analysis. Further to this, though Kubrick decided to work in partnership with a novelist to complete the screenplay, it was a woman named Diane Johnson he chose, not King himself, who maintains he declined the opportunity to work on the movie due to Kubrick having a reputation for being difficult while others maintaining that King was never even asked. Whatever the case, it must have become a point of frustration for King given in multiple interviews over the years, he explained that the only communication he had in regards to the adaptation was an unexpected phone call from Kubrick that seemed to leave both men unfulfilled.

My name is Simon Fay and you’re watching Content Lit, a channel dedicated to the best books of the 20th century. In these episodes, I’ll be looking at a selection of novels that Stanley Kubrick translated to screen, a director whose filmography was made up of thirteen motion pictures, eleven of which were based on books. Each of these novels was distinct in what inspired the director to take them on. Each of their writers had a different reaction to seeing their work transcribed in such a way. As such, I’ve created an episode for the projects that are of particular note in how the films and novels compare, among which you’ll find A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke, and that I’ll link to at the end of this video. But for now, I just want to draw your attention to one of the more jarring adaptations, The Shining by Stephen King, a story that began life as the heartfelt struggle of an abusive addict to overcome his demons but that in the process of turning it into a film became an allegory for the brutal nature of all mankind. Before we get to that though, I’d like to ask exactly where Stephen King ended and his character Jack Torrance began…

How Nightmares Are Born

It’s common knowledge that a novel benefits from drawing upon its author’s experience. In most instances, we can take this to mean that there was some personal tragedy that inspired their work or maybe that there was a prior literary work that influenced them, but we aren’t usually privy to all of the details. In the case of Stephen King, because he himself is such a household name, there’s actually an extraordinary amount of information on how both his life and favourite stories affected his novels and pieces of short fiction. However, when it comes to The Shining, you don’t have to go beyond its first few pages to get a taste of the kind of literary and popular culture influences that fed into its creation. The book opens with an extract from The Masque of the Red Death by Edgar Allen Poe, a writer who rivals King as a Master of Horror, and leads into the opening chapter where we meet our protagonist, Jack Torrance, who’s being interviewed for the job of caretaker at a secluded hotel known as the Overlook. Jack and his family are to be responsible for the place while it’s abandoned over the course of the winter season, which is the perfect arrangement for them, given that Jack is a recovering alcoholic as well as a writer’s block stricken playwright who could do with some time to reflect. This has all the makings of a standard haunted house tale, but the story of Jack and the Overlook is a lot more contemporary than the stuffy horror of old. From the outset, we’re treated to the vulgar inner monologue of Jack in which he curses, swears and spits homophobic vitriol at a hotel manager who comes off as such a cartoonish funeral director type of trope, you can practically imagine the part was written for Vincent Price, the star of countless B-Movies throughout the ’50s and ’60s. The Shining, in other words, combines two of Stephen King’s most abiding interests – classic gothic literature as well as camp horror cinema – and brings it all into the modern, uncensored age. The theme of the novel too is identified from the very start: Jack’s abusive streak has driven his family to the verge of collapse. At home, his wife Wendy recalls how her son Danny’s arm was broken by a drunken Jack, and she comes close to tears when she wonders what it must be like to be a child who has to navigate the fallout between parents after such events. Worse still, she knows how much Danny still loves his father. Maybe she still loves him too. And she terrifies us with the fact that she’s willing to spend the winter locked down with this man who has already proven himself capable of such a monstrous act. King’s practical sense of how to tell the story almost feels effortless as he brings us into the mindset of each family member while at the same time allowing us our own objective view of them. But what’s all the more impressive is how he does it while also balancing the need to establish the bizarre hodgepodge of plot elements that will pay off by book’s end.

Danny has psychic powers. He can read other people’s minds. He has visions of a boy named Tony. And he experiences frightening premonitions. Jack, meanwhile, is given a tour of the Overlook hotel as if it’s a Rube Goldberg machine about to be set in motion.

The boiler in the basement is so old that if it’s not attended to it will blow the place sky high. A menagerie of animal hedges are thought by Jack to creep and the hotel has been cleared of any alcohol that might tempt him. What’s more, Danny learns that his psychic power is called shining and when he arrives at the hotel the cook says that he can use it to call him if he’s ever in trouble. The cook also says that the hotel is a hotspot for ghostly sightings and that room 217 should be avoided because it’s easily the building’s most disturbed. The hotel also boasts the finest roquet court in America, a game which utilizes mallets like that held by a murderous figure in one of Danny’s nightmarish visions. And to top it all off, Danny repeatedly experiences episodes in which he sees the mysterious word Redrum flash before his eyes, which adds to the overall effect that we know something terrible is going to happen and that it will probably have to do with his father, but since the characters all seem fated to make the same old mistakes the true horror of the experience will be in finding out how it all unfolds.

This kind of terror at being stuck on an unalterable course toward doom was certainly nothing new in fiction. You can go as far back to the myth of Cassandra who was given the power to see the future then subsequently cursed with inability to change it. But this was also a common enough theme in horror, with Shirley Jackson’s popular gothic novel, The Haunting of Hill House, being a particular inspiration for King. In that novel, a young woman joins a group of people who intend to investigate whether the story’s titular house is actually haunted. In a similar use of The Masque of the Red Death in The Shining, the Shakespear quote, “Journeys end in lovers meeting,” is repeatedly recited by the young woman who seems destined to find some sorry end when she finally makes this critical connection with the as yet unknown lover. Then, over the course of events, her personality becomes so warped by and connected to the house that she refuses to leave the place even as it drives her mad with fear, though it remains ambiguous as to whether it’s a supernatural element that disturbs her or the shattered pieces of her own mind. 

On the face of it you can see how Jackson’s work would have been a reference point for King. As the characters of The Shining experience a series of horrors, much of the story really does allow you to wonder if it’s only in their heads. Moreover, there’s a kind of uncanny fear in some parts of The Haunting of Hill House, where everyday scenes such as the sight of a picnic are imbued with an inexplicable level of dread. It’s a feeling any writer would aspire to recreate, and King does so with some of the more commonplace objects that haunt the Torrance family, such as with an elevator shaft that terrifies Jack or with a fire hose that scares Danny. Nonetheless, it would be wrong to only concentrate on The Shining’s literary influences to figure out where the nightmare came from because a lot of Stephen King’s own life experiences had just as much to do with the story’s creation.

For instance, the location for the book was chosen when King decided he needed to write something set further away from home. When he opened a map of America, he pointed at random to the state of Colorado and so ended up staying in a hotel there, which, coincidentally, was at the end of its tourist season. This meant when he and his wife had dinner in the dining room, all of the other chairs were stacked atop the tables. Afterwards, when his wife went to bed, he would walk the endless corridors, absent of any human contact. Other times, he was the only customer at the bar and was served by a lone staff member. And when he slept one night he suffered an intense nightmare in which his son was being chased through the hotel by what would become the story’s fire hose. It was, as King said, as if the entire book had been given to him by God, but, as suggested already, it was his own sense of craft that brought the disparate experiences together.

In the book, the Torrance family aren’t immediately snowed in at the hotel, but go through a grace period wherein the slow change of seasons has allowed the love between them to flourish once more. Jack is free from alcohol, satisfied with his job at the hotel and enlivened by how well the work on his play is going. Wendy, infected by Jack’s good humour, is hopeful for the future, and Danny has mostly managed to compartmentalise his fearful visions. Still, for as many pages as King dedicates to this idyllic period in their lives, there are further rumblings of what’s to come. Jack discovers a wasp nest beneath the shingles of the roof. It’s a near-lethal run-in for the man, but, more importantly, it acts a metaphor for the dangerous issues he has buzzing about the hive of his brain. In relation to this, Jack’s habit of tucking Danny in every night is both heartwarming and disturbing given that we have a good idea that he will probably do harm again someday. Indeed, when Danny receives another seizure-inducing vision, Jack lashes out at him for stuttering before the dead nest that he brought inside comes to life again and the swarm of wasps attack the boy. Throughout it all, Wendy gets the sense that her husband has begun behaving like he did when he was drinking, and though she knows there isn’t a drop of alcohol to be found, we see Jack’s addiction resurface in the form of his obsession with the history of the hotel. As he broods over a scrapbook that covers the seedy crimes and murders that have happened there, he drifts further and further away from his responsibilities. Suffice it to say, when his old habits return, so does his crippling sense of writer’s block. And if any reader was beginning to wonder if the only threat in the story would come from Jack alone, Danny finally makes the mistake of exploring room 217 in which he has a deadly encounter with the phantom corpse of a woman who had committed suicide there. In this way, rather than use the plot device of snow to trap the family from the outset, such that the fear and madness they experience could be attributed to cabin fever alone, King actually forces them to face some of the darkest recesses of their minds before a single road is closed.

To be precise, Jack’s alcoholism is raised as an issue from the start. It’s part of the reason he’s had to take the caretaker job after having lost his job as a teacher when he assaulted one of his students. This violent streak is one he consciously contends with. He is somewhat aware that it goes deeper than he understands, though when he’s faced with opportunities to actually try and resolve the issue, he has a habit of either deflecting responsibility or falling into a pit of self-loathing and despair. Beyond that, on an everyday level he displays a distinct inferiority complex. He’s able to take advice from the hotel’s working-class janitor, for example, but abhors having to take any from the hotel manager. Worse still, because he’s so utterly incapable of submitting to any situation that he sees as a constraint on his freedom, he exercises every chance he gets to assert his dominance over those around him, most especially his wife. Some of this we see in flashbacks to when he’d leave Wendy alone to go drinking. But even with those days supposedly behind him, he can’t stand the thought of her seeing him do something so servile as to thank his friend for getting him the Overlook job and even after years of marriage he insists on keeping a separate checking account. At first, you might wonder why Wendy would stay with this man. The only reason that seems clear is that she’s desperate to give the relationship one more chance, if only for their son. All the same, as the book delves into her past too, you get a better appreciation for how she has found herself in such a hopeless situation. Her mother was abusive. Even when Wendt was an adult, the woman would psychologically beat her with doubts as to whether she was a good enough parent. Because of this, Jack convinced Wendy to cut her mother out of their lives, which you could argue was only for the best, but given that he had a history of stalking Wendy in their early days and later chose to stop paying for their phone line on the ridiculous grounds that it was too expensive, you can’t help but see it as yet another manipulation by Jack the abuser, who, having cut his victim off from her family is now able to control her all the better. That said, King does leave room for this to be interpreted as an unconscious act on the part of Jack. The character has a history of childhood abuse himself, so it’s not as if the terrible things he’s done have sprung up from some unidentified part of his soul. So, in this way, the turmoil of Jack and Wendy’s relationship could be seen as an emergent pattern, meaning whatever terrible things have happened between them are the result of their combined pasts, not some evil masterplan on his part. Sadly though, where Jack has done his family wrong has been in his failure to help break the pattern, which he could do by taking full accountability for the mistakes of his past to ensure they would not happen again. Interestingly, what makes all of this so compelling to read is that King gets us to root for both Wendy and Jack. Before the snow falls, he doesn’t just open up the hood on their broken relationship for us to see the mechanisms that have allowed it to get so bad. He also enables us to understand their respective pain in a nuanced and sympathetic manner that in many ways was inspired by a life that he had actually lived.

Jack, like Stephen King, is a writer. His desperation to get over a bout of writer’s block is something anybody who has sat down at a keyboard could relate to. More than that though, his work history is similar to King’s; Jack previously worked as a school janitor, a job King held when he was inspired to write Carrie, and they both went on to work as English teachers in prestigious high schools. Jack’s feelings on the students there are utterly contemptuous, and while I doubt King’s were as strong, I suspect he would have shared some of that scorn. Further to that, Wendy seems to have a little less in common with King’s real-life wife, at least in so far as physical appearance, but the book does describe evenings in college when Jack and Wendy would attend writing groups together, which King also talks fondly of in his own biography. Sadly, the book’s main theme of the lineage of abuse was very much inspired by King’s own life. Jack’s childhood differs from King’s, in that King’s father wasn’t around while Jack’s was a tyrannical bully, though King was always quite open about how the book was also inspired by the aggressive feelings he had toward his own children. He didn’t break his son’s arm, as far as I know, but his anger was bad enough that he felt the need to address it and make a point of stating that as the kids got older he ruled out physical punishment as a means of correcting their behaviour. All of this is to say, while King’s personal experience didn’t act as an exact one for one model of domestic abuse for the fictional Torrance family, it did enlighten him to the troubled feelings at work in such situations, which is a good example of how a writer can use what they know to create something new, although whereas this might have inspired the character backgrounds in The Shining, it seems that his real-life battle with alcoholism might have been more directly transcribed into the novel.

In the book, the moment that Jack hit rock bottom and recognised that he had to sober up came when he and a drinking buddy ran over a small bicycle that flashed into the headlights of their car. The two men were drunk and shaken, confused as to what the bike was doing on the road and terrified that there might have been a child on it. In fear that they killed somebody, they pulled over and spent two hours searching among the roadside foliage for a sign that anybody was hurt. In the end, not a drop of blood was found, but it left Jack so rattled that he was forced to face up to how bad his drinking had become. It’s a startling recollection. Certainly disturbing for the question of what the bicycle was doing out there in the first place and a suitably haunting mystery to add to the thickening sense of dread that pervades much of the book. But what makes it actually shocking is that Stephen King wrote it when he was spiralling downward deeper and deeper into the depths of his own addiction. His version of rock bottom came a lot more gradually than it did to Jack and many years after he wrote The Shining. As far as he tells it, he first recognised the problem when he noticed how many cans of beer he’d piled into his recycling bin. His reaction to the revelation though wasn’t to sober up, it was to remind himself of the importance of not getting caught. Because he was famous, if he were to crash his car or mess up in some other way, the media would call attention to his problem and force him to stop. And so he kept drinking and started to take drugs until almost a decade down the line when his wife finally arranged an intervention.

Who can say how much of his alcoholism he understood when he explored the issue in the form of Jack?

After it was written he himself said the novel might have been a subconscious recognition of the problem, though he clearly didn’t appreciate the entirety of that possibility at the time. Even so, it’s an extraordinarily rendered portrait of a family on the brink of disintegration that benefited tremendously from how he related it to his own. Which is all to say, though he was attached to the material when he first wrote it, it clearly became more important to him as time went on, so you can understand why he would repeatedly voice some dislike for Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation. In that version, there’s next to no attempt to explore the nature of Jack’s addiction and the bike that hinted at some hope of him being able to recognise his shortcomings is absent altogether. Though that isn’t to say the innumerable omissions weren’t substituted for some equally fascinating themes that would explore the darkness of human nature in Kubrick’s own distinctive style.

Into the Labyrinth

When it comes to book-to-screen adaptations, very few pairings are as contentious as that of The Shining. Both the original novel and the motion picture have a legion of fans that at the best of times don’t overlap, and at the worst, disdain the other’s version of the tale. In part, you can put this down to Stephen King and Stanley Kubrick each being absolute behemoths of popular culture. It was never just going to be a case of who put together a better story, it would also come down to which creator you preferred. In this respect, for fans of the film there are countless divergences and lengthy character histories in King’s version that might not be to their taste. And on the flip side, for fans of the book the film can seem maddeningly lacking in expository details. On top of which, even for people who haven’t read the book, the portrayal of Jack Torrance can come off as a little cartoonish, a gripe that Stephen Spielberg actually put to Kubrick when pressed about whether he liked the adaptation or not. Overall then, no matter how overshadowed the book has been by the film’s reputation, there have been plenty of well-known criticisms levied against it, though in most instances there is usually a worthwhile rebuttal to be made.

 For starters, Jack Nicholson’s performance is a little unrestrained. As he attends the interview at the start of the film, he already feels like the murderer he’s going to become by the story’s end, a man who has just barely masked his demonic nature. This is an altogether different approach to the character than Stephen King took, who wrote Jack Torrance as the kind of everyday man that Richard Dreyfus could have played. King himself recommended the likes of Christopher Reeves for the role, so you can imagine a more all-American boy-next-door aspect to the character if you want, but the important thing to take away is that King’s Jack was inherently a good man who could be turned bad, while in contrast, Kubrick’s Jack barely a shot of Jamie before he picked up his axe and went on a rampage. Similarly, the part of Wendy, who in the book is a more emotionally intelligent character, was seen as foolish in how Shelly Duvall portrayed her as a woman who seemed to have deluded herself as to what was going on with her husband and son.

Some people have pointed to these takes on the characters as an example of how the film boils down complicated psyches to two-dimensional tropes, with King going so far as to say Kubrick’s version of Wendy was sexist. However, on this point I have to disagree. There are plenty of downtrodden and broken people whose only defence mechanism when faced with a challenge is to try and keep a smile on their face. In this way, I actually think Duvall’s performance is more nuanced than Wendy of the book, it’s just that the details aren’t directly explained in lines of narrative text. In the film, you really do get the impression that on some level she knows how bad things are but she’s so utterly incapable of actually facing it that she’s escaped into this happy-go-lucky persona which, in all fairness, you too would probably want to strangle at times. It’s not as relatable compared to what the average cinema-goer wants out of their leads which generally boils down to providing you with somebody you can admire or identify with, but not every movie has to provide you with a surrogate friend or charm you with an easy to swallow empowerment narrative. Nevertheless, no matter how a fan of the book might have felt about the characters in the film, there was also the issue that a lot of story beats were changed or omitted, in part to allow for a standard motion picture run time, but also because it seemed like Stanley Kubrick wanted to put his own spin on how things went down.

To begin with, the wasp nest allegory is absent from Kubrick’s version. As a plot device, this means that we lose Jack’s introspective flashback to his drunken years as well as what you could consider the hotel’s first attack on the Torrance family. Similarly, in the book the hedge animals that Jack mistakenly thought to creep actually do begin to move in sight of Danny and even try to attack the boy. The point of them isn’t lost entirely though. As allegories and obstacles respectively, the wasp nest and hedge animals each find their replacement in the hedge maze. As a labyrinth, the hedges become a representation of the dark corridors of Jack Torrance’s mind, of how his family are unwittingly trapped in that darkness with him, and in a more literal sense how they are all trapped in the corridors of the haunted hotel. Labyrinths, you might know, traditionally have minotaurs that require sacrifices, so while Jack has to battle his minotaur in the form of his alcoholism, Wendy and Danny have to fight their’s in the form of Jack when he loses that battle, which is to say the minotaur that stalks them around the hotel corridors is a transformative evil that can take many different forms. In the past, it’s been pointed out that the layout of the hotel of the film changes shape for a number of different shots. The window in Ullman’s office, for instance, seems to be set in an impossible exterior wall, but I do sometimes wonder if this was actually an intentional plan. For instance, the production actually had to fit all their sets in such tight quarters that the pantry set was built in their office store room. And it’s not as if there hadn’t been such illogical architecture featured in Kubrick’s work before. The cockpit door of the moon shuttle in 2001 for example doesn’t line up with where the flight attendant would have entered from. All told though, there are enough moments where stuff like furniture and light switches move around from shot to shot that there was probably some degree of intentional confusion on Kubrick’s part-baked into the labyrinthine layout. And on a more literal level, as Danny spends his time in the novel practising how to run in snowshoes for a tense sequence where he has to outpace the hedge animals, Danny of the movie spends his time learning the maze with his mother, which ultimately allows him to outwit his father when the man is at the height of his bloodthirsty rage. In a way, you could interpret this as Danny being more aware of the cycle of violence they’re lost in and thus being able to break from it. For me though, the labyrinth gains its most powerful attribute when you consider it as a metaphor for the film itself. That is, many of Kubrick’s films deal with allegorical narratives that exist below the surface plot. I discuss many examples of this in regards to A Clockwork Orange and 2001: A Space Odyssey in the other episodes of this series. In some cases, there’s a solid enough interpretation of the material that it holds up under intense scrutiny, such as how Homer’s Odyssey feeds into the plot of 2001. While in others the interpretations can feel more like the outlandish fantasies of overzealous fans, such as how some people think that A Clockwork Orange is a warning from Kubrick about the existence of the Illuminati. As ever, this is also true for Kubrick’s version of The Shining to the extent that when you consider the conflicting theories, you might sometimes feel like you’re walking on what seems to be the correct path before you come up against a dead end.

Interestingly, at some stage Kubrick considered using the hedge maze as the primary image on The Shining’s movie poster, so you could relate that to the idea of the film itself being a labyrinth, though I generally prefer to stick to material that made it to the screen.

By way of example, there is the question of whether there’s really any supernatural activity in the Overlook hotel. Stanley Kubrick recognised this as a mystery in the book and emphasised it further in the film. In particular, before Jack is completely unhinged and Wendy has to trap him in the kitchen pantry, it’s possible that every paranormal interaction he’s experienced has all been in his head. To this end, Roger Ebert originally pointed out that every time Jack talks to a ghost, there is a mirror or reflective surface hovering in his eye line, which you could take to mean that there have never been any ghosts and Jack has just been talking to himself. Now, on the one hand, if you do find yourself drawn to this possibility, you must then remember that the ghost of a previous caretaker named Grady supposedly open’s the refrigerator latch for Jack, which would seem to confirm there is a supernatural element at play. As such, the mirrors could just be a representation of how the ghosts are using Jack’s inner demons against him. On the other hand, if you remain staunch in your belief that there are no ghosts, rather than coming up against a dead end, you’re given an opportunity to put forward ideas on how the latch was opened. In this regard, there are a number of theories floating around the movie analytic circles on Youtube, including one by Rob Navarro, that suggests Wendy herself is an unhinged schizophrenic who locked Jack up first and then let him out, which I personally think is a bit of a stretch, and one by Rob Ager who posits that it could have been Danny, which is a natural enough conclusion to draw when you allow for the fact that he’s just a kid who might have felt sorry for his Dad. Whatever the case, the main point is that it seems Kubrick strategically allowed room for an alternative to the Grady ghost to exist while never providing conclusive evidence either way which essentially keeps the audience members trapped in the passages of ifs, buts and maybes.

Indeed, as you wander around this maze of critical theory, there is also the broader sociological commentary at work in the film.

For instance, The Shining contains a handful of references to Native Americans. These might have been inspired by the book, which includes a motif of cowboys and Indians as envisioned by Danny in the haze of an optical illusion illustration he once saw. In Kubrick’s version though, the Overlook hotel itself is said to be built on an Indian burial ground. The cries of these deceased pervade the more intense moments of the soundtrack, and, for those of you interested in phallic imagery, I’m afraid the best I can offer is that the hotel interior is decorated with a tapestry of totem pole-like patterns. More to the point, when both Jack of the movie and Jack of the book pour over their problems with the hotel’s ghostly barman, they each reference a line from a Rudyard Kipling poem that calls to mind the racist assumption that European empires and subsequently the American one were somehow morally just in their enslavement and genocide of native peoples. On a basic level, you could take this all as a direct commentary on how the Indian nations of America were treated, though since the film’s exploration of evil mostly relates to the subject as one man’s abuse of his family, I think it’s more accurate to read it as a commentary on the undercurrent of evil in humanity which emerges in both the actions of individuals and society as a whole. On this subject, the film historian Geoffrey Cocks somehow put together an analysis in which he said that by talking about the genocide of native Americans, Kubrick was actually talking about the holocaust, but I think such a parallel is to get close to the point while missing it entirely in that the imagery was used to speak about a universal truth of human nature rather than to a specific historical incident.

Of course, if you’re on the fence as to whether such messaging could be present in a horror movie, I would say that though this precise theme is absent from the book, within the text Stephen King does imply that the story could act as an allegory for something just as large. 

As with the film, the Overlook manager in King’s version takes pride in the hotel having attracted, “All the best people…” Wealthy individuals that have included industry tycoons, presidents, Hollywood celebrities, gangsters and more have all vacationed there. As Jack of the novel discovers a scrapbook of newspaper clippings that outline the hotel’s history, it inspires him to begin work on a new project, a book in which he will outline the most interesting and gruesome events to have occurred there and that will capture what he considers to be an index of the post World War II American character. All of this, along with other events in the book, is linked to a great masquerade ball that happened in the hotel’s past, wherein when the ballroom clock struck twelve each of the distinguished attendees removed their masks. To this end, because the masquerade ball in the book seems destined to repeat itself as the supernatural ghosts of the hotel begin to take over, it acts as both a reference to the Edgar Allen Poe story that was quoted at the novel’s start, and as a tense countdown to when Jack’s mask of civility will finally be pulled off. More than that though, the clock that acts as the central ornament in the ballroom is specifically said to have been gifted to the hotel by a Swiss diplomat in 1949, which if you’re being particularly analytical you could take as a reference to the Geneva convention that took place in Switzerland of that year. The main aim of that convention was to create an international set of rules that would prevent something like the Holocaust from occurring again, so if Stephen King was specifically referencing that historical tragedy in regards to the attendees of his masquerade ball, I would also read it as him saying that no matter how many laws you write to manage such disturbing aspects of human nature, it will always be a case of just hiding the reality away from sight – the darkness at the root of these horrible atrocities is just going to overwhelm humanity again some time.

Kubrick, for his part, trims out these particular elements, but we do know that he experimented with utilising some aspects of them which is part of the reason why I think he might have decided to include his own veiled representation of the American experience.

As already mentioned, his take on the native American imagery is a notable tweak to the story for one, but there may be yet more such allusions to find. For example, though there is no masquerade ball in the film, in a behind-the-scenes interview with Stanley Kubrick’s daughter, Vivian Kubrick, she happened to pull out some boxes of masquerade masks and said that they had spent months devising the costumes for the ball sequence before it was decided that they should just go black tie. Likewise, though the scrapbook of newspaper clippings about the hotel doesn’t become a major detail in the film, it is sighted on Jack’s desk as he works on his novel and might be why he actually recognises who the Grady ghost is when he speaks with him in the bathroom. Today, this scrapbook prop is housed at the Kubrick archives in London, so I haven’t had the opportunity to examine it myself. Luckily, the film analyst Rob Ager was able to make the trip and, as usual, provide an intriguing theory based on what he found.

In his description, the scrapbook spans many events in American history, among which there are articles about the government’s switch from the Gold Standard. In case you don’t know, the Gold Standard was a system under which America fixed the value of the dollar to a specified amount of gold. By switching away from that system, it essentially gave the government, bankers and economists more direct control over the value of their currency. In regards to The Shining, this would relate to the wealthy class of guests at the hotel of that time period being able to better manipulate the world toward their own ends. I don’t know much about economics, so I won’t get into whether this historical shift actually did put an undue amount of authority into the hands of an already powerful class, however, I would say I’m not completely sold on it as a theme in the movie if only because the scrapbook that would act as the proverbial smoking gun isn’t featured in the film in any substantial way. Now, Rob Ager does at least outline what he considers to be some further on-screen evidence in the form of the film’s final image, a photo that’s dated to the year 4th of July 1921 and that he links to the Gold Standard as set down in Declaration of Independence, and in the nature of the ballroom decor itself, which Kubrick altered to be the hotel’s Gold Room. On top of that, there is the moment when Jack attempts to pay the barman for his drink but finds that his money is refused, presumably because the dollar bills are from a post-Gold Standard world. But for all that, I think the year of the photo would have better established the Gold Standard theme if it had been 1933, the date when the United States officially made the switch, so when you subtract this evidence from the equation along with the possibility that the brief sighting of the scrapbook carries any meaningful significance, the Gold Room becomes a much less ambiguous commentary on the dark aspects of materialistic societies in general. In this way, I think the monetary deal Jack attempts to negotiate with the barman points more toward him having already sold his soul in a previous life. He does, after all, speak about feeling as if he has been at the hotel before, is told by Grady that he’s always been the caretaker, and is pictured as a party guest in the photo taken decades prior. Furthermore, as the caretaker, he demonstrates an absurd amount of pride in his work such that he’s willing to murder his family for it, but any respect he thinks he’s due for fulfilling his duty is apparently the empty promise of a pyramidal social structure. In this regard, the ghosts of the wealthy guests are shown to look down on him and the hotel itself only deigns to speak to him through its low-ranking workers who Jack would have been limited to interacting with if he had been the caretaker back in its heyday. All of which is to say, even if every paranormal sighting is a delusion of Jack’s, it’s still one in which he has been warped by a very real distorted sense of masculinity, whereby his self-esteem has been tied to a job that will never actually reward him. In the book, as it happens, the previous caretaker didn’t have an educated accent until he became a waiter in the afterlife, which you could take to mean he was also promised a reward in return for murdering his family and was subsequently only offered this minor promotion, but I don’t think that’s a necessary detail to consider in order to accept the idea that the movie Jack experiences some feelings of inferiority as the result of having been given a pretty miserable lot in life and that those feelings are why he is so willing to bend over backwards for an invitation to the aptly named Gold Room. Moreover, all of this does kind of tie back into that theme of an elusive darkness at the core of man. I mentioned, for example, how the American government was responsible for the extermination of countless native people, though this isn’t to say that every massacre that occurred was an officially ordered attack carried out by the military. In California alone, sixteen-thousand tribal peoples were killed in a number of campaigns undertaken by local militias that would have been made up of working-class men who had travelled west in search of gold. Men, in other words, like Jack Torrance.

Aside from all that, I do want to say that I didn’t bring up Rob Ager’s Gold Standard analysis just to pick it apart. As you may know, there’s a documentary about The Shining called Room 237 in which much more eccentric interpretations of the movie are put forward and if my intent was to highlight how ridiculous things can get, I would have been better off doing so by referencing one of those. It’s more that there are a lot of fascinating interpretations of the plot presented in Ager’s video essays which are outlined in more comprehensive detail than I’ve taken the time to go over here and that has directly influenced my read of Kubrick’s work. In this respect, he does have another theory about The Shining to which I can I’m a good deal more receptive.

In it, Ager points out there is a motif of bears in the film. You see one in the scene where Danny is examined by a doctor and another in that of the costumed ghost who is spotted by Wendy performing oral on a man. Linking these two scenes together by means of the common imagery they share, as well as with the fact that the bear has similarly styled eyes to the elevator floor dials in Danny’s vision of blood, you could take it as evidence that the family have suppressed the fact that Danny has been sexually abused by his father. Now, if that was all there was to it, I’d just appreciate the idea as another unconfirmed theory. However, there are some hints in the surface plot that it should be taken seriously. For instance, there is a starkly sombre tone in the scene where Jack invites Danny over to his bed. The ball that attracts Danny to enter room 237 is the one Jack bounces against the hotel walls. And that scene is followed by one in which we discover Danny has bruises that he supposedly received in an off-screen attack by a ghost when he entered the room. At face value, you’re inclined to take this account for granted, but if you do wonder whether the ghosts are actually there, as Jack himself implies, there does remain only a limited number of possibilities, which would make Jack himself the most likely suspect. That is to say, whereas many of the theories I’ve summarised here get bogged down in behind-the-scenes information, historical events or the idea that Kubrick is somehow immune to making mistakes in order to back up their validity, the bear theory is a bit more concrete in that it only relies on on-screen information to strengthen a theme that’s already present in the movie. And, in expressing it all as the subconscious anxieties of Jack, Danny and Wendy, it approaches a very difficult and disturbing aspect of reality in a way that unsettles the audience members gradually, rather than just providing a series of surreal scares, which I think is part of what Kubrick was trying to accomplish with the medium of film in general.

I discuss in my other video essay how the main thing Kubrick wanted the audience of 2001: A Space Odyssey to experience was an immediate, visceral reaction (The very nature of the visual experience in 2001 is to give the viewer an instantaneous, visceral reaction that does not—and should not—require further amplification.) and later, went further to say of film in general that the theme, what’s behind the emotion, the meaning, all that comes later. (A film is – or should be – more like music than like fiction. It should be a progression of moods and feelings. The theme, what’s behind the emotion, the meaning, all that comes later.) Similarly, in regards to A Clockwork Orange, though the language of that movie is one of its standout features, Kubrick actually put more importance in the action in his shooting version of the script, which formatted the descriptions of each scene to emphasize the staging rather than the dialogue. I take this to mean that in the films he directed after 2001, the primary experience he was attempting to offer moviegoers was a more abstracted one. That might sound ridiculous to say after I’ve spent X amount of time outlining the intellectual reasoning behind his version of The Shining, but I only mean to say that these analytical interpretations were to be of secondary interest, not irrelevant altogether. For instance, in the creation of his films he did refer to academic texts such as The Hero of A Thousand Faces, Marshall McLuhan’s writings on the nature of media, both Freud’s and Jung’s understanding of the human mind, and in the case of The Shining, The Uses of Enchantment by Bruno Bettelheim, a book that puts forward the idea that the extreme violence and ugly emotions of many fairy tales serve to deflect what may well be going on in the child’s mind. Yes, Kubrick was always hesitant to interact with the scholastic investigations of his work beyond speaking about the main plot details, but there were many occasions over the years where he encouraged viewers to find their own meanings and congratulated those he found to be well observed. There is a letter he exchanged with one fan, for example, who pointed out how the structure of 2001 aligns with Jung’s perceived structure of dreams, or, in another, when he praised the detailed analysis by Margaret Stackhouse who put forward a number of possibilities for what the Monolith could mean. Which is all to say, while I think there is a lot of material in The Shining that’s extremely compelling to decipher intellectually, the startling imagery of things like blood pouring out of elevators and bear costumed men also exist in an attempt to communicate with a deep subconscious part of your mind. It would be reductive to say that the sequences of the film should be constrained to one particular interpretation, but that doesn’t mean each interpretation isn’t fascinating on its own, because really, the evil that Kubrick is attempting to speak about is something that isn’t bound to any one shape or name. The best he could do was attempt to trace the contours of it with this labyrinth of possibilities, while Stephen King took the slightly more daft approach of putting it in the body of a giant flying manta ray… but we’ll get to that in good time…

King of The Shining

I suppose when it comes to examining The Shining one of the main things that should be asked is, which version is scarier? Well, that’s a bit of a subjective question. Some people might wonder why a floating Steadicam shot that follows Danny around the Overlook Hotel is a chilling tension builder, rather than just a boring waste of time, while others might wonder the same about his standoff with the fire hose in the novel. So, in the movie versus book debate, I’ll plant myself firmly in one camp, at least in regards to which terrified me more, and say that the book didn’t make me lose a wink of sleep, whereas while I was editing the film footage for this video, I had to make sure to call it quits before the sun went down each day if I expected to get through the night without having to turn on a light.

Stephen King’s novel, in other words, while eerie and foreboding to begin with, never really gave me a bone-chilling sense of fear, and as the chapters went on, it actually started to feel more like an action movie than it did a haunted house story.

For example, I thought the hedge animals that guard the hotel were spooky enough, but once I realised they wouldn’t be out of place in a Goosebumps novel, it was hard to take them seriously as something that was supposed to give me a scare. To be sure, as the book goes on, they begin to act more like actual animals than any kind of supernatural threat and when Halloran, the hotel’s cook, shows up to save Danny and his mother, he literally has to fight the hedges off like they were a boss in a video game. Additionally, the use of the boiler as a ticking time bomb certainly adds a lot of tension to the story as well as a metaphor for Jack’s inner rage. The looming presence of it as he becomes more interested in the scrapbook is a constant reminder that both he and the hotel could blow up at any time. And, when Jack is finally possessed by the dominant spirit of the Overlook, Danny’s reminder that it’s about to go off prompts a fantastically realised frantic dash on the part of the demons to save the hotel, but it too ultimately plays out like more of a bombastic action sequence when the whole thing explodes and the evil force, seen as a shadowy manta-ray-like creature that I assume was inspired by the cosmic horror of H.P. Lovecraft escapes to fight another day.

More than all that though, I think one element that diffuses a lot of the fear in the novel was the problem of how as the story progressed, Danny began to feel less and less real to me, in that, it often seemed like King was trying to ingratiate him to me, rather than just allowing him to be a kid. This is probably another instance of a subjective problem, but I think that in fiction the type of magical logic that children’s minds follow can become kind of artificial when composed for the page, so it was always going to be an issue for me. Regardless, that doesn’t mean I didn’t like Danny. Or that I wasn’t entertained throughout the entire book. It’s just that he sometimes felt like a Kevin McCallister type going up against some spooky antics in his home, rather than a child who was facing a deadly threat. You know, Stephen King was actually heavily involved with a TV miniseries adaptation of the book in the late 1990s, a project that compares pretty poorly to Kubrick’s film, in spite of, if not because of, being more true to the source material. To put it mildly, the characters, the sense of rising tension, and the cinematography for the TV version of The Shining all suffer from feeling like a project that’s trying to be a movie rather than one that’s trying to capture something real. It’s this sense of realism that I often thought was lacking from the book, but that contributes to a lasting sense of dread whenever I watch the movie. For instance, in Kubrick’s version, the character of Danny has the benefit of not having to tell us every little thing that goes through his head. As he accompanies his parents around the hotel, it’s quietly at his mother’s side, just a tiny creature who we can sense is vulnerable to all the dangers of the world. And though Danny and Wendy survive the ordeal in both versions, King makes sure to show them on course for a definitive happy ending more appropriate for a hero’s journey type of story while Kubrick chooses to leave us with a lingering sense of despair. Of course, in all fairness, I’m obligated to once again bring up Jack Nicholson’s performance which hardly qualifies as something most people would consider a portrayal of something real, though he certainly had his own thoughts on the matter.

For my part, I think that Nicholson does actually come off as strikingly naturalistic in some of the character’s more desperate moments. The scene where he wakes from a nightmare in which he’s harmed his family feels particularly genuine in how the emotions of disgust and fear shift across the features of his face. I still have to admit that overall his performance is more entertaining than it is scary, but even at that, it’s something that Kubrick balance’s out with the stark lighting, pacing, and sound design that typify the film as a whole. To this end, it’s a fun little bit of movie trivia to know he was heavily influenced by David Lynch, whose film Eraserhead was screened for the cast and crew in order to help them understand what kind of atmosphere they should try to create. If you’ve seen that film, you’ll know how crucial the sound and cinematography are in eliciting a surreal sense of dread. I would say that The Shining takes that dread and moves into something closer to reality. The great emptiness of the hotel just conjures up this palpable sense of doom and many of the ghostly sightings are staged in an almost matter-of-fact manner rather than as setups for supernatural apparitions or for easy jump scares. Kubrick himself spoke to his reasoning for this when he said that he believed all book-to-screen adaptations of the writer Franz Kafka’s work had been done wrong because the director’s who handled them had failed to recognise that those stories gained much of their power from being written in an almost journalistic style. The unsettling sense of the uncanny, in other words, is accomplished when the artificial somehow feels real, a fact which Kubrick utilised to great effect across the entire length of the film, though, beyond this question of which version of The Shining had the better ability to unsettle, it isn’t necessarily the case that the film always surpasses the novel.

Rachel Elkind, one of the composers for the film, once implied that they’d failed in some way to update the aesthetics of the gothic horror story in their version of The Shining. As with King, the idea of the film was essentially to take the haunted house story away from the Adam’s Family architecture of old and put it in a contemporary location where the horror would be felt in the full light of day. Of this thought, I can only imagine she was reacting to the mixed critical reception the film has experienced over the years, although admittedly, I make that assumption as a person who by no measure knows a lot about gothic horror. There could very well be important aspects of that genre that the film failed to bring forward. Nevertheless, for as many themes that are potentially woven into the film, it is possible they were included at the expense of a more compelling surface plot. In this regard, the photo of Jack at the end of the movie, which includes him in a group of party revellers has certainly puzzled many people who’ve seen the movie over the years, but not in a way that inspired all of them to ruminate over what it might mean. For me, though the photo primarily acts as a final hint that Jack had already sold his soul to the hotel, it also serves to act as another wall in the labyrinth, since without a truly conclusive ending you’re forced to wander back along your path and watch the film again if you’d like to find some answers, though I do know plenty of intelligent people who’d roll their eyes at that idea; not because it’s unbelievable but simply because they don’t want to be assigned homework in order to enjoy a film. Even so, Kubrick has spoken of his approach to filmmaking as a type of image-based music that communicates with the viewer’s subconscious, so I think he wanted audience members to feel a strong impact with or without a deeper understanding of the narrative and themes, in which case, you could say that for many people his alterations to the ending weren’t entirely successful. Further to that, though I am on board with the idea that he most definitely unsettled my subconscious with certain scenes in The Shining, there’s no actual proof he succeeded in creating a mode of film that interacted with my mind in a subliminal manner any more than an advertisement for Coca-cola would, so I do think some of the novel’s fans who weren’t as affected by the film’s methods had plenty of good reason to feel let down.

It once again bears mentioning that Stanley Kubrick wrote the screenplay for The Shining with the author Diane Johnson, an expert of gothic horror and an accomplished novelist whose book, Shadow Knows, was a contender for what would become Kubrick’s next film before he chose The Shining. Whereas Kubrick’s phone call to King had apparently amounted to an unsatisfactory conversation over the nature of life after death, his phone call to Johnson went so well that he discussed literary matters on a number of other occasions before he asked her to join him in England to put together the screenplay not for her own book, but for Stephen King’s. Now, as seen in Vivian Kubrick’s making-of documentary, the writing of the movie continued long after Johnson returned home, but she has said that she was consulted on most of the alterations, with the exception of dialogue changes for Shelley Duval, which you can take to mean so far as writing partner’s went, she was probably one of the most respected Kubrick had ever had. As an aside, I’ll just quickly say that her novel Shadow Knows is a lot more ambiguous than The Shining in terms of any kind of scares, so you can understand why it wasn’t selected by Kubrick given that he was apparently looking for a commercial hit after the flop of Barry Lyndon. However, Johnson’s book is well worth a read, and I’d even suggest Kubrick might have kept some elements of it in mind when he adapted the novel Traumnovelle for Eyes Wide Shut because that film shares a playful sense of conspiracy and dread in sections that reminds me a lot of what the main character deals with in Shadow Knows. Back to the point though, I remember hearing an interview with Kubrick where he stated that Stephen King’s novel didn’t have any real literary value, but that he couldn’t deny that it was a scary story. I couldn’t track down that particular audio snippet for this video, so you can take the quote with a grain of salt, but I did find some clips of Diane Johnson throwing similar shade at King’s work, wherein she stated that chopping the story to pieces hardly felt like an offence since it wasn’t exactly a work of art in the first place. You can understand why then if King was already a little wounded by the changes they made to his very personal work, he had plenty more reason to be annoyed at how bluntly they critiqued the book in the years after. What’s more, if they really did think that the only value of the novel was in its ability to scare, I think they were selling the work short. 

I’ve already talked about how well the book deals with the issues of abuse in a way that’s empathetic to all parties while also meeting the requirements for being an entertaining tale. The movie, in contrast, shares little of this, aiming for something more atmospheric and broader in scope. I take it from Diane Johnson’s comment that Kubrick and she thought they had loftier goals in mind. That is, in the realm of both fiction and filmmaking, what’s regarded as art can sometimes come down to which is more cryptic. There’s a form of storytelling in other words, that doesn’t directly say what it means, but which communicates its intentions in a more elusive manner. In contrast, stories that outright telegraph their themes can be thought of as didactic, simple moral tales that are no more advanced than a children’s fable in which youngsters are taught why they shouldn’t lie. It’s a fair point, to an extent. Stories that outline their themes through references to related literature and symbolic representation do require more patience and purposeful examination to be understood. But both literary fiction and arthouse film can go so far as to be considered pretentious, meaning, just because they succeed in making their points obscure, doesn’t mean they succeed in communicating anything of value at all. Besides which, it just isn’t true that stories that prioritise entertainment or moral lessons are any less important. I think that the only reason they’re sometimes thought to be artistically impure is because the beats and lessons of them become so easy to replicate; no matter how ingenious a commercial story might be, when one is a success countless imitators can come along in an attempt to sell another such product to the original’s fans, which, in a way, is how genres get made. For all that though, Stephen King’s version of The Shining has remained unique in what it achieved.

Stories of abuse in both commercial fiction and cinema aren’t exactly uncommon, but they’re generally not layered explorations of the issue either. Understandably, the narratives inevitably weigh toward the side of the victims, in that the stories tend to follow the harrowing course of their survival both in the process and aftermath of escaping their abuser.

The narratives themselves can range from the outright harrowing, like in the 2015 movie, Room, to more common empowerment stock, like Jennifer Lopez’s 2002 movie, Enough. Now, I just want to be very clear that I’m not criticizing such projects for choosing to tell these all too common tales of survival amid abuse. Even in cases where the quality of them might only amount to movie of the week shlock, they provide a cathartic and reassuring narrative for god only knows how many people have suffered in their own lives and they keep a difficult topic at the forefront of the public’s mind. I only mention them to highlight how uncommon something like Stephen King’s take on the issue is as a man who recognised the potential of an abuser in himself and constructed a story in which he enables us to understand the people who could do such horrible things. If I were to suggest a parallel for his approach in the form of a Hollywood director, I would say that the aforementioned Stephen Spielberg would be one of the better choices, in that, not only have they both displayed a strong interest in the psychology of the American family and how the parents and children relate to each other when that family begins to fall apart, they are both masters of a similar style of storytelling craft. For starters, in the cinematic way that Stephen King writes, you can practically envision the setups for movie shots in which the camera cuts between perspectives, such as in one moment when we’re sat with Danny in the front of Halloran’s car, while in the next we’re stood outside it alongside Wendy as she wonders what’s going on. For all of Stephen King’s meandering inner monologues, the way in which he plants the seeds for revelations like the origin of Danny’s imaginary friend Tony, the meaning of Redrum, and the inevitable explosion of the hotel boiler also feel like they’re handled by a talented screenplay writer who knows how to keep you on the edge of your seat, but that’s all really supplementary to the heart of the tale. The psychology of the Torrance marriage is explored in sad little details like when it’s explained that Wendy actually becomes tenser if she hasn’t seen Jack’s temper flare-up in a while. Jack, for his part, is lost in self-loathing after any occasion when he does lash out, and given each of their troubled histories, there’s a desperate sense of the inevitable in how they came together to carry on the tradition of violence in their family. And in fact, The Shining power itself would seem to be so strong in Danny because as a child at the mercy of such a hopeless situation, he’s had to attune himself to the moods of his parents in order to know when to speak up and when to keep his head down, a point which is mostly lost in the poetry and symbols of the film. Which is all to say, I do prefer Kubrick’s version. More often than not I think it’s my favourite of his films in large part because of the enigmatic form of metaphor that he utilises across much of his work finds literal expression in the form of the labyrinth. But whatever you think about that, it’s fair to say King’s story remains as accomplished in its ability to enlighten the reader to some aspects of the human condition that for many, have only ever existed in the shadows and the dark.

Further Reading

I’d like to end this episode by calling attention to the fact that Stephen King rarely planned the themes for his novels at the outset of writing each story. Rather, in his book, On Writing, he said that they were often something to be discovered along the way. I think this is where a lot of the emotional power of his work comes from, in that by following his instinct for what interested him, he was able to come up with books like The Shining that apparently surfaced from his own insecurities and fear. In this manner, some thematic threads in the novel do feel like they’re left at loose ends, but when the improvisational approach worked, it clearly tapped into something powerful enough to connect with millions of people around the world. Kubrick’s approach on the other hand, is often characterised as more intentional. This might be the case, in that he generally brought a wealth of academic and artistic knowledge to the scripting of each film, but my impression is that he also found the final shape of each project along the way, in that, which themes became most prominent were to be discovered in the course of completing the work. If you’d like to delve a little more into some of the subtexts of his filmography, I highly recommend you check out Rob Ager’s two Youtube channels, Rob Ager and CollativeLearning, though as with my own video essays I recommend you don’t accept anything as fact, but rather, take his points as something to consider when making up your own mind. Likewise, if you want to stick with me, I have two other videos about books that inspired Stanley Kubrick; 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke and A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, the links for which are appearing on screen now and are pinned in the comments below. I’d suggest you make yourself a stiff drink to enjoy as you go through the episodes, but I wouldn’t want to be responsible for whatever crimes you commit when you’re done. Until then…


Simon Fay

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