REVIEW: The Shining

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Declan Flahive reviews one of Stanley Kubrick’s classics, The Shining.


An adaptation of Stephen King’s 1977 novel of the same title, The Shining follows the life of aspiring writer and recovering alcoholic Jack Torrance, (Jack Nicholson) who accepts a position as the off-season caretaker of the isolated Overlook Hotel in the Colorado Rockies. Jack moves into the hotel for five months with his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and young son Danny (Danny Lloyd), who possesses “the shining”; an array of psychic abilities that allow Danny to see the hotel’s horrific past. Cabin fever and writers block take its psychological toll on Jack, causing his sanity to deteriorate and leading him to imitate the tragic actions taken by the previous caretaker, thus placing his family in mortal danger. “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”.

The Shining is a 1980 horror film produced and directed by one of the greatest, maddest, and most influential directors in cinematic history; Stanley Kubrick. Having completed “Barry Lyndon,” Kubrick was struggling to find another project. He had a stack of books he would look through for ideas and his assistant recalls hearing thumps for hours a day as Stanley picked up a book, read it for about a minute, and then threw it at the wall. When she noticed that the thumps had stopped she went in to check on him and found him reading “The Shining.” Kubrick had an intense, perfectionist approach to film, shown through the physical and mental strain he imparted on his actors. This can be seen through him taking more than 60 takes of the scene where the camera simply slowly zooms in on Scatman Crothers in his bedroom. 70-year-old Crothers became so exasperated with Kubrick’s compulsive style that he broke down and cried, prompting Jack Nicholson to swear he’d never work with Kubrick again. “The Shining” is in the Guinness Book of Records for the most retakes of a single scene, with 127 takes for a scene with Shelley Duvall.

Stephen King notoriously hates the adaption. King apparently wanted a more everyday-Joe looking actor to play Jack, feeling that once audiences saw Nicholson on screen they would instantly expect him to be an unstable character. This was a valid point considering Nicholson’s previous roles, such as the lead role in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which he had recently won an Academy Award for in 1976. The popular opinion was that Nicholson was an unstable person anyway, causing Nicholson and his character to be viewed as the same. Whilst critics claimed he went over the top, I disagree. When you watch The Shining you genuinely believe the protagonist is going crazy, a feeling which parallels to that of Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker in the Dark Knight. This feeling of belief in the unstable nature of the protagonist implies that Nicholson is not going over the top, as if he was you would be transported out of the film and would notice the actor’s acting. It’s hard to imagine Robin Williams, an actor linked to the role, having the same effect. Nicholson was also responsible for the infamous line “Here’s Johnny!”, a line he improvised based off the late-night show with Johnny Carson.

King also criticises the portrayal of Wendy. “Shelley Duvall as Wendy is really one of the most misogynistic characters ever put on film, she’s basically just there to scream and be stupid and that’s not the woman that I wrote about.” An analysis which is bang on the money. I think you should take most of King’s comments with a pinch of salt however, since Kubrick imprinted his own vision of how the story should be presented, which included changing the ending and various other aspects; few writers would be happy with someone tampering with your cherished work and vision. The validity of King’s criticisms is further weakened by his openly critical stance on film as a whole, “…I see them as a lesser medium than fiction, than literature, and a more ephemeral medium.” As well as the calls in the middle of the night by Kubrick asking King various personal questions, varying from the story and characters background to philosophical questions, such as asking whether he believes in God.

The sound design in The Shining creates tension and causes the hotel to be personified. The slow building of tension throughout the film via the use of sound is one of the lasting aspects you take away from the film, one which has influenced films and shows since, more recently Channel 4’s The End of The F***ing World. Throughout the film, Kubrick uses the sound effects to personify the Overlook Hotel as a supernatural force. Altering the acoustic qualities of the dialogue and using sound effects to emphasize the isolation of the characters. The scene in which Danny pedals around the empty halls of the hotel on his tricycle and the wheels go from hard floor to carpet, and back again, causes the audience to experience the uneasy feeling that something awful is around every corner. This use of sound also establishes the empty surrounding the characters are in, conveying a feeling of loneliness and isolation from the rest of the world.

The Shining is a must watch for any film student due to; the level of performance by the whole cast, the brutal perfectionism of every shot, the personifying of the hotel through sound, as well as the philosophical interpretations of the whole movie caused by the ending. It is a gem in the filmography crown of a true cinematic heavyweight.

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