Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, based on the 1977 novel by horror genre writer Stephen King, was theatrically released thirty-five years ago, on May 23rd, 1980. In the years since its initial release, Kubrick’s film has become a touchstone and cultural centerpiece within contemporary genre filmmaking, domestically and internationally. Since 1980, it has continued to emanate its moody atmosphere, evoked in its now infamous and indispensable title sequence, into horror genre filmmaking. This singularly unforgettable series of tracking shots, which temporally tracks Jack Torrance’s ascent into the chilly, alpine locale of the Overlook Hotel, introduces its viewers to a fictional establishment that still holds terror in its spacious environs to this day, making Kubrick’s The Shining a masterpiece of the late twentieth century.
In the film, the Overlook is inhabited in a mystical sense by the spirits of the dead, both the damned and the possessed. Sin metaphorically oozes from the walls, and crashes down in a surreal tidal wave of blood down the main hall, baptizing the viewer in the peripheral terror of its thematic content, directly and indirectly. But perhaps the single most important aspect of the film that still resonates now, thirty-five years on, when watching Kubrick’s horror classic is not the visceral terror held within Room 237, but rather the ghosts of the past brought to light in the solitude of the film’s isolationist setting. Alcoholism and the paternal responsibility of its chief protagonist, Jack Torrance, indisputably serve as the central terror of the film’s narrative, the two opposing sides of a single, fated coin ruling Jack Torrance’s sanity, either side signaling potential collapse and chaos, and an embrace of the madness inherent to the Overlook Hotel.
For author Stephen King, the story of The Shining is one about the struggles of an alcoholic writer and father in the midst of creative self-destruction, the fuel that once drove him no longer indulged for the sake of his physiological health, but to the detriment of his psychological equilibrium. Taken in as a whole, much of King’s fictional oeuvre is autobiographical. As documented in his seminal non-fiction memoir On Writing, King’s struggles with substance abuse lend inspiration to some of his more grounded works of familial drama, while simultaneously inflecting some of his more fantastic writing with its wickedly garish imagery and nightmarish landscapes.
In King’s opinion, Kubrick’s adaptation of his third novel loses sight of the aforementioned warmth inherent to Jack’s sense of paternal responsibility. In King’s novel, Jack’s inability to take care of his wife and child drive him to an insanity redeemed through his son’s magical abilities, serving to save Danny and his mother from the inner demons that ultimately possess Jack upon the turn of the novel’s tragic end. In Kubrick’s film, Danny’s ability to “shine” is the harbinger of Jack’s latent insanity, his role as the patriarch of the Torrance clan superseded by Kubrick’s flare for cold nihilism and dissonant, visual terror. What drives the film’s tension and drama is thematically dissimilar from that which drives the unease and tragedy of the novel; while King is a moralist writer of horrific fables, Kubrick is a utilitarian director of terrific tragedies.
Similar to Kubrick’s work in adapting Anthony Burgess’ social dystopia A Clockwork Orange, the American expatriate appears disinterested in strict fidelity to his source material. Kubrick’s inspiration and singular vision is unapologetically his own, taking his films to places fundamentally dissimilar at times to their prosaic counterparts. In The Shining, the family drama of central importance to King’s worldview is cast aside in favor of some of the more striking and visually resonant images from the novel’s more fantastic sequences. The enigmatic Room 237 informs the tenacity of Jack Nicholson’s performance as the Torrance family patriarch, hellish insanity pulsing through every shot, frame, and sequence of Kubrick’s The Shining. Much of the personal responsibility present in King’s novel is absent in Nicholson’s portrayal of King’s fictional doppelganger, Kubrick’s interpretation of the novel’s interrogation of the terrors of sobriety ethically unhinged, unrepentant mania replacing internalized rage, the difference between the two informing the film’s comparative cold to King’s relative heat.
And yet, Kubrick’s The Shining lives on, despite King’s disavowal of the film’s adaptation of his work. Jack Nicholson will forever be visually associated with King’s Jack Torrance; his wild eyed, feral menace bursting through the door, ax in hand, will forever be implanted on the American sub-conscious’ association with King’s seminal work of the horror genre, in fiction and on film. Despite King’s work on the largely unseen and oft-forgotten television mini-series, authoritatively retitled Stephen King’s The Shining, Kubrick’s The Shining is a cinematic, horror genre staple, taught across the country in American universities as a classic work of contemporary populist fiction, superseding the novel entirely.
Regardless of where you stand on Kubrick’s adaptation, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who can’t remember the first time they heard Jack Nicholson’s leering, cat call, “Here’s Johnny,” or who doesn’t still harbor a deep distrust for twin girls in matching outfits. Kubrick’s The Shining is a part of the American film canon, while King’s novel has been relegated to the subservient status of a footnote, the source of a far greater entry into contemporary horror than even King could have imagined thirty-five years on.
Stanley Kubrick is a lot of things to a lot of people, and not all of them are good. For many moviegoers, Kubrick’s coldness as a storyteller is a barrier that prevents enjoyment of his feature films. By comparison, King’s novel serves as a much more accessible and warm avenue into exploring the haunted estate of the Overlook Hotel. In The Shining, Kubrick crafted one of the most unsettling modern horror films of the twentieth century, implementing his trademark pastiche of enigmatic images that easily lend themselves to metaphoric resonances too numerous to catalogue, and too primal to describe with any degree of offhand objectivity. The Overlook, in the film and the novel, is a place of an evil that emanates from within its residents, the Torrance clan bringing with them at least half of the ghosts and malevolent spirits that serve to terrorize them over the course of the film’s runtime. Whether or not these metaphysical entities have the power of possession is dependent upon whether you respond more to King’s primal warmth and humanism, or Kubrick’s nihilistic rationalism.
While Stephen King may be dissatisfied with how his side of the story was handled in Kubrick’s adaptation of images, The Shining is still fascinating on its thirty-fifth anniversary. Kubrick’s film is both objectively and subjectively terrifying, its most iconic images branded upon the mind of the viewer into perpetuity, the enigma of a Kubrick production resonating in its ability to free associate with the fear and guilt of a wide, disparate audience. The meaning behind any one of Kubrick’s individual images proves illusory and fantastic, transporting The Shining into the realm of nightmare and fantasy, a chimera of the collective sub-conscious that still feels relevant to this day.