Stanley Kubrick was a cinematic genius – an asshole, sure, but a brilliant filmmaker. Capturing amazing shots of both realistic scenes and fantastical ones, Kubrick had the type of eye for framing, lighting, and staging that few have ever matched. A perfectionist, it was said that working with the man was Hell. Yet, nearly everyone agrees that his films are the very definition of movie magic. And, in most cases, it’s hard for me to disagree.
However, when it comes to his 1980 classic The Shining, I can’t help but feel the hype is a case of genuine groupthink. I mean…it’s honestly just okay. Of course, his greatness in direction of several other true masterpieces of cinema is undeniable and his ability to price the perfect shot rivals anyone before or after him. So, it’s not hard to understand how people can have their minds so clouded and confused as to believe The Shining is anything more than just a decent movie (see also 2001, which includes score and imagery so beautiful that it convinces cinephiles it’s actually good).
“Based” on Stephen King’s novel of the same name, Kubrick throws out much of the plot and many important thematic elements of King’s landmark book. While the framework is that of King’s 1977 bestseller, Kubrick changes so much about the story, including important character motivations and traits, that diehard fans of King’s work are oft enraged at how different the two truly are. Fan of the book or not, it’s not hard to see why scrapping some of these important aspects of King’s book could hurt the film’s overall effectiveness.
A MEDIOCRE ADAPTATION
Consider these changes and the ways in which the novel’s original ideas could have benefited the film’s overall effectiveness:
First, Jack (whose name change from John is mostly inconsequential) has a motivation to have chosen The Overlook as his inspiration in the first place. It’s not simply a random location and job to live there in the novel, but instead it’s the topic of his writing and a place he actually sought to go. Drawn in by a scrapbook, John (Jack) decides to write about the hotel, documenting its interesting life and lore.
Next, the hotel itself and the way in which Jack goes insane are vastly different. While the hotel in the film is haunted in some way, the transformation of Jack seems to be in his head, caused by some combination of his own mental health and the isolation of the location. The novel makes it clear that the hotel is what is most responsible for his madness. In the film, the hauntings seem to be taking place within Jack’s mind, while the book makes clear that malevolent supernatural forces are at work.
The way in which the hotel operates in the film’s story is tied greatly to another main difference, the way in which Jack/John loses his mind. In the book, it’s a gradual descent. The film certainly touches on alcohol as a factor in Jack’s descent, as well, but it really seems to focus on on the madness being something that was always within Jack, with the other factors just bringing it out. In the novel, John’s alcoholism is more important to his story. It’s the most human factor in his spiral into madness. Coupled with the hotel’s malevolent intents, it’s a catalyst for further descent. Albeit, it’s the hotel and the spirits within that truly drive the man to his end. Nonetheless, these changes to Jack/John and the hotel greatly impact the story.
One could easily – but wrongly – argue that the changes outlined so far are just Kubrick’s way of turning a decidedly supernatural take into a pointedly psychological one, warranting such character and setting changes. However, the changes in the character of Wendy are harder to write off. Wendy is a strong mother and independent thinker in the book. Despite the casting of a strong and charismatic actress for the role, Kubrick’s film spays Wendy, opting to make her a scared and meek counterpart to Jack. While Duvall is fantastic in the film (as are most of the cast – a positive feather in the film’s warm wool cap), the character is a shell of the stronger version of her written by King. This speaks to a larger problem in Kubrick’s work, as well.
Yet, there are those of you reading this and decrying that you could care much less how different the film and novel are. You’d note that the film added iconic scenes and imagery not in the book. Both fair points, in fact. Some great scenes in the film are attributed solely to Kubrick and his team, unrelated to the word on King’s pages. And whether or not a film and novel are closely resembling one another really doesn’t matter (except when the changes from the original words downgrade the story being told, as outlined above). Still there are other facts about the film and its place within Kubrick’s filmography that should mean something to even his biggest fans.
Consider Kubrick’s other films and what makes them true classics in film history. A Clockwork Orange takes Anthony Burgess’ phenomenal tome about totalitarianism, free will, and “God vs. man” and gives it a face. He brought Nadsat, the unique linguistic triumph of Burgess’ novel, to life and used its vernacular to tell a compelling tale that brings into questions the limits of when and where its okay to take away a man’s ability to choose.
With Lolita, he told a compelling story of seduction and mistrust, based on the 1955 Russian novel of the same name. Dr. Strangelove uses black humor to illuminate the very real concerns of the nuclear age. Full Metal Jacket is one of most compelling and clever tales of the dark fog of war and disenfranchisement of man to ever be put to screen. Eyes Wide Shut explores the darker sides of human sexuality, and AI has a great story with compelling themes, as uneven as his death mid-project led the film itself to be. Despite my belief that 2001 is highly overrated and lacks the depth many think it does, it includes some of the greatest cinematography of all-time. Even the remarkably long and seemingly dull tale of Barry Lyndon finds a way to be compelling and hard to take your eyes off of. Most of these stories are based off of books or stories, like The Shining is, but all are more successful in their thematic exploration and/or visual representation.
In other words, The Shining is lower-tier Kubrick, despite being revered as his best by many. It’s not a bad film, but it both works and doesn’t work on varying levels. It has the potential (based on Kubrick’s other works and the source material used for the film) to be something truly special. Sadly, it isn’t that.
WATCH THESE INSTEAD
Of course, the easy answer for what you could watch instead would be any of Kubrick’s true masterpieces, with A Clockwork Orange leading that charge. Instead, though, it seems a better option would be giving you another film dealing with a lead character slipping into madness and a different King adaptation that is closely link to this one.
The first recommendation is from another master filmmaker, John Carpenter. His oft-overlooked In the Mouth of Madness follows insurance investigator John Trent (Sam Neill) as he hunts for missing horror novelist Sutter Cane. Neill is brilliant as Trent, who’s spiral into madness is far more effective and encapsulating than Jack’s in The Shining. Additionally, the two are connected by Stephen King, with The Shining being loosely based on one of his books, and the character of Sutter Cane in Carpenter’s film being based on King himself.
The second recommendation is 2019 screen adaptation to King’s sequel novel of The Shining, Doctor Sleep. Unlike Kubrick’s film, there is no muting of the supernatural elements of King’s work here. Instead, it’s most certainly a dark supernatural film that resembles both the story and the feel of the novel it is adapted from. Not to mention, Mike Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep is simply a better movie than Kubrick’s The Shining in its storytelling and continuity. Flanagan even manages to work in homage to Kubrick’s more interesting and iconic imagery while really embracing King’s source material.
I know there are still some of you still can’t embrace the notion that The Shining isn’t really that good…and that’s okay. To each of you, I quote from the film: “Darling, I’m not gonna hurt you. I’m just gonna bash your brains in.” Seriously though, all work and no play make The Shining a truly mediocre movie.