Me And Lil’ Stevie Present:
THE SHINING (1980)
Review by Peter Dudar
(Establishing shots of the empty halls and corridors of the Overlook Hotel. Camera slowly pans at low, odd angles, as if we are at the POV of a small child. Creepy string music from the soundtrack begins, and as these long camera pans continue, we begin to see ghostly vignettes play out. These vignettes are disturbing and ethereal, but the camera is relentless. We pass by the ghosts of two young girls in matching dresses, then the ghost of a naked older woman, who just climbed out of a bathtub in room 237. We move a little further and round a corner, and camera stops and pans in on a little boy sitting on a Big Wheel. The boy is silent and still, staring with wide eyes at the pair of elevators at the end of the hall. The boy looks terrified, and rightly so, as blood begins to trickle out of the cracks of the elevator doors. The trickles become a steady flow of blood, slowly beginning to fill the hallway as the boy watches in absolute horror. The elevator doors begin to open and a river of blood comes gushing out, sweeping the furniture away like a raging sea. When the blood is done pouring out, the camera zooms in on a figure inside the elevator. The figure is holding an object in his hand. From our POV, the object appears to be a small ventriloquist dummy. The figure steps out of the elevator, and we see that it is actually Peter Dudar, holding a small wooden dummy that looks a lot like the master of horror, Stephen King. )
Peter: Good evening, folks, and welcome to my first column of “Me and Lil’ Stevie”. Today, we’re going to be talking about the original cinematic version of Stephen King’s THE SHINING (1980).
Lil’ Stevie: Hello, Constant Reader! As you already know, the book was much better!
Peter: Quiet, you…Everyone knows the book is a masterpiece. But we’re not here to discuss books. We’re here to talk about Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 motion picture, which is based on the novel. It even says it in the credits…”Based on the novel by Stephen King.”
Lil’ Stevie: The key words being, “Based on…”
Peter: It’s been well documented that you were disappointed in Kubrick’s cinematic adaptation, and rightly so. In Kubrick’s movie, there is very little exposition into the history and nature of the Overlook Hotel. In your novel, part of Jack Torrence’s downward spiral deals specifically with his obsessive-compulsive infatuation with uncovering the past of the Overlook. Jack spends a great deal of time uncovering newspaper articles and doing research, with a notion of perhaps writing a book about it. But we can put that all aside because Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of Jack Torrence ignores most of those plot devices anyway.
Lil’ Stevie: And let’s not forget that Kubrick also ignored all exposition regarding Jack Torrence’s alcoholism, or how he got fired from his teaching gig, or…
Peter: Calm yourself, Lil’ Stevie…let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We have a movie to review.
Lil’ Stevie: Fine!
Peter: Thank you. Anyway, like I said, Stephen King has already gone on record about his disappointment with Kubrick’s vision of THE SHINING. But the reality is that Kubrick’s THE SHINING happens to be one of those films that have become iconic for horror movie fans. In fact, the picture of Jack Nicholson’s face in the smashed up doorway, the part of the film where he utters the infamous line, “Heeeeere’s Johnny!” has appeared on book covers, college dorm poster art and even as tattoos, for decades. Kubrick set out to capture the perfect ghost movie on celluloid, and I have to admit, he came very close.
Lil’ Stevie: Nicholson was over the top!
Peter: I know! I get it…Nicholson did not portray Jack Torrence the way you wanted him to.
Lil’ Stevie: Thank you. That’s all I wanted these people to know.
Peter: They already do know. Stop interrupting me, or I’ll put termites in your armpits!
Lil’ Stevie: I’ll be good!
Peter: THE SHINING is about a writer who, after being fired from his teaching job, agrees to be the caretaker for a prestigious resort hotel in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. Jack Torrence brings his wife, Wendy and son, Danny, to the hotel at the close of tourist season, where they are to become the official winter custodians of The Overlook Hotel; a hotel that, according to manager Stuart Ullman (Barry Nelson of AIRPORT (1970)), was the in-spot for movie stars, politicians, and royalty…because of its opulence, seclusion, and beauty. In the first portion of the movie, we’re introduced to Torrence and the hotel itself, and in Kubrick’s genius, we’re presented with a massive, giant hotel. Nicholson’s tour of the hotel (and subsequently Wendy and Danny’s tour), takes us on a camera-created labyrinth of the Overlook…there’s so much space that it would seem impossible to feel claustrophobic when inside. And yet, by the end of the picture, we do!
Lil’ Stevie: On top of that, we’re presented with the labyrinth of the hedge-maze, which did NOT appear in the book. In fact, the book had topiary!
Peter: What, the animal-shaped hedges that threatened Danny?
Lil’ Stevie: Exactly!
Peter: Were there hedges shaped like termites?
Lil’ Stevie (pouting): Please continue.
Peter: Thanks! Anyway, Jack Torrence takes the job as a last-ditch effort to support his family, gain some seclusion, and finally get some meaningful writing done. And at the conclusion of his interview, Mr. Ullman asks Torrence if he was aware of the fate that befell the last caretaker and his family.
Lil’ Stevie: Delbert Grady.
Peter: Yeah. Apparently Mr. Grady suffered a severe case of cabin fever and offed his wife and two daughters with an axe…before inserting the barrel of a rifle in his mouth and blowing his own brains out. It is a bit of foreshadowing, but Kubrick’s script does a very good job of driving home just how isolated things can be at the Overlook during winter.
Lil’ Stevie: I had a lot of problems with the dialogue at the beginning of the movie.
Peter: I did, too. Nicholson seemed very wooden in his interface with Ullman and the other hotel workers.
Lil’ Stevie: Hey!
Peter: No offense. But, yeah…Nicholson went into the hotel not acting like a guy who just lost his job and can’t provide for his family, but as a cocky SOB who was just telling them what they wanted to hear. Of course he’s a perfect match for what they’re looking for…He’s a guy that wants a good, solid five months to do nothing but work on his writing. So what if he has to go check the boiler every now and then?
Lil’ Stevie: That’s crucial! In the book he HAS to check the boiler. If he doesn’t, then the hotel could blow sky-high from the built up pressure. That’s the crux of the novel…built up pressure!
Peter: And yet, none of that is important in the movie at all. In fact, the only scene they show the boiler in, Wendy is the one who is doing all the work.
Lil’ Stevie: Well, all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy! (rolls eyes in a comical dummy gesture).
Peter: You’re telecasting. Slow down, will ya? We’re also introduced to Jack and Wendy’s son, Danny. Now, Danny has THE SHINING, the gerund that gives our little movie a title. What it means is that he can communicate telepathically with others like him who also have “the shining.” You see, Danny doesn’t realize there are others like him out there. He has this imaginary person named Tony who lives inside his mouth. Tony is a conduit for “the shining”, insofar as explaining things, giving glimpses of the future, and protecting him from the terrors of the Overlook Hotel.
Lil’ Stevie: Another element of the novel that Kubrick failed with.
Peter: How so?
Lil’ Stevie: Because in the novel, Tony is based on a real person rather than an imaginary friend of Danny’s. In the movie, Tony is reduced to Danny’s index finger moving up and down while Danny talks in a silly voice.
Peter: But it works! It’s convincing.
Lil’ Stevie: No, it’s not. It’s hokey. When Danny’s sitting there screaming “Red Rum! Red Rum!” it seems more irritating than creepy.
Peter: During the “Closing Day” segment, Danny is befriended by Dick Halloran, the hotel’s chef (Scatman Crothers…who also appeared with Jack Nicholson in ONE FLEW OVER THE CUKOO’S NEST (1975)). Halloran explains to Danny in the only real bit of exposition that Danny has THE SHINING. Dick knows because he ‘shines’ too. In fact, Dick and his grandmother could have whole conversations without ever opening their mouths.
Lil’ Stevie: In the novel, that telepathy is what brings Dick back to the Overlook to try and save Danny.
Peter: But we don’t have that luxury. Kubrick minimized it. Instead, Kubrick’s aim was to have Danny ‘shine’ in terms of visualizing all the terrible things that had happened within the Overlook in the past. That is the primary haunting of this ghost story, and truth be told, Kubrick does a very good job of capturing it. In fact, he did such a good job of it that he turned this mammoth old hotel into a very claustrophobic, heart-pounding knot of tension. And, metaphorically speaking, Jack Torrence’s spiral into insanity almost mirrors that tension. That’s the key to what makes this film the iconic fear machine that it is. We have several storylines working together like clockwork: we have complete isolation in an era where computer and cellphone communication are absolute science-fiction, we have Danny channeling the Hotel’s horrors of the past, we have Jack’s downward progression as the hotel begins to use his life’s failures and anxieties against him, and we have sinister supernatural forces pulling the strings at every turn, tormenting young Danny and torturing Jack.
Lil’ Stevie: But there’s also several problems going on. First off, Jack Torrence looks like a crazy guy right from the beginning…
Peter: No argument there.
Lil’ Stevie: In the novel, Jack Torrence is a guy who is really trying hard to overcome his demons. He’s supposed to be a good guy who’s trying like hell to pull himself out of the hole he’s dug himself into. He’s a recovering alcoholic that wants to do right by his family and fix the damage he’s done. That’s the pathos that Nicholson is missing in the movie. Nicholson is so busy being over-the-top in his version of the character that you never build that necessary empathy for him. Or his family.
Peter: No argument there, either. What we’re presented with is a study of a guy who very quickly stops being a husband and father, and is replaced by a lunatic who blames everyone but himself for his own problems. But Kubrick does lend some exposition in Jack’s hallucinogenic conversations with the ghosts of Lloyd, the bartender and Grady, the ex-caretaker. We learn that Jack DOES have an alcohol problem and subsequently harmed Danny in one of his fits of anger. And we see Jack’s emotional patterns as he stares off into space with his crazy smiles, or when he storms off down hallways throwing menacing hand-gestures, as if he means to hurt whoever gets in his way. Nicholson’s performance is actually pretty frightening to watch. And the tension is absolutely unbearable when we reach the big reveal with Wendy.
Lil’ Stevie: As for Shelly Duvall’s turn as Mrs. Torrence—Kubrick presents her as a gutless, subservient bimbo until the big reveal. It’s almost pitiful to watch her portrayal as the dutiful wife with no other role in life than to be a good wife and mother. She’s absolutely one-dimensional in this movie.
Peter: But, for 1980, it works. That was the expectation. Have dinner ready for your husband when he comes home from work, take care of the kids, and stay in line.
Lil’ Stevie: So when we reach the big reveal, where she sees that the book that Jack’s been working on is nothing but endless pages of his writing, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,” there is nothing for her to do but fall apart. It’s obvious that the man she married is gone. It’s obvious that her and Danny are in absolute danger, and it’s obvious that there’s nowhere in that monstrously big hotel that her and her son are safe.
Peter: You’re selling Shelly Duvall’s performance a bit short. Wendy is supposed to be supporting her out-of-work husband in taking this job to begin with. She’s agreeing to six months of being separated from the real world with a child who is old enough to be in school, as well as being cut off from any doctors (in case something goes wrong) or other human contact. That’s a hell of a chance to take. Nowadays, most women would have been smart and/or strong enough to dump a guy like Jack. Just looking at Duvall in the movie, she’s not that attractive and she’s not that strong -. Her terror is reactive instead of proactive, like Jack and Danny. She doesn’t have to deal with ghosts. At least not until the climax, where the Hotel’s ghosts really come out to play.
Lil’ Stevie: The rest of the film is pretty fictional, in terms of Kubrick dropping most of what was in the novel. In the book, Jack does return to the father/husband side of himself, when he tries to dump the boiler and release the dangerous pressure building up in the heart of the hotel so that his family can escape. Kubrick has Nicholson chasing his son through the maze of hedges during a blinding snowstorm. In fact, nothing in the movie’s end matches up with the novel.
Peter: And that’s okay, Lil’ Stevie. Here’s the thing about Kubrick’s THE SHINING: It is an unbalanced film. There’s no pathos or redemption for Jack Torrence. There’s no happy moments or comic relief. There’s only a cinematic masterpiece of haunting and insanity as Jack makes his downward spiral. There’s tons of creepy atmosphere. There’s moments that leave the viewer chilled to the bone with thoughts and implications, and there’s Jack Nicholson in all his craziness. Kubrick leaves us mesmerized with trick camera angles and startling vignettes. He flawlessly brings the massive Overlook Hotel to life and portrays it as a character in every cinematic sense. It doesn’t need to be balanced. It only needs to be experienced.
Lil’ Stevie: Really? Because the ending left me confused. You know…the part where the camera pans down on a photograph of The Gold Room from the 1920’s, where Jack Nicholson’s face is right there in the middle? What the hell does that supposed to signify? That he’s reincarnated? That Jack Torrence was always part of the Overlook Hotel? I just don’t get it, and I wrote the freakin’ novel!
Peter: You didn’t write anything. You’re a puppet. I don’t even know how you came to be sitting here on my arm.
(Peter tries to pull the puppet off his hand, but it seems to be adhered to his skin. Lil’ Stevie laughs maniacally)
Peter: Er…well, folks…until next time, this is Me and Lil’ Stevie, signing out. Hope you enjoyed our little column.
Lil’ Stevie: …and your stay here at the Overlook. Drop in again sometime.
Peter: Say goodnight, Stevie!
Lil’ Stevie: Good night, Stevie!
FADE TO BLACK
© Copyright 2011 by Peter N. Dudar
(Note: Any opinions expressed in this column belong to Peter Dudar and are not meant to reflect the views of Stephen King or this website. This is a work of humor).