Reflections on The Shining

When we started this blog, the idea was to remember what we’ve seen and what we thought about it at the time. With our Stephen King thread we are watching specifically after having read the book (or rather listened to it). This allows for some deeper analysis and reflection. The Shining seems like a good place to start – it was the first Stephen King book we listened to (before deciding to read them in order) and it is currently the last of the films we’ve watched so far. Warning: here be spoilers!

The Shining is considered a classic. While it wasn’t well received by critics (or even fans of the novel) when it was first released, it has come to be a treasured film loved by many (Stephen King being a notable exception). And we hated it. Strangely we don’t remember hating it when we both (separately) saw it the first time. I have been watching some other commentary on the film and I feel like I need to get my own thoughts down – so why not here?

I feel like the first problem is not the fault of the movie Stanley Kubrick made – it was an editing problem. For some reason we had the under 2 hour cut of the film, rather than the almost 2 1/2 hour original. I was about to type out what I believe was missing and found this instead: The Shining (Comparison: International vs US). Some of the key setup scenes were removed. According to the article “Kubrick said that Europeans were more smart than Americans and would not need the additional stuff to get used to the background of the story.” While that might be true, I feel that important moments were removed unwisely.

The audiobook was narrated by Campbell Scott, who did a excellent job (I’d be happy if he narrated all the Stephen King novels, but sadly the only other one he’s narrated so far is Cell). It had atmosphere, dread, anticipation, good narrative structure. I had read the book previously, many years ago, and I found it was still haunting even though I knew what was happening.

This is what the movie missed. The wide-angle shots (according to commentators) were meant to invoke the sense of isolation, but they just made me feel detached from the characters. The dropped plot points and other changes to the story (the river of blood, for example) made it hard to engage in the film. While Tony might seem ridiculous to some in the more faithfully adapted mini-series, a silly voice and moving finger don’t make for a sensible replacement.  More importantly (partly due to the cut, but not entirely) I got no sense that this was actually a loving family – which they were in the book. Sure, Jack’s alcoholism hung over them in the novel, but they loved each other and acted like it. That’s nowhere to be seen in this movie.

It has been said that Kubrick made the actors do many many takes (sometimes over 100) to get them increasingly desperate and unhinged for the cut that ended up being used. Shelley Duvall’s comments in interviews on how Kubrick worked sound to me like abuse. According to one anecdote (mentioned in one of the video commentaries I linked at the top), the baseball bat scene took 127 takes and Kubrick told everyone not to praise Duvall AT ALL but to praise everyone else (which I guess means Jack, but also the crew). The sad part about this strange form of method acting is that it was lost on me watching the scene – I just wanted to know why she didn’t just turn and run.

Stephen King is notoriously hard to adapt. So much happens in the minds of all the characters. I know this is hard to convey effectively on screen without seeming gimmicky. I also don’t believe that a movie HAS to be a completely word-for-word faithful adaptation either (beyond just length – there’s a reason some of the best adaptations of King’s work have been TV mini-series). However, there’s changes here that just don’t make sense for me, and I don’t know why it is so well regarded these days.

Some of the commentary has focused on the feeling of “something’s going to happen”, and that might exist if you haven’t read the book, but I found the movie too busy trying to make you think that (the over-the-top discordant sound track) without actually delivering. There are NO jump scares in this movie – and that’s something I applaud. Creeping horror, all in clear view, is an excellent approach. Unfortunately, there wasn’t any horror. One commentator talked about the revelations of the twins (who weren’t in the book as characters interacting with Danny), and the woman in the bath, as elements of unnerving horror because the hotel was supposed to be empty. I don’t feel that was scary at all. Danny didn’t even give reaction that suggested horror – it was just a blank “ok, well that happened” – where’s the scare?

The scene with the man and the person in the bear (?) suit: I know what that’s about from the book, but it has no contextual place in the movie. A random guest in a hallway commenting on the “party” to Wendy: there was no evidence of a party presented to her (or even, really, to us). The scrapbook next to Jack’s typewriter: never directly referenced in the film. There are so many things in this movie that seem to hint at something more that we aren’t shown. In the end, this is another one of those movies that leave out so much it’s like a highlight reel for those who know the source material (like the recent Netflix adaptation of Fullmetal Alchemist). The problem is, a highlight reel isn’t scary.

I honestly remember enjoying this movie previously. I honestly enjoy – even love – the Kubrick films I’ve seen (including but not limited to Dr Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey and even the hard-to-watch A Clockwork Orange, although I didn’t like Eyes Wide Shut). We were both truly surprised to discovered how viscerally we disliked The Shining this time. We had to force ourselves to finish watching it for the sake of this blog. Has our expectation of horror changed? Is it a product of its time? Was it the cut after all? I don’t know. I do know that it feels weird to hate “a classic” and I felt I needed to explain why.