As a corrective to the rather heavy-handed statement in my last post that I prefer Stephen King as a writer of short fiction, that’s not to say that he hasn’t written some bloody brilliant novels. And there’s a strong case to be made for ‘The Shining’ as the best of them. Dark, unflinching, compelling, it boasts one of the best opening sentences in the English language and moves inexorably towards an explosive climax.
In his introduction to the latest edition, King describes it as “a ‘crossroads novel’, where the writer is presented with a choice: either doing what you have done before, or try to reach a little higher”. His choice with ‘The Shining’ was whether to carry on writing what is essentially a haunted house story, or delve a little deeper into Jack Torrance’s psychology, particularly in terms of his relationship with his abusive father and his problems with alcohol. As King put it, “instead of changing from a relatively nice guy to a two-dimensional villain … Jack Torrance became a more realistic (and therefore more frightening) figure … a killer [motivated] because of childhood abuse as well as those ghostly forces …”
Stanley Kubrick, adapting the novel with Diane Johnson, omits Torrance’s thorny relationship with his father and gives the alcoholism issue only the most fleeting mention. The narrative arc of Torrance’s descent into madness is more carefully in the novel (the film casts Torrance in a fairly sinister light early on and loses no time in having him behave irrationally as soon as he and his family are installed in The Overlook). The character of Wendy, a sympathetic and quite resilient character in the novel, is remodelled as simpering, irritating and finally hysterical. The topiary animals are jettisoned in favour of a maze, the facts pertaining to Halloran’s return to The Overlook differ significantly and the denouement is a complete divergence.
On the whole, it’s easy to appreciate King’s dislike of the film and his famous remark “that Kubrick set out to make a horror film with no apparent understanding of the genre” is cruelly accurate. Kubrick and Johnson throw everything but the kitchen sink into the mix – Indian burial ground, ghosts in the bath, ghosts in the ballroom, ghosts getting up to weird kinky stuff in animal costumes, creepy ghost kids in the corridors, elevators vomiting blood, history repeating itself, Freudian imagery, Laingian behaviourism, a WTF final shot that’s probably still fuelling discussion forums – but never really settle on what tips Torrance over the edge, beyond a severe case of writer’s block. Which isn’t to say writer’s block can’t be frustrating, but it doesn’t make you take an axe to your family.
All told, ‘The Shining’ ought to be an abject failure as an adaptation and, as a film, little more than a feature length advert for Garrett Brown’s Steadicam (Brown not only invented Steadicam, but shot all the sequences in ‘The Shining’ that utilise it, including Danny Torrance pedalling around The Overlook on a tricycle and the climactic scene in the maze). And yet, after a lukewarm critical reception on its original release, it’s now revered as a modern classic and, at time of writing, ranks at 53 on IMDb’s Top 250 list. So what went right?
Well, almost everything bar direction and performances, and even the over-the-top performances aren’t necessarily the fault of the actors. John Baxter’s biography of Kubrick quotes editor Gordon Stainforth: “That long tracking shot where Jack Nicholson pursues Shelley Duvall up the staircase … was taken fifty or sixty times. Typically, Nicholson’s first take would be absolutely brilliant. Then the thing would start to get stale after ten takes. Then you can see he’s almost marking time … Then he’s going right over the top. The impression I got was that Stanley tended to go for the most eccentric and rather over-the-top ones.”
What ‘The Shining’ does right is establish an atmosphere of unease straightaway. The girls in the corridor (“we want you to play with us, Danny, for ever and ever and ever”) and the blood spewing out of the elevator are iconic images and are still being homaged, thirty years down the line, by the likes of ‘Family Guy’. The music, a very minimal original score by Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind supplemented with eerie soundscapes by György Ligeti and Krzysztof Penderecki, would give you the creeps if it was laid over a Rice Krispies ad, let alone married to Kubrick’s ominous visuals.
The Overlook is a splendid creation, a disquieting and disorientating place that’s virtually the main character in its own right. While some exteriors were shot at the Timberline Lodge, Mount Hood, Oregon, a full scale exterior was built at EMI’s Elstree studios, along with sets for the interiors. The awesome helicopter shots of Torrance’s VW negotiating winding mountain roads that open the film were second unit footage. Kubrick, as was his wont, never left England for the shooting of the project. Interiors for The Overlook were chiefly inspired by Yosemite National Park’s Ahwahnee Hotel, while the white-and-red headache of a restroom where, in the film’s most chilling scene, Torrance’s mind is poisoned against his family by the ghost of his predecessor Delbert Grady (a quietly terrifying Philip Stone), was based, according to Vincent LoBrutto in his exhaustive biography, “on a men’s room in an Arizona hotel designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.”
I’ve come across the phrase “architecture porn” on various blogs, mainly in connection with ‘North by Northwest’ and its almost erotic fixation on the Lloyd Wright-esque stylisations of Vandamm’s hillside lair. A great phrase, and entirely apposite for Hitchcock’s classic. Kubrick’s film, however, is less a porno than an architectural snuff movie. The cumulative effect is visually overpowering: death by set design. Seriously, just the fucking carpets are enough to drive you to madness.