The Cinema of Stanley Kubrick
The Cinema of Stanley Kubrick

Norman Kagan

Norman Kagan is the author of “The War Film” and other books. He works as a documentary filmmaker and has taught at the New School and elsewhere in the New York City area. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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Continuum, 2000


Content Type:

Book chapter

Genres, Movements and Styles:

Crime/Thriller, Epic, Melodrama, Science Fiction, War films

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The Shining

DOI: 10.5040/9781501340277.ch-012
Page Range: 203–216

I’ve never achieved spectacular success with a film. My reputation has grown slowly. I suppose you could say that I’m a successful filmmaker—in that a number of people speak well of me. But none of my films have received unanimously positive reviews, and none have done blockbuster business.

—Stanley Kubrick, 1980[8]

Preproduction on Kubrick’s film The Shining began just after release of Barry Lyndon (December 1975), when Kubrick acquired rights to the Stephen King novel of the same name, a pulpy but thrilling supermarket gothic about a family threatened and isolated in a snowed-in hotel, progressively menaced and aided by demonic forces and/or mental aberrations that beset the father and son.

Kubrick commented that “what intrigued me about Stephen King’s novel … was the way in which the author kept the reader guessing about what would happen next.” He added that “there’s something inherently wrong with the human personality. There’s an evil side to it. One of the things that horror stories can do is to show us the archetypes of the unconscious: we can see the dark side without having to confront it directly. Also, ghost stories appeal to our craving for immortality. If you can be afraid of a ghost, then you have to believe that a ghost may exist. And if a ghost exists, then oblivion might not be the end.”

Diane Johnson, who worked with Kubrick on the screenplay, suggested in an interview[7] that the director was drawn to the novel because of its “psychological underpinnings. A father threatening his child is compelling. It’s an archetypical enactment of unconscious rages. Stephen King isn’t Kafka, but the material of this novel is the rage and fear within families.” Kubrick reportedly hired Johnson partly with the goal of turning out something different than the contemporaneous flood of Exorcist and Omen imitations. The novel’s wasp attack and hedge animals that come to life were dropped, for example, the latter when special-effects experts could offer no sufficiently realistic way to achieve the transformation.

According to Johnson, almost all the substantive decisions about the screenplay were made before the script was written, over numerous dinners of take-out tandoori chicken in the living room of Kubrick’s London house between June 1977 and January 1978. Both Johnson and Kubrick read Freud’s essay on “The Uncanny” and Bruno Bettelheim’s book about fairy tales, The Uses of Enchantment. Each then wrote a short outline, which were then reconciled into a longer one (a typical scene: filled with expectations, Jack and his family arrive at his new job at the hotel). Johnson felt the outlines resembled the “moving kits” that are used to guide moving men, consisting of cardboard furniture in a cardboard dollhouse. “The writing was secondary to knowing who the characters were, what the events were, and the exact function of every scene,” Johnson commented, adding that Kubrick told her “when you know what’s happening in a scene, the words will follow.”

Johnson makes two notable points about the horror genre. For one thing, the nature of any ghosts must be decided—actual real spirits that can act in the material world, or people’s imaginative projections that are just an aspect of individual madness. She adds a third possibility: “the psychological states of the characters can create real ghosts who have physical powers—if Henry VIII sees Anne Boleyn walking the bloody tower, she’s a real ghost, but she’s also caused by his hatred.” The decision about which of the three kinds of apparitions would be used was not made at the start, but Johnson said it would be clear in the end. A second point made by Johnson is that endings of horror films are usually disappointing, because the explanation is emotionally unsatisfactory (e.g., improbable, or arbitrary, or gratuitous). Kubrick and Johnson apparently worked very hard to reconcile the supernatural and the reestablished sense of reality, providing, in Johnson’s words, “the artistic satisfaction of a fairy tale.”

The pair also spent much time screening classic horror films, and those of the major actors. Jack Nicholson, Kroll suggests,[11] was cast as the nice guy from Vermont who becomes a raging fiend chiefly because of his unique face. “The sharp nose, wide mobile mouth, and angled eyebrows that can redeploy themselves in an instant from sunny friendliness to Mephistophelean menace.” Shelley Duvall was cast as a figure of wifely banality, while young Danny Lloyd was chosen as a charming child.

The main set, the Overlook Hotel in the Colorado Rockies, was created entirely in the studio, a major triumph of set design—a catacomb of corridors, rooms, lobbies, lounges, giant kitchens, and basements, through which Kubrick’s camera would restlessly prowl. The exterior of the hotel was constructed fullscale on the Elstree Studios back lot.

A hedge maze, one hundred yards long in the script, was also built, the setting for a new ending. To capture realistic winter scenes, a second unit shot several sequences in Colorado, including establishing scenes and the race to rescue the family at the Overlook during a snowstorm.

The shooting began on May 1, 1978, at EMI Elstree Studios in Borehamwood, England. As usual with Kubrick’s films, the project was filmed in complete secrecy, with no outsiders allowed on the set, nor any interviews with the director or actors until their work was finished.

Probably the most remarkable technical device employed was the extensive use of the Steadicam, a camera that permitted whizzing at child level behind a pedaling youngster, or wheeling and spinning in a terrifying trajectory that follows the final outdoor chase through the snowy maze at midnight. Sniff[18] comments that the camera technique has the result that “most of the film feels like an endless subjective shot: we appear to be watching the hotel and its inhabitants through the eyes of an unearthly prowler, someone who sees very differently from the way we see.”

Shiff also commented on the sound track: “Kubrick’s now famous method of using existing recordings of music, in this case by Bela Bartok, Gyorgy Ligeti, and mostly the Polish modernist Krzysztof Penderecki. The sound track becomes a dissonant wailing pounding but seductive symphony of human fear as it makes contact with the irrational energies buried deep inside its heart.”

Kubrick’s perfectionist tendencies regarding performances had not diminished. Newsweek quotes Scatman Crothers’s comments: “In one scene, I had to get out of a Sno-Cat and walk across the street, no dialogue: forty takes. He had Jack Nicholson walk across the street, no dialogue: fifty takes. He had Shelley, Jack and the kid walk across the street: eighty-seven takes. Man he always wants something new, and he doesn’t stop until he gets it.”

The Jack Torrance family early in the film, a “reasonable” husband and his troublesome family. (museum of modern art film stills archive)
Wife Wendy and son Danny in the elaborate Overlook Lodge. (museum of modern art film stills archive)
Jack Torrance and Danny—the metamorphosis from affectionate father to murderous demon. (Museum of Modern Art Film Stills Archive)

Jack Nicholson added: “Stanley’s demanding. He’ll do a scene fifty times and you have to be good to do that. There are so many ways to walk into a room, order breakfast, or be frightened to death in a closet. Stanley’s approach is, how can we do it better than it’s ever been done before? It’s a big challenge. A lot of actors give him what he wants. If you don’t, he’ll beat it out of you—with a velvet glove, of course.”

Perhaps the hardest role was given Shelley Duvall, who had to stay hysterical for nearly four months. Kubrick would tell her fiercely but never raising his voice: “Shelley, that’s not it. How long do we have to wait for you to get it right?”

Just before the film’s release, Kubrick commented optimistically: “If a story interests me sufficiently to spend two or three years turning it into a film, then I believe it will interest many others as well.”

The Shining opens to ominous horn music, together with snake rattles and bird trills, with an extreme helicopter long-shot view of a tiny yellow Volkswagen driving up serpentine roads to the protagonist’s job interview for winter caretaker at the enormous ominous Overlook Hotel in the Colorado Rockies.

We watch ex-teacher and struggling writer Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) being interviewed for the caretaker job at the luxurious but empty hotel during the brutal winter, while the resort is closed. The corporate executive, Ullman (Barry Nelson), with his blown-dry hair and US flag pin, is ritually deferred to by Torrance, the two both sounding like pompous/glib local TV anchorpersons—a typical grim/funny job interview. The executive tells Torrance about a horrifying incident that occurred at the hotel some years before when a previous caretaker, Grady, possibly affected by the isolation and loneliness, murdered his two little daughters with an axe, shot his wife, and blew out his own brains with a shotgun.

Nicholson smiles: No need to worry about anything like that with him, a nice guy from Vermont. The smile is the first of many.

Directly after Nicholson accepts the job, we see his son Danny (Danny Lloyd), talking to his “imaginary friend” in a mirror, then see images of two little girls, first alive, then butchered. Danny then sees a hotel elevator disgorging a flood of blood, and faints.

A woman doctor visits the Torrances’ apartment in Denver to check up on the child, and it soon becomes clear each family member has his or her own version of past events. His wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) says that five months ago (Torrance says two years ago), Torrance, returning home drunk, saw his latest manuscript spread across the floor (Torrance says they were Danny’s papers), and picked up Danny by one arm, dislocating the child’s shoulder. Since then, Danny’s had episodes of fainting and visions, via his “imaginary friend” Tony, who he says lives in his mouth and tells him to keep the visions secret. The doctor tells Wendy such imaginary friends and even visions are normal in a child, though they strike Wendy as uncanny. In the background copies of the New York Review of Books lying around the shabby apartment suggest Torrance’s intellectual and literary aspirations.

A title: “Closing Day.”

The Torrances—Jack, Wendy, and Danny—are driving up to the Overlook to move in. It’s not a pleasant trip; Jack berates his family sarcastically, the woman and child suffering in silence.

Soon they’re touring the immense structure, the manager Ullman explaining that the hotel is built on an Indian burial mound, and also decorated with authentic Indian designs, in an apparent combination of Navaho and art deco. Outside the entrance is an enormous hedge maze.

Next the good-natured head chef, Halloran (Scatman Crothers) takes the family on a tour of the enormous kitchen and pantry, showing them the almost incredible bounty of the Overlook. In a moment alone, Danny and Halloran acknowledge that they share the psychic ability the black man calls “shining,” visions of danger in the past or future, as well as a kind of telepathy. Halloran explains to the child that past events often leave traces that can be dangerous to those with this gift, and cautions him to avoid room 237.

The Overlook is closed, and only the family is left inhabiting its multitudes of rooms and corridors. While Wendy drudges at family tasks, Jack types away in a large lounge.

Now, in one of the film’s most chilling scenes, Wendy looks through a pile of manuscript the writer has been working on and finds it consists of a single sentence, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,” typed over and over and over, as dialogue, paragraphs, stanzas of poetry.

Life goes on. Danny, on his little tricycle, endlessly cruises the empty labyrinthine corridors of the Overlook, from vast lobby to monumental halls, so we begin to learn our way through the hotel.

Still later, Danny is shown with his neck bruised. Wendy claims Torrance did it, Torrance says Danny did it to himself, and Danny says a crazy old woman in room 237 did it. By the time we hear the last version, Torrance has visited the old crone, though he tells Wendy he has not.

Danny, fearing violence from his father, starts “asking” for help from the shining cook Halloran, via his imaginary friend Tony. The film now begins to cut back and forth between the deteriorating situation at the Overlook and Halloran as he first tries to call the hotel, then flies to Colorado, borrows a car and then a Sno-Cat which he drives through a snowstorm towards the Overlook.

Accused of mistreating the boy again, Torrance begins to frequent the Gold Room, a large ballroom, filled with Fitzgeraldian ghostly revelers in Jazz Age costume.

Titles now begin to appear at odd intervals, “Tuesday” or “Saturday” or “3:00 p.m.,” a parody of thriller chronology. Torrance and his family quarrel more and more often. The writer tells them he loves the hotel, and wishes they could stay there “ever ever ever!”

Torrance is seen again in the Gold Room, conversing with the seemingly real barman Lloyd (Joe Turkel). Torrance, who promised to give up drinking after he hurt his son, tells the empty ballroom: “I’d give my soul for a drink!” and looks up to see the satanically red lit bartender.

Torrance returns to room 237, now holding a slim nude aristocratic young woman who rises from her bath and embraces him, though the mirror reveals only a rotting crone laughing at him.

In the ballroom, now filled with stylish couples in 1920s dress, Torrance bumps a headwaiter who takes him into a bloodred men’s room to wipe off a spilled drink. The man, named Grady (Philip Stone) like the previously murdered caretaker, tells Torrance that not he but Torrance has always been the caretaker of the hotel. Grady explains how he “corrected” his wife and daughters when they got out of line, and warns Torrance that his son Danny is trying to contact outside help to use against him.

Soon Wendy, like Torrance, begins to see the same blood pouring from the elevator, and to hear people chanting. Upset by her husband’s increasingly hostile and bizarre behavior, she manages to lock him in the Overlook’s enormous pantry—yet somehow Torrance is able to enlist “Grady” to unlock the door and set him loose.

Wendy, swinging a baseball bat, backs away from Torrance as he moves toward her—the writer slowing advancing even as she brandishes the bat at him. Wendy backs slowly away across a room and up a staircase, finally swinging it in front of her to keep him at a distance, what Kael calls “a ghoulish parody of a courtship dance, staged with hairbreadth timing.” Torrance lunges, and Wendy and Danny take refuge in a tiny bathroom.

Halloran now appears, at apparently just the right moment, when Torrance is just about to burst through the bathroom door. Danny has meanwhile become a kind of “mirror self,” repeating “Redrum” (murder) over and over.

Meanwhile, Torrance ambushes and kills Halloran with an axe—coming in and calling and suddenly chopped down. Moments later Torrance is chopping at the door to his family’s refuge, a nightmare parody of the good husband braying: “Wendy, I’m home!” and then mocking Johnny Carson’s “He-e-e-e-e-r-e’s Johnny!” as he sticks his head through the smashed door. But Wendy and Danny have escaped through the tiny bathroom window into the winter world outside, sliding down a snowbank and running for the great maze.

Torrance chops through the bathroom door, calling himself the “Big Bad Wolf,” and follows. In the final chase through the maze in the frozen dark night, the hunched-over limping father, axe in hand but animal-like, dogs his son’s footprints in the snow, making inarticulate sounds.

Meanwhile the cunning son erases his tracks and retraces his steps, trapping Torrance in the maze. The final picture of Torrance, frozen in the maze in the present, is juxtaposed with a view of a look-alike frozen in the past in a photograph of the ballroom on July 4, 1921.

A majority of the critics, though they found The Shining flawed, said they felt Kubrick must be praised for seeking to move beyond the horror genre. Jack Kroll, for example, comments that in The Shining, he understands that the point is not all the supernatural machinery, but “its effect on human beings. For all its brilliant effects, the strongest and scariest element in The Shining is the face of Jack Nicholson undergoing a metamorphosis from affectionate father to murderous demon.” Likewise, David Cook [4] argues that “we’re being told that true horror is not extraordinary but surrounds us every day and, as Auden wrote of evil, ‘sits with us at the dinner table.’”

Kroll feels that the oedipal theme is successfully realized, adding that “this is that rare horror film in which we sense its intelligence even as it scares us … when Torrance turns on his son in a mad rage, The Shining becomes a kind of perverse reversal of Kramer Versus Kramer, where father and son found mutual flowering in each other. There is a grisly psychological accuracy in this that affects us more than the spooks and haunts in the Overlook.” Ultimately, Kroll feels, Kubrick in his films seems to “construct an alternate reality, something more logical and precise than the real world with its sloppy design and dangerous leaps of the unthinking heart.”

An interesting review by Myron Meisel[14] calls The Shining “our first modernist medieval morality play, an odd amalgam of antique metaphysics, harsh Calvinism, and contemporary absurdism.” To Meisel, the Torrance character is in league with literally real demons, while the only true spirituality (God never shows up) comes from the impulse for self-preservation, mother love, and the “shining” (e.g., ESP), which for the critic suggests a tantalizing linkage to the Star Wars saga. Meisel concludes that Kubrick may not believe the worldview he propounds, but is interested in “rigorously exploring a vision dictated by a belief in sin and predestination,” and the resulting insights, while “hard to digest and impossible to accept, have some validity in upsetting intellectual complacency.”

A majority of the film critics, however, disliked The Shining. Typically, David Denby commented that “without a central idea, Kubrick’s The Shining is stiff and pompous, an anthology of horror film flourishes… . The Shining might be more effective if Kubrick weren’t so vain of his integrity: you feel he’s too proud to descend to such vulgarities as pace or wit or suspense.”[5] Like a number of other critics and reviewers, Denby felt a major flaw lay in the characters: Jack Torrance was already wildly smirking and fearfully out of control before the film started, while his wife stayed a simp victim and their child cool and distant—a family unlikable and perverse from the word go.

Pauline Kael[10] is perhaps the most thorough cataloger of the movie’s imperfections. On the visual level, she finds the reversal of genre convictions, shooting in broad daylight, fails because the horrors are not integrated with it, but rather appear like flashing slides inserted into the film. Dramatically she finds many flaws: Torrance’s long static conversations with demons; characterizations that are static and unsurprising (“Kubrick’s ‘tools’”); a family theme that consequently doesn’t jell.

On the metaphysical level, Kael finds the film confusing. At first Danny’s behavior and Jack’s activities seem explicable by Jack’s madness. But soon, she notes, Wendy also sees and hears the bloody apparitions. Do the family tensions generate real apparitions, Kael asks, or do the apparitions multiply the family tensions, or is it an intertwining process such that both are one—the tortured family both source and victim of monsters that live on? (Diane Johnson, Kubrick’s cowriter, also discussed these possibilities.) Kael notes the clues as she sees them, as well as various anachronisms, mirror images, and the deconstruction of time and dating, and sees the conclusion as hinting at reincarnation. She concludes Kubrick’s strategy is to draw us in so our view of time is gradually disoriented, and we accept the ugly theme of the timelessness of murder—but feels the various apparitions never really form a pattern, so the film finally seems not to make sense, except on the simplest level: “He seems to have gone back to his view at the beginning of 2001: man is a murderer throughout eternity.”

Perhaps the harshest criticism is that of Stephen Shiff, who complains that The Shining begs for a payoff that never comes: “The Shining is a sadistically directed movie, not because it tortures us with fear, but because it refuses us pleasure—the cathartic pleasure of a real confrontation with the terrors it promises.” In addition, the critic sees the film as filled with empty fetishism—like the forty, fifty, or eighty-seven takes, or the enormous “novel” that uses one sentence thousands of times arranged in paragraphs, sonnets, and blocks: like that “book” The Shining has its own habit of falling into meaningless fussiness, endless empty fetishistic symmetries and arrangements.

A couple of interpretations of The Shining, based on complex cultural theories, have also been proposed. David A. Cook offers a Marxist view of The Shining, seeing the film as a metaphor for a society that is based on exploitation and even murder and genocide, just as the glorious Overlook Hotel is built on an Indian burial mound. He views this idea as signaled by the early hypocritical job interview, in which job hunter Torrance tells how “eager” his family is to be locked up in the snow. Later, isolated, Torrance gradually becomes obsessed with his “work,” preferring the company of the cruel ghostly employees of the past as well as the spirits of the snobbish clientele. The futility of his job and impossible writing aspirations is symbolized by the sentence he types again and again, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” For Cook, the Overlook stands for the violence of our economic system, which bursts out amid the abundant emptiness of the resort. Shiff supports this idea, commenting that: “At the heart of [Kubrick’s] joke is the notion that inside every loving husband and father is a striver, a careerist who is the enemy of the family—who could ultimately murder them.”

A long analysis of The Shining by Christopher Hoile[9] is based on the two books that Kubrick and Johnson reportedly read while writing the script—Freud’s essay “The Uncanny” and Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment (1976). Both books explore the mind in terms of psychoanalysis, and discuss man’s relationship to an “animistic” universe—one in which good and bad spirits inhabit all things, and thoughts and wishes can control reality. Bettelheim sees children as inhabiting such a universe, which is reflected in fairy tales (and TV cartoons), while Freud argues that adults surmount it and madmen are trapped in it—their “selves” lost and their actions apparently involuntary.

In The Shining, Hoile argues, the animistic universe is shown in interaction with the oedipal world of father, mother, and child. For example, in the dreamlike climax, the animistic world takes command, as in the ghost’s freeing of Torrance from the storeroom, and the perfectly timed arrival of the rescuer Halloran. According to Hoile, “Like Wendy, we discover we are trapped between two people living in an animistic universe—a son who has not yet surmounted it, and a father who has sunk back into it.” For Hoile, “The horror in The Shining does not lie in the ghosts, but in the inseparability of the oedipal tensions in the family, of which they are an expression.” Hoile concludes that like all Kubrick’s films, The Shining is concerned with the illusion that man’s will contributes to his progress, in this case his supposed progress beyond animism. “But there is no progress, and [Torrance] becomes a horror movie character to his wife, and to us.”

The narrative preoccupations present in Kubrick’s previous films can be detected yet again:

Imaginary worlds. Jack Torrance’s own view of the world remains always that of a “reasonable” husband and father trying to deal with his troublesome family, as well as his other personal limitations. His son Danny, so far as his own viewpoint is clear, identifies with and accepts his psychic powers, at least as correct intuitions, which he follows in dealing with the world. Wendy Torrance is an unfortunate ordinary person trapped between the psychic and the psychotic.

Futility of intelligence, failure of emotion. In The Shining, as has been pointed out, man’s supposed progress beyond the irrational and unconscious fails under stress and he regresses to playing out the Oedipus myth. As Hoile puts it: “The father, feeling threatened by his son, tries to kill him, only to be killed at the crossroads as the prophecy is fulfilled and the son runs off with his mother.”

Journey to freedom. Danny Torrance is seen to progress through a series of psychological states, sometimes normal, sometimes psychic, to the point where he can both surmount his animistic obedience to his father and use rationality and cunning to escape his murderous rage.

Obsessional hero. Torrance is a tragic obsessional hero, basically decent but unable to escape his obsession with running his family, and doing his job, even as it degenerates into destructive madness.

Homicidal-suicidal pairings. Father and son progress from apparently normal behavior into destructive and self-destructive patterns. Torrence, the clearly murderous, is left frozen in the maze at midnight, mentally if not physically destroyed. Danny, who in desperation lured him into this final dead-end state, presumably survives.

A final note: The video and 16-mm rental versions of The Shining currently in distribution run 120 minutes, deleting 23 minutes from the theatrical version here discussed. Cutting or dropping includes several important sequences such as the doctor’s visit in Denver, and the tour of the hotel. The result is a more traditional if confusing horror film, but one for which much of the critical material in this chapter does not apply.

[8] Hofsess, John. “Kubrick: Critics Be Damned.” Soho News, May 28, 1980, p. 41.
[7] Harmetz, Aljean. “Kubrick Films The Shining in Secrecy of English Studio.” New York Times, May 20, 1977.
[11] Kroll, Jack. “Stanley Kubrick’s Horror Show.” Newsweek, May 26, 1980, p. 96.
[18] Shiff, Stephen. “The Shining.” Boston Phoenix, June 17, 1980.
[4] Cook, A. “American Horror: The Shining.” Literary Film Quarterly, 1984, no. 1, p. 2.
[14] Meisel, Myron. “Why The Shining is a Fourteenth Century Film.” Los Angeles Reader, May 13, 1980, p. 4.
[5] Denby, David. “Death Warmed Over.” New York Magazine, June 9, 1980, p. 60.
[10] Kael, Pauline. “Devolution.” New Yorker, September 6, 1980, p. 130.
[9] Hoile, Christopher. “The Uncanny: The Fairy Tale in Kubrick’s The Shining.” Literary Film Quarterly, 1984, no. 1, p. 20.