In May 1980, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining received its world premiere, its cinematic and cultural influence showing no signs of dissipating forty years later. With fans, old and new, continuing to unpick the reasons for its sheer brilliance. For me, as a young teenage film fan, The Shining was not only my introduction to the genius of Stanley Kubrick. But also my first real experience of the power horror films could wield in the public imagination. Wrapping the viewer in the deepest and darkest corners of the subconscious mind while challenging them to think beyond simple jumps and scares.
However, like many films now classed as a masterpiece, The Shining did not find universal favour on its initial release. Receiving mediocre reviews, alongside award ceremony snubs for Kubrick. With much of this critical backlash centred on the film’s divergence from Stephen King’s source material. The author openly expressing his unhappiness with Kubrick’s film adaptation.
Within King’s book, Jack is primarily a good man struggling with his inner demons while caring deeply for his family. Meanwhile, Wendy is a robust and assured figure who wants her husband to get back on track—supporting him and his decision to take on the hotel role that ultimately leads to the supernatural events. The novel’s themes centre on King’s personal struggle with alcoholism and his victory in overcoming addiction. These themes reaching a positive conclusion as Jack and his family survive The Overlook Hotel. Their family unit ultimately becoming stronger following near disaster.
“The police thought that it was what the old-timers used to call cabin fever. A kind of claustrophobic reaction which can occur when people are shut in together over long periods of time.”
However, for Kubrick, Jack does not walk away; instead, he freezes to death in a maze of his own making, his addictions never overcome. His character never redeemed. The supernatural events of the hotel merely reflecting Jack’s mental instability and decline. Therefore, it is easy to see why King disliked Kubrick’s adaptation. The personal inflexions of King’s book and Jack’s journey reversed and embellished.
Of course, Kubrick made other significant changes, introducing the river of blood, the creepy Grady twins and the death of Dick Hallorann. The latter courting controversy as Kubrick explored the destruction of Indian land in building modern America. The death of Hallorann reflecting colonialism and slavery. As a deranged white man with an axe, he violently dispatched a man of colour in corridors that culturally appropriated the symbols, patterns and colours of Native American life as mere ski lodge decor.
After several cuts for both the European and American markets, The Shining grossed just over $44 million against a budget of $19 million. Ultimately making it only a moderate box office success on its first theatrical run. However, much like Hitchcock’s Vertigo, The Shining earned its stripes with the advent of home video. Where critical reappraisal quickly followed as audiences found themselves enthralled and haunted by Kubrick’s vision.
But here lies an important question as to why The Shining went from being a mediocre success to one of the most acclaimed films in horror history? For me, the answer to this question lies within Kubrick’s genre-defying direction. Each of his films refusing to fit the mould of the genre it claims to reflect, from the complex social commentary and the dystopian nightmare of A Clockwork Orange to science fiction, religion, and human identity in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
With The Shining, Kubrick continued this fascinating dissection of both social and moral issues in mainstream film. This time setting his sights on the horror genre, where the success of Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist had led to an explosion of new films. With Kubrick duly unpicking many of the elements held within King’s book to create a cold and haunting exploration of addiction and domestic violence. In turn, surrounding the fantastical horror of mainstream cinema with the real horror of human behaviour.
This theme is highlighted early on in The Shining with references to the Donner Party, a group of American pioneers who resorted to eating each other during winter in the Sierra Nevada mountains. With Kubrick reflecting a family eating themselves due to domestic violence and addiction, their love and affection replaced by survival and protection.
“It was just one of those things, you know. Purely an accident. My husband had, uh, been drinking, and he came home about three hours late. So he wasn’t exactly in the greatest mood that night. And, well, Danny had scattered some of his school papers all over the room, and my husband grabbed his arm and pulled him away from them. It’s… it’s just the sort of thing you do a hundred times with a child, you know, in the park or in the streets. But on this particular occasion, my husband just used too much strength, and he injured Danny’s arm. Anyway, something good did come out of it all, because he said “Wendy, I’m never gonna touch another drop. And if I do, you can leave me.” And he didn’t, and he hasn’t had any alcohol in, uh, five months”
Kubrick’s interpretation of Wendy shows us a woman desperately trying to hold her family together. While equally fearing her husband Jack’s volatile nature, her home life caught in the turmoil of a relationship that offers little emotional support and love. Her husband controls family life while equally being unable to function due to alcohol and aggression. Meanwhile, Wendy places her son first at all times, desperately trying to ensure his protection, with little concern for her wellbeing. This reflects a choice many women are forced to make in placing their security second to their child’s needs. Her life trapped in a cycle of fear and violence with no visible escape route.
Ultimately for Wendy, The Overlook Hotel represents her eyes being opened to the domestic abuse she has long endured. Alongside her final acceptance that she cannot change the man responsible for her pain. The shroud of love finally lifted from her eyes as she realises the man she married was a monster all along.
Meanwhile, Jack is a man who has come to view his family as a barrier to the life he thought he would have. His career as a teacher in taters due to his alcoholism and anger, in life, slowly spiralling out of control. His internal need for resolution and escape dovetailing with a need for total control of his family. A trait that has led to violence in the past with him having (on at least one occasion) ‘accidentally’ injured his son Danny under the influence.
“Your wife appears to be stronger than we imagined, Mr Torrance. Somewhat more… resourceful. She seems to have got the better of you”.
For Jack, The Overlook Hotel is a possible escape from the trappings of his home life, a chance to start again and build something new. However, the isolation only magnifies his failings and inner conflict. His mental stability (already in question before they arrive at the hotel) only further degraded by his acceptance that he cannot escape his demons. A decision that ultimately leads him to the darkest corners of human behaviour. His final hunt for Danny in the large snow-covered maze reflecting his own inability to escape the maze of his mind. Each turn leading to a dead end, with no light at the end of the tunnel.
Meanwhile, a key component of King’s novel, Danny’s ability to ‘shine’, is also wrapped in the reality of childhood trauma. Danny’s character is visibly damaged and scared from the film’s start, untrusting his father yet committed to his mother’s safety. With the little man who lives in Danny’s mouth, ‘Tony’ acting as a secret friend and console. A clear commentary on children’s ability to invent support structures as an escape from a family crisis. Dick Hallorann quickly identifies Danny’s pain and sadness on the hotel tour. Here, he Takes Danny aside in an attempt to unpick the reasons for his pain. The welfare of Danny the reason for his eventual return to the hotel and subsequent death.
Kubrick cleverly ensures that supernatural influences are second to the human horror he creates. With the hotel a vehicle rather than instigator in the collapse of the family unit. A failure that began long before the haunted hotel, where it would ultimately reach its end. This, in turn, asks the viewer to reflect on the fundamental nature of horror. The result, distilling the fantasy horror of mainstream cinema into something far scarier. The true horror of families who are haunted by fear, addiction, and domestic violence.
Director: Stanley Kubrick