Hollywood has not been shy in taking on Stephen King. From Carrie to Children of the Corn, from Gerald’s Game to The Green Mile, and from The Dark Tower to The Dead Zone, they’ve been turning his most famous (and even most obscure) works of fiction into big-budget blockbusters for decades now. The Shining, despite also being a (relatively) big-budget Stephen King adaptation, was different, though.
Instead of gory, schlocky ‘80s cheese, director and co-writer Stanley Kubrick went for real shock and terror, significantly going against the original source material in the process. As much as this may have irritated King, the end product wasn’t just a genuinely scary movie, but also a true horror masterpiece—which admittedly might not have been the case if it had completely stuck to King’s vision (live topiary animals, anyone? [NOTE: LINK CONTAINS SPOILERS]).
One of the most notable things that King complained about was the casting of Jack Nicholson as the central protagonist, Jack Torrance—an aspiring writer who slowly goes insane while serving as the off-season caretaker for the Overlook Hotel with his family. In the author’s opinion, Nicholson’s prominent role in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (a widely successful drama about a man—yes, played by Nick—committed to a mental asylum) made his character’s descent into madness too obvious, and a more “everyday” actor like Jon Voight would have been a better choice instead.
With all due respect to such a talented and prolific man, I disagree. Nicholson’s fiery, twisted performance is what truly cements the film as a classic, and the thought of it being attempted by somebody—heck, anybody—else is unspeakable. Not that anybody else misses a beat either—Danny Lloyd (as Jack’s young son, Danny) gives one of the best child performances I’ve ever seen, and contrary to what some (yes, including King) may think, Shelley Duvall (Jack’s rightfully nervous wife, Wendy) is also extraordinary. Sure, she almost gets completely hysterical towards the film’s iconic climax, but so would anybody else in the terrible situation she’s in.
Fear of the unknown, or rather, fear of what it can do to a seemingly ordinary family, drives The Shining. Despite the level of detail and care put into bringing the Overlook Hotel to life, not everything about it is thoroughly explained or wrapped up in a neat little package, and that’s exactly what makes it so unforgettably terrifying. Besides the manager’s warning of the place’s gruesome past, nothing particularly alarming happens for the film’s first 40 minutes—in fact, the hotel actually looks like a pretty nice place to stay at first, not a maleficent host of evil and chaos.
Kubrick uses those calmer moments to build up the dread looming deep in the hotel’s twisty corridors, to hint at chilling things not yet clearly shown, and the effect is far more unnerving than if monsters had been pointlessly jumping at the screen every five seconds. Despite already directing films like 2001:A Space Odyssey, his stark, bold palette of reds and whites is simply unlike anything else out there (I really mean that), and the camera’s long, fluid movements only increase the suspense steadily rising throughout.
Thankfully, when things finally do get off-the-wall crazy, The Shining firmly refuses to ever become silly or stupid, which I’m sure isn’t the case for most other King adaptations (none of which I have seen, admittedly). Even if that’s not true, and even if there is a King-based film that is more haunting, unique, or visually stunning than this one, I—or any other horror buff, for that matter—will never, ever forget The Shining. Hopefully, the 2019 sequel Doctor Sleep (which—believe it or not—King actually loved) won’t spoil its ruthless, indelible impact.