Why Kubrick’s The Shining is So Compelling

Upon the release of the Stanley Kubrick-directed film version of The Shining, many fans of the Stephen King novel upon which the film was based expressed emotions ranging from utter disappointment to outright incredulity at the changes made in the translation from novel to film.

Many viewers were completely dumbfounded at the deletions and changes made by the legendary director in his vision of the most commercially successful novel written up to that time by the then not quite so legendary horror novelist.

Even Stephen King himself was quite vocal about his negative reaction to what Kubrick had created from the base material of King’s own potboiler novel.

Based upon the lackluster audience attracted to the film after its quite successful opening weekend, it appeared that Kubrick had quite possibly gone wrong somewhere in his visual rendition of King’s printed story.

However, in the last 20 odd years since the film’s initial release, (aided no doubt by a recent television miniseries version which was more faithful to the novel while being far less interesting and compelling than Kubrick’s film), the big screen version of The Shining has grown in stature as a towering film achievement deserving of far more critical and commercial respect than it achieved upon its arrival.

The reason for this probably lies in the fact that Kubrick’s film version actually improves upon the novel’s themes by reducing the scope of the horror involved.

The film version becomes more narrow, focused and claustrophobic than the novel, and is more successful at examining how a patriarchal society deteriorates when the caretaker of the family unit decides to try to escape from his responsibilities and enter into a selfish world of living only for his own desires.

While this examination is also part of the novel, one reason the novel lacks the overall effectiveness of the film is that it tries to add too much more to story and thereby only succeeds at deflating the impact of its intended theme. Kubrick was allowed the luxury of having only so much time in which to tell his story, and therefore he was able to cut away all the extrinsic fat that would have weighed his film down as it did King’s novel.

Perhaps the single most obvious change that Kubrick made from the novel is his exchanging a maze in the film for the animal topiary in the novel. No doubt this was partly due to the fact that the animal sculptures in the novel are seen moving, or rather having moved, and that could have been a difficult thing to pull off successfully in a film.

At the very least it would have required many separate sculptures of the topiary to have been created in order to show how the animals had moved, and the logistics involved may have made the topiary prohibitive.

The most likely reason for rejecting the topiary, however, was probably that it didn’t fit into Kubrick’s thematic view of the film. For one thing, in the film the character of Jack Torrance is seen outside the Overlook Hotel on very rare occasions, whereas in the novel the character is often seen outside.

Since Jack and his son Danny both see the animals in the topiary moving, it would have meant one more scene with Jack outside for Kubrick, who obviously wanted to keep Jack inside the hotel.

The Overlook Hotel itself stands in for civilization, and therefore Jack must be allowed outside that civilization only when absolutely necessary so as to keep the focus on Jack’s struggle against the confines of civilized subservience to duty.

More importantly, the maze functions as a psychological symbol representing Jack’s descent into madness. A maze, after all, is a construct in which we struggle to get to the middle.

Jack Torrance has struggled to get to the center of control in his life, found that he doesn’t really like it, and now is struggling to escape back to his selfish former ways of living. The center of the maze represents stability and rule, a safe place found after making wrong turns and going up blind alleys.

That safety is actually threatening to Jack Torrance, and he now wants to escape from it back to uncivilized disorder. The maze also mirrors the mazelike structure of the Overlook itself, which is in turn the real life maze through which Jack is making his way as he searches for an escape route from the societal impositions of responsibility.

The maze stands as a much more vital and impressive symbol of Jack’s inner torment than the topiary in the novel. The concept of animals made out of vegetation engaging in movement toward Jack and Danny doesn’t contain nearly the symbolic beauty of the maze.

The primary thematic point at work in the topiary seems to be the suggestion that primeval, animalistic forces are at work guarding the Overlook. This makes sense when they attack Danny since his ability to “shine” represents a threat to the Overlook’s desire to control his father, but why should the hotel need to be guarded against Jack himself?

Jack does see the topiary animals moving and they seem to be threatening him. Why they feel the need to threaten Jack is never fully explained and lessens the thematic impact of the topiary. Kubrick clearly made the right decision in excising the animal hedge and replacing it with the maze.

On the other hand, Kubrick’s shelving a certain episode found in the novel might not have been as good a decision. Kubrick seems to have missed an opportunity to create a bit of foreshadowing that seems to have contained some very fine filmic possibilities. In the novel version, Jack finds a wasps’ nest and kills all the wasps with a bug bomb.

He presents the empty nest to Danny to keep in his bedroom. Somehow, the dead wasps revive and proceed to attack Danny, Jack and Jack’s wife Wendy. The reviving of the wasps acts as a central metaphor for the evil that is to be revived inside the Overlook.

The empty wasp nest containing dormant danger is a perhaps overly obvious symbol, yet it does work in setting up what will be a dominant theme of the novel: the continuing reawakening of evil inside the Overlook.

That theme is more than suggested at in the film version. In a later conversation we will discover that Jack Torrance has always been the caretaker of the Overlook and he is expected to rise again to battle against familial duties and expectations.

The final image of the film shows a photo of Jack taken during a party during 1921, more than hinting at the possibilities that evil in the Overlook is something which comes and goes. And comes again. While he doesn’t examine the history of evil in the Overlook to nearly the same degree that King does in the novel, Kubrick obviously wants us to realize that the Overlook is a place where evil lies in wait.

The episode involving the wasps’ nest could very easily have been fitted into the film from a thematic point of view. However, the film is longer than the average movie as it is (and much longer than the average horror film), and it could certainly be argued that the scenes involving the finding of the nest and the resulting attack by the wasps would have taken up at least an additional five to ten minutes, so from a logistics point of view it may be easy to see why Kubrick decided to excise the wasps’ next sequences.

Something many critics of the film don’t understand is how Kubrick could have excised so much of the history of evil that was contained within the Overlook. A key component of the novel is Jack Torrance’s finding of a scrapbook in the attic of the hotel that details a history of corruption, suicide and murder at the Overlook through a series of newspaper clippings.

In this way, the novel expands upon the theme of the disintegration of the family unit, incorporating the concept of a more generalized sense of sin and evil within the Overlook. Doing this waters down the more immediate and interesting story of a man coming to terms with fatherly and husbandly responsibilities.

The external injuries done at the Overlook lessen the impact of what is happening to Jack Torrance and his family and the larger concerns of what it means to be a caretaker in the patriarchal society developed by most of the civilized earth. The insanity which attacks the caretakers of the Overlook isn’t limited to just the caretakers anymore.

The madness infects a whole host of guests who aren’t central to the story being told. Enlarging the focus to make the Overlook itself a living, breathing organism of evil in the end bedevils the intent of the story, which is to tell what happens to families when their caretakers abandon their duties.

Kubrick, to his credit, realized this. The scrapbook does actually appear in the film, but it’s off to the side and incidental. No mention of its importance is ever made explicitly.

The film, therefore, is stronger than the novel precisely because it does not dwell on the history of evil that has taken place at the Overlook. The film, as stated before, is more claustrophobic than the novel.

The film understands that the only important story of evil in the Overlook is that story of Jack Torrance once again succumbing to his own selfish desires and its effect on his family unit.

The film understands that this is the story of the caretaker of the Overlook (read patriarchal society) and the result of what happens when the caretaker “overlooks” his responsibilities (read chaos). Far from criticizing Kubrick because of his choice to leave out the scrapbook and the history of evil contained within it, the director should be commended for focusing on only that which was necessary and relevant to furthering his thematic point of view.

Another controversial choice by Kubrick is equally relevant to his view of keeping even his choice of actors in line with his thematic direction of the material. A movie differs significantly from a novel in that it relies greatly on the talents of actors to add depth and significance to the characterizations already existing on the printed page.

A wide range of reactions has been expressed regarding Jack Nicholson’s performance as Jack Torrance in the movie. Interestingly, both those who cheer and those who jeer at his performance often base their opinion of Nicholson’s acting on its intensity.

Those who scoff at Nicholson claim he is overacting. Those who approve of his performance credit him with rising to the challenge of brilliantly showing an already unbalanced man slowly slipping into outright insanity. Regardless of how one feels about Nicholson’s performance, there can be no doubt that it is in keeping with the characterization already outlined by King in his novel. Shelley Duvall’s performance as Wendy is an entirely different matter, however.

In fact, there’s actually nothing wrong with Duvall’s performance itself. She plays Wendy exactly as written, and is almost Nicholson’s equal in delineating her character.

The controversy surrounding Duvall lies in the fact that the Wendy as portrayed in the film differs so significantly from the Wendy portrayed in the novel. In the film, Jack displays absolutely no sexual interest in his wife whatsoever.

Wendy Torrance as acted by Shelley Duvall is totally regarded as a mother to Danny and a somewhat nagging wife to her husband. In the novel, Wendy is a much more rounded character and there is a clear sexual chemistry and dynamic at work between Wendy and Jack.

In fact, at one point in the novel, Jack fantasizes about committing a sexually sadistic act against Wendy after she questions his authority, furthering the point that Jack is losing his civility in the face of having to continue as the caretaker. Shelley Duvall is skinny, flat-chested and brunette. Wendy in the novel is shapely, full-breasted and blondish.

The two characterizations are completely at odds with each other, so why did Kubrick make this choice? One reason may be to further instill in the viewer’s mind that Jack is caught in a situation in which he finds himself completely trapped. (Yet another instance of Jack being caught in a maze).

Even in marriages where the couple has totally drifted apart from each other, the overwhelmingly compelling sex drive succeeds in bringing them back together for at least a small amount of time. In the film, there seems to be no sex drive at work whatever between the Torrances.

Jack clearly does possess a sex drive as his encounter with the young nude woman in room 217 shows. But he does not sexually desire his own wife. This can certainly be read as Kubrick’s way of intimating that for Jack there is precious little primal urge binding him to the family unit.

His eager embrace of the naked woman exemplifies his quest to run away from family obligations and embrace the sexual promiscuity that reattaining the single life promises. For Jack in the film, Wendy extends an invitation only to fulfill the drudgery of husbandry, whereas in the novel Wendy is often an object of lust for her husband. Wendy in the novel offers the inevitable extension of a sexual invitation to Jack.

It’s not insignificant, therefore, that in the novel Jack does not have the encounter with the young naked woman that appears in the movie. This sequence is a powerful indication of Jack’s state of mind and it’s almost impossible to imagine the movie without it.

The strength of the scene is underlined by the fact that Jack has expressed not one iota of sexual feelings for his wife, who has been portrayed by an actress generally considered not to be particularly sexually appealing or physically attractive. Kubrick’s conceit that Jack wants desperately to break away and run from the constriction of socially-imposed institutions is yet again beautifully symbolized in a sequence not found in the book.

Books can usually contain more thematic concerns than films simply because of their often sprawling length compared with the average film having to deal with its themes within a period of an hour and a half to three hours.

The reason that the film version of The Shining is so much more successful than its novel counterpart lies with Stephen King. King is usually disparaged by critics who claim that he is a hack who writes nothing but simple horror stories. Ironically, the problem with his novel-and in fact with most of his novels-is that they aren’t simple, but rather that he attempts to put too much into them.

He desires to attack so many thematic components that he fails to satisfy any of them completely. On the contrary, in his film version, Kubrick single-mindedly attacks his thematic concept of symbolizing the breakdown of society through the loss of its caretaker by focusing on one family and the utter anarchy that ensues when its caretaker dares to give in to selfishness and pursue his own desire to break away from societal responsibilities.

In the final contrast to the book, Jack Torrance doesn’t die in a boiler explosion, but instead is frozen solid in the snow, lost forever in the maze from which he tried to vainly to escape, never realizing that you can’t escape responsibility. It follows you wherever you go.

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