The King of Summer: The Shining (1980)
It’s a cinematic labyrinth full of mirror images, passages to nowhere, nagging déjà-vu, and doppelgängers with shifting identities. No, this isn’t a Twin Peaks recap, though there are certainly some reverberations between worlds. Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining is characterized by the distinct dread of things that look familiar but feel off, a feeling that’s sure to be especially acute in audiences familiar with Stephen King’s novel.
King’s opinion of the film is famously mixed at best, ranging from disappointment to vitriol, depending on what mood you catch him in. Despite being a fan of Kubrick’s, King has offered several criticisms over the years, most significantly the casting of Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance. Nicholson seems unhinged from the very beginning, King has argued, so there’s no real tragedy in his descent into madness. It’s possible that Torrance’s role as a sort of self-insert character makes the film’s thematic alterations to his book sting for reasons that are at least as personal as they are professional.
King has talked openly about his struggles with alcoholism, and it’s no secret that his original conception of The Shining was formed by the horror of losing yourself to drink. His Jack Torrance is a deeply flawed but inherently good man whose vices threaten to corrupt him. Kubrick, along with Nicholson and co-writer Diane Johnson, conjures a Torrance whose barely-sustained veneer of decency is rent by alcohol and isolation, allowing a long-festering evil to inevitably assert itself. The on-screen Overlook Hotel is an embodiment of the faceless machine that convinces white men of their own superiority, and its Jack Torrance is all too eager to throw himself into its gears.
Though alcoholism is its central metaphor, King’s Shining is a much more conventional ghost story than Kubrick’s. The book's Jack reads about figures from the hotel’s illustrious past and later meets them, party ephemera appears in an empty ballroom for all to see, firehoses spring to life, and topiary animals march across the lawn. The film is far more subtle, with apparitions who manifest and vanish between shots, the constant feeling that something waits around each blind corner, and a hedge maze more sinister in its stillness than animated creatures could ever be. Kubrick keeps many of King’s ghostly payoffs, but removes their set-ups, resulting in a collage of images made potently disturbing by their baffling abstraction.
Just as Kubrick uses King's details to build a different story, he subverts, rather than rejects, the tropes of classic horror movies. The hotel is built on an “ancient Indian burial ground”, not because such an act invites a mystical curse, but because desecrating that which is sacred to non-white people is part of the spirit the Overlook embodies. The ghosts, while representing a real energy, take shapes entirely dependent on the psychology of the beholder. Wendy, a “confirmed ghost story and horror film addict”, has gothic visions of cobwebbed skeletons and elevators of blood. Danny, more aware and afraid of the malevolence in the air than his parents are, sees the horrific and very real results of violence and abuse. Jack only sees spirits when there’s a mirror in the room, and they appear either as the elegant ruling class he wants to belong to, or as women who alternate between sexual objects to be desired and revolting crones to be detested for growing old and ugly.
The key difference in Kubrick’s take, though, is his cynicism toward Jack Torrance. While King's Jack does indeed fall victim to the hotel and loses his life, he maintains a shred of his humanity to the end. The finale finds him locked in battle with himself and the hotel as much as with his wife and son. Jack Torrance and the Overlook's influence on him are two separate and distinct characters in conflict with each other, one telling his son how much he loves him while the other tries and fails to stop the building’s boiler from blowing the place to pieces. A comforting epilogue finds Wendy and Danny on vacation a year later, fondly remembering the good husband and father they lost.
Kubrick, meanwhile, has Jack fully subsumed by primal evil, a howling beast by the climax, no longer pursuing Danny out of duty to the hotel, but out of pure instinct. Far from conflicted over his own bloodlust, Nicholson's Torrance grows giddily more confident as the racism and misogyny in the haunted air reassures him he’s heir to a power he feels he’s been denied all his life. As shown in the final shot of Jack in a photo of the Overlook’s 1921 July 4th Ball, the hotel hasn’t ripped him away from his life, it’s simply welcomed him home. He’s always been here. There’s hope for Danny and Wendy, but a far more uncertain one that leaves them driving into the darkness, never to be seen by our eyes again. And the hotel isn’t destroyed. It waits for the next season, the next caretaker, the next batch of “all the best people” to join the party.
Stephen King's resentment toward Stanley Kubrick's Shining is understandable, if a bit unfair. What Kubrick did was take King's personal story about one man's inner conflict and transform it into a more universal portrait of the hate at the collective heart of white American men. It would take a weighty tome to fully dissect the Overlook’s catalogue of our nation's horrors, with its murmured racial slurs, objectification of women, and dehumanization of gays, decked in flags and the appropriated aesthetics of people subjected to genocide. But however deep you peer into either version of the story, the familiar may never quite feel right again.