Mild mannered Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) arrives for an interview at the luxurious Overlook Hotel in Colorado. General manager Mr. Ullman (Barry Nelson) explains his duties as caretaker will be to maintain the hotel when it shuts down for six months during the winter. Jack maintains that the isolation will give him time to outline a novel. Ullman feels obligated to mention a tragedy that occurred in 1970 when their winter caretaker killed his wife and two daughters with an axe before shooting himself. This fails to deter Jack, who proclaims that his wife – a fan of “ghost stories and horror films” – will be thrilled.
Back in Boulder, Jack’s passive wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) watches cartoons with their 7-year-old son Danny (Danny Lloyd). Danny is hyper intuitive, and though he keeps his abilities secret from his parents, receives glimpses of the future. He attributes these to “Tony,” a little boy he says lives in his mouth. “Tony” shows him a terrifying, bloody vision of what waits for him at the Overlook Hotel, and Danny blacks out. Arriving at the hotel, Jack and Wendy are shown through the hallways, lounges, kitchen and boiler room that will soon be completely deserted. The hotel also features a 13-foot tall hedge maze outside.
Head cook Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers) senses that Danny and he share the same ability. He tells the boy that his grandmother called this “shining,” the ability to see things that haven’t happened yet. Danny feels that there’s something bad in the Overlook Hotel, particularly in Room 237. Hallorann orders him to stay out of there. With the coming of snow, Jack grows more annoyed by Wendy, and more withdrawn. Danny knows something’s wrong. Moaning in his sleep, Jack is awakened from a nightmare by Wendy. He tells her, “I dreamed that I killed you and Danny. But I didn’t just kill ya. I cut you up in little pieces.” Nightmare and reality soon become blurred for the Torrances.
Following the publication of Carrie and Salem’s Lot, Stephen King felt he needed a change of scenery. Relocating his family from Maine to Colorado for a year, King’s wife Tabitha ultimately suggested a Halloween getaway to the Stanley Hotel. The resort was closing for the season, and the Kings were the only guests. The author recalls, “That night I dreamed of my three-year-old son running through the corridors, looking back over his shoulder, eyes wide, screaming. He was being chased by a fire hose … I got up, lit a cigarette, sat in a chair looking out the window at the Rockies, and by the time the cigarette was done, I had the bones of the book firmly set in my mind.”
Titled Darkshine at one point, later The Shine, the novel was published in 1977 as The Shining. Printed in a hard cover edition of only 50,000 copies, the book went on to become a bestseller in paperback. Producers Robert Fryer, Mary Lea Johnson and Martin Richards of The Producer Circle optioned the film rights. During this time, director Stanley Kubrick had spent the two years since completing Barry Lyndon combing through newspapers and magazines piled around his home in England, searching for a story for his next film. Warner Bros. president John Calley knew that Kubrick had an interest in the paranormal, and sent him a galleys copy of The Shining.
Kubrick was not moved by King’s prose. “I had seen Carrie, the film, but I have never read any of his novels. I should say that King’s greatest ingenuity lies in the construction of the story. He does not seem to be very interested in writing itself. They say he wrote, read over, rewrote maybe once and sent everything to the editor. What seems to interest him is invention and I think that is his forte.” King was contractually guaranteed the right to adapt a screenplay and turned in a first draft, but Kubrick didn’t read it. He turned to American novelist Diane Johnson, who impressed Kubrick when he learned she was teaching a course on the gothic novel at UC Berkeley.
Johnson recalled, “Kubrick was thinking of making either the Stephen King or my novel, The Shadow Knows. And, you know, he ultimately decided on the King. The Shadow Knows had some problems like being a first person narrative . . . he and I, in talking about it got along better than he and Stephen King, I guess … And I spent, oh, I don’t know, a couple of months, I guess eleven weeks all together, so almost three months in London, working everyday with him.” Kubrick had never directed a horror film. He was a studious viewer of movies, and when asked in 1980 which ones were his favorites, the reclusive director offered The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby.
Kubrick had wanted to work with Jack Nicholson for close to a decade and cast him as Jack Torrance. King stated in an interview that he much preferred an everyman like Jon Voight to play Jack. “To me, he would have been much more convincing as an ordinary man going crazy.” Kubrick’s first and only choice for Wendy Torrance was Shelley Duvall. A six-month search for a child actor to play Danny culminated in 5,000 boys being interviewed in Chicago, Denver and Cincinnati. Danny Lloyd was chosen. Kubrick hoped to round out the cast with Slim Pickens as Hallorann, but the Dr. Strangelove vet had no desire to reunite with Kubrick. Scatman Crothers was ultimately rewarded the part.
With a budget of $13 million, shooting commenced at Elstree Studios outside London in May 1978. The exteriors of The Overlook Hotel were done later at The Timberline Lodge, located on the slopes of Mount Hood in Oregon. The interiors – including the hedge maze – were all built on a soundstage. Kubrick’s obsessive attention to detail slowed what had been scheduled as a 17-week shoot to a grind. Nicholson stated in 1980, “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.”
The Shining took 200 days to shoot. Elstree Studios waited anxiously for Kubrick to clear out so Raiders of the Lost Ark and Reds could move in. The intense lighting that Kubrick and director of photography John Alcott poured through the windows of the set was so intense, temperatures climbed to 110 degrees. With filming nearly completed in February 1979, the Colorado Lounge set burst into flames and was destroyed. Elstree hoped Kubrick would pack it in, but he ordered the soundstage rebuilt and the set reconstructed to finish his close-ups. Steven Spielberg used the soundstage to shoot the Well of Souls sequence for Raiders.
Warner Bros.’ strategy was to open The Shining Memorial Day weekend 1980 in New York and L.A. – in ten theaters and one drive-in – with the intent of going wide to 750 theaters two weeks later, after word of mouth started to build. But after playing for five days, Kubrick was still honing the film, cutting an epilogue in which the hotel manager Mr. Ullman visited Wendy in the hospital. “After several screenings in London the day before the film opened in New York and Los Angeles, when I was able to see for the first time the fantastic pitch of excitement which the audience reached during the climax of the film, I decided the scene was unnecessary.”
Critics were split on The Shining. While Newsweek gushed that it was “the first epic horror film, a movie that is to other horror movies what 2001: A Space Odyssey was to other space movies,” Variety countered, “The crazier Nicholson gets, the more idiotic he looks. Shelley Duvall transforms the warm sympathetic wife of the book into a simpering, semi-retarded hysteric.” The New Yorker (Pauline Kael), Time Magazine (Richard Schickel) and the Chicago Sun-Times (Roger Ebert) were supportive of Kubrick, but the critical reaction at the time was that the director hadn’t watched enough horror movies.
In an interview with Playboy in 1983, Stephen King stated: “The real problem is that Kubrick set out to make a horror picture with no apparent understanding of the genre. Everything about it screams that from beginning to end, from plot decision to the final scene – which has been used before on The Twilight Zone.” Despite its lukewarm reviews, The Shining opened to the biggest grosses in the history of Warner Bros. It ultimately minted $44 million in the U.S. When King wrote and produced his own adaptation of The Shining as a four-hour mini-series for ABC in 1997 – with Steven Weber and Rebecca DeMornay – critics assailed it for being nowhere near as good as Kubrick’s “classic.”
While Kubrick departs radically from King’s text – jettisoning among other things the backstory that explains where the specters that haunt the hotel come from – The Shining remains one of the great entertainments in the history of the movies, so exquisitely designed, so well cast and so filled with gothic terror that other filmmakers have been trying to top it for decades. The tedious mini-series demonstrated that many of the devices King felt were spooky – animal shaped shrubs, a fire hose, a boiler – are nothing compared to a child’s primal fear of a parent turning into a monster. The magnificence of the film is how the film exploits this dread viscerally.
Kubrick’s chilly aesthetic and his photographic work with Steadicam inventor Garrett Brown – gliding the camera through the corridors of the hotel – is noteworthy, but the film was destined to be a classic from the moment it was cast. Jack Nicholson, in perhaps the most iconic performance of his career, is breathlessly lunatic, while Shelley Duvall’s emotional depth charge is nothing short of brilliant. Danny Lloyd and Scatman Crothers are sublime as well. Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind provided electronic sound elements, which Kubrick sourced with music from classical composers György Ligeti and Krzysztof Penderecki to create one of the more unique scores ever created.
Gregory Dorr at The DVD Journal writes, “The beauty of Kubrick is that each of his films, with the exception of maybe Barry Lyndon, can be appreciated on several different levels: aesthetically, viscerally, and intellectually. Stanley Kubrick is also a master at including tiny moments, minuscule details that enrich his films beyond the scope of films not by Stanley Kubrick. Such moments in The Shining include: The sound of Danny’s Big Wheel rolling on the hard floor of the Overlook Hotel and then rolling over a rug and then over the hard floor again, etc.; The twin ghosts of murdered twin daughters who both eerily resemble dwarfish twin Christina Riccis … The red bathroom that looks like a set from 2001 … Every look, gesture, smile, frown, glance, and spoken word from Jack Nicholson.”
“The Shining (1980) is creative director Stanley Kubrick’s intense, epic, gothic horror film and haunted house masterpiece – a beautiful, stylish work that distanced itself from the blood-letting and gore of most modern films in the horror genre … Kubrick deliberately reduced the pace of the narrative and expanded the rather simple plot of a domestic tragedy to over two hours in length, created lush images within the ornate interior of the main set, added a disturbing synthesized soundtrack (selecting musical works from Bela Bartok, Gyorgy Ligeti, and Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki), used a Steadicam in groundbreaking fashion, filmed most of the gothic horror in broad daylight or brightly-lit scenes, and built an unforgettable, mounting sensation of terror, ghosts, and the paranormal,” writes Tim Dirks at The Greatest Films.
Graeme Clark at The Spinning Image writes, “Although a long film, especially for its genre, it never drags due to the obvious precision of the technique – every part of it is assembled with the attention to detail of a Swiss watchmaker … The Overlook is a time trap, where it makes sense that Jack has always been mad, Wendy always scared, and Danny always the possessor of powers that alarmingly fit right in there. It’s up to Wendy and Danny, with the help of a suspicious Hallorann, to break the cycle. An absolute joy from start to finish for those with a taste for the sardonic side of the macabre, The Shining is one of the best horrors of its time.”