By Craig Leask
The Shining (1980), the Stanley Kubrick directed film based on the 1977 book by Stephen King stands out as the quintessential horror film. This accolade however has not been acknowledged without controversy. The movie’s tone is immediately set in the opening sequence; following a yellow Volkswagen through the vast emptiness of mountainous terrain to the foreboding score by Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind. The ominous music emphasizes the extreme isolation of the remote location, while hinting at the dread which awaits the drivers upon their arrival. This opening sequence sets up Kubrick’s haunting interpretation of the story, a much different take on the initial intent of Stephen King’s work.
The plot centers on Jack and Wendy Torrance (Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall) and their 5 year old son Danny (Danny Lloyd) moving into a remote hotel for the winter off season where Jack has been employed as the caretaker. It is hoped that the seclusion of the hotel will work to mend broken family dynamics while allowing Jack to concentrate on his writing career.
The backstory to the hotel, so important in Kubrick’s movie is cleverly relayed through conversations with the hotel’s manager, the hotel chef and various ghosts whom only Jack Nicholson’s character can see. It is during these conversations that we learn the fate of the previous caretaker whom succumbed to Cabin Fever and killed his entire family.
King’s original development of the book is an interesting story in itself. After basing several of his earlier novels in small towns in Eastern US coastal towns (Carrie (1974) and Salem’s Lot (1975)), King was looking for new inspiration so wanted to immerse himself in surroundings which were very different from his native Maine. The process of locating a new writing environment was simple. King opened an atlas of the continental US, closed his eyes and randomly pointed to a location, which turned out to be Boulder, Colorado.
In the late fall of 1974 Stephen King and his wife crossed the country and arrived at The Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado, just outside the City of Boulder. Due to the late fall timing, they arrived just prior to the hotel’s closing for the season and found themselves as the only two guests in the hotel that night. They were checked into room 217, which will figure prominently in his book.
That evening they were the only dinner guests in the grand dining room. Their table was the only one set and with the eminent closing of the kitchen, there was only one choice offered for dinner. Recorded orchestral music was piped into the room entertaining the lone guests. King commented later on how eerie it was to have the music echoing throughout the empty room and throughout the corridors. By the time the couple had completed dinner, King had the outlines of a book formulating in his mind.
Following dinner, with his wife having turned in for the evening, King wandered the corridors of the near empty hotel, ending up in the hotel lounge, where he was offered a drink by Grady, the lounge bartender. Grady the bartender would also appear as a character in his novel.
Returning to his room, King dreamt that night of his son screaming as he was being chased through the empty hotel corridors by a fire hose. Unable to sleep, King sat there in room 217 throughout the balance of the night, developing the full structure for his novel. Everything quickly came into focus.
The book took King a mere 4 months to complete despite the many attempts by his Doubleday editor Bill Thompson, to talk him out of finishing the novel. Thompson’s concerns were based on fears that King would become stereo typed as a horror writer due to his previous “Carrie” and “Salem’s Lot” projects. King persevered and the novel became a best seller. Ultimately Thompson was correct however as King did become associated with the horror genre… and a quite successful association it turned out to be!
Although Kubrick used exterior shots of the Timberline Lodge on Mount Hood just outside Portland Oregon as the fictitious Overlook Hotel, the majority of production took place at EMI Elstree Studios in England. Interior footage was completed in sets based on the interiors of another hotel, The Ahwahnee Lodge (renamed The Majestic Yosemite Hotel in 2016) in Yosemite National Park. Within these locations, Kubrick was extremely successful in engaging the hotel as a pivotal character in the movie rather than a backdrop to the plot.
Kubrick took the vision of King’s nightmare of his son running through the hotel and expertly interpreted it in the movie as Danny pedaling a Big Wheel throughout seemingly endless corridors. The sounds of the wheels on Danny’s toy noisily blasting on wooden flooring then abruptly silenced each time he crosses onto the regular placement of area carpets is pure genius. The mounting suspense of Danny slowing his Big Wheel down each time he approaches room 237, before he finally enters … frightening! And who can forget “REDRUM”! Delicious!
Interestingly, one of the stipulations made to Kubrick by the management of The Timberline Lodge was to not use room number 217 (featured in the book) as there was a fear that future guests might be reluctant to book the room. As a result, room 237 was created for the film, a room which in reality does not exist in the Lodge. To this day however, room 217 is the most requested room by guests registering to stay in the lodge.
From the get go, Stephen King took issues with Kubrick’s interpretation of his story. He had a clear vision of the Stanley Hotel as the building to be used as the setting for the movie as that was the hotel which formed the basis as his original inspiration, not the Timberline Lodge. More importantly, King took great offence to the interpretation of the Jack Nicholson character, which Kubrick portrayed as one dimensional and evil from the beginning. King had written a much more complicated character who faced internal struggles of good and evil. King felt Kubrick had disregarded Jack’s character’s backstory and the arc of his storyline which focused on the family. Kubrick chose instead to focus on the haunted hotel and its process of possessing and nurturing Jack’s evil side.
So much was his disappointment in the film, that in 1997, King took it upon himself to re-film the Shining as a 5 hour TV Mini Series starring Steve Weber and Rebecca De Mornay in the Jack and Wendy Torrance roles keeping the plot true to his novel’s storyline. With King’s version being 5 hours long there was plenty of room to develop the plot as he saw fit. Additionally King reverted to what many are saying is a much more satisfying ending in keeping to the overheated boiler plot line in the novel. This ending is noticeably absent in Kubrick’s version.
With now two versions of Stephen King’s The Shining having been produced – Kubrick’s cinematic version and King’s 5 hour miniseries, endless comparisons are and will continuously be made. Both versions have merit and both portray a very different angle to the telling of the same tale. After viewing the two versions one has to wonder if King’s stresses were warranted. Naturally, King has a great affiliation and passion about his original story, and there is no question his story is good. There is however little doubt that Kubrick took King’s story to a different level focusing his version on the suspense surrounding an isolated haunted hotel.
The Shining (1980) retains a high status in the horror movie genre and has attracted a very unique following. A documentary on the film, entitled Room 237 (2012) was created for Netflix which delves into hidden meanings throughout Kubrick’s movie. The documentary outlines the impact a film can have on an audience who, nearly 4 decades after production wrapped are still heavily in discussions. The creation of the documentary is a testament to the continuous growth of the diehard following of the movie. Beyond Room 237 (2012), there is an extensive and somewhat unusual following to The Shining (1980).
“The Simpsons” television show, known for their sarcastic inclusion of pop culture into their weekly series, included a parody of The Shining (1980) in their annual Halloween “Treehouse of Horror” segments, entitled “The Shinning” which aired on Oct 30, 1994. In this episode, the Simpsons are volunteered as caretakers of Mr. Burns’ mountain home where Homer emulates Jack Nicholson’s character, going insane and attempting to massacre his family.
Oddly enough, additional homage to The Shining (1980) is found within the Disney Toy Story (1995) series produced by Pixar filmmaker Lee Unkrich, who has confessed to being a diehard fan of the movie. He managed to intertwine several “Shining” references into the first 3 Toy Story movies including the carpet pattern in Sid’s home which is the same Aztec pattern as that found at The Overlook (he also replicated the pattern on a desk top tissue box). He included references to the iconic “Room 237” which occur on the garbage trucks license (RM237), the label of the security camera in the Sunnyside Daycare building (“Overlook R237”), and the classification of a dinosaur in Toy Story 3 (2010) (“Velocistar237”). Lee Unkrich has also created a blog dedicated to the movie – “theoverlookhotel.com”
When one looks into critical responses to both the Kubrick and the King filmed versions, the views are mixed. Through the test of time however, the Stanley Kubrick version of The Shining (1980) is now widely regarded as one of the greatest horror films ever made. In fact, Martin Scorsese even ranked Kubrick’s version as one of the scariest horror movies of all time.
Additional accolades have been provided by The American Film Institute who, in 2001 ranked Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) 29th on “AFI’s 100 Years… 100 Thrills” list and Jack Nicholson as “Jack Torrance” was named the 25th greatest villain on the “AFI’s 100 Years… 100 Heroes and Villains”.
Do yourself a favor. Sit back, grab some popcorn, see both versions, and judge for yourself
From as far back as Craig can remember he has been passionate about architecture and the atmosphere that can be created through a well-designed building. In movies, he fulfills this passion by gravitating to films where the production infuses the location into the plot as one of the characters. Be it the long dark shadows of mysteries and haunted house films, to classics of the 40’s and 50’s set in big old houses, grand Italian plazas, or remote villages. It’s the locations Craig is drawn to, so much so that, on occasion, he has even been accused of overlooking plot failures and weak directing, having been so engrossed in the set design and location. What he hopes to accomplish with his writing is to share this passion and encourage others to see for the first time – or revisit – movies where the architecture plays as pivotal a role as a character in the plot.