The Shining Is Your Best Film Adaptation

Psst, Stephen King! Listen: I understand your initial animosity towards Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of your much beloved The Shining. It’s personal. It’s a book that means a lot to you — and perhaps once meant even more — and to see somebody like Kubrick take it, transfigure it, and present it as something so defiantly different as what you originally intended may not be easily digestible. Take a second, though, step back, and look as the film begins…there’s a camera, gliding through the Rocky Mountains, tilting dizzily as it navigates the ridges, then suddenly: here’s a car, crawling up the serpentine path!

But, wait, something’s not right. Something about it all is off. Wendy Carlos’s synth-heavy score booms ominously in a low octave that’s enough to set skin crawling. The deep-toned synth is quickly accompanied by what sounds like grotesque human voices screaming. It’s one of the great opening credit sequences in any horror film, one that’s able to conjure impending dread without a single line of dialogue, and from here everything’s a descent into a hellish nightmare (kind of ironic, considering the car’s going upwards, into the mountains). Watch with unbiased eyes, Stephen, and you’ll see: Kubrick’s The Shining is the greatest adaptation of any of your works, period, and the competition isn’t even all that close.


Not a Faithful Adaptation, But the Best

Drawing inspiration from King’s own struggles with substance abuse, as well as a particularly eerie real-life stay at Colorado’s own Stanley Hotel (renamed The Overlook Hotel in the novel and film), The Shining is a thematically rich novel that is understandably close to King’s heart. The book served as a kind of exorcism of King’s personal demons on this matter, a “confession” of his occasional feelings of animosity towards his children. It’s a personal, self-reflective novel, an epic tragedy about a man’s fall from grace into an inescapable pit of despair and violence. Still, though, Kubrick’s adaptation of the film is the single best adaptation of King’s works, and certainly the most artistically accomplished.

RELATED: The Scariest Stephen King Movies, Ranked From Creepy to Downright Terrifying

Brian DePalma’s Carrie is sentimental in all the right ways, and a show-stopping performance from Sissy Spacek is as vulnerable as it is terrifying. Stand By Me excellently shows the pains of losing one’s youthful innocence at the crossroads of adolescence. Frank Darabont struck gold with a duo of King adaptations, The Green Mile and The Shawshank Redemption. Throw in Misery, The Dead Zone, and a decent handful of others, and you’ve got a damn impressive catalogue of excellent films originating from King’s imagination. Regardless of what the man thinks, though, The Shining isn’t only a goddamn horror masterpiece, but it’s the greatest King-related film, one that’s arguably far superior to the book.

Stunning Performances Sell the Horror

From the opening helicopter shot following the Torrence family skyward, The Shining builds an unnerving, inescapable environment that the family — and the audience — become immersed in for the next two hours. When Jack (Jack Nicholson) finally succumbs to his madness and starts chopping down doors in a sadistic rage, it’s not all that surprising, even if it’s still pretty damn scary. The gruesome climax of the film is essentially spelled out from the start. From Jack’s nonchalant way of telling Danny (Danny Lloyd) about the cannibalistic Donner Party to the way he shrugs off the macabre news that the last caretaker of the hotel viciously murdered his wife and children, it’s completely clear: this guy’s a bit nutty. And goddamn, Jack Nicholson is absolute dynamite in the role: watch as he cackles with a ghoulish grin, bulges his eyes, and flails his tongue about like a demon. He is simultaneously terrified and terrifying. When he goes off the rails, he’s an absolute presence to behold, one of cinema’s greatest horror villains and a victim to his own madness.

Not enough credit can possibly go to Shelly Duvall or Danny Lloyd, whose performances are as intensely impressive as Nicholson’s. Duvall is unforgettable as the kindhearted housewife, a “confirmed ghost story and horror film addict” whose willingness to protect her child trumps all else. Her hysterical horror is contagious, and as she erupts into tears at the psychotic breakdown of her malevolent husband it’s hard not to share the feeling. Lloyd, too, exudes genuine terror with all his wide-eyed jaw-dropped expressions.

Chilling Cinematography

What’s perhaps most instantly memorable about The Shining, though, is the way that it looks. God, just look at the way that this movie looks. Kubrick, always the perfectionist, made damn sure to make this thing look as good as any of his other films, unwilling to sacrifice aesthetic in favor of horror. If popular horror was often considered to be artistically inferior to dramatic works, The Shining proved that a good, “artful” film could also be scary as hell. It could look good, sound good, and be as impressive on all fronts as a work from any other genre. Essentially every shot in the film is exquisitely framed, with many of them utilizing Kubrick’s signature eye for photographic symmetry. When Jack ascends the stairs, grasping wildly in the air towards Wendy, the film cuts back and forth between centered shots of the two characters. Really, the vast majority of the film is placed in the center of the frame, and Kubrick’s sharp eye for clean, crisp images carries over to The Shining with fantastic results.

The whole thing is awash in dark, brooding color tones, red being the most prevalent. The film’s color pallet crafts a foreboding environment, from the burgundy-hued clothing to the all-red bathroom in which Jack decides to murder his family. And the editing…! So much of successfully creating terror and tension relies on the film’s editing, and The Shining is a glorious example of how do it right. The quick cuts between Danny and the horrifying psychic visions that he’s experiencing utilize age-old methods of cinematic editing to a fantastic effect. Later, when Jack chases after Danny, the action cuts back and forth to Wendy’s paranormal encounters as she searches the hotel for Danny.

Watch the way the camera moves when Jack takes an axe to the bathroom door. With a swift, fluid movement, the camera follows his backswing, then keeps following as the axehead digs into the wood. The intensity of the action is heightened by Kubrick’s camera remaining focused on the axe, making the audience’s sight travel along with the swing. Earlier, when Danny rides around the hotel’s hallways in his tricycle, Kubrick showcases a pivotal usage of a Steadicam to follow the boy’s journey through the labyrinthian hallways. He leads the camera along with the sort of artful elegance that one wouldn’t ever expect from a horror film. The camera glides the seemingly endless hallways like a specter. It moves fluidly, in an almost unworldly manner. All of it is soundtracked by some seriously hellish musical compositions that are as tasteful as they are terrifying. Along with the iconic synth theme from Wendy Carlos, The Shining uses music cues from Krzysztof Penderecki and Bela Bartok to create an expressionist aural aesthetic.

Ambiguity Adds to the Terror

The Shining is a cryptic, often baffling mystery of a film whose interpretation is drenched in ambiguity. It has many continuity errors (a chair inexplicably disappears between shots in the scene where Wendy “interrupts” Jack’s writing, the hypnotizing pattern of the carpet suddenly changes direction between shots when the toy ball rolls towards Danny), which ironically serve as a testament to Kubrick’s insatiably sense of perfectionism. These are minor bits that tend to be overlooked by those without a keen eye for detail, but these instances of discontinuity serve to further disorient the viewer. They manipulate the film’s reality, whether they’re consciously noticed by the viewer or not, and help build the unsettling and eerie ambiance that the film exists in. That Kubrick and Johnson choose not to explain every plot beat helps make the film so much more indescribably odd and uncomfortable.

Did Jack abuse Danny in Room 237? If not, who’s the nude woman laying in the room’s bathtub? What’s the deal with the fellating, dog-costumed person who stops what they’re doing just long enough to give a chilling glance in Wendy’s direction as she passes by? And the ending — oh, the ending! What’s the meaning of Jack showing up in a photograph from July 4, 1921? None of these questions are outright answered in the film. Kubrick offers some potential clues: a ghostly pair of twins, an alluded-to set of matches, a haunting photograph, and so much more. The fact that the film is baffling doesn’t diminish its potency. It enhances it. How you interpret The Shining may depend on who you are, how you see things, what emotional baggage you carry with you. It could be a tale of domestic abuse, isolation, normalcy and banality, or something more sinister and paranormal. The film is a puzzle that demands solving, one that after 40 years is still able to spark lively debate and analysis.

RELATED: The Difference Between ‘The Shining’ Book and Movie Endings

Plus, what other film has been able to conjure so many conspiracy theories? Rodney Ascher’s documentary on the movie, Room 237, serves up a buffet of such speculations on a platter. While many seem outlandish, the fact that they were even raised — and were still discussed after 40 years — serves as a testament to The Shining’s unshakable timelessness. Even if Kubrick didn’t fake the moon landing and hide clues about his guilt throughout The Shining, so much of the iconography found in the film is bizarre enough to make you wonder: what, if anything, does it really mean?

A Lasting Influence

There are few horror films as iconic as The Shining. The film’s images have escaped the boundaries of the film itself, going on to become replicated time and time again throughout popular culture and being spoofed by and alluded to in a fair share of films and television programs, even inspiring one of the best Treehouse of Horror segments of The Simpsons.

So much of what makes The Shining an unforgettable horror film is entirely unique to the adaptation and can’t be found in King’s original novel. Jack’s feverish typewritten “manuscript” (the old proverb “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” written repeatedly), the uncannily calm ghost twins beckoning for Danny to play with them, and Nicholson’s often referenced “Heeeere’s Johnny!” moment are all an invention of the film. With their adaptation, Kubrick and his co-writer Diane Johnson take a fantastic source novel and add enough of their own material to make something that transcends the influence of the novel itself. The television miniseries, while definitely more faithful to King’s story (he did write the screenplay for that adaptation), can only pale in comparison to Kubrick’s inventive interpretation.

No King adaptation shows such effortless genius as The Shining, and few if any are as influential. The Shining may not have been faithful to King’s intentions in writing the book, but it isn’t fair to condemn the film as a result. Kubrick took a different interpretation of the text, trimming fat and shifting focus, and he consequently created one of the most original horror films of its time. Few other horror pictures can so exquisitely bridge the gap between the artistic and the commercial, and four decades later the film’s lasting influence continues to be felt. The inexplicably eerie tone of the Overlook and Jack’s gradual descent into madness is mirrored in The Lighthouse, and the discomforting aura of an unfamiliar place (and all its hallucinatory horror) can be found in Get Out.

The Shining is a technical achievement on all fronts, one that manages to be an immaculately made film while also succeeding in its intention to scare. It’s also an ideal example of how altering a source text is not necessarily a bad thing, since the film confidently carves its own path in order to build a horrific atmosphere and focus on the essentials. With The Shining, audiences are pulled into the nightmarish hellscape of the Overlook Hotel with no chance to escape.

Kubrick and company may not have made what you intended, dear Stephen, but it’s all the better for it. The Shining Is Your Best Film Adaptation

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