Shining a Light on The Shining

Jack Torrance from The Shining peeking through the door

Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is a masterpiece of cinema and is considered by many to be the greatest horror film of all time. Stephen King’s The Shining is one of the greatest horror novels ever written. Though Stanley Kubrick adapted the film from Stephen King’s novel and ultimately tells the same story, these two pieces take a completely different approach to horror and suspense. Stephen King still maintains to this very day that he despises Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of his work. While the internet debates endlessly on whether or not The Shining is a good movie, I want to make a different case: The Shining is a great film, but a bad Stephen King film.

Before we get too deep, I want to make it clear that Stephen King is my favorite author and I read his work almost exclusively. Also, Stanley Kubrick is one of my favorite directors due to his attention to detail and his unique film style. I hope that my appreciation of both of these artists helps the case I am about to offer you.

The Shining: A Great Film

The genius of this movie is the fact that they show you their hand right at the beginning. The following clip is just one of many instances of foreshadowing that takes place within the first 15 minutes of the movie.

The way that Jack Torrance looks directly into the camera before addressing the hotel manager after he’s told this story is almost taunting the viewer, as if to say, “just wait until you see what I can do.” All of this foreshadowing at the beginning creates an instantaneous suspense that just keeps building as Jack dives deeper into madness. It sets the viewer on a dark path that they have no choice but to follow, even though they know what awaits them at the other end.

Set to the score of classical music played on synthesizers, this already scary path just gets more dreadful. Everything feels unnatural and inhuman when the music starts to play. There are plenty of odd noises mixed into the music to add to the dread, such as heartbeats, buzzing and screeches.

Kubrick adds in countless continuity issues like furniture moving or completely disappearing from frame to frame, just to add additional stress to the viewer’s brain. He also intentionally made the hotel spatially impossible to highlight the unnaturalness of their surroundings. For example, when they enter the manager’s office prior to the scene from above, it’s clear it’s in the center of the building, but somehow he still has a window view.

All of this genius attention to detail and use of psychology are what have cemented Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining as a true horror masterpiece, regardless of how true it holds to its source material. There’s a reason this is the most analyzed film ever that has spawned a documentary dedicated to deciphering the hidden messages left by Kubrick.

The Shining: A Bad Stephen King Film

As I stated earlier, Stephen King hates this movie. The video below is from an interview where King explains his distaste for the movie.

The biggest downfall of this movie is the fact that they show you their hand right at the beginning. Right from the start, the viewer can tell that Jack is unhinged and can see what lies at the other end of this dark path. They are not compelled to feel sympathy for Jack, but rather to just watch on in horror as he descends further into madness.

In the book, Jack is a flawed man from the start. He struggles with alcoholism and anger problems, which cost him his job. But ultimately, he was trying to be a better man. Even as the hotel begins to consume him (the hotel is a paranormal force in the book), there are moments when the reader is still able to see his humanity and is constantly rooting for him to triumph over this. Kubrick’s film lacks any of this humanity and it’s detrimental to the overall story.

The Shining: A Great Film with Shortcomings

Though there is a lack of humanity seen in the film, I think it started where it had to. Following the source material would have resulted in multiple movies with an endlessly slow and convoluted story unless you sat down to watch it all in one go.

Being a bad Stephen King film isn’t a bad thing either. There’s really only one or two movies that can claim to both be great films and great Stephen King films. The vast majority are either labeled under bad films and great Stephen King films or bad films and bad Stephen King films. And as the most adapted author ever, with over 199 movie credits to his name, that’s not a great track record. To be clear, this has nothing to do with Stephen King being a bad writer or anything, most of his work is just too complex to translate well onto film.

To truly appreciate Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining, you need to look at it independently of the book and consume it for what it is, a masterpiece of cinema.