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The Shining: from the page to the screen

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Jan 29, 2018, 12:37 PM EST (Updated)

On January 28, 1977, Stephen King published a book that came to be considered a modern horror masterpiece: The Shining. Not long after, the book began a long and complex road to the screen.

King had already scored two paperback best-sellers with his first two novels, Carrie (1974) and 'Salem's Lot (1975). Riding the momentum generated by those books (and the 1976 film version of Carrie), The Shining became King's first hardcover bestseller and elevated him into the top ranks of both popular mainstream publishing and the horror genre, where he, of course, remains 41 years later.

It was almost inevitable that The Shining would be made into a movie, but it was a surprise to many, King included, when the film was launched by Stanley Kubrick, one of the most visionary filmmakers of the 20th century and the man who had changed the sci-fi genre with 2001: A Space Odyssey. Would he do the same for horror cinema with The Shining?



Breaking ground on the Overlook

The roots of King's The Shining were in an abandoned idea called Darkshine, in which a young boy with psychic powers finds himself in a psychically charged amusement park. King put the idea on the shelf, but it came back to him in 1974, when he and his wife, Tabitha, spent the night of October 30 in the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado. The hotel, built in 1909 and reputedly haunted, was about to close for the season, so the Kings were literally the only guests in the place.

Wandering the empty halls, getting a drink in the bar from a bartender named Grady, and waking from a dream in which his young son was chased down a hall by a fire hose, King left the Stanley with, as he said in the book Stephen King: America's Best-Loved Boogeyman, the "bones of the book" fixed in his mind. His own struggle with alcoholism and his complicated feelings about being a young father with two kids also found their way into the novel's tormented lead character, Jack Torrance.

A self-sabotaging writer whose literary ambitions have been waylaid by his alcoholism, Torrance is haunted by guilt over "accidentally" breaking his 5-year-old son Danny's arm. Afraid that his wife, Wendy, is going to leave him, Torrance is running out of options to put food on the table and keep a roof over his family's head. An old drinking buddy gets him a last-ditch interview for the winter caretaker job at the Overlook Hotel in Colorado, a position that will put the Torrances in the snowbound hotel for the entire season by themselves.

The Overlook has an unsavory history replete with murder, suicide, corruption, and depravity, and over the years the psychic residue of the evil perpetrated inside its walls has curdled into a sentient force that inhabits the hotel. When the Torrances arrive, Danny's latent psychic powers — which hotel cook Hallorann, a psychic himself, calls "the shining" — charge up the Overlook like a battery. The hotel ultimately intends to absorb the little boy, even if it has to go through his father to do it.


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Construction begins

An executive at Warner Bros. Pictures sent a copy of King's novel to Stanley Kubrick, who was looking for his next project after making 1975's Barry Lyndon. That historical drama had not done well at the box office, so Kubrick, according to legend, was looking for something that could be a more commercial success while also satisfying him artistically.

Interested in the paranormal, he began reading stacks of horror novels; the story goes that his secretary would sit outside his office and hear the thud of one book after another hitting the wall as Kubrick flung them away. When she didn't hear anything for a long time one day, she peeked inside the office and found her boss engrossed in The Shining.

"I thought it was one of the most ingenious and exciting stories of the genre I had read," Kubrick said at the time, according to David Konow's Reel Terror: The Scary, Bloody, Gory, Hundred-Year History of Classic Horror Films. "It seemed to strike an extraordinary balance between the psychological and the supernatural in such a way as to lead you to think that the supernatural would eventually be explained by the psychological." That, of course, was not the case in the book, but that tension would play a major role in the approach that Kubrick took to the material.

Although King had written a screenplay for The Shining, Kubrick was not interested in using the author's adaptation. He decided instead to pen the script himself in collaboration with novelist Diane Johnson (Le Divorce, Persian Nights), outlining the scenes from the book that he wanted to keep in the movie, rearranging them as he saw fit and making changes to the characters and other aspects of the story.

Kubrick also kept King at arm's length, only calling the author a handful of times to ask him questions such as "The whole idea of a ghost is always optimistic, isn't it?" The way King interpreted it, Kubrick did not believe in the afterlife, which made it difficult for the director to wrap his head around the idea of spirits and hauntings.


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Kubrick made a number of changes to the story, revising the script even after shooting started. Jack's discovery of a scrapbook in the Overlook's basement, which went into detail about its dark history, was deleted, although the scrapbook can be glimpsed in one shot. The novel's topiary of hedge animals — the basis of two of the novel's most frightening sequences — was jettisoned because Kubrick could not figure out a satisfactory way to create the animals visually. He substituted the now-classic hedge maze instead.

The haunted Room 217 was changed to Room 237 at the request of the hotel where the film's exterior shots were filmed, as management feared no one would book Room 217 again after seeing the film (the hotel, Oregon's Timberline Lodge, did not have a Room 237). Hallorann (played in the movie by Scatman Crothers) survives in the novel after heading to the Overlook to rescue Wendy and Danny; he is slaughtered by Jack almost as soon as he enters the hotel in the film.

Most crucially, the ending was completely revamped. In the book, Wendy, Danny, and Hallorann escape, while Jack — driven insane and totally possessed by the hotel — perishes when the building's untended boiler explodes. One of Kubrick's early endings had Wendy and Danny still survive after Wendy is forced to kill a now-possessed Hallorann, while in another draft of the script, the entire Torrance family dies and become ghosts themselves, seen sitting in the hotel as the new caretaker arrives. Kubrick finally settled on the ambiguous ending in which Jack — left to freeze to death in the maze — appears in a 1921 photo in the hotel lobby, suggesting that he's somehow always been part of the hotel's malevolent heritage.


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Getting the Overlook ready for guests

Kubrick's two major casting choices proved controversial. He wanted Jack Nicholson from the start to play Jack Torrance, but the wild-eyed Nicholson portrayed Torrance as a man who already seemed unbalanced from the get-go, making his descent into madness less unexpected and tragic (King wanted either Jon Voight or Michael Moriarty for the role). Hiring Shelley Duvall as Wendy, coupled with the script's drastic revision of the character, transformed King's blonde, attractive, highly intelligent, and self-reliant heroine into the stringy-haired, waifish, and generally vapid Wendy of the movie. More than 5,000 boys were auditioned over a six-month period before Danny Lloyd was selected to play Danny Torrance.

With the exception of the exteriors at the Timberline Lodge, Kubrick shot all of The Shining in England (where he had been living for many years), building the massive interiors of the hotel on soundstages at EMI Elstree Studios. Originally scheduled to shoot for four and a half months with a budget of $13 million, the production stretched to 11 months while some $5 million was added to the total cost.

Much of that was due to Kubrick's perfectionism, which drove him to sometimes demand scores of takes on a single scene, pushing his cast and crew to the point of exhaustion (Duvall, in particular, did not have a good experience working on the film). Yet Kubrick's precision also contributed to the film's most groundbreaking technical achievement, the use of the relatively new camera mount known as the Steadicam. Created to achieve smoother tracking shots even as the camera was moving over rough or uneven surfaces, the Steadicam was essential in filming the famous scenes of Danny riding his Big Wheel through the halls of the Overlook and being chased through the maze by his father, making the Overlook itself a character.

Nicholson said in an interview for the book Kubrick: The Definitive Edition that his iconic line as he breaks down the door leading to the Torrances' bathroom with an ax — "Here's Johnny!" — was improvised, but that Kubrick almost used another take with a different line because he had been living in England and was not familiar with the famous opening line of The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson.


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The Overlook opens for business

After an extensive post-production period, The Shining opened on May 23, 1980. Within a week of its opening, Kubrick omitted an epilogue in which Danny and Wendy are visited in the hospital by the Overlook's manager, Ullman (Barry Nelson). Theater owners had to physically cut the scene from the final reel and send it back to Warner Bros.

The movie's initial reviews were not good. The New York Times, Variety, New York magazine, the Village Voice, Newsday, and many others published negative reviews of the film, although Jack Kroll at Newsweek was more favorable, calling it "the first epic horror film." Perhaps the most damning review came from King, who expressed his deep disappointment with the movie and felt that Kubrick had taken all the heart and humanity out of his story. He would later tell American Film in 1986, "The real problem is that Kubrick set out to make a horror picture with no apparent understanding of the genre."

Nevertheless, The Shining was a box-office hit — one of Kubrick's biggest — grossing $44 million (in 1980 dollars) in North America. For the film's European run, Kubrick cut an additional 25 minutes out, slimming it down from 144 minutes to 119 minutes by excising a number of expository scenes and trimming parts of other sequences. It wasn't too long, just a few years in fact, before the critical reappraisal began, a long process that has since established The Shining as one of the greatest horror films of all time.

The Shining

Credit: Warner Bros.

Checking out

The Shining is a perfect example of a filmmaker seeing something very different in the source material than either the author or many loyal readers saw. King's book was a morality tale about the sins of the past — both Jack's and the hotel's — infecting the present via the supernatural, while Kubrick's adaptation left the nature of the forces that are destroying the Torrance family much more ambiguous.

Kubrick's film retains more of the plot than many remember, but deviates significantly in meaning and tone. It's nevertheless a valid take on the material, and there's no question that the sheer power of the director's cinematic skills fashioned a film that is atmospheric, claustrophobic, and unnerving despite its lengthy runtime. It's worthwhile to note that King's much more faithful 1997 miniseries version is barely discussed today, while Kubrick's movie is debated and screened frequently, its most memorable images ingrained in pop culture. It's even the subject of conspiracy theories.

Is Kubrick's The Shining a word-perfect rendition of King's book? No, it's not. It was never meant to be. But one can pick up the book any time for that experience, and savor the fact that The Shining was and is brilliant enough that Kubrick could create his own interpretation — and deliver a horror masterpiece in its own right.