The Shining (1980)

The Shining, 1980; directed by Stanley Kubrick; starring Jack Nicholson, Shelly Duvall, Scatman Crothers


I saw this movie when I was 8. Some would say that’s too soon, but I don’t think so. It didn’t scar me. It penetrated my brain and wedged itself deep inside for the rest of my life. I consider that a good thing.

When I was 8, I saw the movie through the eyes of Danny.

At 44, I now see the story through the eyes of a man struggling with the responsibilities of having a family while trying to earn a living as an artist… er, I mean writer.

Apparently, Stephen King hates this movie. I can’t say I blame him. The characters he created in Jack, Wendy and Danny where well fleshed-out characters.

When we meet Jack, he’s a genuinely likable character. A man who loves his family… but is flawed. His character arc, from loving father to murderous monster, is incredibly well written. It’s Jack’s spiral towards insanity (or possession, take your pick) that drives the story. I think that storyline was very personal for King, who has openly discussed how his battles with alcoholism help inspire much of the novel. It’s also what resonated with an audience and made it a best seller.

I don’t think Kubrick was concerned with with the same things. By casting Jack Nicholson in the role, Kubrick casts a face that conveys a sense of madness in every frame. Nicholson’s face is the face of madness. It’s a testament to his acting that he is able to play sane characters at all, with that face. His is one of the great faces in history. From the shark-toothed smile, to those impossibly-mobile eyebrows; it’s a face that captivates the imagination, and Kubrick uses it like an artist. Watch how many times he just lets the camera stare at Nicholson’s face… and let’s us imagine the thoughts behind those unblinking eyes.

A similar thing happens with Wendy. In the book, King writes her as a strong, resourceful woman, who fights to protect, first her family, then her child.

With Shelly Duvall, Kubrick, once again casts an amazing face. With her enormous eyes, the alabaster skin with jet-black hair, and her thin build, she’s basically an Edward Gorey drawing of a frightened woman.

I think his casting decisions and re-writting of much of the story (jettisoning everything but the barest bones of King’s novel) show that Kubrick was reshaping it into a more cerebral fable about madness than the more personal ghost story King had written.

I love Stephen King’s novel and consider it a great work of modern populist literature.

I love Stanley Kubrick’s movie and consider it a seminal work of cinematic art.

Jacob Saariaho