Why “The Shining” Is A Successful Horror Adaptation


“There are certain rules to every horror film”

-Randy (Scream. Dir. Wes Craven. Dimension Films. 1996)

The Horror Shines On

The Grady Sisters

Throughout the decades, the horror film has undergone many changes and has been the topic of endless analysis and criticism.  From the early black and white monster flicks that haunted the 1930’s, to the psychological horror films of the 1970’s, to the “slasher” movies of the 1980’s, film theorists have been constantly trying to define what makes a horror film.  The Shining, directed by Stanley Kubrick and released in 1980, has often been classified as a horror film.  Based on the novel by Stephen King printed three years earlier, the work has been quoted as being “horror at an unflagging pace….scary!” (New York Times).  The adaptation from novel to screen has been the subject of much controversy.  King himself was so dissatisfied with Kubrick’s film that he went so far as to write a screenplay for a new made-for-T.V. version. (1054 Martin and Porter).  The film was made at the end of a reign of psychological terror films and on the brink of mindless “slasher” movies.  The novel was written in the “age of film” (Balfour), a factor that becomes of importance when assessing the visual styles and narrative structure of the movie.  Does Kubrick’s The Shining succeed as a horror film?  Are these characteristics found within King’s novel, and do they infact translate well on screen?  Is an individual more terrified as a reader or as a viewer?  By analyzing the film The Shining, one can understand how it fits into the horror genre in relation to the novel that it was based on.

Horror theorist Robin Wood states that the monster in horror films is what threatens the site of normality; normality being represented as such “bourgeois” institutions as the family.  The concept of the “Other” is what bourgeois ideology cannot accept and thus must repress or oppress.  Woods’ basic theory is that what is repressed in society is projected as the Other and comes back as the monster.  This theory can be applied to the film The Shining.

The main character, Jack Torrence is a reformed alcoholic.  We learn from his wife Wendy that Jack has been sober for five months ever since he hurt his young son Danny in a drunken haze.

The Horror Shines On

Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrence

Jack tries to repress his temper and his past, but they eventually overcome him and he “returns” as a psychotic monster that attempts to kill his family.  We slowly see the raging monster possessing Jack through the effective use of Kubrick’s straight on close up shots, where we stare deep into the eyes of hate.  Jack’s repressed alcoholic past is also visualized through scenes such as when Jack is talking with the bartender Lloyd.  It represents not only Jack’s drinking problem in this life, but also the ghosts that haunt his past life.  We soon learn from the spirit of Grady- the previous caretaker who went insane and killed his own family- that Jack was in this hotel in a previous life, and that he will repeat Grady’s violent crime.  One can also look upon Jack’s case of writer’s block as a form of repression.  Jack initially wanted the job as a caretaker of the Overlook Hotel so that he may be able to work on his writing.  However, once he is in the isolated solitude of the hotel, he has serious writer’s block.  When Wendy eventually reads what he has written, all she finds are page after page of a single typed line: “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”.  This is more horrifying for the viewer for it is shot from a low angle, and we do not see what Wendy is reading until the very end.  It is interesting to note that this differs from the novel, where Jack simply types his play.  By emphasizing what is repressed in Jack through this writer’s block and through the use of such images as Lloyd the bartender who “feeds” the monster [drinks] it creates a tension that foreshadows the return of Jack who has manifested into a monster.

However, Jack is not the only monster in the film.  The hotel itself can be seen as a monster for it is the biggist threat to the family unit.  It too tries to repress it’s past: “….when something happens, you can leave a trace of itself behind” Hollorann tells Danny.  Although it tries to repress the incident concerning the caretaker Grady, it only returns as the monster in Jack.  The fact that the hotel itself isolates the family from civilization and confines them with ghosts and their psychotic father is threatening in itself.

The concept of the father as a monster is a horror motif that is also discussed by film theorist Vivian Sobchack.  The transition from 1970’s to 1980’s horror films is reflected within the family unit.  Children who were the terror in such films as  1976’s The Omen become terrorized and are forced to be smarter then their own parents, such as Nancy in Nightmare on Elm Street released in 1985.  Sobchack states that because children have the power, patriarchy is threatened.  The more patriarchy is challenged, the more it comes back as the monster.  The Shining represents this transition.  Their son Danny has the special ability of extra-sensory perception, and unknowingly is able to see into the past and future of the hotel.  The film effectively reveals Danny’s power by using the motif of flashes.  The haunting flashes of the two young girls who were murdered and the blood spilling from the elevator show that Danny knows that something bad has happened at the hotel, and that something bad will happen again.  At the peak of his power, when he writes “MURDER” on the mirror, is when patriarchy is at its most monstrous.  Jack is out of control and represents the monstrous father that is threatened by their child.

The use of mirrors is also an important horror motif for it reflects the concept of doubles; good versus evil; Jekyll and Hyde.  There is something “disturbing and fascinating about the idea that there can be duplicates….that one thing can be two conflicting entities at once” (Kraft).

The first time that Danny envisions the Grady sisters and blood-filled elevator is through a mirror.  By filming directly into the mirror we are also looking at Danny’s alter psyche Tony, a manifestation of his extra-sensory powers.

Mirrors are also shot to reveal the dangerous alter ego of Jack.  Kubrick tricks us early on in the film when we see Jack lying in bed, only to discover when Wendy enters the room that we were seeing a mirror image of Jack.  His character often speaks to  mirrors instead of communicating with real people: Lloyd at the bar; Wendy and Danny; Grady in the bathroom.  The line between reality and fantasy is often blurred as Jack retreats more into his own world, and we as an audience see a split in his personality.  Not only does Jack have a split in his personality, but he is also paralleled in a past life as the last long tracking shot slowly closes in on a photo of Jack in 1921 at the Overlook.

The idea of dualism is shown not only through the characters of Danny and Jack but also through such images as the woman in the bathtub in room 237.  She appears beautiful, but when Jack looks in the mirror the illusion is broken; her monstrousness has been “overlooked”.  The Grady sisters as well are one of the most powerful, haunting, images in The Shining.  The fact that they are not quite identical, but “unnatural in their symmetry” (Kraft) makes them all the more horrifying for Danny and the audience.

Interestingly enough, the powerful image of the Grady sisters is not as prominent in the novel as it is in the film.  The screenwriter for The Shining, Diane Johnson explained that they wanted to emphasize the Grady sisters in the film in order to frighten Danny and not have him play with them.  It is an effective image to use in a horror film for it draws upon the Freudien theory of how mechanical objects, such as dolls, are much more scary when they move (Johnson).  By distorting a familiar image into the unfamiliar, Kubrick makes it all the more horrifying.  Another change that Johnson made while adapting from novel to screenplay is the death of Holloran.  In the novel he survives Jack’s assault, but in the film he is killed off.  The reason for this is a simple one: “We decided that somebody obviously had to die because it was a horror film” (Johnson).  A common theme within any horror film is that of a sacrifice, which is what Holloran represents.

Although many elements were changed or lost while translating from novel to screen, there are many elements that stayed the same.  One of the most gorgeous shots in the film is within the opening sequence.  The extreme high angle of the camera following the lone car around the mountain is a visual that is also best described in the book when Wendy thinks to herself: “…she knew to look down there for too long would bring nausea and eventual vomiting” (King 76).  Not only does this give the reader and viewer a feeling of uncertainty but it also shows how isolated the family is going to be in the hotel.  The name of the hotel “The Overlook” is also kept for the film.  The word “overlook” is important both in the novel and the film for it draws upon the horror theory of repression.  The past of the characters and the hotel has been “overlooked” and will sneak back as the monster in both cases.

The theme of repression is one aspect that is emphasized much more in the novel then in the film.  King’s narrative is often interrupted by the character’s thoughts and it allows the reader to understand or “read” the character’s thoughts.  Danny’s narrative is spoken like a child and is very innocent, yet it is often interrupted by Tony, Danny’s “imaginary friend” or extra-sensory psyche.  Since there is no voice over in the film, we miss out on a lot of what Tony says.  However, Kubrick compensates for the interrupted narrative by inserting the sudden flashes of the Grady sisters and the elevator filled with blood.

The Horror Shines On

Shelley Duvall as Wendy Torrance

Similarly, we miss out on much of Wendy’s back story and what she represses as well.  The personal narrative of the novel reveals that Wendy was cut off from her mother when she married Jack, and that she suffers from feels of inferiority as a mother.  If the audience had understood this, one might have felt more pathos towards Wendy if they understood why she tolerates Jack.

The idea of pathos is the final aspect that separates the film from the novel.  The novel allows us to feel pathos for the characters for we are able to read their thoughts and understand their life.  Since we empathize with the characters, one can argue that we are also more afraid for them as well, thus the novel succeeds in scaring us.  However, the film functions as a horror film as well despite the lack of pathos for the character.  Although we would like to relate to characters in horror films, this is rarely the case.  Most of the time, the characters act so foolishly that the audience roots for the monster to kill them.  This is true in the case of The Shining and it makes the film all the more satisfying.  Wendy receives no pathos from the audience for she takes on the typical horror role of the “idiotic” mother and it is a release for the audience to watch her being chased by Jack.

Both the novel and the film The Shining are successful when complying with the horror genre.  They both show how what is repressed returns as the monster, and how the change in patriarchal status is revealed through the use of a monstrous father.  While certain images are expanded upon in the film, they are used wisely to create such horror motifs as sudden flashes and dualism.  Although the novel generates more pathos through it’s narrative, the audience is equally satisfied whether they fear with the characters or cheer for the monster; for both are characteristics of the horror genre.

Why “The Shining” Is A Successful Horror Adaptation
Article Name
Why “The Shining” Is A Successful Horror Adaptation
Why “The Shining” Is A Successful Horror Adaptation
Share it!Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on PinterestShare on YummlyShare on TumblrShare on RedditShare on LinkedInShare on StumbleUpon

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *