The Shining Movie Review

The Shining stars Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, and Danny Lloyd and was directed by Stanley Kubrick. It’s an adaptation of the 1977 Stephen King novel of the same name and tells the story of Jack Torrance, a writer played by Jack Nicholson, who takes a job as the winter caretaker of the isolated Overlook Hotel. After he and his family move into the hotel, it’s not long before the isolation and the hotel’s past begin to take their toll on Jack’s sanity. The Shining’s a film that’s special to me for a number of reasons. I know it comes as no surprise that I love Stephen King’s work. I’ve read most of his novels and short stories and I’ve seen most of the films based on those novels and short stories.

The Shining was one of my earliest and favorite King novels, so naturally I was drawn to the film as well. The other major reason this movie’s so special to me is cause it was the first film I ever really analyzed. During high school, I took a handful of cinematography and film criticism classes. In my first cinematography class, we had a final project in which we had to critique a film and explain the filmmaking aspects and their relevance to the story. I chose to do my project on The Shining and it was the first time I ever really watched a film with a critical eye. In fact, I watched it four times for that project, focusing on a different aspect each time: the cinematography and camera work, the writing, the acting, the set and costume design.

I’ll admit that I went a little overboard (it was obvious during presentations that nobody put even a tenth of the effort into it that I had), but I really did enjoy it. It was fun to analyze a movie on my own and not just analyze Citizen Kane with the whole class for the umpteenth time. And I can really credit The Shining with sparking my interest in film criticism. This is one of Stephen King’s stories that I think was most significantly changed when it made the jump from page to screen, which is, in part, why he released a miniseries remake almost 20 years later. Usually significant changes like that would lead me to dislike a film.

I mean come on: the book’s always better than the movie, right? Sure, some of the changes with The Shining still irritate me a bit (primarily the downplay of the “shine” and the borderline goofiness of Tony), but the film feels cohesive, even without the overtly supernatural aspects of the book. In fact, I think keeping this a purely psychological story was an extremely effective route to take and really changed how the horrific aspects hit home. It’s not so much a supernatural ghost story as it is a cautionary tale of a man’s descent into insanity. I do miss the topiary animals though. Speaking of descent into insanity, Jack Nicholson was the perfect casting for this character.

The Shining 1980
The Shining 1980

His manic nature fits right in line with Jack Torrance. His initial snap does seem a bit sudden in the film and I wish we got to see some of the internal build-up present in the book, but I understand that could be difficult to portray in an already long movie. But, for as good as Jack Nicholson is in this film, Shelley Duvall is as bad. Her performance always sticks out to me in an otherwise great film. To be honest, I can’t really remember much about the novel-version of Wendy, but I really don’t recall her being as utterly useless as her film counterpart. She may be one of the weakest horror film characters I can think of, both in demeanor and characterization.

The bat “swinging” scene is just painful to watch… seriously, learn how to hold a bat. Similarly, her stupid knife-flailing running throughout most of the climax just annoys me. And don’t even get me started on the ridiculous knife throw near the very end of the film. Now I’m not gonna go too much into the cinematography of this one, but I really feel the need to call attention to some of my favorite moments in the film: the tracking shots of Danny. These tracking shots are a bit of a motif that pop up occasionally throughout the movie and I think they’re fantastic. We get three or four tracking sequences following Danny as he rides his tricycle through various parts of the hotel.

These sequences put the camera at Danny-level, allowing us to view the expansiveness of the Overlook from his perspective. In addition to showing us the hotel, these sequences start to heighten the tension. We keep expecting something bad to happen every time he zips around a blind corner. The low angle makes us feel as vulnerable as he is and combined with the sounds of plastic wheels on alternating hard wood floors and rugs, it creates a very unsettling atmosphere. These tricycle tracking shots obviously culminate in one of the classic images from this film, but that isn’t the end of the Danny-tracking sequences. We get a final tracking shot when Danny’s in the snowy hedge maze.

This time the fear isn’t what lies ahead, but what’s behind and the slightly higher angle matches the height of the tangible danger. It’s always odd to see a Stephen King story not set in Maine, but at least we get a subtle reference here (Lloyd is the best bartender from Timbuktu to Portland, Maine). Little things like that, as well as the fantastic set details, give this film some serious replay value. This movie’s definitely a grower, though. I enjoyed it the first time I saw it, but I wasn’t blown away. And I’ve shown it to handful of people who found it too long and boring. I guess I can’t blame them entirely cause that’s how I feel about every other Kubrick film I’ve seen. I don’t think the style works for his dramas or sci-fi films, but in a horror movie, it successfully treads on a very thin line.

The intentionally slow-paced scenes allow the tension and creepiness to ooze into the story, only heightened by the ominous score. Plus that final shot gets me every time and really leaves things up to interpretation. Overall, I find The Shining to be a fantastic film. It has so many positive aspects that I can overlook the character of Wendy and Shelley Duvall’s rough performance and still consider it one of my favorite films. Perhaps my favorite Stephen King adaptation, definitely one of my favorite horror movies, and really, one of my favorite movies of all time. The personal connections and analytical history don’t exactly hurt either. Alright, let’s talk about the pros and cons.

There are just so many things to like about this film, but to keep this from being an hour long video, I’ll just touch on a few of the highlights. Pro number one is definitely the cinematography. Kubrick is known for his meticulously styled films, but The Shining has always stood out to me in this regard. Perhaps most visually striking is the use of symmetry throughout the film. Everything from the hotel rooms, to the rugs, to the hedge maze, to the Grady twins. Almost everything is paired in an unsettling way that only furthers the idea that nobody ever really leaves the Overlook. There are a million things to discuss regarding the cinematography, but the other aspect that’s always stood out to me was the camera movement. Those tracking shots are to die for literally. Pro number two is the character study of Jack.

This film is certainly a bit more enigmatic that the book is with regard to what’s actually happening, so we never really get a good explanation for anything. But even so, Jack is a fascinating character. Watching his descent into madness is unsettling, but seeing its effects on his family is downright scary. Jack Nicholson definitely provides the standout performance here and he delivers a truly iconic character. The third pro is the story. Of course a lot of the credit goes to Stephen King and his source material, but as I mentioned before, this is perhaps the most altered King adaptation.

This movie removes nearly all the supernatural elements found in the novel and those that remain, can be explained by Jack’s psychological strains. Like all of Stephen King’s novels, The Shining is a dense and very involved story that, as evidenced by the 1997 miniseries, doesn’t translate very well to the screen. The alterations made by Kubrick to change this story from something supernatural to something psychological fundamentally alters King’s original work, but provides for a much more cohesive and satisfying theatrical experience. On the con side, my only issue with this film is the character of Wendy. She’s borderline intolerable for me and I can’t help but roll my eyes anytime she’s on screen.

It’s been a long time since I read the novel, so I can’t remember exactly how her character is there, but I know it wasn’t like this. She’s just so frustratingly weak and meek that it drives me nuts. I understand that they needed to give her a very submissive personality in order to make her tolerance of Jack’s initial transformation believable, but still. She’s too peppy in the beginning and annoyingly hysterical by the end. I’m tempted to place the blame on Shelley Duvall, but considering the psychological torture Kubrick put her through during filming, I don’t know if you can really blame her too much. I’m gonna give The Shining 5 out of 5 paws. Really, what more can I say about this movie? It’s Stephen King, it’s the movie that got me into film criticism, and it’s one of my favorite movies.

I would recommend The Shining to anybody who likes horror movies. It’s definitely a bit slower than you might expect, especially given its status as an iconic horror film, but there’s a reason it’s so highly regarded. It’s unsettling, it’s psychological, and it’s a fantastically crafted film. This is one of those movies that everybody should watch at least once. If you liked The Shining, I would recommend Misery for another fantastic Stephen King adaptation that focuses on an isolated writer and a very unhinged and believable villain. If you want some more Stephen King hotel horror, you should check out 1408.

It’s based on a King short story and takes a slightly more supernatural approach than this film did. And if you really liked Jack Nicholson’s performance here, you might wanna check out One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest for another solid portrayal of a damaged character. Alright, a couple questions for you guys. Number one: Have you seen The Shining? If so, what’d you think of it? And number two: What’s your favorite Stephen King movie? Be sure to leave your answers in the comments below so we can get a discussion going.

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