Film discussion

Viewpoint: is The Shining greatness or overrated?

When it comes to classic horror, few features leave an impression quite like The Shining. A staple of pop culture and one of the most influential films of the 20th century, director Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 adaptation of Stephen King’s 1977 novel has long been seen as a genre-defining right of passage for rookie horror fans, alongside The Exorcist (1973), The Omen (1976) and Halloween (1978). And if you think such a gushing opening is destined to lead to the old “but it is actually *super* overrated” twist, then put away (or get out) those pitchforks, because there is no way this article is going in that particular incorrect direction…

As a standalone slice of cinematic horror, The Shining remains a mesmerizing masterpiece. There’s Jack Nicholson’s twisted performance as Jack Torrance, the stunning cinematography and pioneering use of multiple tracking Steadicam shots, the haunting score and, of course, countless iconic scenes: blood in the elevator, “Heeeere’s Johnny!”, frozen in the maze, “All work and no play…”, room 237, “REDRUM”, the twins et al.

While certainly not without its flaws (poor Shelley Duvall’s literally tortured turn as Wendy Torrance springs to mind), none come anywhere close to dragging The Shining into the dreaded realm of the justifiably overrated. Indeed, the fact that these examples barely scratch the surface of its unique genius tells you all you need to know.

Having said all that, there *is* a valid angle of scrutiny out there that can and does seek to poke holes in The Shining’s widely acknowledged cinematic quality. Such analysis, as is usually the case when it comes to movies adapted from literature, centres entirely around the picture’s place as a companion piece to King’s novel. It is no secret that King himself hated Kubrick’s vision and execution of his work. Citing an unforgivable loss in translation of the core themes and character development present in the novel, King held a grudge for so long that he eventually went as far as to write and closely supervise an underwhelming and ultimately pointless three-part television remake in 1997.

Is King’s negative outlook vindicated? Well, yes, in a way it is; not in that Kubrick made a poor film, but in the sense that we could potentially have had an even better one. What I mean by that is that King’s novel is nothing short of sensational. Though the feature holds up as a mercilessly dark and immersive experience, it pales in comparison to the novel’s character structure and ever-evolving development of tension.

The epitome of this theory is the two vastly differing depictions of Jack Torrance. On the page he is a multi-layered soul; a loving but conflicted husband and father who has a close relationship with his son, Danny, yet struggles with the demons of his past alcohol addiction, abusive father and related anger issues, leaving him all the more vulnerable to the Overlook hotel’s supernatural forces. Best of all, he is never the player moving the pieces. The real showdown in King’s version is between the hotel and Danny, whose ability to “shine” is the crux of the Overlook’s frightening motivations. Jack, tragically, is merely a pawn in a battle beyond his comprehension.

In Kubrick’s adaptation, Nicholson’s Jack is an unhinged closet psycho right from the word go; all arched eyebrows and edgy grins. Such a trademark Nicholson performance, coupled with the onscreen character’s cold and distance relationship with his family, provides little in the way of genuine tension. We have no doubt Jack will turn on them, and in the end he does so almost willingly, while in the book it is an epic and unforgiving process. Kubrick’s decision to have the Outlook seek to “reclaim” Jack’s spirit – therefore making him the focus – sacrifices some of the finest character development ever committed to the page.

Thankfully, while the source content left out or altered by Kubrick robbed us of what could have been a truly deep, character-driven horror epic, his own interpretation just happens to be pretty damn good in its own right. So where does the maze lead? Is The Shining overrated? No. Is it great? Yes. Could it have been even greater? Damn right.

The Shining will be in select UK cinemas this Halloween. The Shining will be in select UK cinemas this Halloween. The Shining will be in select UK cinemas this Halloween.The Shining will be in select UK cinemas this Halloween. The Shining will be in select UK cinemas this Halloween. The Shining will be in select UK cinemas this Halloween. The Shining will be in select UK cinemas this Halloween.

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