The Shining

A family heads to an isolated hotel for the winter where an evil and spiritual presence influences the father into violence, while his psychic son sees horrific forebodings from the past and of the future.

Dir. Stanley Kubrick

Stephen King did not like this adaptation of his book and I don’t blame him. The writers Stanley Kubrick and Diane Johnson had developed a draft that dumped a number of King’s plot elements from the book. The reason I call it a draft is because the script was edited almost every single day, hence taking it further away from the original.

We know that Kubrick has the license to meddle, the patience to take numerous takes, fierce demands of perfection and a number of aggressive criticisms, but most of all, he has the complete faith of his cast, crew and audience.

The Shining is a demanding narrative. Was it all in the father, Jack Torrance’s (Jack Nicholson) head? Or was it all happening for real? Even though all these questions envelope us, for a brief period, we believe that it’s all happening. That’s the genius of the screenplay. Kubrick weaves the isolation into the family’s daily chores and shows the journey to insanity steadily.

Every scene has restrained and subtle, yet powerful dialogue. There is a sequence wherein Jack’s wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) takes her son’s leave as she wants to talk to Jack about something. While she waits for Jack, she goes through his paraphernalia only to find that he has gone psychotic. It instills shock and fear into her. When Jack finally gets there, we are as scared as Wendy is. But yet, we only get a few lines of dialogue (initially) as Kubrick let’s the actor’s do the work. This works because every line is so well fabricated that it demands a strong willed silence from the actor.

All of this writing is done great justice to by Kubrick’s movement with the camera. Since ‘Paths of Glory’ Kubrick has been a master of the tracking shot. He uses it in a lateral fashion numerous times in this feature. The Overlook Hotel, wherein the movie takes place, is enormous. As we move laterally from room to room following our actor the dynamic of the frame changes wonderfully. We move from dim lighting to bright lighting with much ease.

This credit goes to the cinematographer John Alcott. But a DOP is nothing without his operators.

Let’s talk about Garrett Brown. Mr. Brown holds 50 patents on the steadicam and allied products of which he was the pioneer. Garrett Brown’s movement with the steadicam complements the lighting and production design very well. These moving tracking shots would’ve been impossible without Brown’s invention. Many a times they would make Brown sit on a wheelchair as he filmed around the Overlook Hotel. The constant movements and sudden breaks to them gave these sequences an extra dimension.

But with so much movement in the bank, is the editing insignificant? On the contrary, it’s amazing. Kubrick’s comrade from 2001: A Space Odyssey, Ray Lovejoy, edited The Shining. Every two shot conversation has been thought of to perfection. Lovejoy keeps the shots wide and repeats these angles as the conversation goes on but on a specific line of dialogue he cuts to a tighter frame. Hence, emphasising on it. This credit goes also to Kubrick who spearheaded this output. Lovejoy also edits sublimely on movement, immersing us completely into the fabric of the scene.

Another asset to the film and its editing is the music. The film has arrangements with static frames at first where the soundtrack makes it feel like we are in motion but from there we would cut to a moving camera supported by a static soundtrack. The film consists of six pieces by Krzysztof Penderecki who’s almost discordant melodies can make you jump even at a simple declaration of ‘Tuesday’. Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind’s contributions to the soundtrack prepare us for the storm that’s coming our way in the rocky mountains of Colorado. In one of the most pivotal scenes of the movie Kubrick makes use of a recording of Béla Bartók’s music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta by the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by none other than Herbert von Karajan. It’s an extremely thought provoking piece of music and does complete justice to the scene.

We spoke about the music, the editing, the movement, the lighting, the production design but it all comes down to the actors and the blocking. I used to feel that Jack Nicholson is often typecast as an eccentric character. But after watching his performance in The Shining I yearn to see more of the same. Shelley Duvall gets into the skin of her character and enhances it. Her portrayal of basic instinct and involuntary actions in situations that demand it is faultless. Kubrick’s symmetric blocking makes it even better. He allows the actors to express and moulds the production design around it.

Stephen King was first approached by Stanley Kubrick about making a film version of The Shining via an early morning phone call (England is five hours ahead of Maine in time zones). King recalled that the first thing Kubrick did was to immediately start talking about how optimistic ghost stories are, because they suggest that humans survive death. “What about hell?” King asked. Kubrick paused for several moments before finally replying, “I don’t believe in hell”. King replied stating that there are people who believe in hell, and that they fear it more than death itself. This conversation, allegedly, gave Kubrick a greater understanding of the events that occur in The Shining.

So is Stanley Kubrick’s version a rising action to what comes beyond the optimism or was it an illustration of hell itself? It’s all too much to comprehend.

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