‘The Shining’ Anniversary: Stanley Kubrick & His Mysterious Classic

The Shining
Courtesy of Warner Bros.

May 23 marks the 36th anniversary of Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining,” one of those rare works that wasn’t a huge hit when it opened but has grown into a movie classic.

Among its many fans is Lee Unkrich, the director of Disney-Pixar’s “Toy Story 3” and the upcoming “Coco,” who says it’s one of the reasons he was inspired to become a filmmaker.

Unkrich has been collecting memorabilia for years and decided to share it with other devotees, via TheOverlookHotel.com. Since the website’s debut several years ago, other admirers have shared things with him. There are now about 700 pieces online, including photos and notes on the film’s production, as well as work inspired by the movie: paintings, sculptures, songs, perfume, clothing, vinyl figures, a skateboard, even a gingerbread house re-creating the Overlook Hotel. The site also offers a few short films, such as “Wes Anderson’s The Shining,” a 75-second faux trailer by Steve Ramsden that brilliantly intercuts footage from the film with “The Grand Budapest Hotel.”

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Unkrich continues to collect ephemera for an upcoming book on the making of the film, interviewing the surviving crew and cast members, and finding rare bits that had been stored away, “including some photos that have only been seen by eight pairs of eyes.”

In the Variety Archives, “The Shining” was first mentioned as a possible Kubrick project in January 1977, the same month that Stephen King’s novel debuted. Anticipation was high, since Kubrick was a source of fascination for the industry and King was hot from his two earlier novels, “Carrie” (a hit film in 1976) and “Salem’s Lot.”

On June 22, 1977, Elstree Studios boss Andrew Mitchell told Variety that the film would lense there. Mitchell said studio lensing was making a comeback, thanks to “the astronomical cost of making a big film entirely on location,” and he said the trend was boosted by the success of the Elstree-shot “Star Wars.” “The Shining” used four of Elstree’s nine stages, and the studio’s outdoor street scene, used in many movies, was bulldozed to create a “mysterious hotel” on the site.

On Jan. 5, 1978, Jack Nicholson told Variety’s Army Archerd that he expected six months of shooting, because a young actor’s hours are strictly limited by British law. (Danny Lloyd, the five-year-old unknown, wasn’t mentioned by name at that point.) As it turned out, the filming went way beyond that. A fire in January 1979 ruined one of the sets, causing an estimated $2.5 million to rebuild. It also delayed the pic’s wrap until mid-March; Shelley Duvall said she spent 13 months working on “Shining.” The editing took another year. Variety reported that its final production cost was $18 million, double its original budget.

When Warner Bros. launched the film in 1980, reaction was mixed. Variety’s Jim Harwood was one of the most negative reviewers, saying “Stanley Kubrick has teamed with jumpy Jack Nicholson to destroy all that was so terrifying about Stephen King’s bestseller”; he lamented the performances of both lead actors, but saved most of his dismay for the filmmaker.

Some, like Harwood, were disappointed that it strayed from King’s book; the novelist also was vocal in his disappointment. But Unkrich says, “Stanley used the novel as a springboard. You can’t look at it as an adaptation. They’re in the same airspace, but the characters are so different.” King wrote about a normal family that began slowly disintegrating; Kubrick showed a family that was a ticking time-bomb of dysfunction from the very start. Over the years, fans have grown to love the performances of Nicholson and Duvall for the same reasons they were criticized in 1980.

“The Shining” ended up No. 14 at the domestic box office that year, taking in $44 million. That was okay, but less than the $60 million for “The Omen” (1976), $47 million for “Halloween” (1978, which was made at a fraction of Kubrick’s budget) and $81 million for “Alien” (1979). All of them paled beside Warner Bros.’ 1973 phenomenon “The Exorcist,” which earned over $230 million domestically.

Kubrick (who died March 7, 1999, at age 70) made only 13 feature films, including “Paths of Glory,” “Dr. Strangelove” and “2001: A Space Odyssey.” However, “The Shining” remains his most mainstream and most widely seen, with frequent screenings on TV and in revival houses.

Virtually all of Kubrick’s films initially befuddled audiences and critics. Each was so different from Kubrick’s previous films that people weren’t sure what to expect, but were still thrown. In addition, his films take time and multiple viewings.

Kubrick was such a master that he was generally given latitude to make the film he wanted, even if it went over budget and over schedule. And because he included quirky details in each film, they are open to multiple interpretations.

Some consider “The Shining” as the ultimate scary film. Others think it’s a dark-black comedy: In a decade filled with horror films about crazy slashers, killer sharks and sci-fi monsters, Kubrick was saying that the true terror is spending time with your family.

And there are many extreme, personal interpretations of “The Shining” — that it’s a metaphor for the Holocaust, the Native-American genocide, or an apology for the 1969 moon landing, for example; they’re explored in Rodney Ascher’s entertaining 2012 docu “Room 237.” However, Unkrich avoids them in his website and book; he’s interested in the making of the film from a historic and artistic perspective, and in the film’s impact on filmmakers and artists.

Unkrich also points out that all of Kubrick’s films are filled with enigmas and unanswered questions: “I don’t know if even Stanley could tell you what the film was about.” However, Kubrick and co-screenwriter Diane Johnson discussed Sigmund Freud’s essay on the uncanny, which concerns a feeling of disorientation because things seem familiar yet incongruous. The writers used some of those ideas — e.g., repetition, mirrors, twins, the recurrence of seemingly random numbers and the concept of retracing one’s steps.

“I think he was interested in evoking a feeling of the uncanny in the audience with a lot of choices he made, in terms of visual design, costumes, music, everything,” says Unkrich. Kubrick was also a big fan of “The Exorcist” and the ways William Friedkin got under the skin of audiences, in terms of sound design, music and brief, almost subliminal edits.

In the book, “shining” is described as a special talent, including the ability to see the future. On the website (designed by Roger Erik Tinch), there is a syndicated column by Marilyn Beck from 1980, a few weeks after the film opened. Nicholson expressed surprise at the negative reviews and predicted that the film would become profitable and someday be considered a classic. So apparently Nicholson has the shining himself, at least where the film is concerned.

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  1. MAK says:

    Recently watched Jack Clatyon’s fine adaptation of Henry James TURN OF THE SCREW, titled THE INNOCENTS with a superb Deborah Kerr and a script by Truman Capote and (mostly?) John Mortimer. Both in story and in the tone of this putative ghost tale, is remarkably close to the Kubrick pic. Hard to believe, what with all the ridiculous research on this mediocre art horror pic, that no one’s picked up on the likeness.

    Really, no one old enough to have seen the gobsmackingly good trailer for THE SHINING before the film came out, can truly understand just what a disappointment the film was.

  2. Camila says:

    I never really understood why people love this movie so much. Specially why they think it’s the best horror film. It’s not scary at all. I love Kubrick, he’s my all-time favorite director, but I don’t care too much about this one. I admire the production design and the score, but I was really disappointed that with so many good things going for it, it’s still not a good movie. It didn’t scare or thrill me once. I did like Room 237, though, at least it made me more interested in the hidden meanings behind the movie. Sure, most of the theories are ludicrous, but in a Kubrick film every little prop is there for a reason, so it’s nice to speculate what that reason might have been. Makes the movie more interesting than it was.

  3. stevenkovacs says:

    I saw it the opening Friday at Toronto’s Imperial 6 cinema and I love it just as much now as then (if not more) Kubrick, and his cast, made something very special here.

  4. B o says:

    Very, very funny and great film! Pure genius. The book was mass appeal nonsense. Kubrick and his co-script writer were operating on an intelligence level far, far above King. Just look at King’s multi-part mini series of the book and how mediocre and horrible that was in comparison. Kubrick was a heavy-weight filmmaker and there’s never been one like him or will there ever be. Everything about The Shining was top notch. From the production design, the lighting, the photography, the camera movement and set-ups. Just magnificent! Nicholson was firing on all cylinders, that’s for sure. That ‘Here’s Johnny’ thing just about sums up the whole thing…in fact, sums up almost all of Kubrick’s work and his take on the maddening insanity of the human being/human race/human condition. Barry Lyndon has the same incredible satirical wit as The Shining. Great stuff! I have and shall continue to miss Kubrick films.

  5. Bill B. says:

    Jim Harwood was absolutely correct. The casting of Duvall was embarrassingly wrong. Lloyd was one of the least talented child actors I have ever seen in a major motion picture. Nicholson was over the top from the first scene, though he is certainly the most interesting thing in it & he has his moments, both good and bad. The deviations from the book were all detrimental, especially the ending and it is ugly to look at as well. Kubrick was a genius filmmaker, but this and Eyes Wide Shut are his misses, though he didn’t have the years he usually needed to tinker with the latter. No one can hit it out of the park every time. I read the book twice before I saw this on opening day in NYC & I cannot remember being more disappointed due to high expectations. I am at a loss as to why this is now being appreciated when it was not thought very highly of by critics or fans of the book upon its release. It’s the same movie now as it was then. Maybe in this comic book/super hero era of film making, our standards have been lowered. As I said, I saw this opening day in Manhattan and no lie, the audience was laughing when it ended. I might add that Room 237 is a documentary in search of mysteries that simply don’t exist.

    • Ken says:

      Thanx for sharing your memories. ROOM 237 makes THE SHINING look like, well, a masterpiece by comparison! It’s a “documentary” that confused continuity errors for weirdo genius. And all this business about Kubrick “staging” Apollo 11 is really pathetic.

      • Bill B. says:

        Even though I did not appreciate this film, I was still very interested in seeing Room 237. I could not believe how inane it was, but there are many who eat it up. You are correct. There are some things in
        The Shining that are okay, but there is not one thing in this documentary that I could recommend. I can’t even take it seriously.

  6. Ken says:

    The movie’s original, distinctive, yellow-toned poster boldly self-proclaimed “A Masterpiece of Modern Horror” back in 1980. I was thus conned, like many, into seeing it when it opened back then. It left audiences feeling bewildered and angry. BARRY LYNDON this wasn’t. 36 years later, one watches THE SHINING with a peculiar mix of tension/apprehension and confusion…and even some scorn. To this day – and after many viewings over the years – I still feel like I did back in 1980: this movie is illogical and it really makes no sense. I honestly think Kubrick (my favourite director) lost sight of what he wanted to convey here; it was the worst movie of his considerable career…until EYES WIDE SHUT came along. Nicholson was fun, though.

  7. Kwinner says:

    Was a really good movie….but could have been a great movie it Kubrick had only added the scrap book from the book to help explain what was happening….too much lost to the audience.

  8. >>>>>>>>>>>>> says:

    Best. Horror film. Ever.

  9. millerfilm says:

    For me, “The Shining” is the greatest horror film ever made. I knew because, after I had seen it the first time, my reaction was: “What the @#$% was that?!” :-)

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