Featured review: The Shining: Studies in the Horror Film
I don’t make a habit of reviewing books that I’m involved with. However, I’ll make an exception in the case of The Shining: Studies in the Horror Film. My essay takes up only about 2% of the book’s 750 pages. Full disclosure, though: I know the book’s editor, Danel Olson, personally. He lives a couple of miles from me, we’ve gone to see movies together and I’ve spoken to his college classes on a couple of occasions.
Having gotten all of that out of the way, this is the sort of book I wish I’d had access to when I was writing my essay, which is called “The Genius Fallacy: The Shining’s ‘Hidden’ Meanings.” Inspired by the documentary Room 237, I investigated the numerous theories that have arisen in the decades since Stanley Kubrick’s film was released and discussed some of the reasons why this movie, perhaps more than any others he directed, has become a magnet for conspiracy theorists and people determined to read things into the film that aren’t there.
The book is broken up into three main sections: essays, cast interviews and crew interviews, many of them original to the book, along with a fourth section containing movie poster art inspired by the film. The book is profusely illustrated with stills from the movie, behind-the-scenes shots and photos of the interview subjects.
The analytical essays are interesting, certainly, but they aren’t my favorite part of the book (even though my essay appears in that section). There’s some pretty sophisticated criticism going on in some of them, and it’s a little over my head. There’s a nice extract from a Kubrick biography that deals with the film production and background that lays the groundwork for a lot of what comes later, and an exploration of the process of adapting the book. If you’re a fan of the novel, you may feel your hackles rising from time to time, as some of the contributors tend to be dismissive of the book, or strongly favor the changes Kubrick made, all of which are deemed “improvements” on the novel. But this is a book about the movie on its own merits, not as a Stephen King adaptation, so that’s to be expected.
I was more interested in the contemporary interviews with the cast and crew. Olsen and his intrepid team of interviewers left no stone unturned. Obviously, some of the people involved with the movie are no longer available, so Olsen obtained permission to reprint classic interviews with Stanley Kubrick and Scatman Crothers, as well as a long and revealing interview with Jack Nicholson first published in 2009. Olsen tracked down the “Grady twins,” now in their late forties and still finishing each other’s sentences, to probe their recollections of filming. They are charming and witty in their discussions of that time in their young lives and how the movie’s legacy has continued to impact them. Even the bit players are interviewed, including the bellboy who had a non-speaking part, and the woman who played the nurse in the deleted original ending to the film. The only conspicuous absence among the cast interview subjects is Danny Lloyd, who retired to a private life when the movie business didn’t pan out for him.
In the crew interviews (and it’s a little strange to think of Kubrick as part of the crew, but of course he was), there is some involved discussion of camera lenses and lighting approaches and sound recording that will be interesting and valuable to people who work in film. However, there is also a lot of discussion of what it was like to work with Kubrick. Many of the same questions are asked of various crew members, and since the book casts such a wide net (there are well over a dozen interviews with crew members in addition to the Kubrick interview), a picture of the man during that time in his life emerges. There are contradictions, many of which can be chalked up to the failure of memory over time, but may also be a reflection of the individual’s experience with Kubrick. Some of the interview subjects remember him more fondly than others. To some he was a warm, friendly man, to others he was aloof. However, there’s little doubt that he was a difficult person to work with. Many of them signed on for a 17-week shoot and ended up working on the film for 10+ hours a day for the better part of a year. Some saw Kubrick as a collaborator where other found that it was hard to contribute ideas to him. Some of the crew members interviewed quit the movie or were fired for various infractions. Some had to leave voluntarily when the movie ran long over its intended shooting schedule because of other commitments.
A picture emerges, too, of the way he dealt with cast members. People talk about why they think he was so hard on Shelley Duvall, for example—whether he genuinely didn’t like her or whether he was trying to goad a particular kind of performance out of her. There is much discussion of Kubrick’s legendary habit of filming dozens and dozens of takes of most scenes and possible reasons for doing so. One thing seems clear: Kubrick did not give his actors much direction once the cameras were rolling. He just kept going until he got what he was looking for, without necessarily being able to express what that was.
Of particular interest to me—given the premise of my essay—were questions about how certain scenes or details in the movie came about. Did Kubrick have some ulterior motivation for allowing the helicopter shadow to appear in the opening shot, or was he making some statement about the plight of Native Americans through the Indian-influenced décor in the hotel? As these interviews reveal, many of these details were either spontaneous decisions made during filming or were things that happened outside of Kubrick’s control. The helicopter shots, for example, were done by a second unit team who worked fairly independently in America.
One of the most telling things I read in the book was a comment made by Kubrick that was recounted by assistant director Brian Cook. He advised against trying to read too much into the movie, saying that Kubrick was aware that people would impose various interpretations on his work. “Stanley used to always say to me when we weren’t sure of what we were doing, ‘We’ll let the French critics tell us what this scene is supposed to be about…’”
This is a massive book, but it is eminently readable. I thought it would take me forever to get through it, but I’ve been reading it in sizeable chunks each day because it’s so much fun and so interesting, even the technical details that don’t mean much to me.
One comment about the book’s construction: I was worried that the spine of this 750-page trade paperback would crease or split when I was reading it, but it has proven to be amazingly resilient. You wouldn’t know I’d opened the book at all, to look at the condition of the spine, and I wasn’t particularly careful with it. It’s a pretty impressive feat.
The Shining: Studies in the Horror Film, edited by Danel Olson, is still available from Centipede Press for the discounted price of $32 as of this writing. It’s well worth it in my opinion. The movie may not be the ideal adaptation from a Stephen King fan’s perspective, but it has generated a lot of interest and discussion in the past thirty years. This book brings together many of the most definitive statements about the film and its production.