Why The Shining, still, today? Expectations were high in the summer of 1980. Stanley Kubrick had been filming his adaptation of Stephen King’s monumental bestseller for nearly two years in absolute secrecy. The only teaser trailer released to theaters consisted of a single shot of red elevator doors that opened and unleashed a torrent of blood that washed over the screen. The film’s iconic yellow poster, which was designed by the legendary Saul Bass, drew you in even though it gave away nothing.
But when the movie finally opened, the most common response was “ Huh?” This was not the story King had written. The performances — Jack Nicholson as the alcoholic Jack Torrance, Shelley Duvall as his wife Wendy and 6-year-old Danny Lloyd as their son Danny — were pitched at such different levels, they felt like they belonged in different movies. Worst of all, the movie wasn’t scary. Kubrick simply didn’t understand horror, the critics complained. Even King publically stated he “hated” it. The film grossed a modest $44 million — less than The Blue Lagoon and Smokey and the Bandit II and Urban Cowboy — and was generally deemed an artistic failure. It was even nominated for two Razzies (for director and actress), a pre-Oscar award given to the worst films of the year.
But not anymore. More than three decades later —and 14 years after his death in 1999 — The Shining is Kubrick’s most widely seen movie. It is arguably the most beloved, and to many fans his best work.
Rodney Ascher, director of the documentary Room 237, about six people obsessed with the film, has a theory on why the consensus on The Shining has changed over the years.
“Kubrick’s movies are all intended to be seen more than once, and it came out just as the home video revolution was starting,” he says. “You could watch any movie on tape. And unlike 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was shot in widescreen and unwatchable on videotape, The Shining was shot in a 1:33 ratio, so you could watch it on your TV and see the entire image. I think that’s when the film really started to take root with people.”
That poster of a minotaur that hangs in the playroom of the Overlook Hotel? That’s foreshadowing for the chase in the maze that ends the film.
Those cans of Calumet baking powder featured prominently in the scene inside the hotel’s kitchen? That’s an indication that The Shining is really about the genocide of Native American Indians.
That Apollo 11 sweater Danny wears in the film? That’s Kubrick letting you know the first manned moon landing was fake, and he directed it.
One man suggests watching The Shining backward and forward at the same time to discover hidden images (“Redrum!”), which is akin to watching The Wizard of Oz while listening to Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon.
Most persistent of all, though, is that The Shining is a metaphor for the Holocaust, a subject that had long fascinated Kubrick. The typewriter Jack uses is a German-made Adler (and, curiously, changes color throughout the film). The famous room where something awful lurks in the bathtub, numbered 217 in the book, was changed to 237 for the movie (2 x 3 x 7 = ’42, the year the Nazis decided to exterminate all Jews).
The truth is that the owners of the Timberline Lodge in Oregon, which stood in for the exterior of the Overlook Hotel in the movie, asked Kubrick to change the number because they have no room 237, so people couldn’t request to stay there. But The Shining is screened in the hotel’s lobby every night, and guests still pop in to watch a bit of the film after a day of skiing — a testament to the movie’s hypnotic power. When you come across The Shining, you can’t help but stop and watch for a little while, no matter how many times you’ve seen it.
“ The Shining is far from my favorite Kubrick film,” says James Naremore, a professor at Indiana University and author of the critical study On Kubrick. “I didn’t like it much when it first opened, but after seeing it many times, reading lots about it and writing about it, my respect for it has grown considerably. I think it’s far better than the King novel and one of the most intellectually interesting horror movies ever.
“Kubrick was something of an art film director. His films aren’t junk food. They’re complex: They ask for and repay repeated viewings, not because they have complicated meanings, but because they’re so artistically and intelligently made. They assume intelligence in the viewer.
“Kubrick may be the only consistently good great director,” Naremore says. “He has no clinkers or movies destroyed by studio meddling. But I’m not sure why The Shining has become such a cult movie — to talk about it at [the level Room 237 does] is sociologically interesting but beyond me.”
The theories floated in Room 237 have been debunked by Kubrick’s longtime assistant Leon Vitali, who told The New York Times, “I was falling about laughing most of the time. There are ideas espoused in the movie that I know to be total balderdash.”
Lisa Leone, vice president of artistic programs for the National YoungArts Foundation, spent four years working with Kubrick on Eyes Wide Shut as set decorator and second-unit photographer, and she agrees people tend to find unintentional messages in his movies.
“Stanley was all about detail,” she says. “He was completely in control of everything. He was obsessed with the look and content of his sets as he was with performances. But when I would ask him little things I had heard about symbols in his movies, he would look at me and say, ‘What are you talking about?’ ”
Matthew Modine, who starred in Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket and wrote a book about the experience titled Full Metal Jacket Diary, says people who describe Kubrick as “obsessive” are missing the point.
“There is never an insignificant scene in a Kubrick movie, or even a frame of film,” the actor says via email. “Obsession always sounds like an extravagance when used to describe an artist. If I say a basketball player practiced obsessively to perfect his shooting, you imagine a person committed to his sport. When obsessive is used to describe artists and their desire to create something beautiful, remarkable and unimagined before, obsessive is tinged with a kind of lunacy or mania.
“Stanley spoke to me about this at length,” Modine says. “He told me, ‘No one would say to Beethoven, “Hey Ludwig, how many notes in that song? How long did it take ya’ to write it?” So why do they feel the hunger to ask me how many takes did it take to shoot a scene? Shouldn’t the conversation be focused on how wonderful the scene is?’ ”
Aside from conspiracy theories, Room 237 points out small details that are a testament to the care Kubrick used in his movies, such as the pattern of the rug inside room 237, which is vaguely sexual in design, or the impossibility of the hotel’s structure (there are windows with outside views that couldn’t exist there). Weirdest of all, when Nicholson is sitting in the lobby waiting to be taken on a tour of the hotel, he is reading a Playgirl (!) magazine.
“I tracked down that magazine and found a copy of it, just to make sure,” Ascher says. Maybe it was a joke on Jack Nicholson’s part. There’s a ton of stuff that we don’t talk about in the movie. The close-up of that photo at the end of the movie is presented as a challenge. It’s supposed to be the Rosebud of the movie. ‘Oh, now I understand!’ But instead, it presents us with a new puzzle. And the date on the photo in particular [July 4, 1921] is a challenge because it doesn’t link up with anything that’s discussed in the movie. What the subjects in Room 237 are analyzing are not random pictures in a cloud. Kubrick did everything for a reason.”