By Sven Mikulec
One of Stephen King’s most popular and celebrated novels, The Shining was initially conceived as the author’s family was staying at the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado. There, King developed a story of a haunted hotel, and since he had already given some thought into writing a story of a boy with ESP, he simply put the two narratives together. His novel being a huge success, it was shipped to Stanley Kubrick by John Calley of Warner Bros. The great filmmaker loved it and quickly found that inspirational spark needed to bring it to life. Having briefly considered the possibility of King adapting his own work, he decided to join forces with American novelist Diane Johnson to do it himself, after reaching the conclusion several weaker plot points in the original story needed to be fixed. But even as the two of them completed the screenplay and the shooting began—and this isn’t difficult to believe since we’re all familiar with the level of Kubrick’s notorious perfectionism—the script was allegedly changed so many times during production, even a couple of times a day, that Jack Nicholson, Kubrick’s lead, simply stopped reading it.
I had already been working on the treatment of the book, prior to her starting, but I hadn’t actually begun the screenplay. With The Shining, the problem was to extract the essential plot and to re-invent the sections of the story that were weak. The characters needed to be developed a bit differently than they were in the novel. It is in the pruning down phase that the undoing of great novels usually occurs because so much of what is good about them has to do with the fineness of the writing, the insight of the author and often the density of the story. But The Shining was a different matter. Its virtues lay almost entirely in the plot, and it didn’t prove to be very much of a problem to adapt it into the screenplay form. Diane and I talked a lot about the book and then we made an outline of the scenes we thought should be included in the film. This list of scenes was shuffled and reshuffled until we thought it was right, and then we began to write. We did several drafts of the screenplay, which was subsequently revised at different stages before and during shooting. —Stanley Kubrick
At the time of the production, King publicly expressed certain doubt about whether both Kubrick and the actors he’d chosen were in fact the best possible option for the adaptation of the novel, but Kubrick certainly didn’t allow himself to be shaken up by initial skepticism. He put his brilliantly creative mind to work, relentlessly laboring over the project. It took a full year for principal photography to be finished. Constantly changing the script and coming up with new ideal ways of delivering the material, Kubrick brought the crew on the verge of a nervous breakdown, especially Shelley Duvall, with whom he had frequent arguments, and highly irritated Nicholson. But the months of perspiration paid off, as The Shining is still considered one of the most accomplished horror films ever made.
For today’s article, we’ve gotten our hands on Kubrick’s early treatment of The Shining [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). Sit tight and take a mental walk with us back to the good, old Overlook Hotel.
A rare interview with Kubrick, conducted in May of 1980 by John Hofsess and published in The Soho News. The interview was conducted just as The Shining was opening in the United States, and focuses on the marketing and distribution of the film. In addition to discussing the business end of the film, Kubrick also discusses his initial interest in the project, as well as the casting of the film. Courtesy of Lee Unkrich’s The Overlook Hotel.
The following excerpt of an interview took place at Kubrick’s home in early 1980. (c) 1980 by Vicente Molina Foix. Reprinted in The Stanley Kubrick Archives, a spectacular book that brings together a selection from the cult director’s archives and highlights his relentless pursuit of perfection.
What did you especially like in Stephen King’s The Shining?
Well, the novel was sent to me by John Calley, an executive with Warner Bros., and it is the only thing which was ever sent to me that I found good, or that I liked. Most things I read with the feeling that after about [a certain number] pages I’m going to put it down and think that I’m not going to waste my time. The Shining I found very compulsive reading, and I thought the plot, ideas, and structure were much more imaginative than anything I’ve ever read in the genre. It seemed to me one could make a wonderful movie out of it.
Did you know King’s previous novels?
No. I had seen Carrie, the film, but I hadn’t read any of his novels. I would say King’s great ability is in plot construction. He doesn’t seem to take great care in writing, I mean, the writing seems like if he writes it once, reads it, maybe writes it again, and sends it off to the publisher. He seems mostly concerned with invention, which I think he’s very clear about.
But were you thinking of making a horror film before you got that novel?
No. When I’m making a film I have never had another film which I knew I wanted to do, I’ve never found two stories at the same time. About the only consideration I think I have when I read a book is that I wouldn’t particularly like to do a film which was very much like another film that I’ve done. Other than that, I have no preconceived ideas about what my next film should be. I don’t know now, for instance, what I’m going to do. I wish I did. It saves a lot of time.
In previous films, you have worked within the conventions of specific genres (science-fiction, thriller, war film, etc.). Were you attracted to The Shining because it gave you the opportunity to explore the laws of a new genre in your career?
About the only law that I think relates to the genre is that you should not try to explain, to find neat explanations for what happens, and that the object of the thing is to produce a sense of the uncanny. Freud in his essay on the uncanny wrote that the sense of the uncanny is the only emotion which is more powerfully expressed in art than in life, which I found very illuminating; it didn’t help writing the screen-play, but I think it’s an interesting insight into the genre. And I read an essay by the great master H.P. Lovecraft where he said that you should never attempt to explain what happens, as long as what happens stimulates people’s imagination, their sense of the uncanny, their sense of anxiety and fear. And as long as it doesn’t, within itself, have any obvious inner contradictions, it is just a matter of, as it were, building on the imagination (imaginary ideas, surprises, etc.), working in this area of feeling. I think also that the ingeniousness of a story like this is something which the audience ultimately enjoys; they obviously wonder as the story goes on what’s going to happen, and there’s a great satisfaction when it’s all over not having been able to have anticipated the major development of the story, and yet at the end not to feel that you have been fooled or swindled.
Who is Diane Johnson, who wrote the screenplay with you?
She’s a very good novelist, she’s published about five or six books. I was interested in one of the books and started to talk to her about it and then I learned that she also was teaching a course on the Gothic novel at Berkeley University in California. It just seemed that it would be interesting to work on the screenplay with her, which it was. This was her first screenplay.
There are quite a few changes in the film with respect to the novel. Several characters have been, in a good way, simplified, the supernatural and pseudo-psychological sides have been almost eliminated and even the basic horror element is reduced. All this is to me a great improvement to the novel. Were you trying to escape from the more conventional norms of the genre in order to build something different, although, of course, the film can still be seen by many as a pure horror movie?
You say that a lot of the horror was cut out of the book and I don’t agree on that. As a matter of fact, other than the scene where the child sees the blood splashed all over the walls and when he hears the little noise in the big drainpipe when he’s playing in the snow, I think there’s more horror in the film than there is in the book. People have said that. In the book, for instance, nobody gets killed.
Yes, but you have eliminated all the comings and goings of the animal figures cut in the topiary garden…
That’s all. When Halloran, the black cook, comes at the end, these topiary animals try to stop him, but that is the only thing lost from the book.
And you have also emphasized the relationship between the main characters and their sense of isolation in the hotel, Jack’s frustration as a writer… All these things certainly become crucial in the film and not so much in the book.
I think in the novel, King tries to put in too much of what I would call pseudo-character and pseudo-psychological clues, but certainly the essence of the character such as it is, that he puts in the novel, was retained. The only change is we made Wendy perhaps more believable as a mother and a wife. I would say the psychological dynamics of the story, even in the novel, are not really changed. When you said the characters are simplified, well, obviously, they become more clear, less cluttered; that’s it, less cluttered better than simplified. When I said simplified, I meant exactly that: clarified. From Jack’s character, for instance, all the rather cumbersome references to his family life have disappeared in the film, and that’s for the better. I don’t think the audience is likely to miss the many and self-consciously “heavy” pages King devotes to things like Jack’s father’s drinking problem or Wendy’s mother. To me, all that is quite irrelevant. There’s the case of putting in too many psychological clues of trying to explain why Jack is the way he is, which is not really important.
Right. Reading the novel, I constantly felt he was trying to explain why all those horrible things happened, which I think is wrong, since the main force of the story lies in its ambiguity. At the same time, you have avoided the many references to Poe in the book, especially to his mask of the red death, and in fact, your film escapes completely Poe’s influence and gets, I believe, much closer to Borges, particularly in its conclusion. To me, it’s a major shift from the novel.
The most major shift is really the last thirty minutes of the film, because King’s climax really only consisted of Jack confronting Danny, and Danny saying something like “you’re not my father,” and then Jack turns and goes down to the boiler and the hotel blows up. The most important thing that Diane Johnson and I did was to change the ending, to shift the emphasis along the lines you’ve just described. In terms of things like Jack’s father and the family background, in the film a few clues almost do the same thing; when Wendy tells the doctor about how Jack broke Danny’s arm, you can tell she’s putting a very good face on the way she tells it, but you realize that something horrible must have happened. Or, for instance, when Ullman, the manager, asks Jack “How would your wife and son like it?” and you see a look in his eyes meaning he thinks “what an irrelevant question that is!” and then he smiles and just says “They’ll love it.” I mean, I think there are lots of little subtle points that give you at least subconsciously the same awareness that King works so hard to put in. Also I think that he was a little worried maybe about getting literary credentials for the novel; all his Poe quotes and “Red Death” things are all right but didn’t seem necessary. He seemed too concerned about making it clear to everybody that this was a worthwhile genre of literature.
How do you normally work with the actors? Do you like to introduce their improvisations on the set?
Yes. I find that no matter how carefully you write a scene, when you rehearse it for the first time there always seems to be something completely different, and you realize that there are interesting ideas in the scene which you never thought of, or that ideas that you thought were interesting aren’t. Or that the weight of the idea is unbalanced; something is too obvious or not clear enough, so I very often rewrite the scene with the rehearsal. I feel it’s the way you can take the best advantage of both the abilities of the actors and even perhaps the weaknesses of the actors. If there’s something they aren’t doing, or it’s pretty clear they can’t do (I must say that’s not true in The Shining because they were so great), you suddenly become aware of ideas and possibilities which just didn’t occur to you.
I’ve always been impressed reading that some directors sketch out the scenes and can actually find that it works. It may be some shortcoming of my screenplay, but I find that no matter how good it ever looks on paper, the minute you start in the actual set, with the actors, you’re terribly aware of not taking the fullest advantage of what’s possible if you actually stick to what you wrote. I also found that thinking of shots, or thinking of the way to shoot a scene before you’ve actually rehearsed it and got it to the point where something is actually happening that is worth putting on film, will frequently prevent you from really getting into the deepest possible result of the scene.
You always try to keep total control of every step taken in the making of a film. I feel curious about one or two aspects of this fastidious control. The first concerns the art direction of your films, and The Shining is particular. Do you intervene directly in this?
Well, yes. For example in this film, the art director, Roy Walker, went for a month all over America photographing hotels, apartments, things that could be used for reference. We must have photographed hundreds of places. Then, based on the photographs we liked, the draughtsmen drew up the working drawings from the photos, but keeping the scale exactly as it was, exactly what was there, not something like it. When the photographs were taken he stood there with a ruler, so that you could actually get a scale of everything, which is very important. Take something like the apartment they are living in at the beginning of the film, with very small rooms and the narrow corridors and that strange window in the boy’s bedroom, about five feet high.
Well, it’s first of all silly to try to design something which everybody sees in real life and knows that looks slightly wrong. So, things like those apartments and their apartment inside the hotel, which is so ugly, with this sort of lack of design, the way things actually get built without architects, is also important to preserve. So those have to be carefully copied as well as the grander rooms, which are beautiful and where you want to preserve what the architect did. Certainly, rather than have an art director try to design a hotel for this, which I think is almost impossible without it looking like a stage set or and opera set, it was necessary to have something real.
I think also because in order to make people believe the story it’s very important to place it in something that looks totally real, and to light it as if it were virtually a documentary film, with natural light coming from the light sources, rather than dramatic, phony lighting, which one normally sees in a horror film. I compare that with the way Kafka or Borges writes, you know, in a simple, non-baroque style, so that the fantastic is treated in a very everyday, ordinary way. And I think that in the sets it’s very important they just be very real, and very uninteresting architecturally, because it just means there are more compositions and more corners to go around. But they must look real. Every detail in those sets comes from photographs of real places very carefully copied. The exterior of the hotel is based on an existing hotel in Colorado, but the interiors are based on several different places, for example, the red toilet is a Frank Lloyd Wright designed toilet which the art director found in a hotel in Phoenix, Arizona. It’s exactly like it, color and everything. Why try to design a toilet when you not only have a real toilet with all the proportions right, but an interesting toilet too?
If you are going to build sets, it’s crucially important to leave the possibilities for simulating natural light. For instance, all of the chandeliers that were built had to be very specially wired, because each of those bulbs is a 1000-watt bulb, on lower voltage, so that it’s bright, but it has a warm light. If you noticed, the color and everything else in the hotel is warm—well, that’s by burning 1000-watt bulbs on lower voltage. The daylight coming through the windows was simulated by a 100-foot long translucent backing, thirty feet high, on the big sets, right? And there were about 750 1000-watt bulbs behind the backing, so that the soft light that comes in from the windows is like daylight; it was really like an artificial sky. So that in the daytime it looks real. Considerations like that have to be thought of very early on, because they are really part of the making of the sets; the lighting has to be integrated very early on in the design of the set.
Are you already thinking of a new project?
No, I’m anxiously awaiting getting an idea.
Stanley Kubrick 11-minute interview on The Shining. Taken from ‘Stanley Kubrick A Voix Nue’ (French radio broadcast). Parts of French interviewer Ciment (voice-over) were edited out of this clip. Copyright: France Culture/Michel Ciment. Courtesy of Eyes On Cinema.
Photo credit: Murray Close © Warner Bros., Hawk Films, Peregrine, Producers Circle. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.
We’re running out of money and patience with being underfunded. If you find Cinephilia & Beyond useful and inspiring, please consider making a small donation. Your generosity preserves film knowledge for future generations. To donate, please visit our donation page, or donate directly below:
Get Cinephilia & Beyond in your inbox by signing in