Way back in 1977 when everyone was rocking plaid pants and listening to Foreigner, Stephen King published a novel that would leave a permanent mark on the horror genre. The Shining was King’s third novel and first hardback to hit the bestseller list, and to this day remains a household name in all things creepy. If you’ve read the book, you’ll know it as an especially powerful look at a family plagued by alcoholism, abuse, and isolation. Jack (John) Torrance is a writer suffering from untreated alcoholism, white-knuckling his way through his short-lived sobriety as a reaction to consequences. Danny, the Torrance’s young child, while known by us for his psychic abilities (referred to as his “shine”) is written as unusually mature and hyper-aware of his parents’ struggles. Wendy, Jack’s wife, is painted as a bright and perceptive woman. An equal partner to Jack, the two agonize over their son’s health and odd behavior, while she insists time and time again that she and Danny leave the hotel and Jack altogether. For being written in 1977, there isn’t a whole lot to complain about representation-wise. There are few main characters; none are identified by race and there are few women, so it’s lacking but not overtly stereotypical or offensive. If you’re thinking to yourself, “This sounds a little different from the movie I saw,” you’d be right as rain. So what happened to the film adaptation just three years later?
Heeeeeere’s Stanley. Enter Stanley Kubrick: 49-years-old at the time and widely known as one of the most influential directors in film history. He’s known for adapting stories, close-up shots, and freakin’ intense music. Stanley swoops in for a film version of The Shining in 1980 and leaves us with one of the most famous horror movies of all time and in my humble (but wildly informed and stubborn) opinion, one of the most misguided cinematic ventures in history. I saw the movie before I took a look at Stephen King’s novel and my first reaction was, “I can’t even write about this. This is a damn mess.” Furthermore, I knew I’d get an outcry of “But, it’s based on a book! It isn’t his fault!” I hear you, couch people, and I took care of it.
It’s based on a book! This was not Kubrick’s first or last time at the adaptation rodeo but he and I fundamentally disagree about his source material. Co-writer Diane Johnson commented that Kubrick likes to adapt imperfect stories so that they can be molded. Call me crazy, but when I think “imperfect and needs re-working” my mind wanders to the first attempt at the Hulk movie, hamburgers sandwiched between donuts, and my social skills, but not bestselling novel The Shining by Stephen King. What may have been an attempt to make a statement ended up being a movie riddled with inequality, blatant sexism and racism, and cheap tricks for shock value.
Where it all went wrong. I could go on for days, critiquing this movie shot by shot, but I’ll spare you my obsessive behavior and leave you with the bulletpoints of the differences in the film adaptation that make it such a prime target for a feminist column.
- Wendy. All depth and nuance found in her in the book is thrown to the wolves in the film. We are left with a woman who doesn’t say much but when she does is wide-eyed, timid, and not particularly bright. While in the book, Wendy defends herself tirelessly against Jack until she is severely injured, in the film we are left with a scene where she swats her crazed husband with a bat with much the same effort used to kill a mosquito. (More on this scene later.). Book Wendy contemplates leaving the abusive situation several times and only stays because Danny insists. Her film counterpart meekly defends her husband’s violent behavior to her son’s physician and doesn’t remotely consider leaving until Jack’s wielding an axe.
- Dick Halloran. While there are loose references to Hallorann’s race in other King novels, The Shining never specifies. His book character is dynamic, reaching out to Danny and bonding over their shared supernatural abilities and offering his help if ever needed. The book concludes with Hallorann braving a snowstorm to get to the Torrance family, fighting Jack, and carrying Wendy and Danny to his vehicle and to safety. The film casts Dick as a black man. Points for trying, right? Wrong. They revert to a simplified stereotype of Hallorann as a wise old black man, largely using him as a prop to explain Danny’s psychic ability. When it comes time for Dick to swoop in and save the day, he is immediately attacked by Jack and presumably killed. The black man dies first.
- Female representation. The film has three female speaking roles: mother, secretary, and pediatrician, a triple threat of feminine stereotypes. Oh, and terrifying dead twin girls.
- The naked lady. In the book, Danny sees a rotting corpse of a naked woman in room 217 but when Jack checks it out, he finds nothing but a vague sense that someone is following him. In the movie, we are left with several minutes of blatant objectification and sexualization of a perfectly alive, not-rotting naked model slinking wordlessly toward Jack. We see every inch of her as she and Jack make out but there is never an ounce of male nudity anywhere in the film.
- The n word. In one of Jack’s delusions he meets a previous hotel caretaker that murdered his family. In convincing Jack that he should follow the same path, he refers to Hallorann (and Jack repeats it) as the n-word. A “n****er cook” he says. There are plenty of theories as to the commentary Kubrick was trying to make but at the end of the day a white director and writer filmed two white men using the n-word over and over again. This screams privilege out the yang. Leave the “commentary” to the people who have lived experience.
- Abuse. No, not between characters, but as a means of directing Shelley Duvall by Stanley Kubrick. Kubrick has said that “actors are essentially emotion-producing instruments” and the way he treated Duvall on set suggests no different. Duvall was isolated from the cast and crew at the encouragement of Kubrick, told that she was wasting everyone’s time and Kubrick can be heard in the documentary Making ‘The Shining’ telling people, “Don’t sympathize with Shelley.” That terrifying scene with the baseball bat I mentioned? He forced her to film it a whopping 127 consecutive times which left her red, puffy, and losing clumps of hair. Shelley was left largely in the dark about direction and changes and it’s thought that much of her fear in the chopping-down-the-door scene is genuine.
How are you doing? Feeling betrayed by a long-loved classic horror movie? You’re not alone. Author Stephen King is also disappointed in the adaptation, calling Movie Wendy “one of the most misogynistic characters ever put on film.” Solidarity, sister. In the end, I think the lesson is that if you are a white male who benefits from all sorts of privilege, you maybe aren’t in a position to be reducing complicated characters to crude stereotypes, using women’s bodies as props, and invoking a violent racial slur for the sake of “making a statement.” What I (and so many) would love to see is increasing positive and interesting representation. Would it really be so unbelievable that Jack Torrance could be black when we’re expected to believe that his son has a kid named Tony living in his mouth? Is it crazy to think we could have included some of Wendy Torrance’s depth and dialogue (which was cut) when we had plenty of time to watch tidal waves of blood over and over and over? I think not.
So there you have it, your very first look at a horror movie through a feminist lens. And since I’m likely already offending an army of Stanley Kubrick fans, I may as well go for broke: I think Bladerunner is dumb. Until next time, sports fans – Mac out.