“I’m not gonna hurt ya… You didn’t let me finish my sentence. I said, I’m not gonna hurt ya… I’m just gonna bash your brains in.”
Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, along with William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973), has become known as one of the core pillars of modern American horror. Where the two differ from each other is in their approach to the genre – Friedkin’s film is of course most famous for its supernatural element, while Kubrick’s focused on the more ambiguous, psychological side of horror. That I prefer Kubrick’s film, and find it more frightening overall, comes down simply to a matter of personal taste.
Based on the equally popular novel by Stephen King, The Shining is an adaptation unconcerned about staying faithful to its source material – many of Kubrick’s films were not, the director always striving to put his own stamp on the stories he borrowed. While some have judged this film more harshly because of that, I think Kubrick in this sense captured the essence of what a good adaptation should do; contribute something unique to the experience, rather than copy its source text verbatim.
Jack Nicholson plays main character Jack Torrance with a charismatic deviousness that makes you suspect him of wrongdoing from the start – one of the artistic differences (from the novel’s initially sympathetic family man) that some disliked. Jack and his family, consisting of wife Wendy and son Danny, decide to stay at the intimidating Overlook Hotel during the close season, when it needs a caretaker (the role which Jack fills, while hoping to work on his writing on the side) to keep it maintained. However, it soon becomes clear that there may be another, sinister presence within the hotel’s walls…
Now, I know what you may be thinking; isn’t this also a supernatural horror film, like The Exorcist? Well, I don’t necessarily think so. King’s novel is arguably more supernatural than Kubrick’s film version was. While there are hints of such elements to this film, they are not so explicit as Friedkin’s demonic possession – Jack Torrance’s descent into madness is very much more a human fault in this case. As I hinted before, the difference between the two is not so much that psychological horror lacks the ‘supernatural’ element per se; it’s more that in the psychological side of the genre, the latter may only be one factor of fear, and rarely the most important one.