How Kubrick Adapted ‘The Shining’ into a Cinematic Masterpiece | Screenwriting

Hello cinephiles! Whenever I think of The Shining, I’m always amazed by the sheer number of iconic moments in a single movie. So, I wanted to take a look at the writing process and see how we ended up with such a masterpiece of cinema. Now, there have been plenty of great videos on The Shining as well as videos specifically about the script, but I want to go deeper. How was it written and what exactly is happening from a storytelling perspective?

What was it like to collaborate with Kubrick on this screenplay? How did the movie wind up so different than Stephen King’s original novel? How close did they stick to the screenplay during production? What were Kubrick’s thoughts on horror? All that and more on this episode of Making Film…

Film History, Analysis, and Technique—this is Making Film…

In 1975, Barry Lyndon had hit the theaters and Stanley Kubrick was eager to find a subject for his next film. After he finishes a film, he just begins to read anything he can get his hands on, hoping to find a subject that has certain cinematic possibilities.

Kubrick: “I don’t find any systematic way of reading. It’s a terrifying prospect when you realize all the books there are in the world that you’re never going to read or that you should read, so I find by just reading at random, that seems like the best approach since there’s no systematic way” (A Voix Nue).

There was an interesting bit in American Film magazine, which noted that Kubrick acquired many books on the supernatural. He would sit in his office and read. If after a few pages, he didn’t think the book was interesting, he’d [quote] “fling it across the room against the wall.” Apparently Kubrick’s secretary outside noticed that the sounds of books hitting the wall had stopped. She went in and found him reading The Shining (Kubrick Companion).

It’s hard to tell if there is much truth to this story, but John Calley, an executive at Warner Brothers, sent Kubrick the manuscript of The Shining and when asked about the book, Kubrick said, “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” (The Soho News Interview).

Warner Brothers had bought the rights to Stephen King’s book shortly after it was published in 1977 and they also bought a screenplay based on the book written by King himself (Kubrick Companion). However, Kubrick wanted to use the novel as simply a jumping-off point and therefore he didn’t read King’s screenplay nor did he wish to collaborate with him on a new screenplay (Kubrick Companion).

It’s interesting to note that nearly all of Kubrick’s films are adapted from previous books and there are a couple of reasons for this:

First, Kubrick felt that there aren’t many original screenwriters who are at a high enough caliber as some of the greatest novelists— unless they plan on directing the film themselves. And second, and perhaps most important, is that it allowed him to see the story more objectively and, as Kubrick puts it [quote] “If you read a story which someone else has written, you have the irreplaceable experience of reading it for the first time. This is something which you obviously cannot have if you write an original story” (Archives). This way, Kubrick could experience the story as a whole and an entirely unique experience and then evaluate what it was about the book that affected him. He could get at the core of what was good about the story, strip away the clutter, and enhance the most brilliant aspects with a profound sense of hindsight.

(Something we probably all wish we could do with certain movies).

For the task of adapting the book for the screen, Kubrick enlisted the help of novelist Diane Johnson. He had met with her in 1976, when he considered making a film adaptation of her book The Shadow Knows— a psychological thriller about a woman harassed by an unknown menace (Kubrick Companion). They had discussed the book extensively and, at the time, she was teaching a class at UC Berkeley on the Gothic novel (New Perspectives 285). So, when he ultimately decided on pursuing a film adaptation of The Shining he thought that it would be interesting to work with her. Kubrick said, “[S]he seemed to be the ideal collaborator, which, indeed, she proved to be” (Archives).

In early 1977, Johnson spoke at length with Kubrick over ten days and then she received an outline later that year (New Perspectives 285). It wasn’t until March 17th, 1978 that Johnson began working with Kubrick on the story full-time (New Perspectives 288). She said, “The driver would come and pick me up every morning and drive me out there [to Kubrick’s house]. I would stay all day, through dinner. We would work in the morning and then Stanley would have a lot of things to do because he was doing the sets and the second unit were already in America” (New Perspectives 288).

Johnson and Kubrick had long discussions around literature, particularly Gothic horror— Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and stories by Edgar Allan Poe. They also watched movies every night—many of them starred Jack Nicholson specifically to see whether they liked him more as a “depressive” or a “hyped-up animated” character (New Perspectives 288). They discussed The Shining for over a month before writing a single word (Kubrick Companion). Many of their discussions started from simple questions posed by Kubrick. Johnson said, “Stanley uses the Socratic method: is the husband a nice man? Does his wife love him? What kind of clothes would she wear? In this way, Kubrick got to know and understand his characters before setting them in motion for themselves” (Kubrick Companion). Johnson also said, Kubrick’s “approach was very literary and intellectual, he was big on outlines, big on lists and he focused on clearly expressing the implications of a scene or the problems that it posed” (New Perspectives 288).

They also drew a fair amount of inspiration from Bruno Bettelheim’s study of fairy tales titled, The Uses of Enchantment and the writings of Sigmund Freud, but more on that later (Kubrick Companion).

Johnson and Kubrick each came up with their own short plot outline for The Shining based on their talks and then came together to compare, rearrange scenes, and ultimately write a [quote] “more fleshed-out outline” (Archives). They worked on the screenplay for 11 weeks in England and then Johnson left for the United States (New Perspectives 288). She returned to England in 1978 for a few weeks to work on the script during shooting. Johnson said, there were “a lot of phone conversations about details and things. When I left the second time there was a pretty good script. Stanley went on to make some changes but most of them he checked with me” (New Perspectives 288). Without Johnson’s contributions to the screenplay, the film might be very different and it is important to recognize the work that she put into crafting such a great adaptation with Kubrick. On October 17th, 1979, Kubrick had her contact the Writers Guild to notify them that he wanted there to be a shared screenwriting credit on all of the publicity and advertising (New Perspectives 289).

Kubrick’s first treatment, completed on June 20, 1977, was 36 pages and contained 61 scenes. The treatment ends when Grady removes the bolt to the pantry door freeing Jack. This is one of the most important moments in the film as it is the first time there is any evidence of a ghost having any affect on the physical world. All supernatural aspects of the film up to that point could very well be happening only in the minds of the characters or have some other explanation (SK Reads SK).

Kubrick: “I’ve always enjoyed the genre and I felt that I hadn’t really seen a picture that presented that genre. There have been pictures which have had shocks in them and which have had some wonderfully gory or horrific moments. But to properly present that type of a story in a way where you could [disbelieve] and get involved in the story and the supernatural events were presented in a way which seemed dramatically realistic. What I found so ingenious about the way the novel was written, as the very supernatural events occurred, which you always wonder to yourself, ‘how is the writer ever going to explain this?’. The way the story is written, you assume as you read it that the things that are happening are probably going to be a product of his imagination. And I think this allows you to start accepting them, and not worry. It isn’t really until the bolt is open that you’re absolutely certain that it isn’t a product of his imagination because he couldn’t open the bolt.”

The guiding principle for Kubrick’s journey into horror came from an H.P. Lovecraft essay that states, “In all things that are mysterious—never explain” (Soho News Article). Kubrick expands upon this in an interview saying, “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”  (The Soho News Interview).

Kubrick was keen on using the audience’s own imagination against them and, by introducing mystery and the suggestion of horror, the audience can fill in the blanks with their own fears. The story beats are very simple, there isn’t a big convoluted story to follow like in many horror films. Instead, we are watching with a mindset based more on emotion over logic, but we get both. We get lost in the mystery, but we are also concerned with survival. We experience the fear of the mystery and the logical thinking of how to escape the situation. Kubrick uses the first expositional scenes to tell us, more or less, that this guy is going to go crazy and try to murder his family and this boy is a clairvoyant. In this way, we are placed in a similar situation as Danny. We know Jack will go crazy, but there isn’t anything we can do about it. Then we are left to watch it all unfold.

In early versions of the script, quite a great deal was explained, in fact, there was a storyline that was discarded that involved Danny finding a scrapbook full of newspaper clippings of all of strange things that have happened at the Overlook Hotel. There was another version where Jack finds it in the cellar as well as a version where the scrapbook just appears on his desk (SK Reads SK 192). We can see the scrapbook on his desk in the final film, however, there is no mention of it.

Another guiding principle was raised by Kubrick in a separate interview. He says, “… in fantasy you want things to have the appearance of being as realistic as possible. People should behave in the mundane way they normally do. You have to be especially careful about this in the scenes which deal with the bizarre or fantastic details of the story” (Archives). This contrast makes the extraordinary more powerful and we can see this in the actors as well— mundane… fantastic (Archives).

The opening scenes are presented almost exceedingly ordinary…

Since the beginning, Kubrick knew that he didn’t want the ghosts to be bright or transparent as you see in most film and television depictions of spirits. He said that, in the stories of people who have claimed to see ghosts, they are always described as solid and seeming very much like a real person (A Voix Nue). Films and television often use transparency to help communicate to the audience that what we are seeing is a spirit. Kubrick subverts this and uses context, but there is actually a deeper reason why Kubrick would choose to depict the ghosts as solid and somewhat normal looking human beings.

You see, Johnson and Kubrick drew a great deal of inspiration from Freud’s essay on The Uncanny.

If I’m understanding it correctly, Freud defines the uncanny by using the German word heimlisch which means ‘homely’ or ‘cozy/comfortable’ but uses unheimlisch to refer to a feeling of uncomfortableness inside the home. It is something unfamiliar and possibly threatening within something that is familiar.

This can refer to the Overlook seeming like a perfectly normal hotel with some unknown interior threat, but it can also relate to people. Freud notes the fear of inanimate objects somehow becoming sentient, like in Poltergeist (although he says that, this is not usually terrifying for small children who often treat inanimate objects like living things for fun). And in Poltergeist, the youngest character has the least amount of fear. However, as Freud points out, the reverse is also terrifying—something that looks like a person, but is not. We can see this in the most terrifying moments such as the Grady Twins and the woman in the bathtub. We don’t know what these people are or what they are capable of and we don’t know if they exist at all or if there is some sort of disturbance in the characters’ minds. Perhaps the most terrifying of all is a combination of these two concepts— at the beginning, Jack Torrance seems normal and he is a familiar member of the Torrance family, but over the course of the film, he becomes something unfamiliar, looking like himself, but his actions and psychosis make him a threat. We can see a similar concept at play a few years earlier in William Friedkin’s The Exorcist where a woman’s young daughter is possessed by a demon. Incidentally, Kubrick was offered the job of directing The Exorcist but turned it down.

Despite really enjoying Stephen King’s book, Kubrick knew that the story had to be substantially changed in order to bring it into the medium of film. Kubrick said, “The main problem with The Shining was to work out the structure of the story and to reinvent those paragraphs where the action was insufficient. (…) Diane and I talked endlessly about the book, and then we designed the frame for the scenes, which we thought the movie should contain. The scenes on this list were changed over and over again until we were satisfied” (S.K. reads S.K. 190).

I imagine he means cutting the inner monologues and much of the dialogue of the book and trying to translate the story into something more visual.

Now, I’m not very familiar with the book, but there are some notable changes from the book as well as many iterations of the script. The bigger changes, in terms of character, were making Wendy into a weaker mousy character because Kubrick thought she was more realistic for the purpose of the story and a stronger woman would be less likely to put up with Jack. This change actually happened fairly late in the writing process (S.K. reads S.K. 190).

They also used the H.P. Lovecraft principle and removed most of the backstory save for a couple of remarks throughout— most of which are in the scenes with Lloyd the bartender. Kubrick said, “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” (The Soho News Interview). I think that is a major key in what makes Jack so scary— we don’t have a real sense of his humanity.

The earlier treatments stuck much closer to the book. One early treatment explained the woman in the bathtub as a victim of suicide, which Kubrick made a comment that [quote] “We don’t need to know.” These early treatments also had Tony, you know, Tony as a character who Danny would actually see. Hallorann trekking out to the hotel after a telepathic communication from Danny and the ballroom scene with Grady are some of the earliest plot points that that made it through each version and into the final film (S.K. reads S.K. 191).

The second draft of the screenplay, from July 12, 1977, actually contained a scene with Danny and the woman in room 237—which happens offscreen in the final film. What’s interesting is that this version of the script describes the ball rolling up to Danny with the sound of the Grady twins giggling and possibly glimpses of them, letting us know not only who rolled the ball, but that the twins and the woman are somehow connected (S.K. reads S.K. 191). As for the third draft, from August 1, 1977, we could have actually seen Jack’s nightmare of him killing Wendy and Danny as well as a flashback where Jack beats up a student, which caused him to be fired from his teaching job (S.K. reads S.K. 191). According to an essay by Ursula Von Keitz, these scenes were removed to ensure that we are kept in the present as the characters are experiencing it (S.K. reads S.K. 191). The fourth draft, dated August 15, 1977, is the first time there is some kind of ending written and, boy, is it a doozy. Jack surprises Wendy and Danny after he is freed from the pantry and he injures her. She hits Jack with a rifle butt and then Hallorann arrives at the hotel and is hit in the head by Jack. Wendy kills Jack and rushes to help Hallorann and then a grinning Grady walks up to them and greets Hallorann by saying: “Good evening, chief.” The script ends with forest rangers entering the hotel filled with snow from broken windows and finds the bodies of Danny, Wendy, and Jack as well as Halloran who has [quote] “blown his brains out” (S.K. reads S.K. 191).

There were really an incredible amount of iterations of the script. Here are just some of the ideas that were included in drafts that were ultimately scrapped: Tony speaks through voiceover, Hallorann arrives at the hotel and turns evil with Grady and fights with Wendy, Halloran becomes demonic with destructive powers, Danny finds bloody girls’ shoes in a sand pit, Danny sees a wall covered in blood and brain matter, a flashback of the incident when Jack injured Danny, and a version with more Native American imagery including a mask that appears in Danny’s visions (S.K. reads S.K. 194, 195). I believe that some of these were taken from the book, but speaking of the novel…

One of the more brilliant changes from the book was in Hallorann’s demise. In the book Hallorann journeys to the hotel and saves Wendy and Danny and the film sets this thread in motion only to have Hallorann axed the moment he shows up at the hotel. I love the idea of this moment surprising the people who had previously read the book because this moment marks a point where they too don’t know what will happen next.

One thing that’s really cool is all of the notes by Kubrick  in the margins of the script as well as the book. We can really get a sense that new ideas were constantly being tested and the script was being distilled and simplified and refined. I’ve made a page with the notes I was able to find. Click the card to check it out.

Now, as Lessons From the Screenplay mentioned, the actual scripts for The Shining are only available to see at the Kubrick Archives in London. However, I imagine that if you had the chance to read them, you might find them fairly unremarkable. The purpose of these drafts was to get a sense of what the film would be, but it was all very fluid. Diane Johnson was quoted saying, “The writing was secondary to knowing who the characters were, what the events were, and the exact function of every scene. Stanley kept saying, ‘When you know what’s happening in a scene, the words will follow’” (Archives). It wasn’t until the production itself that the script entered a completely new phase of rewriting.

Kubrick:“I find that the structure, you know, the events, if they’re right, you know, if the moments are right, it usually is fairly simple to write the scene. There are times in various films where there hasn’t even been time to write the scene. It’s never been solved until, say, two days before you do it, you just couldn’t think. Once you know what’s supposed to happen, really, you sort of write the scene on the actors— as it were—in the rehearsal. I mean, that part of the scene, the dialogue is not the most difficult. It isn’t in this type of story. It is, obviously, in a film where someone is going to sit and talk for thirty minutes in one place, you know, like a play. When the attitude of the people is correct and the purpose of the scene is correct and the action of the scene is interesting, then the rest of it is pretty simple” (A Voix Nue).

Kubrick’s approach during the production phase was to get the actors to collaborate on their character, make suggestions, and this way, the story is constantly getting better even as it is being filmed. Kubrick said, “The key part in shooting a film is not to necessarily execute what you had in mind but [to] stay loose in case you have a better idea” (Kubrick: New Perspectives 294).

When asked if he lets the actors improvise, Kubrick said, “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” (The Soho News Interview).

If something isn’t working, it is usually the script that is the issue. There really isn’t a point in trying to stick so rigidly to the script if it doesn’t work with the actors or some other reason.

Kubrick continues saying, “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” (The Soho News Interview).

So what can we take away with all of this?

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