- The Shining by K.J. Donnelly
Stanley Kubrick is one of the most revered and enigmatic filmmakers in American cinematic history. His oeuvre as a writer-producer-director consists of no less than ten heralded masterpieces and many of his films consistently rank as among the highest in industry- and critic-based polls. Current filmmakers continue to cite his work as a paramount influence on their own artistic endeavors. No less celebrated a filmmaker than Martin Scorsese has noted that one Kubrick film was equal to the entire output of almost any other filmmaker. Within Kubrick’s body of work, The Shining (1980) is perhaps his most enigmatic but also most popular film; it is by far the most scrutinized and theorized of his films, even being the subject of a fascinating recent documentary film, Room 237 (2012), that dedicates nearly two hours to dissecting the numerous interpretations of Kubrick’s film, from the academic to the conspiratorial. As with many of Kubrick’s films, its critical reception has undergone a significant reorientation, perhaps more extreme than any other: upon its initial release in 1980, The Shining received some of the most negative critical reviews of Kubrick’s career up to that time; in the intervening decades, however, its reception has been revised to the point where it is now widely regarded as one of the most technically astute horror films ever made and an exemplary piece of genre filmmaking.
Into this space of critical reassessment and lionization enters K.J. Donnelly’s recent volume on Kubrick’s film. Donnelly’s title is an installation in the Cultographies series published by the Wallflower Press imprint of Columbia University Press. Each title in the series focuses on an individual classic or recent cult film and aims to offer a brief and accessible overview of its history, reception, and critical interpretations. While aimed at popular audiences, the volumes are not bereft of scholarly sophistication and provide an important orientation to cinematic genealogy and theory; the format — 4x7, nearly pocketsized — makes these technical matters less of an obstacle to leisurely reading. Taking up Kubrick’s heralded film, Donnelly’s volume achieves the objectives of the series quite handily. It is at once an insightful, informative, engrossing, and even at times humorous investigation of a landmark piece of cinema.
While crisp and compact — one can reasonably manage a cover-to-cover reading of the work within the 146-minute running time of the film itself — the volume posits a cogent and compelling thesis about this masterwork from a master director: Donnelly argues that with The Shining Kubrick achieved the rare feat of creating a crowd-pleasing mainstream genre film that is also an intricate, elliptical, and technically sophisticated art-house cult film (3–6). The Shining was a certified box-office success for Kubrick despite its initial negative critical reviews, and, as with many of his films, it is replete with ambiguities and complexities such that it rewards repeated viewing (97–99). Donnelly demonstrates his thesis with aplomb over the course of the book, tracing these elements from the origins of the production to the most recent critical reappraisals.
The structure of the book falls largely into two main sections: the first deals with the development and production history of the film, and the second takes up critical reception and interpretation; although more space is given to the latter (about two-thirds of the book), the first third of the book is pivotal to locating The Shining in Kubrick’s filmography and as a piece of horror genre filmmaking (15–33). Donnelly’s account of Kubrick’s preproduction collaboration with Diane Johnson on the adaptation of Stephen King’s novel to script and the subsequent production process of designing, shooting, and editing the film is fascinating, if breezily presented. While this section does not break significantly new ground through access to the materials available at the Stanley Kubrick archive (which could yield valuable new detail and insight), it [End Page 86] does provide a serviceable and engaging overview of...