How Stanley Kubrick Solved The Shining's Psychic Problem

It might be over four decades old, but "The Shining" has never stopped being a dazzlingly unfathomable piece of cinema. Like any of Stanley Kubrick's films, it was not so warmly received when it first premiered and is still famously disliked by Stephen King himself. The reason for the author's contention resulted from the liberties Kubrick took with his novel and the pivotal changes he made to the plot. One area that Kubrick intentionally wanted to avoid focusing too overtly on was the supernatural aspects of King's novel — especially the psychic abilities possessed by young Danny Torrance (Danny Lloyd) that tune him into the horrors of the Overlook Hotel. To King and other critics, omitting some of the exposition that surrounds Danny's "shining" and other revelations about the hotel's past is the reason for its head-scratcher ending. But the director had plenty of reasons for the ambitious ambiguity that permeates "The Shining."

Making the extraordinary realistic

Before "The Shining," Kubrick had already successfully adapted two other landmark novels: "2001: A Space Odyssey" and "A Clockwork Orange." His approach to King's novel is indicative of his expertise in sifting through dense texts and breaking them all down into key scenes. In a collection of interviews published in the book "Kubrick" by Michel Ciment, the director goes into great detail about the paradoxical necessity for making the supernatural appear realistic.

"Well, as I've said, 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."

Several early scenes reflect Kubrick's beliefs. The meeting between Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) and Stuart Ullman tries to explain the previous murderous winter caretaker as cabin fever and claustrophobia –- which foreshadows the audience's attempt to explain Jack's coming transformation in the same way. Another is the doctor's conversation with Wendy (Shelley Duvall) in which it's suggested that Danny's imaginary friend "Tony" –- the vessel for his abilities -– manifested as a reaction to abuse from Jack. Each of these scenes eases the audience into accepting more readily the shocking events that transpire in the Torrance family's internment at the hotel. Kubrick was well aware viewers would more readily accept what was happening if they were able to fall back on Jack's psychosis or Danny's naïveté.

The necessity of Danny's imperfect ESP

Another departure from the novel involves how Danny's "shining" abilities are presented. When we do see them, it's through his child's eyes as fragmented images -– like the horrific elevator blood flood. But Kubrick's reticence over the extent to which Danny himself understood his visions was purposeful and went hand-in-ghostly-hand with his desire to present ESP in "The Shining" as realistically as possible.

"If Danny had perfect ESP, there could be no story. He would anticipate everything, warn everybody and solve every problem. So his perception of the paranormal must be imperfect and fragmentary. This also happens to be consistent with most of the reports of telepathic experiences. The same applies to Hallorann. One of the ironies in the story is that you have people who can see the past and the future and have telepathic contact, but the telephone and the short-wave radio don't work, and the snowbound mountain roads are impassable. Failure of communication is a theme which runs through a number of my films."

Kubrick's interpretation of ESP underscores the sobering reality that supernatural abilities aren't always everything they're chalked up to be. Sure, it's because of Danny's psychic-S.O.S. that Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers) arrives to help. But it's also because of his "shining" that the hotel takes special interest in his family. Both Danny and Hallorann, despite their clairvoyance, are unable to prevent the horrible events that unfold at the Overlook Hotel.

Kubrick chose to kill the novel's original hero

Case in point: when the head chef arrives he's pretty gruesomely butchered by Jack with an ax in the lobby. This was another notable divergence from King's novel -– which sees Hallorann survive and help to raise Danny alongside a recovering Wendy. In an interview for Scraps from the Loft, actor and musician Crothers went into detail about his confusion over why Kubrick changed the ending.

"I like the film. I just wish that they had kept the original ending. The strange thing is that even Stanley's screenplay has Hallorann saving them. In fact, when I first arrived in London ... Jack Nicholson introduced me to his friends and said, 'My man's the hero of the movie.' I just don't understand what happened. Kubrick shot things all kinds of ways, but he never shot a version of the ending like in his script or the book. I still don't know why Stanley changed the story. I never asked him why he did it. I just wanted to do my job."

Unfortunately for Hallorann, Kubrick didn't think the novel's ending fit the movie he was making. For one, it ends with the hotel blowing up, which struck him as far too cliche. But he also thought someone needed to die besides Jack –- and at one point even considered Danny being that victim. "In the book, nobody gets killed except Jack," explained screenwriter Diane Johnson to Entertainment Weekly. "And Kubrick really thought somebody should get killed — because it was a horror movie." If someone needed to get literally axed, part of me feels morbidly glad it was someone other than Danny or Wendy, though it never gets easier seeing the kindly head chef get redrumed.

Kubrick shielded Danny from the horror

"The Shining" would be an undoubtedly darker film had Kubrick ended it with Jack successfully murdering his family. Ironically, the director was much less willing to put the young actor playing Danny through anything remotely harrowing. Lloyd told The Guardian that his 5-year-old self didn't even know he was starring in a horror movie thanks to Kubrick's efforts.

"Stanley was great. I remember him playing ball with me, playing catch, stuff like that. He was a big guy with a beard, but I don't remember ever being scared of him or intimidated or anything."

Any scenes deemed too scary for Lloyd were shot with a life-sized doll. "I specifically remember I was banned from the set for the entire time Scatman Crothers was being axed," the actor recalled. Some of his memories included eating PB&J sandwiches with the twins who played the Grady siblings and participating in a Kubrick-organized Easter egg hunt. He even remembers being promised the infamous tricycle he zooms around the Overlook's empty confines with -– though it never arrived.

Given how protective everyone was over Lloyd's perception of the movie, it boggles the mind how Kubrick thought he'd be able to shoot a version of "The Shining" where Danny ends up dead. Though the director's solution was a characteristically elegant and potent one: he imagined showing "a small yellow chalk outline on the floor" that would clue in audiences to Danny's murder. A spine-tingling ending that was thankfully far more depressing than Kubrick was willing to go. Not to mention letting Danny survive as he does in the book set up the film's adaptive sequel "Dr. Sleep."