In a movie layered with dread, it’s telling that one of the most ominous shots in The Shining is of a solitary typewriter. Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of the Stephen King bestseller may revel in the deranged excesses of Jack Nicholson’s performance and the cascading overflow of those blood-drenched elevators, but an early cut-away to an untouched Adler signifies horror of a different kind. The creative ambitions of its alcoholic protagonist already established (“I’m outlining a new writing project,” drawls Nicholson’s Jack Torrance during his interview for the winter caretaker job of an isolated hotel with a violent history), this isn’t so much a film about writing as it is a film about not writing. And for a failing novelist, nothing is as foreboding as the angst of a blank page and the accusatory silence of an idle typewriter.
Centre-mounted on a giant desk amid the Overlook Hotel’s imposing environs, Jack’s typewriter sits in judgment of his talent as he bounces a tennis ball against a nearby wall in frustration. The echo of the latter might as well be the echo in Jack’s head. A month into the caretaker job, and the peace he’s been craving has already become a burden. He hasn’t written a thing. He tells his wife, Wendy (played by Shelley Duvall, her own nerves frayed, method-style, by Kubrick’s on-set bullying), that his ideas are plentiful but no good, and he greets with supercilious sarcasm her sunny-side-up assessment that it’s just a matter of settling back into the habit of writing every day. “Yep, that’s all it is,” he sneers.
But actually, that is all it is. Jack’s problem is that he’s an alcoholic, not a writer. Whatever literary promise he might once have had only exists in the abstract, obscured by his own demons and the paranoid delusions of an addict intent on blaming others for his woes. When Wendy makes the mistake of interrupting his writing, he’s even more hostile, castigating her for destroying his concentration, when really all he’s been doing is mocking her earlier suggestion that he create a routine by typing “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” over and over again, in various permutations.
A horrified Wendy makes that particular discovery later on, yet sinister temporal inter-titles – “A month later”, “Saturday”, “4pm” – have been counting down the hours to Jack’s contretemps with his own sanity. Although Nicholson plays Jack as deranged from the off, his final transformation into an axe-wielding Big Bad Wolf – huffing and puffing his way through the Overlook’s myriad corridors, bellowing “Heeeeeere’s Johnny!” as he hacks through a bathroom door to get to Wendy and their son Danny – is essentially rendered as the mother of all benders in a Jazz-Age-inflected ghost story. Haunted by his past, Jack falls off the wagon into a Grand Guignol horror show infused with Gatsby-esque decadence, the era of prohibition no barrier to illicit good times.
Stephen King wrote the book during his own well-documented battle with the bottle, and he has never made secret his hatred of the film, perhaps because Jack was more sympathetic in his version. But if Kubrick’s adaptation doesn’t share King’s empathy for the writer, it does understand the destructive power of addiction when talent doesn’t shine through naturally. Amid the myriad mysteries that fans of The Shining obsess over (see the ace documentary Room 237), a tormented Jack’s sudden feeling of contentment upon ordering a drink from Lloyd the phantom barman reflects a truth about writing too seldom acknowledged by movies: it’s easier to be F Scott Fitzgerald the drunk than F Scott Fitzgerald the author.