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The Shining is a horror cinema masterpiece, and figuring out its haunting and iconic ending was no easy task for Stanley Kubrick. Below, executive producer Jan Harlan and screenwriter Diane Johnson (who wrote the script with Kubrick) explain in greater detail than ever before how the legendary director considered several very different conclusions for the iconic 1980 film.
Kubrick’s starting point was, of course, Stephen King’s bestselling novel. The director dismissed King’s ending in an early treatment for the film, then changed the final act again for the shooting script, and still again for the movie’s first cut. The meticulous filmmaker didn’t settle on the version we know today until the last possible moment. Heeeeere’s what happened:
Jan Harlan: Stanley was fundamentally not interested in a horror film. He doesn’t believe in ghosts. When the book was offered to him by Warner Bros., he said, “Well, all right, it might be challenging to do this, but I must have the freedom to change whatever I like.” Stephen King was perfectly happy with that [at the time], it’s obviously a prerequisite to making a film. And Stanley certainly changed it drastically…
King’s novel climaxes with a confrontation between young, psychic Danny (played by Danny Lloyd in the film) and his possessed, alcoholic father, Jack (Jack Nicholson), who is able to fight the Overlook Hotel’s influence just long enough for his son to escape. Having forgotten to maintain the hotel’s aging boiler, Jack perishes as the resort goes up in flames. Danny escapes along with his mom, Wendy (Shelley Duvall), and the hotel’s kindly cook, Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers). On the page, King’s ending is a powerful and natural extension of all the chapters leading up to it. As a cinematic experience, however, Kubrick felt it would be rather unsatisfying…
Diane Johnson: The ending was changed almost entirely because Kubrick found it a cliche to just blow everything up. He thought there might be something else that would be metaphorically and visually more interesting … The talkiness [of the book] was also discussed. A lot of the script was pared down during filming, too — especially for Wendy, who had many more things to say in the script than she did in the film.
One benefit of not “killing off” the menacing Overlook Hotel was that Kubrick allowed the story’s masterfully constructed supernatural villain to continue haunting the viewer’s imagination long after watching the film. But one of Kubrick’s mandates for re-shaping the final act was that an innocent human character had to die…
Johnson: In the book, nobody gets killed except Jack. And Kubrick really thought somebody should get killed — because it was a horror movie. So we weighed the dramatic possibilities of killing off various characters and did different treatments. We actually talked it over in detail the possibility of having different people getting killed.
Even Danny, at one point, was briefly considered for the ending’s tragic victim…
Johnson: Danny’s relationship with his father was the thing that most interested Kubrick. He was emotionally involved with the point of view of a little boy who is afraid of his father. I remember Kubrick saying that visually he could imagine a small yellow chalk outline on the floor like that they put around the bodies of victims. And Kubrick liked that image. But he was too tender-hearted for that ending and thought it would be too terrible to do …
In one of the treatments — which has leaked online — Wendy kills Jack in self-defense in the third act. Then Hallorann arrives, and ALSO gets possessed by the hotel and becomes the finale’s surprise “big bad.” It was an intriguing twist that the murderous figure the audience is anticipating the whole movie was not really his father, but rather the hero the audience assumed was coming to the rescue.
Johnson: That’s right. We always had the powers of the hotel in mind. So the hotel would have been warping Hallorann’s mind for quite a long time. It was an attractive idea that Hallorran is good [throughout the film] then he gets there and is possessed by the hotel into a monster surrogate for Jack.
Kubrick and Johnson eventually landed on a semi-final plan that contained some now-familiar beats: Jack kills Hallorran shortly after he arrives, Jack chases Danny in the hedge maze, Jack freezes to death and then we see a seemingly impossible photograph in the hotel’s Colorado Lounge showing Jack at a July 4 ball in 1921.
Johnson: The photograph was always in the ending. The maze chase grew out of the topiary animal hedges that move around in the book. Kubrick thought topiary animals might be too goofy and cute, but he always liked the idea of a maze … [For Hallorann’s death] Kubrick didn’t want it to be too gory, he thought a lot of blood was vulgar. He wanted it to be mostly psychological. Of course, there’s the image of the blood coming out of the elevators, but that was more ornamental and metaphorical — it’s different than seeing people get stabbed. The elevator opening was an image he had in mind all along and had even prepared it by the time we were writing. So there was some discussion about trying to find a way of ending it without a lot of blood.
One thing that Kubrick wasn’t worried about was the ending — or any of the film — making strictly literal sense, even though his lack of story and production continuity sometimes confused crew members (and eventually spawned a myriad of Shining conspiracy theories).
Harlan: Very often crew members asked him, “Can you explain that to me?” And he said, “I never explain anything, I don’t understand it myself. It’s a ghost film!” You can’t imagine how much fuss was made over the big golden ballroom and the big lobby and huge windows that could never have fit into the hotel [based on the] establishing shot from outside. Any child can see that. And Stanley’s explanation was, “It’s a ghost film! Forget it!” … It’s not a movie with a serious message. I know many people think its impossible that Kubrick did a film which didn’t have serious messages and an enormous amount of [theories have been] invented. While he was alive all that was relatively quiet. After his death, these [theories] came out which were funny, and partly insulting. The most insulting one is the idea that The Shining is a film about the Holocaust. That’s outrageous. That’s an insult to Kubrick, that he would deal with the most serious crime in human history in such a light way, and also an insult to victims of the Holocaust. The other ideas are much more harmless, where continuity mistakes are attributed with deep meaning.
Two key scenes that heavily impacted the ending were actually shot and then deleted from the final cut. The first was a scene where Jack finds a scrapbook in the basement which chronicles events from the hotel’s dark past. The photographs set up the final haunting image of Jack in the 1921 picture. The scrapbook is briefly glimpsed in the final cut sitting on Jack’s writing desk.
Johnson: There was a big length problem with Warner Bros. The film was too long and people said it had to be shortened. Some [minutes] came off the end and some came off of the beginning — they were expository and not really necessary. The scene that I thought was really necessary was the scrapbook scene. The point of it in [King’s] book and in the script was that the scrapbook was “the poisoned gift” — in Russian structuralist fairy-tale parlance. It’s an element in classic fairy tales — like the poisoned apple. Jack seizes the scrapbook to use in his book, and at that moment he’s now under the power of the hotel. I argued very strenuously [to keep it].
The second outtake was a two-minute hospital scene that was placed after Jack froze to death and before the final shot of the ballroom photograph. In the scene (read the script pages), the hotel manager, Ullman (Barry Nelson), visits Wendy and Danny after their ordeal and explains that no supernatural evidence was found to support their claims of what transpired. Just when the audience begins to question everything they’ve seen, Ullman ominously gives Danny the same ball that was rolled to him from an unseen force outside Room 237.
Johnson: In other words: All of this really happened, and the magic events were actual. It was just a little twist. It was easy to jettison.
The hospital scene was included in the film’s preview screening for critics in New York and Los Angeles. Johnson has previously said Kubrick liked the scene because it reassured the audience that Wendy and Danny were okay. But Ullman giving Danny the ball ramped up audience confusion. So in a unusual move, Kubrick ordered it removed from prints distributed around the country.
Harlan: The tennis ball is the same thing as the photograph — it’s unexplainable. It makes Ullman now another ghost element. Was he the ghost from the very beginning? The film is complex enough because nothing is explained. That non-explaining is what was bad for the film initially. It was not a huge success. Now everybody thinks it’s the best horror film ever or whatever. But when it came out the audience expected a horror film with a resolution, with an explanation. Who is the baddie? What was going on? And they were disappointed — many of them, anyway. The fact they were left puzzled was exactly what Stanley Kubrick wanted. And when the film [screened for critics] and wasn’t well received, Warners quite rightly suggested, “It’s enough, just take [the hospital scene] out.” So Stanley did it. He’s not stubborn, especially since this is a film mainly to entertain people. But Stanley was actually very sad that he misread the audience, that he trusted the audience to live with puzzles and no answers, and that they didn’t like it.
Johnson: There is an explanation for the photo, though it’s a bit strange and paradoxical because it’s both real and unreal — the idea that Jack was always at the hotel in some earlier incarnation. Jack had somehow been the creature of the hotel through reincarnation. At the same time, we’re meant to experience it “in the now.” There’s no way of resolving that, it’s meant to be magical. I do think it would have made more sense [with the scrapbook scene included].
The film cost a then-hearty $19 million to produce and would eventually gross a decent $44 million in theaters (though would become a major hit on home video and other distribution outlets). All the footage of the scrapbook scene and the hospital scene were destroyed. Kubrick was adamant that any footage not used in the final edit of his films were to be disposed and such orders were followed “to the letter,” says a representative for Warner Bros. The scrapbook prop still exists today and is part of the Stanley Kubrick archive at the University of Arts in London. As for the hospital scene, Kubrick’s daughter Vivian took four photographs during filming. Today, those photos are all that remains — which is perhaps fitting for a film that concludes with a cryptic photo of a moment in time that we can never witness.
Harlan: Stanley wanted to make sure that nobody would ever re-assemble his edit in any other way. All outtakes and unused scenes were systematically destroyed — including negatives and rushes. He himself knew that he would never consider a re-cut. He was someone who lived totally in the present. He never looked back.