Jack Nicholson in The Shining
Stephen King’s novel, The Shining, is in many ways a very different story than the movie we all know. In his own words, Stephen King once had this to say regarding the film:
“I don’t get it. But there are a lot of things that I don’t get. But obviously people absolutely love it, and they don’t understand why I don’t,” he tells Rollingstone. “The book is hot, and the movie is cold; the book ends in fire, and the movie in ice. In the book, there’s an actual arc where you see this guy, Jack Torrance, trying to be good, and little by little he moves over to this place where he’s crazy. And as far as I was concerned, when I saw the movie, Jack was crazy from the first scene.”
King really hit the nail on the head regarding the leading man, Jack Torrence. What made the book truly spectacular and disturbing was the slow transition from a normal dad to a monster.
Whether you have read the book or not, I don’t think many would disagree that in the movie, at no point would we consider Jack Torrance a good guy or at least show any redeeming qualities.
So, if the leading role was the cornerstone of the story’s arc, and it was Nicholson who portrayed Jack Torrance, it would seem like I have talked in a bit of a circle. After all, it was Nicholson’s early distant and distracted persona that left the transition of Jack Torrance without a huge character shift. That character shift, or transition, is what really builds the tension and the conflict within the story of The Shining. So how does an actor get the intended character wrong, but get the movie right?
The answer is intensity. Nicholson brought to life a character with such ferocity and heat that it’s almost impossible to ignore. This intensity can be seen not only in the film, but also in behind the scene clips. Watching Nicholson prep before a scene, you can feel the energy and passion radiating out of him.
Here’s an interesting trivia fact about the filming of The Shining. During the famous scene where Jack Torrance is taking an axe to the bathroom door where his wife has taken refuge, show producers had placed hollow prop doors for Nicholson to hack his way through. It turns out, that Nicholson had experience firefighting, and the doors would break through rather anticlimactically.
They had to ultimately replace the prop door with a solid wooden one. This not only led to a much more realistic and suspenseful action sequence, but also allowed for Nicholson to create a more authentic and adrenaline pumping scene. It was in the heat of that moment that Nicholson went off script and said the most iconic line of the film, “Here’s Johnny!” This improved line, inspired by the actor and the real physical exertion of the moment, would become part of the movie’s fame. It was featured in the original trailer, and to this day is more commonly associated with The Shining than it’s origins on The Tonight Show.
Like The Dark Knight and several other movies I will mention in future posts, I am in no way saying these films would have been unsuccessful without these actors. What I am saying is there is a huge difference between a film being a financial success and a classic.