The Shining ★★★★½

What follows is not a review of The Shining (which is a great film), but a technical discussion about the presentation. This whole ordeal began when I realized I owned three versions of The Shining, two different versions on DVD, and another on Bluray. In comparing them, I began to notice troubling inconsistencies in the way they were presented...

1.33:1 or 4:3 is standard aspect ratio, also known as "fullscreen." This is almost (but not quite) the same as the Academy standard, 1.37:1, the native format for 35mm film.

1.85:1 is the US widescreen standard, in use since 1953.

1.66:1 or 5:3 is a format used by many European countries, a compromise between "Academy standard" (1.37:1) and the US "widescreen" (1.85:1) formats.

1.77:1 or 16x9 is the current High Definition Video standard. Almost all televisions now come in this format, and widescreen films are usually panned to this aspect ratio for home video release.

Why have I included this information? Because these are the four aspect ratios in which The Shining has been presented. You know, back when I was a kid, and my dad was explaining to me about what pan & scan was on VHS, things were relatively simple: movies were either released pan & scanned to the 4:3 format, or presented letterboxed in their original aspect ratio (generally either 1.85:1 or 2.39:1). And deciding which version to purchase was usually a simple decision: the snobby cinephiles insisted upon their letterboxing, while the heathen masses hated the very sight of those darned black bars.

But when both television and home video moved from the very square-looking 4:3 ratio (which is 28% narrower than 1:85) to the wider HD standard of 1.77:1 (only 3.9% narrower than 1.85), the purists lost out and most 1:85 widescreen films got 3.9% shaved off the ends.

(And although it has nothing to do with The Shining, the greater tragedy is that a lot of anamorphic 2.39:1 films were cut down to fit on these TVs too.)

Now here's the skinny on the shining:

1. Director Stanley Kubrick was obsessive about the photography and compositions in his films. The Shining is probably his most self-consciously camera-obsessed, with the groundbreaking early use of the Steadicam and the famous shot of blood flooding out of an elevator requiring an elaborate 9-day setup for each of the 3 takes.

2. Kubrick's favored format was the narrow 1.66:1. He was able to release his two previous films, A Clockwork Orange and Barry Lyndon, in this format, and almost all theaters had the capabilities to project it.

3. By the time Kubrick began work on The Shining, US theaters were only able to project films in 1.85:1 widescreen or 2.39:1 anamorphic widescreen.

4. Knowing that his film would primarily be projected at 1.85:1, Kubrick made compromises between his desired format and the eventual one. According to his personal assistant Leon Vitali, "Stanley had marks on the camera lens so he could see where the 1.85 lines would be. He composed his shots for 1.66, which is the full screen, but he wouldn't be hurt by going to 1.85 if he had to do it."

5. The native aspect ratio of 35mm film at the time was 1.37:1, thus The Shining was photographed at 1.37:1, composed for 1.66:1, with accommodations made for likely 1.85:1 presentation.

6. The film's premiere was in the US on May 23, 1980. It was 144 minutes long and projected at the 1.85:1 US widescreen standard. Three days (or three weeks) later Kubrick ordered all theaters to cut the last 2 minutes out and to return this footage back to the studio. This original ending footage has now been lost, and was only ever screened in the US.

7. Perhaps spurred by the lukewarm critical and commercial response to the film in the US, Kubrick edited a further 31 minutes from the film before its international release. The film was now 119 minutes long. According to IMDB, the European release was presented in the director's intended format of 1.66:1.

8. Fast-forward to the release of the "Stanley Kubrick Collection" in 2001, two years after director's death. This is the first version of The Shining that I bought on DVD. It is the US theatrical edit, after the last 2 minutes were edited out but before he would cut out 31 additional minutes for the International release. The back of the DVD case states "this feature is presented in the full aspect ratio of the original camera negative, as Stanley Kubrick intended." This is wrong on two accounts: a) it was filmed in a 1.37:1 aspect ratio but is here presented in DVD's native format, 1.33:1 (4:3); and b) Kubrick's original intent was for the film to be viewed in 1.66:1. Whether or not Kubrick would have wanted his films released on home video in open matte, by Vitali's own account he was composing the film as he shot it for 1.66:1.

9. In 2007 it was remastered in High Definition and released on both DVD and Bluray. This time, it was cropped to the native High-Definition format, 1.77:1 (16x9). To compare this 2007 Bluray with the 2001 DVD, I played them both simultaneously on screens next to each other, and it was clear that the 1.33:1 DVD had footage trimmed from the sides and the 1.77:1 Bluray had footage trimmed from the top and bottom of the screen. This is, again, the longer US version.

So what is the definitive version of The Shining? After all this research, I have to conclude that Kubrick was a perfectionist who never fully attained that which he sought after. This film supposedly holds the Guiness world record for most takes for a single scene. Similarly, it seems Kubrick kept changing his mind about how to best present his film to an audience. In my opinion, the version that Kubrick had the most control over was the European version, released in 1.66:1 and edited down to 119 minutes. Is this shorter version better? I'm not sure. I appreciate the slow, deliberate, almost comically obvious setup of the longer version, but a lot of the scenes that Kubrick cut don't really add much.

Since this European version is not available on home video, which is better, the too narrow 1.33:1 version or the too wide 1.77:1 version? The former shows more of the footage from the original negative, but the latter is closer Kubrick's intended format of 1.66:1, so I guess, at gunpoint, I'd choose the widescreen version.

I know I haven't closed the book on this issue, but I hope by exploring these issues, I've at least honored the memory of Stanley Kubrick, a man who seems to have been ever-tortured by the unattainable allure of perfection.


Aspect ratio guide

Interview with Kubrick's personal assistant Leon Vitali

Forum discussion on the film's different versions

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