I have not read Stephen King’s novel yet, so I cannot comment on how the film compares to it. I have heard there are major differences.
The plot of The Shining is–oh, heck, you all know it: Jack Nicholson goes crazy and chases his family around with an axe in an isolated hotel.
A problem I noticed early on–and, I have read, something Stephen King also complained about–is that Nicholson seems insane from the first shot he’s in. He looks absolutely crazed in an early scene where he’s driving his family to the hotel. This sort of makes it less shocking when he does go crazy later on in the movie.
This is compounded by the fact that when he does go insane, he’s ridiculously easy to defeat. Two of the most famous scenes of madness end with him being easily subdued by his screaming and frightened wife, Wendy. The “All Work and No Play” scene ends with her somehow knocking him out, and the “Here’s Johnny” scene ends with her giving him what amounts to a minor cut that somehow completely stymies him long enough for her to escape. This makes him seem less menacing and more like a blundering, angry buffoon.
Speaking of Wendy: she does nothing to counter my belief that Kubrick was a misogynist, and incapable of having interesting female characters. She goes to pieces constantly, and seems like an overwhelmed hysterical idiot all the time. And somehow she’s still able to thwart Jack, apparently by panicked flailing. People criticize Shelley Duvall’s performance, but I think it was a problem of direction rather than acting.
The Shining is strongest in the quiet, mood-setting shots. It does an absolutely excellent job conveying the eerie atmosphere of the haunted hotel. There is a famous tracking shot of Jack and Wendy’s son Danny riding a Big Wheel around the interior, and its fame is justified. I knew going in how that scene worked, and it still was effective.
Kubrick has a reputation for being a genius cinematographer and having no ability to relate to people. The Shining totally fits that. The atmospherics are awesome, and the characters are ridiculous. The best performance is Philip Stone as Delbert Grady, the ghost of a previous caretaker of the hotel. He has a long dialogue with Jack that is the scariest sequence in the movie.
It has some good elements, don’t get me wrong. There is a Turn of the Screw-like ambiguity as to whether the ghosts are real or all in Jack’s imagination. (Though this is undercut in the finale.) In broadest strokes, the plot is similar to The Haunting: Jack Torrance and Eleanor Lance both go to the haunted house, feel the haunted house “wants” them, and ultimately die and are implied to be claimed by the house.
Bottom line: the movie has gorgeous visuals, good music, and some eerie concepts. But it fails to be truly scary because the malevolent spirits have chosen as their agent an incompetent, drunken, abusive idiot. It would have been scarier if they had tried to use Danny to carry out their plans. Come to that, why on Earth didn’t they? He was psychic! He should have been the one most prone to ghostly machinations. Granted, then it might just turn into The Exorcist or The Omen on ice, but still, it would be creepier.