Understanding Kubrick: The Shining (1980)

Content by Tony Macklin. Originally published on June 1, 1981 @ Journal of Popular Film and Television.

The Shining met the fate of several other Stanley Kubrick films when it came out; most viewers did not like it, so they rejected it. Most importantly, they did not understand it in any way which allowed them to deal with it constructively. Also, the criticism it received did not clarify the film. It remained obscure and confusing to its viewers.

It failed with most viewers for two basic reasons. It was not the same as Stephen King's novel, and it was not terrifying in the conventional way a horror film is supposed to be. So lacking the model of the novel or the conventional horror genre, viewers became disconcerted.

The Shining is a Stanley Kubrick film, satiric and abstract. It can be understood, perhaps not fully but enough for one to take pleasure and challenge from it. There are a few perceptions that one can use to help him deal with a Kubrick film.

First of all, Kubrick sees human beings as empty, their values shallow and vacuous. Everything about them suggests banality - their dress, their habits, their environment. And since they are banal they don't communicate, except in trite, mundane ways. Their basic banality is most evident in their dialogue. Kubrick (Diane Johnson co-scripted The Shining) intends it to be inane, but critics keep accusing him of not being able to create good dialogue. What better way to show that people can't communicate than by having them speak dialogue that has no life or meaning to it? The interview sequence near the beginning of The Shining has the same quality of dullness as the briefing scene in 2001 - a scene and a film that received many of the complaints about dull human beings as does The Shining. Barry Nelson, with his patter and plastic environment, is a perfect manifestation of banality. The scene is meant to be dissatisfying; it's not meant to excite or provoke. it sets a tone with which the rest of the picture can contrast. Out of banality comes the star-child in 2001; out of banality comes Jack the Ripper in The Shining. Jack is going to return to the elemental from the world of banality. He is going to be like the apes at the beginning of 2001; his tool (the axe) too is going to become a weapon. lf one is prepared for the banality, one can understand its purpose and transcend it.

A second quality that the viewer can look for in Kubrick's films is aggression, from the apes in 2001 to Alex in A Clockwork Orange to Jack in The Shining. Jack Torrance can't create (in some ways The Shining is a metaphor for the failed artist) and can't find solace in the conventional releases - sex, liquor, games. He plays ball alone in the hotel as his wife and child wander playfully through the maze of the hedge. But there is no fulfillment in his game. When he writes page after page repeating the same sentence, "No work and no play makes Jack a dull boy," he is unraveling like HAL the computer in 2001 who keeps repeating himself as Dave makes him come apart. There are some tantalizing coincidences/associations between HAL and the characters in The Shining. In particular, it is a happy coincidence that the computer is named HAL in 2001, and the black chef who "shines" in The Shining is named Hallorann (which was Stephen King's characters name in the novel). Both the computer and the chef fail; they both "die" before fulfilling their missions. But both provide crucial transport.

A nice Kubrick touch that suggestively underlines the aggression is that Roadrunner cartoons -- those bastions of aggression and Wile E. Coyote's failures -- are on TV in the film. When we first see him near the beginning of The Shining, Danny is watching Roadrunner (in a way he later becomes Roadrunner to Jack's Coyote) as he sits at the table with his mother and eats a sandwich. The TV has a cartoon on in Durkin's garage as Larry tells Hallorann on the phone that he will get him a snowcat to take him to the Overlook Hotel through the storm. And Roadrunner is playing on TV -- we hear the "beep beep" -- as Danny is watching with his mother just before she goes and discovers Jack's manuscript.

An odd coincidence is that the photograph on the wall of the hotel at the end of the film showing Jack's visage at the July 4th Ball, 1921, is dated one day after an actual murder occurred in Massachusetts that has some uncanny similarities with the events at the Overlook. On July 3, 1921, in Haverhill, Massachusetts, a man was killed with an ax by his wife, as his daughter took refuge in a hedge. Aggression and its modes are timeless, from apes, to Roadrunner, to Haverhill, to the Overlook.

A third quality to look for in a Kubrick film is that objects and/or machines are characters. From the Doomsday machine in Dr. Strangelove, to HAL and the monoliths in 2001, to the Overlook Hotel and the hedge-maze in The Shining, objects have great -- often destructive -- values in Kubrick's films. Sometimes man dismantles machines such as Dave's dismantling of HAL and Jack's taking of the batteries out of the ham radio and snowcat to render them useless. But machines also can be the means of fleeing the past and entering the future, such as the pod that transports Dave into a higher state of life and the snowcat which Hallorann brings that allows Wendy and Danny to escape. The hedge which traps Jack and freezes him in its maze shows what happens when Jack goes deeper and deeper into the maze of his psyche, from which he cannot escape.

Perhaps the most difficult thing for the viewer to overcome in a Kubrick film is the human beings. I have already suggested that they are banalities in a banal environment, but the real difficulty is that since the viewer can't relate with the characters he usually fails to see their purpose. This became very apparent in viewers' reactions to Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance. He was accused of everything from being boring to over-acting. But there was definite purpose in his characterization. Nicholson's and Kubrick's Jack Torrance is a combination of banality and absurdity. Most viewers went to The Shining expecting Jack Nicholson to be ballsy and stylish as he was in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Instead, as early as the initial interview scene, something seems wrong. The character is ordinary. Nicholson has a chance to be clever, but he isn't. He seems slightly out of synch. And as Jack Torrance becomes more extreme, Nicholson remains out of synch. But Nicholson's performance is not without purpose. Jack Torrance is a man who wants to create and can't. Since he is unable to create, he regresses into himself and gives himself to the hotel and its memories. When Grady the caretaker tells him that his son Danny has "a very great talent [shining]" and that his son "is attempting to use that very talent against your will," Jack becomes the enemy of his son's talent. They match wills. Jack is not the creator/communicator he wants to be; his son is. Nicholson faces a great acting challenge. He changes from the banal would-be writer in the interview to the absurd, impulsive extrovert at the bar to the lively, vicious killer at the end. Nicholson has to change from the ordinary to the elemental. He can't be smooth and stylish. And in not being smooth and stylish, unfortunately he loses many viewers.

A final quality a viewer should be aware of is that a Kubrick film is satiric, and often the satire is aimed at America and its values. But so much of the irony is so real that we may not realize Kubrick's tone and approach. Kubrick gives us constant reminders of America in The Shining. The flag is a reminder that he often uses. There is a small American flag on Stuart Ullman's desk in the interview; there is an American flag on the wall when Danny plays darts; there is an American flag in the Park Service; there is an American flag hanging from a pole after Jack's nightmare. Danny wears an Apollo sweater. There is a constant use of the colors red, white, and blue. Television provides American culture. The American culture is a cartoon and a caricature. When Jack is pursuing Wendy to try to kill her, he does a parody of Nixon speaking about the three little pigs. And when he breaks through the bathroom door, he utters the classic television introduction, "Here's Johnny!"

The conclusion of The Shining contains an ultimate comment on America. We see a picture on the wall of the Overlook Hotel; it is inscribed "Overlook Hotel; July 4th Ball, 1921" and the smiling visage of Jack Torrance appears in it. In another life, in 1921 post-war America, America was a land of promise. Americans were happy, America's Independence was being celebrated, and Jack was smiling. But in the present, America has lost her values and promise. A smiling, partying Jack Torrance has turned into a madman. His smile is now replaced by a look of frozen emptiness. The party is over.

The Shining is a difficult film to fathom. But if we are willing, Kubrick gives us a wealth of material to see and to contemplate. Kubrick's style should be enough to set us on our way. His marvelous tracking shots, his intricate details (e.g., the maze designs), and his color schemes can be tantalizing. With the added awareness that banality, aggression, objects, ordinary characters, and satire often play meaningful parts in a Kubrick film, we should be able to deal with it.

© 2000-2023 Tony Macklin