It is well known that Stephen King dislikes Stanley Kubrick’s interpretation of The Shining. It deviates heavily from his book, it is heavy in suggestive imagery and it does not give Jack Torrance his redeeming moment at the conclusion. And while that is all true, in terms of cinema, there has never been a grander, more epic horror film. Kubrick was a master filmmaker, perhaps the greatest ever. He knew what he was creating from King’s work; not a book to film adaptation, but a story of his own with the novel as his guide.
Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) is managing a ski lodge and hotel called the Overlook for the winter months with his family, wife Wendy (Shelley Duvalle) and son Danny (Danny Lloyd). Isolated in the freezing snow, things start to go very wrong for Jack and Danny. Ghosts begin to appear and Jack begins drinking again. Danny, with his gift of “shining” (the ability to communicate the astral plane), is particularly unnerved by the strange beings who have never left the Overlook. It all culminates in the complete breakdown of Jack who attempts to butcher his family, egged on by the vicious spirits in the hotel.
The setting of the large, ominous hotel against the ghastly white snow is awe-inspiring. The location is as much a character in the film as Nicholson is, and the scope adds greatly to the film.
Kubrick utilizes all cinematic technique to tell the story: the tracking camera, the pan, the tilt, subliminal imagery, vibrant hues, sound (including the importance of silence), musical score, acting style, movement within the frame, three-dimensional space and managing the audience’s expectations.
For example, there’s a scene where Jack Torrance, angry, walks down the hallway to the ballroom. The camera moves with him as we are brought into the room, shimmering gold, lit eerily by the glaring barlights that beckon Jack forward. The camera movement helps us relate to him. As Jack sits down at the bar and complains that he’d give anything for a glass of beer, the shot changes to a frontal medium shot. He stares right at the camera, surprising us, and says, “Hello Lloyd. A little slow tonight.” Then he bursts out laughing. As we try to make sense of what we are witnessing, the camera cuts to a bartender, dim eyes, in a red suit that nearly blurs into the background, smiling back at Jack. “Yes it is, Mr. Torrance,” the bartender says. The tracking of Jack so we can relate to him, the sudden change of his environment in lighting and tone, his shocking speech right into camera and the abrupt cut to a ghostly character up the tension and intrigue, and it is done in a way that only a filmmaker who truly understands his craft can orchestrate. A Kubrick film is indeed like an orchestration, all of the elements of cinema playing in unison to deliver an emotional crescendo.
Kubrick revisits the ballroom two more times in the film, each time changing the dynamic. Jack returns later as the ghosts have become more prevalent in the film. The shot starts exactly the same as before, with Jack walking down the hallway past a sign that reads “The Gold Room.” However, we can hear music playing from somewhere. As Jack enters the room, we find dozens of elegantly dressed people, dancing, chatting, a great commotion from years on back, and the music we heard earlier grows louder upon entering. The first scene upped our intrigue into the location, the second has given us a further glimpse into the room’s secrets. At the end of the film, Wendy, searching for Danny and hoping to save him from a homicidal Jack, rushes in to find it covered in cobwebs and skeletons, the true room having revealed itself at last. The buildup in scenes is just one illustration of the care Kubrick put into his story.
Many have watched The Shining and come out asking the question, “What did it mean?” There’s a great documentary titled Room 237 that goes into a myriad of different fan theories about the true purpose of The Shining. Is it a subliminal confession about how Kubrick shot the faked moon landing footage? Is it a commentary on the genocide of the American Indian? How about Nazism? Some are definitely oddball, but it is worth a viewing. Kubrick was nothing if not one of the smartest, most precise and obsessive filmmakers of all-time.
From my own analysis, I see the film as an investigation into the human mind. All of the characters are separated from humanity in the remote hotel and the social conventions that define them slowly slip away. Faced with isolation, their subconsciousness begins to percolate to the surface and they epitomize Jungian archetypes. A recovering alcoholic, Jack gives in to his inner rage, becoming the monster that booze creates, unleashing the shadow form of his nature. Wendy, who had tried to control Jack all of her life, is threatened when his shadow (i.e. masculine) form is unleashed and needs to embody the hero part of her nature if she is to survive and save her son. Danny is the observer and in many ways the symbol of the youth they have lost. He sees how the forces at work in the world manipulated his parents and as the center of innocence, Jack despises him because he symbolizes what he has lost with adulthood. The end sequence epitomizes the entire film, a labyrinth in which the characters are lost in their own psyche and chased by a Minotaur.
The Shining is not only a great horror film, it is a great film. Kubrick is not so much interested in jump scares or moodiness, but with deep psychological intrigue that illuminates social conditions and themes of loneliness, isolation, love, connection and addiction that will never cease to terrify us. His films demand to be viewed again and again, and every time we watch them, we find something new to marvel at.