Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is a film that needs little introduction.
The characters, cinematography and set design – now much emulated – all continue to provide inspiration to a great number of filmmakers, cinematographers and screenwriters, a full 38 years later. The unhinged antagonist of the film, Jack Torrance, played by Jack Nicholson – now embedded in the annals of film history – was named the ’25th Greatest Villain of all time’ on the American Film Institutes’s ‘100 Years… 100 Heroes and Villains’ list in 2003. The Shining – Kubrick’s 11th feature film – is set around the time in which it was released (the 1980s), and follows Jack Torrance, a former teacher-turned-writer who, in order to clear his writing block, finds himself as the caretaker of the isolated, and rather intimidating Overlook Hotel, a place which only he, his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and his son Danny (Danny Lloyd), will stay for the duration of the summer.
Upon arrival, Danny discovers an interesting truth about himself – that he is tormented with striking psychic premonitions – more specifically, concerning the history of the Overlook Hotel itself, and of the former guests who roamed it, a power simply referred to as “the shining”, by Dick Hallorann, (Scatman Crothers) the Overlook’s chef – who also possesses the ability. While exploring the depths of the Hotel, Danny begins to have unsettling visions, birthing one of the most famous moments in Cinema history. As he rides his tricycle along the maze-like corridors, he is startled by two twins, staring sinisterly at him. As his visions seem to focus strongly on the past, many people have drawn conclusions from his visions, speculating on what they represent.
For example, the famous ‘rivers of blood’ scene, wherein Danny envisions gallons of blood pouring out from one edge of the elevator door, filling the room, has been said to reference the genocide of the Native American people. Hotel manager Stuart Ullman (Barry Nelson) tells Wendy early on that the hotel “is supposed to be located on an Indian burial ground” and that he believes that:“they actually had to repel a few Indian attacks as they were building it”. Perhaps the blood that Danny envisions is that of those who came before – visual evidence for a kind of supernatural curse, or more-so a direct statement, a bloody rallying call against generational ethnic oppression. Kubrick is exactly the kind of Director to include these kinds of subliminal messages, with so many of his films, including Paths of Glory and Dr Strangelove staunchly anti-war and pro-peace alike in their approach.
Blood engulfs the room – despite the elevator doors being sealed shut – which may carry the message that the true history of a place (or a person) is something which cannot be masked or suppressed, and it will always return.
While Danny roams the hotel day after day, experiencing vision after vision, Jack suffers a mental breakdown. The ghost of the Hotel’s former caretaker manages to convince Jack to kill his wife and son, which he attempts to do. However, Jack fails and is defeated, leaving him frozen to death in the snow, meters shy of the Overlook Hotel. In the closing frame of the film, the camera pans into a photograph on a wall of the hotel’s hallway. It pictures Jack Torrance, smiling amid a crowd of assumed hotel residents, partying at the Overlook Hotel’s Ball in 1921.
The Making Of The Shining
When casting for the film, actors such as Harrison Ford, Robin Williams and Robert De Niro were considered for the part of Jack Torrance. However, Jack Nicholson was always Kubrick’s first choice, and – as we now know – ultimately ended up with the role.
Shooting The Shining was famously tedious, and hard work for both the cast and the crew. Kubrick, a well-known perfectionist, required Nicholson and Duvall to shoot the pivotal stairway scene around 125 times. Additionally, Crothers was reported to spend so long re-shooting scenes, that he once lost his temper with Kubrick. Reports even claim that Kubrick mistreated Duvall throughout her time on set, as a questionable method to bring out the frustration that her character was often required to express. Kubrick obsessed over tiny details in many scenes, resulting in certain members of the production crew cracking under pressure. However, if Kubrick did not push both himself and the cast and crew to perform to their best each and every moment of the day, it is questionable whether the world would have seen The Shining for the masterpiece that it is. And whether Kubrick’s persistence and methods to do so was worth it, is up to you.
Upon release, The Shining received mixed reviews. Multiple critics disliked the film, with some in particular denouncing it as a “crushing disappointment”, as stated by Gene Siskel of The Chicago Tribune. The film also received no nominations from the Oscars, nor the Golden Globes, and was even twice nominated at the 1st Golden Raspberry Awards (the Razzies) for Worst Director and Worst Actress, for Shelley Duvall. So, why is it that The Shining is now widely praised as one of Cinema’s greatest? Some suggest that the film took time to grow on those who would eventually praise it, and that it may have been greatly misunderstood by a vast proportion of its initial audience.
From the get go, Kubrick makes the environmental isolation of the Overlook Hotel a character all of its own, which funnily enough – cannot be overlooked. The film’s now-iconic opening showcases exactly this, with the ominous main theme, composed by Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind, set to John Alcott’s deft camera-work – as we follow the Torrance family’s yellow Volkswagen along a winding road. The road continues up a mountain, flanked by rich and astounding scenes of nature, hundreds of trees scattered sporadically, while lakes, and snow-peaked mountains are seen to accompany the road leading up to the Hotel. During this sequence, the Torrance family pass an ominously stationary hearse – subliminally suggesting to the audience that the family will not leave the Hotel without at least one person dying. The Volkswagen passing the hearse has also been interpreted to mirror how Jack seems to pass the barrier between the dead and the living once he allows the Hotel to possess him. In the same way as their car passes the hearse, Jack passes the living to see the dead – the Overlook’s former guests and workers.
The film features much use of themes such as isolation and loneliness – concepts thoroughly explored through a range of Kubrick’s other masterpieces, including 2001: A Space Odyssey. Isolation can often seem appealing. We find ourselves craving moments to spend alone, isolated from the company of others as a method, for instance, to clear our minds. In this sense, isolation can be regarded as something beautiful that which we need to experience in order to maintain good mental health – similar to how regular exposure to nature can positively affect us. However, Kubrick expands on this, showing how extended isolation, far from any signs of interaction with people you do not know intimately, can ultimately lead to psychological deterioration.
Kubrick hints that Jack has the capacity for evil, as all of us do. However, this evil is contained. Once Jack spends time at the Hotel in isolation, it seems to be getting the better of him; he begins having nightmares of killing Wendy and Danny, while he writes the famous – “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” – instead of a novel, which he arrived at the hotel intending to do. The Hotel continues to break down all of his moral barriers – until he finally decides to feed his wrath and attempt to slaughter his family. In this interpretation, the Hotel is something of an evil entity itself, and may even represent figures involved in religion, such as the Devil, which is believed to persuade one to be evil. Similar to Jack, we all have the capacity for evil just as we do for good, and so, perhaps, The Shining teaches us to resist temptations – like the Hotel – which aims to sway us into evil.
Kubrick juxtaposes the serenity of the American landscape surrounding the Hotel against the eerie main theme of the film, preparing the audience for the horror that lies in wait for them. Occasional screams and squirms can be heard throughout the suite, adding once again to the terrifying sense of gloom and nihilistic threat which is rooted so strongly in the film’s core. It is often unclear whether such noises originate from the characters in the film, or from the Hotel itself – an intention of Kubrick, no doubt. Through clever use of such an alarming score, Kubrick forces us to question our own decision-making, and enables us to put faith into ourselves, rather than relying on the film to handhold, and to explain exactly what is happening at every stage in the narrative. Continuing this, Kubrick leaves the ending deliberately ambiguous and unclear for us to ponder our own take on the film’s climax. As a result, questions such as “Is Jack really dead?”, “Do the family escape?” and “What happens to the hotel?” along with so many others, are answered by you, an individual member of the audience.
The Other Side of a Loop
The Shining has been studied extensively since its release, producing numerous theories about what the film actually represents. Some say that the film speaks on the depths of depravity that the Second World War brought on humanity, while others say that the film is an overt confession (from Kubrick himself) that he helped to stage the moon landing in 1969. The list of theories is extensive. However, one theory in particular seems to be the most well-rounded, believable and evident, and points towards the idea of The Overlook Hotel as a catalyst for cycles of reoccurring violence – and for reincarnation.
Kubrick has himself stated that:“the ballroom photograph at the very end suggests the reincarnation of Jack”. However, just exactly who Jack is the reincarnation of is up for debate. The most probable answer, explores the idea that Jack is the reincarnation of Charles Grady – the guest who lost his mind, before promptly murdering his family in the Overlook, who is himself the reincarnation of Delbert Grady – the butler who Jack sees in the Overlook’s restroom. In this case, therefore, the Hotel is the most powerful entity at hand, the real antagonist, with the implication to have the power to reincarnate and to recall the actions of previous hotel guests and workers, which is further evidenced by Delbert Grady telling Jack that he has:“always been the caretaker”.
Another theory points towards the idea that as Jack dies, he is absorbed into the Hotel’s photograph, as shown in the film’s closing shot, suggesting that the photo features the full number of guests and workers which it has possessed over the years. This is a suggestion, which the one and only Roger Ebert of The Chicago Times seemed to toy with, questioning whether Jack was “absorbed into the past” from the present.
There is no doubt that Jack’s alcoholism plays a big role in his gradual mental deterioration. Although this is explored more in the source material, and in Mick Garris’ TV mini-series adaption, it has often been said that Jack’s alcoholism is a trait which makes him easy prey of the Hotel, or of the entity that resides there. Others state that Jack’s alcoholism is a clear indication that his encounters with previous guests from older generations are simple hallucinations. If we are to choose this interpretation, then Jack is not reincarnated, nor is absorbed into the past, but is simply a delusional man, sickened by his alcohol abuse, driving him into becoming a murderous madman.
Kubrick, therefore, may be instead pointing towards the deadliness of alcohol, showcasing how it can literally lead to the breakdown of a family when abused by a parent. However, although this explanation is a valid one, it is still questionable, as Jack’s alcoholism is only really specified in the book and TV mini-series, and therefore we cannot be sure that Kubrick intended to include it in the film. Stephen King himself recognised the differences in the film and book, saying: “its the difference between warmth and cold.”
Whether Jack is a reincarnated Hotel guest (or employee), or he was absorbed into the past by the hotel, or whether Jack is simply a delusional alcoholic, Kubrick is still shown to offer one unifying message to his audience: that we cannot escape our history, and that trends of human aggression always seem to repeat themselves.