Explainers

The Shining, Explained

February 23, 2017
22 min read

Stanley Kubrick. Buy a book on film making from any part of the world, either Russia or Japan or Sweden, and you’ll find this name mentioned not once but in every chapter, ranging from minutely monumental details like breaking the 180 degree rule to establishing genres like science fiction and satirical comedy. There’s no doubt regarding his undisputed title of the greatest film maker in the history of cinema, and though people may point out Tarkovsky or Kurosawa or Bergman, none of them has influenced the art to such an extent. Quite sensibly quoting Martin Scorsese “Watching a Kubrick film is like gazing up at a mountaintop. You look up and wonder, how could anyone have climbed that high? The fact that his films like 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Shining require detailed explanations says a lot about his craft.

There are emotional passages and images and spaces in his films that have an inexplicable power, with a magnetic force that draws you in slowly, mysteriously: the boy’s rides on his Big Wheel through the endless corridors of the hotel in ‘The Shining’; the monumental silence of outer space in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’; the inhuman pace of the first half of ‘Full Metal Jacket’, building up to its logical, murderous conclusion; the grandeur of the war room in ‘Dr. Strangelove’, at once scary and comical; the brutal pop future of ‘A Clockwork Orange‘; the raw intimacy of the exchanges between Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman in ‘Eyes Wide Shut’.” This is the kind of influence he had on other directors in the industry including legends like Spielberg and Scorsese, who aimed to shoot as precisely as him.

Traces of his films can even be seen decades after their release; ‘Interstellar‘ and ‘The Tree of Life’ (2001 : A Space Odyssey), ‘Trainspotting’ (A Clockwork Orange), almost every heist movie pays tribute to ‘The Killing’, ‘Alice in Wonderland’ (The Shining) or House of Cards (‘Eyes Wide Shut‘). His name is a rightful synonym for perfection, with even his errors draining the life out of you in deciphering the genius behind them.

The Backdrop

The Shining. Kubrick decided to direct a comparatively crowd appealing film, maybe as a result of the financially poor performance of ‘Barry Lyndon’, which by many revered critics and filmmakers is considered to be his best film. He decided to adapt Stephen King’s best selling novel, The Shining. There were many controversies regarding the adaptation taking its own course halfway down the line, and is still lambasted by King and many bookworms. I think Kubrick’s version is more matured and tries to be realistic about itself, while keeping intact his use of underlying themes. One major deviation would be Kubrick’s decision to throw the ghost subtext out in the trash. Hedge animals and objects coming to life, Grady’s ghost, generalized and plot favored characterization, the spirit of the Overlook Hotel and playing safe with the gore; stuff like this grows campy over time and Kubrick turned this into an atmospheric psychological horror.

He was an auteur with an exclusive vision and wouldn’t settle for anything less. This led to him intentionally reversing a lot of features from the book, changing them, experimenting with them and using disrupted continuity. The final outcome was, as we all are aware of, one of the finest horror movies of all time. What makes The Shining so special? Well, a 102 minutes long documentary titled ‘Room 237’ was made focusing only on explaining the events that take place in the movie incorporating multiple perspectives, and yet I think it couldn’t come to a totally justified conclusion.

The visual imagery along with the symbolism, sound and production design, character mannerisms or dialogues have their own story to tell and every single one of them could take you down through a different path, like a maze except there’s no area of convergence. Kubrick’s mind is the limit to its extensiveness. Without wasting more time, let’s revisit ‘The Shining’ by quoting Kubrick. “There’s something inherently wrong with the human personality. There’s an evil side to it. One of the things that horror stories can do is to show us the archetypes of the unconscious; we can see the dark side without having to confront it directly”.

The Plot and the Making

A rotating shot followed by a hawk-eye shot of pine forests that point out of the screen like needles with the nerve-wracking high pitched background score. First few seconds and we are already given a taste of the mise en scène. We are tracking a yellow car driving through the mountains and at the same time observing the vastness and seclusion of the landscape. Kubrick used a yellow car instead of a red one and used a red snowcar contrary to yellow in the novel. Three minutes into the movie and we come face to face with the words, “The Interview” in block letters resembling the beginning of a chapter. Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) enters The Overlook for an appointment with Mr. Ullman, the manager. Now starts a series of intentional continuity errors and weird set designs, that are prevalent throughout the movie. Mr Ullmann converses with Jack regarding formal details and warns him about the history of the Overlook.

A previous caretaker Charles Grady had killed his family, including his two daughters and himself after a claustrophobic breakdown. Surprisingly, Jack expresses nothing but anticipation towards the role of the caretaker. Back in Boulder, we meet Jack’s wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and his son Danny. Contrary to the novel, Danny is not super intelligent and watches The Roadrunner Show (foreshadowing). Also introduced is an invisible character Tony, who apparently lives inside Danny’s mouth. In Kubrick’s version Tony is never shown and communicates with Danny through an involuntary movement of Danny’s index finger, since Kubrick never intended on giving a ghostly theme to the movie. Tony disapproves of the Torrances’ decision to move to The Overlook and in a very intriguing scene, Danny is shown visions of the consequences ranging from a flood of red liquid gushing out from elevators, two identical young girls and a totaled image of himself.

The novel decided to show all the images at the beginning, while Kubrick decided to use the conventional step by step process to create suspense. The interaction between Tony and Danny takes place with the camera focused on a mirror in the bathroom and the shot composition is similar to the bear man shot later on in the movie. Wendy calls a doctor who checks Danny and asks about some sort of trauma Danny may have suffered that may have caused him to make up his “imaginary friend”. A drunk Jack, in a fit of rage had dislocated Danny’s shoulder and this is presented as a possible explanation for Danny to develop a separate personality (Tony). Jack hadn’t slid a single drop of liquor for the past 5 months, a vow out of guilt.

With a booming siren in the background conveying the initiation of an emergency, we are in the yellow car and we come to know Danny watched something about cannibalism on T.V, and earlier Jack mentions his wife being a horror addict and she’s also seen smoking with quivering fingers. Interesting. We are given a tour of The Overlook, and in these long takes Kubrick covers every detail and clue that is crucial to the story, a prime example of his unparalleled intelligence, something that left me shell-shocked on a second watch.

In the games room, Danny encounters the two girls who are supposed to be the Grady twins. Moving forward, we meet Dick Halloran (Scatman Crauthers) the head cook at the hotel who notices the telekinetic and precognitive powers Danny possesses, which he calls “The Shining”. Dick tells Danny that many people “shine” but aren’t aware of it and demands him to not explore Room 237. He also informs Danny about the hotel’s ability to shine owing to its tragic past from being built on an Indian burial site to the murders, discovered and undiscovered. Kubrick replaced the hedge animals in the book with a hedge maze, which like the movie offers endless possibilities but barely any solution. He also extended the closing date of the hotel to October 30, to welcome the series of Halloween events.

A month passes and we are greeted with the most iconic tracking shot of all time and unlike most of them, it tracks the tricycle of a kid moving around empty corridors with the echoing sound of the wheels rolling against the wooden floor creating a oddly satisfying atmosphere. Another shot through the mirror’s perspective with Jack waking up and explaining Wendy about a feeling of deja vu in the hotel. The scene dissolves and we can feel the frustration dripping out of Jack, which is brilliantly conveyed through the thumping rebounds of the tennis ball. Note how the scene opens with a close-up shot of the beige typewriter and slowly zooms out.

Danny and Wendy explore the maze and tired of throwing the ball around, Jack proceeds to gaze over the model of the maze, which is very complexly built compared to the actual maze and symbolizes a sense of psychological entrapment. This is followed by an incredible shot of microscopic Danny and Wendy walking around in the center of the maze model that Jack was looking at, like ants crawling in his mind but are never shown to leave it. Its Tuesday, and frankly speaking shit’s about to go down.

Another tracking shot, where Danny finds Room 237 and is about to open it before changing his mind and quickly wheeling away. We see Jack at a table and the camera zooms in from behind, like an entity of its own very similar to most of the movie where the camera has a quite latching presence. Jack gets annoyed by Wendy coming in while he was working and tries hard not to completely lose it. Observe the thick scrapbook with newspaper cutouts beside the typewriter which is only shown for a scene unlike the novel where Jack continuously uses the scrapbook describing the tragedies that took place at The Overlook, a catalyst for his descent into madness. Move forward a few seconds and we see a close-up of Jack, his unsettling green eyes beautifully matching the green sweater, a rough stubble compared to his shaven appearance a few seconds earlier, indications of insomnia as a result of writer’s block. Move forward, we see Wendy talking to the radio operator about the failed telephone connectivity because of the snow storm. Another tracking shot and Danny encounters the Grady twins again, with a new vision of them lying bloodied on the ground.

It’s a new day, and Jack shows an increasing sense of depersonalization in a chilling conversation if you notice the details. Danny goes back to his room to get his firetruck and sees a grim looking Jack, his face shown through the mirror again. Jack calls Danny and makes him sit on his lap while asking him about the Overlook and if he liked it, saying “I want you to like it” with a weak smile while rubbing Danny’s shoulder, emphasizing the control he is inflicting. He also echoes back the same words the Grady twins say, “forever and ever and ever”.

Wednesday, and Danny finds the Room 237 ajar and we see him walking towards it because a red ball rolls upto him out of nowhere from that direction. Scene cut and we see Wendy running after hearing Jack screaming and finds him sweating out of trepidation due to a nightmare which involved him hacking his son and wife into pieces. Also to be noted, this is the first time we see Jack in the burgundy jacket, the color similar to that of the liquid gushing out of the elevator in Danny’s vision. We see a disoriented Danny walking towards them and spot bruises on his neck, with Wendy putting the blame on Jack, eventually reminding him of his earlier physical assault on Danny. A flustered Jack heads to the empty Gold Room, where he starts talking to the bartender Lloyd and opts to drink. He then follows that up by complaining about his wife and son, and you can sense the contempt for Wendy in his voice through the suppressed grins that indicate madness instead of anger.

I love Joe Turkel’s mesmerizing performance as Lloyd, his calmness giving a helping hand to Jack’s boiling conscious. The hallucination ends when an hysteric Wendy comes running in and informs Jack about a woman in Room 237 who tried to strangle Danny. The puzzled look on Jack’s face can be interpreted as an effort to get his mind straight, and notice him using slurs every time he talks to Wendy. We see Halloran who’s in Miami but suddenly gets shocking visions that aren’t shown and the shot switches to a traumatised Danny whimpering because of the visions. Jack goes to check out the room and finds a naked lady who seduces and begins to kiss him and Jack gives in, only to be taken aback by seeing a decaying old lady with him in the mirror. The young woman had inexplicably transformed into an old lady who walks after the frantic Jack laughing all the while. We see Halloran contacting the rangers to get in touch with the hotel. Jack comes back and lies to Wendy about finding anyone there and leaves enraged when she asks him to get Danny out of here, blaming her for f*cking up his life.

Jack has clearly gone haywire and absent-mindedly proceeds to the Gold Room. On the way he sees the corridors filled with balloons and ribbons and discovers a huge party going on in the Gold Room. He goes upto the bar and meets Lloyd who fixes him another drink and says the expense is on the house, indicating the effort of the Overlook to carry Jack down the hill of madness. We meet Delbert Grady (not the Grady who killed his family) as he spills a drink on Jack’s jacket and then takes him to the washroom to get “cleaned” up (more like clean him off his conscience). In one of the most beautiful 5 minutes on the big screen (the heavenly use of colors and symmetry and such calm destruction of the imaginary axis), we see Grady convince Jack to “correct” his family and reminds him that he has always been the caretaker, which was then shown in the B/W picture at the end. He also informs Jack about Danny involving an outside party (Halloran) in the situation and stresses on words like will, to upset Jack.

Danny on the other hand after the physical trauma goes into a semi-conscious state, Tony taking hold of the reigns and keeps on repeating the word “redrum” in a very mechanical trance. Halloran grows concerned about what’s going on in the hotel and flies back to Colorado. Wendy distraught over Danny’s deteriorating state goes looking for Jack and finds hundreds of pages by his typewriter, all of them clustered with the sentence “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”. This is typed inconsistently throughout , with typos and no punctuations highlighting Jack’s own ever-growing trance or unstable mental health over the course. Rumor has it Kubrick himself typed those words.

A hostile Jack threatens her and claims he has responsibilities to look after and will get rid of her if she bothered him. Wendy keeps swinging the bat to keep him away, and begs him to take Danny to a doctor. But it is clear that there is no Jack Torrance left, his insanity has reached its zenith. She knocks him unconscious in an act of self defense and locks him in the pantry. He tells her that he had disabled both the radio and the snowcat and there was no means of escape left, while the camera points at him in an inverted position giving the impression of him hanging upside down, innovative angles to insert craziness. Jack later speaks to a disappointed Grady through the door, who believes Jack doesn’t have the stomach to carry out the task. Jack admits to having underestimated the task and promises to go to any length to finish it, and his door unseemingly gets unlocked.

Danny writes REDRUM with a red crayon on the door of the bathroom while Wendy’s sleeping and starts repeating it to wake her up. She looks at the inscription through the mirror which reveals itself to be “MURDER”. Parallely, Halloran borrows a snowcat to get to the Overlook in time. On the way he passes by a red VW crushed by a truck, a sweet tongue in cheek dig at the source material. Coming back to The Overlook, Jack then starts hacking through the main door of their quarters with an axe, while Wendy and Danny run into the bathroom. Danny escapes through the window leaving behind Wendy who can’t fit through. Jack like a crazy wolf, knocking down anything that comes his way, delivers the iconic line “Here’s Johnny!” after hacking parts of the bathroom door.

The sound design is top-notch but is literally so powerful at this time, every blow feels like one to your heart. We see an overly terrified Wendy screaming in agony at the sight, but slashes Jack’s hand when he tries to turn the knob open. Before he can retaliate, we hear the sounds of an engine running, marking the arrival of Halloran. Jack as warned by Grady kills Halloran with a strike to the chest in the lobby. Danny who witnesses this screams from the cupboard he was hiding in, runs towards the maze when Jack starts getting closer. Wendy runs around the hotel searching for Danny, and encounters ghosts, the flooding red liquid, skeletons in a completely changed section of the hotel covered with cobwebs and torn hangings and probably the most disturbing instance in the movie, the bear man performing fellatio on a man with blazing tribal music in the background. She also finds Halloran’s body, while an injured and weak Jack is chasing Danny through the maze.

Danny cleverly retraces back his footsteps and makes a false trail to confuse an already transfixed Jack and audience (the high pitched score literally tears you apart with anxiety and the fact that Kubrick changed the whole story in favor of a more pessimistic theme leaves you wondering about the outcome), who follows the footprints to get nowhere. Danny escapes the maze and reunites with Wendy, and they escape in Halloran’s snowcat. Its rumbling overcome by Jack’s maddening bellows, who eventually freezes to death. We are shown a photograph in the hallway at the end, which is dated July 4,1921 and has Jack smiling with a crowd of people at a party. This truly sums up the enigmatic genius of the great Stanley Kubrick. There’s barely any ambiguity about the end, since it only exists if we are certain of any one explanation, but there isn’t one in this case.

Interpretation

Since the movie is so extensive, let’s discuss about three independently primary talking points : Jack, Overlook Hotel and the Bear Man. You don’t know Jack and neither do I. Because what we really see are two different versions. Here, I’m going by the theory that the Jack in the second half was typed into existence by the real Jack Torrance.

There are many visuals to prove this theory, small details that would be termed as continuity errors but are present to signify the difference between the real world and Jack’s world. He is unable to put his undivided attention towards detailing while writing the story or thinking about it, since his consciousness pertains to a limit of recollection. Danny driving a different tricycle, the disappearance of the wooden mantelpiece, the typewriters changing or a shot of Jack waking up right after a tracking shot (which is shown through a mirror, a reflection of reality in the movie). Jack also mentions his wife being a horror movie addict and her character is typical of a scream queen/damsel in distress (something out of a conventional 40s horror flick). Danny’s exposure to T.V is also mentioned and it does raise questions over the authenticity of the visions that we see. Note how Jack wears dull colored clothes in the beginning but wears a burgundy jacket throughout the second half and the opposite for Wendy who wears a bright red and blue costume, similar to that of the Goofy poster in Danny’s bedroom but towards the end opts for dull ones.

The second half brings out the worst in Jack, his actions replicating that of Grady’s and also notice the scrapbook placed beside the typewriter. Jack had been researching the incidents that took place in the hotel quite possibly for his story and uses this information to conjure up a plot. About the Jack in the picture, Kubrick confirmed that it wasn’t taken at The Overlook and doesn’t serve as an evidence of Grady’s claim that Jack had always been the caretaker. It could well be a metaphor for the immortality of evil, with Jack being the most relatable character to the audience to depict that and also to be noted is Grady’s absence and the fact that the picture appears only after Jack froze to death.

Talking about The Overlook, the epicenter, Ullman’s room is very strange. Notice how we are shown a symmetrical window centered shot, this is because the placement of the window is impossible. When Jack walks from the reception to the room, the camera travels in a perpendicular fashion highlighting the angle of the room and the apparent absence of a wall behind Ullman’s room. Kubrick was responsible for such awkward structuring, mainly because he wanted to instill horror through ambience. What’s the fun in a horror movie if the characters could just run through corridors swiftly and escape through the main door without any hindrance. Even the Gold Room is spatially impossible due to its enormous size, a beautiful irony of the vastness of the effect of claustrophobia.

The biggest reason for the sideways panning when Ullman shows the hotel is to let the viewers sink in every corridor and direction, before he changes the set design completely, creating an anomaly to disorientate the viewers.There’s also an EXIT sign cleverly put on the left end of the hallway leading to Torrances’ apartment where the bathroom is, strange foreshadowing. We also see two doors on either side of Room 237 that lead nowhere. The one on the left would be overlapped by the stretched size of 237, seen in the bathroom scene and the one on the right shows a stairway going downstairs where Room 237 is. In the kitchen, Halloran takes Wendy and Danny through a twisting-turning path and then opens the freezer room, shot cuts, and we see him opening the door on the wrong side contradicting the previous shot.

Coming to Grady, who I think like Lloyd was a fragment of representation of the hotel that would explain his statement “I have always been here” and look how throughout the scene Jack looks right in the direction of the mirror, almost like envisioning himself. There are so many doors in the movie that lead nowhere, like our ideas of the movie that according to Kubrick offer no explanation and hence raises the question : What is the maze? The Overlook or the hedge structure.

The Bear Man. The most disturbing aspect of the movie and something that creeped me out after thinking about it (I am an avid horror movie fan but this aspect is just terrifying). The Bear Man is the biggest evidence of Danny’s sexual abuse. Yes! In addition to beating him, Jack sexually abuses Danny. I believe this prominently takes place in the scene where Jack makes Danny sit on his lap. Notice how we are shown a freaked out Jack through the mirror (reality) calling Danny to come to him. We are no more shown the mirror, questioning the accuracy of the depiction, while he makes Danny sit on his lap and this is when Jack abuses him (the bathroom door is open and there’s no toilet paper).

Let’s take a look from the beginning. 13 minutes into the movie when Danny wakes up in his bedroom, his head rests on a bear pillow and very surprisingly 13 minutes from the end we encounter the bear man. The shot of the bathroom door with Danny bending is very similar to the shot of the room with the bear man performing fellatio on an unknown man in a posture similar to Danny’s. The similarities are intentional. There’s also a poster of bears right above Danny’s bed with the smaller bear on its knees. Now comes the most shocking question. Why does Tony stay in Danny’s mouth? It’s understood for people to develop a separate identity as a result of trauma, with the identity built upon the very details of such incidents, i.e, Tony living in Danny’s mouth and Danny’s reluctance to talk about it. Also notice his two hands placed on his crotch, almost like protecting it from something.

Coming to Room 237 again, it was Jack who physically assaulted Danny and not the old lady, who serves as a metaphor for the disgusting act carried out by Jack on Danny, and this is exactly why it is shown through a mirror. Another interesting point, Wendy later holds Danny in the same way as Jack holds the old lady, and also has Jack’s blue robe on (the same robe he had while he abused Danny). Wendy too looks in the mirror, and overlap the two scenes and you find Jack holding Danny while the mirror shows the filthiness of his atrocities. In an earlier scene, for a split second we see Jack reading a PlayGirl magazine which has an article on incest. Coincidence much?

Read More: Best Jack Nicholson Movies

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