As its director’s own remarkable oeuvre touches the worst excesses of mankind through youth callousness, apes and their killing instincts and cynical warfare games, Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 The Shining suggests the worst horrors actually inhabits man’s own deep and hidden recesses.
From the outset The Shining was surrounded by controversy as its director not only rejected the script written by the author of the source material, but also changed the tale’s central thesis. As the film diverges quite a lot from Stephen King’s novel, one feels for him for the butchering of his story. The celebrated writer – whose several tales have been adapted to the cinema – let everyone know he disliked the movie. However, the fact remains that Kubrick’s film is a classic masterwork of horror cinema – even, of cinema, full stop – whereas King’s novel, although a great book, is nonetheless flawed as literature.
After finding a job as the caretaker of The Overlook Hotel for the winter months, when the building is closed, aspiring author Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) moves his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and son Danny (Danny Lloyd) to the place, in order to write his novel. While touring the building, chef Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers) communicates telepathically with Danny, telling him that such ability is called ‘shining’, besides warning the boy to avoid room 237. As time goes by, Jack becomes increasingly restless, acting evermore strangely. After several supposedly hallucinatory incidents witnessed by Jack, Wendy discovers the stack of hundreds of pages with ‘all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy’ typed by her husband. From then on, he will keep attempting to kill his family. After chasing Wendy and Danny, who eventually escape, Jack gets lost inside the maze beside the hotel and freezes to death.
By its own ambiguous and open-ended nature, Stanley Kubrick’s horror masterpiece – a film filled with tens, or even hundreds, of supposedly meaningful elements – fosters odd analysis, sometimes leaning on the obsessive. Not only there are numerous academic articles published about the film and countless sites on the internet devoted to solving the mystery behind The Shining, but in 2012, Room 237 – a movie dedicated to explore several interpretations of the movie – has been released. The interpretations range from serious issues such as the genocide of the Native Americans, the landing on the moon and the Holocaust to trivial ones like the colours red, white and blue as signifiers for America and sexual references.
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It is rather foolish to either get sucked into conspiracy theories of different persuasions or to attach meaning where there is none. The same people who use Kubrick’s perfectionism and cleverness as a point of departure for their claims, end up forgetting that the filmmaker might have placed a certain object on a certain scene or emphasised specific details in a shot just because he was such a perfectionist. If such object or detail enhance the final scene then these have justified their existence then and there. Who knows but the man himself? Perhaps he was not trying to tell us anything but only showing off his cleverness. Perhaps he was just teasing us; just playing with our expectations. We can all admit that it has worked pretty well.
A rather more interesting matter than the plethora of supposed meanings hidden within the movie is the differing views presented in the book and the film. The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer has said that talent hits a target that no one else can hit and genius hit a target that no one else can see. I’m afraid that’s the difference between King’s novel and Kubrick’s film. King’s distaste of the main character in the film stems from his moralistic worldview that believes that people are mostly capable of change. To lose weight or to write a novel, people only need to exercise their willpower and they will reach their goals. Kubrick’s bleaker worldview would categorically doubt such notion.
That’s not to deny the possibility of change or the existence of heroes in life. But if we’re really honest we have to admit that most of us are stuck in our own individual rut – incapable of gathering the vigorous power to act heroic and affect change. Whereas the characters in King’s novels are preoccupied with moral choices – this is essentially a humanistic approach – Kubrick’s films deal with our powerlessness towards fate – as in the character of man. One is an optimist; the other, a pessimist. King cares about heroes; Kubrick about truth. That’s the reason the movie will continue to be discussed and the book might not.
At the centre of the film’s greatness lies Jack Nicholson, his arched eyebrows and his mischievous grin. One of the main contentious points from Stephen King is the unsuitability of Nicholson for the role of the protagonist. Many who side with King argue that Jack Torrance’s gradual descent into madness serves the story better, for the sympathy which is established at the beginning increases the tragedy at the end. In Kubrick’s version of the tale, Nicholson as Torrance, seems, if not outright crazy, at the very least a little odd. He is a man already mad in his core, who has been put into a situation that brings out the worst in him. I would argue that there’s real pathos with this character, who because of his fatal flaws seems fated to fail miserably from the very beginning.
The genius of Stanley Kubrick added to the charisma of Jack Nicholson have created a superb piece of cinema in the form of The Shining, a film that is up there, not only with the best of horror movies, but with the greatest movies of all time.