What is there I can possibly say about this movie that hasn’t already been said? Not only is it based on Stephen King’s best novel (albeit very loosely); it also features one of Jack Nicholson’s best performances, and it was directed by Stanley Kubrick (the undisputed king of slow-burning, post-modernist chillers with buttloads of extreme camera angles and long tracking shots). ‘Nuff said, right? There’s a reason The Shining keeps showing up on damn near everyone’s “Scariest Movies” list; with King, Nicholson and Kubrick all jammed in there, this flick will make your blood run so goddamn cold that you’ll be pissing icicles for a month (if you’re lucky).
The original 1980 poster
I think most everyone is probably familiar with the plot of this film already, but just in case there are any stragglers out there, The Shining is about a family that goes to take care of the Overlook Hotel out in the Colorado mountains. Only problem is, the Overlook is haunted and its resident spirits are driving Jack Torrence (Nicholson) to murder his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and his son Danny (Danny Lloyd) with an ax. To make matters worse, a blizzard comes rolling in and poor Wendy and Danny are snowed in. The title of the film refers to Danny, who possesses a curious psychic ability that another character named Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers) calls “the shining.” (If it helps, think of Danny’s gift as resembling a “flashlight” that he can use to “shine light” on things that are probably better left in the dark.)
It’s interesting to note that many people have never read the Stephen King novel. In case you didn’t already know, Kubrick’s version is only faithful to the book in terms of its setting and premise. The rest of the film deviates quite significantly, to the point that it becomes a completely different story. King’s novel is really about alcoholism and the disintegration of the family; it also centers on the son, Danny, who inadvertently awakens the Overlook Hotel with his ability. Essentially, the Overlook uses Jack’s alcoholism to kill Danny so it can assimilate his power into itself. But Kubrick’s film is more about insanity and the disintegration of the self; it centers on Jack, who seems to be a reincarnation of an earlier caretaker at the Overlook (and whom the Overlook is trying to “reclaim”). Whether this is actually true or not is never explained, and it remains ambiguous as to whether the Overlook is actually haunted (or if it’s all in Jack’s head). As Frederick Clarke points out, the Jack in King’s Shining is “a normal man who becomes insane,” while the Jack in Kubrick’s version is “a crazy man attempting to remain sane.”
Due to these drastic differences, there are Stephen King fans who absolutely despise Stanley Kubrick’s take on the story, and there are Kubrick fans who think King needed someone else to improve the story for him. In my opinion, both versions of The Shining are perfect in and of themselves. I think it’s certainly true that the 1980 film is absolutely terrible as a Stephen King movie, but it’s also quite phenomenal as a Stanley Kubrick movie. (And as long as we can appreciate the difference between these two statements, I think we’ll be okay.)
With all that being said, many people see a lot of different things in this movie. There have been theories that it contains numerous hidden messages about the Holocaust and/or the genocide of Native Americans. (I’ve even heard someone claim that there are messages about how the first moon landing was “faked,” but I’m not inclined to take that idea seriously.) People have also noticed certain inconsistencies in the film that just don’t set well, like the fact that the spatial layout of the Overlook makes no sense. (I personally love the fact that there are outside windows in rooms that appear to be surrounded by interior hallways.) No one really knows if these inconsistencies are actually bloopers or if they were intentional on Kubrick’s part, but one thing’s for sure: their presence in the film only makes it more disturbing.
In Room 237 (a documentary in which various people discuss their interpretations of The Shining), one analyst theorizes that the Overlook is really a 20th-century version of the labyrinth in the Greek story of Theseus and the Minotaur. I think we can take this idea even further by arguing that the whole damn movie is a post-modern re-telling of the Theseus and Minotaur story. In the tale, Theseus goes to Crete to liberate the people from King Minos, who ritually feeds fourteen Athenian boys and girls to the Minotaur. Minos’ daughter Ariadne falls in love with Theseus and gives him a ball of thread that he can use to find his way back through the labyrinth; he then descends into the maze and kills the beast. There are some interesting theories as to where this myth comes from and how it developed, but for our purposes here, suffice it to say that the Minotaur (being half-man, half-bull) represents the capacity for monstrous violence in man. The labyrinth, being a complex branching maze, represents a situation with multiple choices of path and direction. (I also think mazes naturally resemble the gyri and sulci of the human brain.) And Theseus, of course, represents the “civilized man” who defeats and conquers primitive nature.
In Kubrick’s version of this tale, Theseus and the Minotaur are two aspects of the same character (i.e., Jack Torrence). The labyrinth is simultaneously the Overlook Hotel and Jack’s own mind. Ariadne has switched from being one subjugated “other” (i.e., a woman) to another (i.e., a black man), and as Dick Hallorann, she provides Wendy and Danny with their means of escape from Jack’s maze. Wendy and Danny themselves are the Athenian children who are intended as sacrifices for the Minotaur. (Unlike Stephen King’s version of Wendy, Shelley Duvall’s character is mousy and submissive; I think she’s been abused by Jack in the past just as Danny has. She is, in effect, an innocent child in a grown woman’s body.) But here, the Minotaur defeats Theseus instead, and there’s no one left to rescue its prey. Man’s capacity for monstrous violence wins out over his capacity for altruism and heroic virtue. If Kubrick really did intend to include a subtext concerning the Holocaust and the genocide of Native Americans, I think it’s only to suggest that the Minotaur in Jack is the exact same Minotaur that caused those earlier tragedies. Whether that monster devours just one family or millions, it’s still accomplishing the same thing: the murder of innocence.
All in all, The Shining is one of those films that’s truly as frightening as people always say it is. It also includes some truly terrifying musical cues, including the Holocaust-inspired Awakening of Jacob by Krzyztof Penderecki. I find myself listening to the soundtrack for this film quite often, and I always want to watch it when it’s snowing outside. If you’re looking for something really scary to watch this Halloween, and if you’ve never seen The Shining, I say pop that sucker in and re-live what it means to be afraid of the dark inside yourself.