The Shining part 1

The Shining, when it came out in 1980, was roundly derided by critics and fans of the novel, to say nothing of the novelist, for being criminally, bone-headedly wrong.  Why were people so upset?

Some were upset because of Jack Nicholson’s performance, which took the character from the novel and blew it up into a drooling, wild-eyed crazy man.  Some people were upset because of the radical changes in the plot.  Some were upset because they felt the movie didn’t take its subject matter seriously enough.  Some were upset because they felt the movie was too “cold,” without emotion or heart.

I think the real reason people were upset was because they had trouble identifying the protagonist.

Who is the protagonist of The Shining?  Let’s go down the list.

Is it Jack Torrance, top-billed and given all the best scenes?  He seems like the logical choice.  Let’s look at Jack Torrance.

What does Jack want?  At the beginning of the movie, Jack wants to get a job as the winter caretaker of the Overlook Hotel.  He says, in his job interview, that he’s “looking for a change,” and that isolation is “just what he’s looking for.”  Later he adds “Five months of peace and quiet is just what I want.”  He says he’s working on a “writing project,” but Jack, we will learn, has “no good ideas.”  Does he even have a writing project in mind when he heads up to the Overlook Hotel?  If he does, he’s never shown ever actually working on it.  My guess is that when Jack says he’s working on a writing project, he means that he hopes he’ll have an idea for a writing project while he’s there.

But what does he actually say?  Only that he “wants a change,” that he wants “isolation,” and “five months of peace and quiet.”

Now then: Jack is a husband and a father, and he’s bringing his wife and son up to the hotel with him.  What “change” does he really want?  What change would give him isolation and five months of peace and quiet?  If you’ve already seen the movie, you know the answer: he wants to be rid of his wife and child.

Jack is a failed writer.  That’s what he is.  And, as pressure comes to bear on Jack, he lashes out at his wife Wendy for “fucking up his life.”  Obviously he blames her for his predicament: if she hadn’t gotten pregnant and borne him a son, he would, presumably, be free to write, which is every failed writer’s excuse.

So what Jack really wants is to be rid of his family.  And he’s hoping the job at the Overlook will provide him with a chance to accomplish that.

But then, when given the chance, Jack does not act.  He paces, he types, he plays catch with himself, but he neither writes anything nor rids himself of his family.  Or, rather, in the final act, he tries to rid himself of his family, and fails.  If Jack is the protagonist of The Shining, he’s a profoundly unsympathetic one.

And not only unsympathetic.  Jack is also curiously passive through most of the movie.  He lets forces act upon him for quite a while — not a very protagonist kind of thing to do.

What about Jack’s son Danny?  Is Danny the protagonist?

Let’s look at what Danny wants.  Danny wants to not be scared of the Overlook, and then, later, he wants to send a psychic message to Dick Halloran, the friendly cook with ESP, and then he wants to keep from getting killed.  “To Keep From Getting Killed” is one of the weakest motivations for a protagonist.

What about Jack’s wife Wendy?

What does Wendy want?  Wendy wants to support Jack, then she wants to keep from enraging Jack, then she wants, like Danny, to not be killed.

The protagonist of The Shining is the hotel.

What does the Overlook want?  The Overlook wants to find a perfect candidate for familial slaughter.  It had one a few years back, Charles Grady, who chopped up his wife and children and then committed suicide.  Now it’s got another one, Jack Torrance.

Mr. Ullman, the Overlook manager, even mentions that Jack is an unusually good candidate for the job.  When interviewing Jack, he mentions something about how the “people down in Denver” recommended Jack “and for once, I agree with them.”  It seems that Mr. Ullman has had no luck during his tenure getting a caretaker to slaughter his family, all because of those meddling bureaucrats in Denver.  Those lousy pencil-pushers know nothing of family slaughter, but this time, seemingly by accident, they have picked a winner.

Kubrick does in The Shining something very similar to what he does in 2001: A Space Odyssey: he creates a protagonist who is invisible, or nearly so.  The extraterrestrials who set the plot of 2001 into motion are never seen, but their artifacts are.  Likewise, the protagonist of The Shining, whatever evil entity it is, takes many forms but always through surrogates: the bartender, the lady in the bathtub, the elevator full of blood.  No wonder people were upset — the movie gave them not only an invisible protagonist, it gave them an evil protagonist.  The Shining has one narrative question: Will The Overlook Succeed In Getting Jack To Kill His Family?

Which means that the narrative has two main antagonists: Danny, the psychic kid, and Halloran, Danny’s psychic cook pal.

For those keeping score, this is an inversion of the novel: in the novel, Danny and his psychic powers are the linchpin of the whole plot: the Overlook wants Danny, because he’s so freaking powerful.  In the movie, the Overlook wants Jack, and sees Danny’s power as a bar to its success in that goal.

And while we’re here, why does Danny need to be psychic at all?  In the novel, Danny’s talent is the inciting incident: the ghosts come out to play because Danny is in the hotel.  In the movie, the hotel is haunted and Danny is psychic, but the two things have nothing to do with each other.

Isn’t that kind of strange, to have a movie with a haunted hotel and a psychic kid?  Why have both?  Either one, I would think, would be enough to carry a movie.  It might sound like a stupid question, but why does The Shining need a psychic kid in it?  (Except, of course, it would need a new title.)  The hotel is evil, it means to persuade Jack to kill his family, it will either succeed in that pursuit or it will fail.  Danny’s psychic ability, apart from a couple of plot points, is utterly beside the point in narrative terms.  It’s like having a Dracula movie where it turns out Van Helsing is really a space alien: it’s interesting, but it doesn’t really add anything to the vampire narrative.

Why, then, does Danny have psychic ability?  The reason I’ve come up with is: without Danny’s talent, nothing interesting happens in the movie for about an hour.  If Danny is a kid comparable to all-too-human Wendy, the first hour of The Shining would be a mildly-concerning thriller about a father who might be going a little crazy.  Danny’s talent raises the stakes, and the level of suspense, dramatically: we know there’s something really wrong going on long before anyone else does, even Jack.


11 Responses to “The Shining part 1”
  1. Bryce says:

    Excellent work.

    My problem with the film has always been Nicholson’s performance of Torrance, and Kubrick’s conception of him. As you point out, he’s more or less impossible to sympathize with in the movie, while in the novel when he falls to his inner demons it hurts.


    I’ve always felt the most effective scene in the book is after the chase, when Torrance takes the Roque mallet and bashes his own brains out in an attempt to save his son, only to have the Overlook reanimate his corpse.

    The film never had an image of curdled paternal love to match that one.

  2. Josh James says:

    Agree very much, in fact, I’ve always thought of Kubrick himself (as director) as the protagonist in most of his films (except for Spartacus, of course) … he always appeared to identify with the powerful force above and beyond the characters …

  3. Curt_Holman says:

    “why does The Shining need a psychic kid in it?”

    Why indeed? It’s been a while since I’ve seen ‘The Shining,’ but does the film communicate the idea that the hotel is feeding off the boy’s powers? I guess the main thing Danny does with his powers is summon Halloran – who gets promptly murdered by Jack. (Halloran doesn’t even get the cool scene of fighting the ambulatory hedge animals.) So do Danny’s powers make any difference in the film? If one were to edit out the scenes that refer to them, would we even notice their absence?

    • Mike Booth says:

      I’m really glad Kubrick left out the animated topiary. I read the book after being scared witless by the movie and the book just seemed silly by comparison.

  4. TJM says:

    I’ve never seen the movie, but have seen parts of it and clips and grew up during the time it was popular. So, here’s my “stupid question,” Why is it called “The Shining?” Is that explained? What’s it mean?

  5. Rob says:

    I think that, sadly, the main reason for having a psychic kid is that the hotel doesn’t have a phone. It’s an entirely practical, stupid, plot-driven thing. Halloran needs to be called (although he does nothing), and only Danny with his psychic powers can do it. Without them, he’s a useless child character and Halloran doesn’t matter.

  6. Rob says:

    I like your concept of the Hotel as Protagonist –
    I agree that without Danny as a psychic, the first hour would be very pedestrian and we would not get as much foreboding. Can’t imagine the film without REDRUM! REDRUM!

    The film is very different from the novel – thank you Kubrick for your wonderful interpretation.
    I was really scared reading the novel version of the Shining – I would say more creeped out, but film and paper are very different mediums. In doing a film version of a novel, the screenwriter has to decide what to cut from the novel lest the film be 12 hours long. So the film version of any novel tends to focus on a smaller set of plots and subplots.


Check out what others are saying about this post...
  1. […] An interesting observation about “The Shining” and a key difference between the Kubrick film and the novel.  It would explain why fans of one have such a hard time with the other so frequently. […]