The Shining

If you, like me, are writing a haunted-house movie, it’s a worthwhile exercise to compare the structures of Stanley Kubrick’s hypnotic masterpiece The Shining with Steven Spielberg’s thrilling, personable Poltergeist. Both are movies about families trapped in haunted houses, but The Shining is grand, quiet, still and stately, while Poltergeist is small, noisy, casual and antic. The Shining is, unquestionably, the greater of the two, but I would argue that Poltergeist comes up with more ingenious solutions to the haunted-house-movie problem than The Shining does. Where Poltergeist can’t wait to throw all kinds of wild ghost stuff at you, The Shining hoards its secrets extremely carefully, keeping us waiting over an hour before the first ghost shows up, and two hours before we’re absolutely sure the ghosts are real.

(Much later, Spielberg tried, again, to make a definitive haunted-house movie, The Haunting, a movie that turned out so poorly he took his name off it.)

The plot of The Shining, for those recently born, goes like this: Jack, Wendy and little Danny move into a hotel that’s closing down for the winter. The hotel, we’re told, does not have a sterling history. Jack, a frustrated writer, starts to act testy with his family while Danny starts seeing ghosts. Then Jack starts seeing ghosts, only to him they’re not so scary. Wendy remains clueless pretty much throughout. The ghosts pressure Jack to murder his family and Jack finally gives in and tries to do so.

What does it do with a running time of 140 minutes?

Well, it spends thirty-five minutes (Act I) showing us around the hotel, then it spends another thirty-five minutes (Act II) showing Jack getting seduced by the dark side (even though it doesn’t tell us exactly how that’s happening). It spends another forty minutes (Act III) showing us Wendy and Danny’s response to Jack going crazy, then it has a fourth act where the brakes come off, the ghosts intervene and Jack is given free reign to pursue his destiny.

The pace of The Shining fascinates me. It shouldn’t work — it’s too slow, plodding even, long takes of actors speaking exposition extremely slowly. A hotel manager explains how the hotel works, a cook talks about the hotel’s past, long lists of consumables are recited, unremarkable rooms are shown in solemn procession. None of it should work — we should lose patience quickly with what appears to be a pretentious, overly-serious genre exercise — but strangely, it does work, these scenes suck us in, convince us that something serious, something important, even cosmic is going on.

With no ghosts for an hour, how does the movie stay scary? Well, I’m going to come right out and say it cheats. It gives us Stephen King’s favorite crutch, the Psychic Kid, and teams him up with one of cinema’s hoariest conventions, the Magic Negro. These days, of course, psychic kids wander in and out of narratives with the regularity of Swiss manufacturing, but the idea of combining scary-movie concepts (Psychic Kid in Haunted House, Ghosts and The Devil, Vampires in Space) was still exciting back in the po-mo eighties. When it can’t wring scares from its Psychic Kid, it manufactures tension from music cues, camera movement and absurd, pointless title cards (I will never forget hearing audiences scream at the word “TUESDAY”).

For its third act, the ghosts remain firmly in the realm of the ambiguous — are they in Jack’s mind? Did Jack try to kill Danny? Is Jack crazy? Is Danny crazy? Will the Magic Negro help save the day? Only at the end of Act III, when the ghosts actually let Jack out of his prison to go kill his family, does the movie actually take a stand and say that there are actually ghosts in the hotel. Then the movie turns into a chase thriller for twenty minutes.

My viewing companion for this evening, who had not seen The Shining since its initial release, marveled at Shelley Duvall’s performance — not so much because it’s good, although it is, but the fact that it exists. Imagine The Shining made today with an actor as good as Jack Nicholson — Russell Crowe, say — and now imagine a director, any director, matching that actor with Shelley Duvall. Wouldn’t happen. It’d be Jennifer Connelly or Gretchen Mol.

The kid playing Danny is great. Nicholson’s performance I go back and forth on every time I watch the movie but the kid’s only gets better and better with every viewing. And then you watch the “making of” documentary and you see that Kubrick seems to have treated the kid absolutely no different from the other actors (“More scared!” “Now run! Faster!”) and you have to wonder what the kid thought he was doing, especially in the scene where he has to sit in Nicholson’s lap for the least encouraging father-and-son chat in movie history.

When I made the change from Movie Fan to Movie Maker, I watched all my favorite movies again and mercilessly analyzed them, killing all the magic they held for me but revealing all their secrets. When I sat down to trace the structure of The Shining, I found I had a hard time identifying the protagonist. Jack is certainly the main character, and almost an antihero, but he does not set the plot into motion and his actions, like the actions of most of the characters, are reactive. Danny is not the protagonist, or if he is he’s not a very active protagonist. “Staying Alive,” I’ve learned, is not an adequate motivation for a strong protagonist. Wendy, as I’ve noted, remains utterly clueless throughout the narrative — the movie has less than zero interest in what she wants out of any of this. Then I realized that the protagonist of the movie is the hotel. The hotel sets the plot into motion — it torments Danny, it seduces Jack, it drives them both crazy, and finally, when Jack proves incapable of doing his duty, it intervenes. The Shining is about how the hotel tries, and ultimately fails, to get Jack to kill his family. I was thinking about this tonight when the Woman In The Tub tries to strangle Danny. I thought — well, right there, we can see that the ghosts can manipulate things — if they want Danny dead, why don’t they just kill him? They could just pick up an axe and kill him themselves, why are they making Jack do it? And I realized, well, the point is not that Danny gets killed, the point is that Jack, who has “always been the caretaker,” fulfills his destiny, kills his family and himself, and returns to the hotel forever. In a way the hotel is simply asking its wayward son to come home. And that’s why the movie spends a half-hour showing us around the place, they want us to see the building as a character in and of itself, to get to know it, feel it embracing these characters, suffocating them, driving them crazy.

A QUESTION: Where does Halloran The Magic Negro go when the Overlook closes for the winter? He’s an 80-year-old man, but he lives in a garish bachelor pad with foxy naked-chick paintings on the wall, a wet bar, and hunting trophies. Whose place is this? Not his, certainly. Is he staying in his nephew’s place, that crazy kid who’s outdoorsy and likes his ladies retro and very naked? And what’s the deal with his briefcase? Why does Halloran have a briefcase? He’s a cook, what need does he have for a briefcase? It’s prominently displayed on his wet bar in his swanky pad in Miami, and then he even hauls it to Denver when he goes to rescue Danny. Why does he take his briefcase to Denver? Even if he had some “cook business” he could address in Colorado, the entire state is under ten feet of snow, nobody’s going to be doing business that week. What the hell?

FUN FACTS: Jack types his experimental novel on an Adler, one not dissimilar to this one. In the “making of” documentary that accompanies The Shining on DVD, we see that Kubrick also types on an Adler, although his is a sporty, yellow model more like this one.

The drink Grady The Waiter spills on Jack is Advocaat, a “rich, creamy liqueur made from eggs, sugar and brandy.” Rest assured, I have never seen Advocaat outside of The Shining.

Even though the Overlook Hotel is in Colorado, most of the folks in the hotel, both living and dead, including the bartender, the desk clerk, the waiters and many of the guests, are all English (as is Danny’s doctor in Boulder). To make things more mysterious, there is a bidet in the bathroom of Room 237, something I’ve seen in no bathroom in the US, much less Colorado. This strange disparity is left unexplained.

For those interested in staying in the Overlook Hotel, you’ll have to make two trips. The outside of the hotel is the Timberline Lodge on Mount Hood in Oregon, the interiors are in Yosemite’s Ahwahnee Hotel. Both hotels were built after the date of 1921 shown in the final image.

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15 Responses to “The Shining”
  1. curt_holman says:

    In the late 1980s I remember reading a long, long piece of critical analysis of The Shining that argued that it was an elaborate metaphor for the genocide of Native Americans. It seized on (seemingly minor) details, like the fact that there’s apparently a canned product in the pantry with Jack Nicholson that has an “Indian” on the logo. The argument seemed kind of a stretch.

    • Todd says:

      The nice thing about Kubrick movies is that they generally stand up to any bizarre analysis you’d care to throw at them.

    • Anonymous says:

      I remember that essay. It was published in some film journal–Film Criticism Monthly or something like that. It seemed to be taking off from the “Indian burial ground” comment and the Navajo designs on the lobby wall. King originally intended the Overlook as a rather vague metaphor for post-Civil War America, but I agree that particular take on the film did seem to be reaching.

  2. thebitterguy says:

    How was Spielberg involved with The Haunting?

  3. nom_de_grr says:

    Wasn’t it made clear in the movie that Halloran is vacationing in St. Pete, FL? Oh, and some trivia: the foxy lafy painting also makes an appearance in A Clockwork Orange.

  4. black13 says:

    I may want to reread the novel with this in mind.

    I’ve never seen the movie. After this, I just might.

    • popebuck1 says:

      Be forewarned: If you go into Kubrick’s version of The Shining expecting it to be ANYTHING like the book, you’ll be disappointed. Though most (most) of the plot is carried over intact, it’s Kubrick’s baby, through and through.

      Enough King fans (and possibly King himself) complained that ABC finally went and made a “faithful” miniseries adaptation some years back. Aside from getting all those invaluable plot details “right,” the miniseries version has little to recommend it.

  5. ndgmtlcd says:

    Yes, the pace can be slow here and there. But it’s like the rythms in one of Bach’s masterpieces. Just perfect, at each instant and on through several movements. When somebody plays one of those Bach pieces right even non-musical persons like me get sucked in.

    It’s funny about the title cards. Their value is timeless. In two hundred years from now audiences won’t scream when they see TUESDAY appear.

  6. greyaenigma says:

    Many years back, in the days when people in the tech industry would still reward employees for a job well done, my company drove a bunch of us out to Timberline Lodge for dinner. It was a very nice, albeit romantically confusing (and frustrating) dinner.

    I need to get to Yosemite someday.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Another bit of trivia: In order to protect 6-year-old Danny Lloyd (Danny), Kubrick never let him know that he was acting in a horror film (and he didn’t realize it till some years later). I just wonder how Kubrick managed to pull that off. (“Okay, Dannny, your dad is chasing you with an axe, but it’s really a game they always play as a father-son bonding moment. Now run like your life depended on it.”)

  8. I actually quite like advocaat, a taste I acquired from my grandfather. It’s not very popular, though, to the extent that as far as I know only one company still manufactures it. It’s normally mixed with lemonade (and sometimes other stuff too) to make a Snowball.

    Trust me, you could not have lived without knowing this.

  9. Anonymous says:

    I don’t think Halloran is supposed to be 80 years old–I get the impression he’s more in his late 60s. In the book, he’s got a summer job as a cook at a hotel in Florida (and I agree that I think they mention Florida in the film) so maybe that’s the resort hotel’s tacky 70s decor.

    I read this fascinating early treatment once by Kubrick and Diane Johnson that was surprisingly differant from the final film. Halloran gets taken over by the hotel after Jack dies, for one, and then Wendy goes crazy and kills him…hope that shows up online as a PDF someday, if anybody’s got a copy, hint hint.

  10. Andrew JL says:

    Actually, I found some things that both reinforce your ideas and bring up new ones while doing a scene-by-scene breakdown. It’s massively enlightening–specifically for Kubrick films–to go through and take his many seemingly isolated scenes and see how they may connect. Things I never realized:

    -the Torrance family was never all that great BEFORE the hotel, in fact Danny and Wendy are basically abused by Jack (pay careful attention to the “Don’t you fucking come in here” scene, and just think how literally any woman would react; interestingly, Duvall plays it almost like she half-expects this and just sort of nods, says one line, “Ok,” and shuffles out. In the “All work and no play” scene Jack literally comes out and taunts her with her insecurity and meekness in their marriage, and I could go on.) And obviously Danny is off in his own little world most of the time, in a sort of mental shell. Also nice to note that Kubrick takes away any sort of “redemption” angle for Jack; as soon as the film begins, Jack is already in a state of falling and never comes close to even considering not killing his family, unlike the book, where King has him both question it and briefly regains control of himself; for movie Jack, killing his family IS what HE wants in an exaggerated fashion (“control” comes up a lot, and it also seems to tie into his lack of creativity, and his career). Sure, the hotel convinces him some, but they didn’t plant the idea.

    -creativity plays a key role in the film, some would say “Shining” is even like film making itself (casting a vision into someone’s head, or reading their mind)

    -Jack’s creativity is tied to his drinking, he’s had trouble writing since he broke Danny’s arm and quit; in an interesting reversal his renewed creativity at the hotel is tied to his resurgence of drinking

    -the butler Grady scene is interesting. In it, we–and I think a lot of people miss this–learn this Grady is the same Grady that killed his family…but they seem to have different names! There’s an interesting acting bit here, too, with Grady at first meeting being a stereotypical “Oh Jolly good sir!” English butler and is shot so we never get a close look at him, mostly from the back. But then, in the bathroom, Jack brings his identity up and asks Grady if he murdered his family, and we hear his voice break and some sadness as he answers, “I don’t…remember any of that…you must be mistaken.” And then, almost immediately after that line, there is a second change in Grady: we suddenly get a huge close up of his face, framed by a mirror and the blood red paint of the bathroom, his head held high, a malevolent glint in his eye and a sinister grin on his face. He speaks, and here delivers the lines with obvious racial undertones–but his accent is gone! His sentence structure, the basic way he talks, has changed: he speaks in very sharp, short tones, and his charming “British” exterior is swept away and replaced by his true/other nature–a theme that seems common in the movie, what with the many mirrors and such–and what must be the voice of the Hotel itself (he’s far too omniscient sounding, Kubrick literally shoots the entire rest of with him in massive close up whenever he says a line, and Jack actually seems wary of him).