I was a teenager when Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining was released in the summer of 1980. I thought of myself as a fairly sophisticated moviegoer. I had seen Barry Lyndon five years earlier, and I had seen 2001 and Dr. Strangelove and The Killing several times each. I had also read Stephen King’s novel. None of that prepared me for the sheer oddness of The Shining. I felt that it bore a strong relationship to 2001, but I couldn’t put my finger on how.
Syndey Pollack once mentioned that, if he happened upon The Shining while channel surfing, he had to stop and watch the rest of the movie. He had no choice in the matter. I know the feeling. I’m guessing a lot of people do. It’s compulsively watchable, entrancing.
It wasn’t very well reviewed when it came out. The better reviews said that it worked in spite of its flaws, others just hated it outright. People who were aware of Kubrick’s status as a genius were scared to say that it sucked, because they suspected somewhere that they had missed something. What is it about The Shining that sets it apart from other movies?
When it was in theaters, I saw it six times. It scared the hell out of me the first few, but it entranced me every single time. I couldn’t shake it. It’s still my most-watched Kubrick movie, and it’s always been the first movie I bought when new formats came along. I’ve owned it on VHS, DVD and blu-ray. (The most recent blu-ray is the best I’ve ever seen of the print, including the print I saw six times in the theater; the colors are richer, the shading is more subtle, the detail stronger.)
The plot is extremely simple. Jack Torrance takes a job as a winter caretaker for an isolated hotel. He brings his wife Wendy and his young son Danny to the hotel. Ghosts in the hotel convince Jack to murder his wife and son, and Danny, who is psychic (the “shining” of the title) contacts a hotel employee (Dick Halloran) to help him and his mother out of this mess.
The people who loved the novel (it was an enormous bestseller, and established Stephen King’s reputation as America’s premier horror author) hated the movie. Their main problem was that Jack, in the book, is a good-but-flawed man who falls prey to the predatory ghosts in the hotel, while Jack, as played by Jack Nicholson, is obviously crazy from the get-go.
I sympathize. I’ve gone back and forth on Nicholson’s performance a dozen times over the years. Sometimes I think it’s the most subtle, most brilliant thing ever, sometimes I think it’s wrong in every possible way a performance can be wrong. In the end, it doesn’t matter what Nicholson’s intent was; this is the performance Kubrick chose out of hundreds upon hundreds of takes. But Nicholson’s performance is not the root of why the novel-lovers hated the movie. Rather, it is a symptom of something else, a narrative decision Kubrick made at the beginning of his adaptation process.
In the novel, the protagonist of the story is Jack Torrance. Jack has a problem with alcohol, and it has affected his relationship with his family, and the ghosts in the hotel are a metaphor for his inner demons. Little Danny, in the novel, serves as a catalyst for the hotel ghosts to appear; they are attracted to his powers of “shining.”
If you’re a fan of the novel, it’s not a surprise if you’re upset and confused by the movie, because it presents to you a very different narrative. Kubrick could have done a lot of different things with the story: he could have kept Jack as the protagonist, he could have made Danny the protagonist, or he could have made long-suffering-wife Wendy the protagonist. Instead, he went a fourth route and made the hotel the protagonist. He took a story about a man struggling to conquer his demons and turned it into a story about a hotel trying to get a man to kill his family. And that, I realized, explains Nicholson’s performance, why he appears to be eye-rollingly crazy from the moment he walks in the door. He must appear to be insane, or else the hotel wouldn’t hire him. The hotel, it seems, has been waiting for decades for a proper candidate to show up for the winter-caretaker position. Jack’s obvious instability isn’t a bug, it’s a feature. Mr. Ullman, the guy who interviews Jack for the job, is very clear on this point. They have, it comes up in the interview, considered a number of other candidates for the job, but none of them have what Jack has. But the job Ullman interviews Jack for isn’t “Winter Caretaker” but “Guy Who Will Murder His Family.”
And this isn’t some crackpot Room 237 kind of nutty fan theory, it’s borne out by the script, and the scenes that were part of the initial run of the feature, before Kubrick pulled the prints a week into the movie’s run and removed them. The original ending of the movie had Ullman showing up to the hospital where Wendy and Danny are recovering from their ordeal and telling them that there is nothing out of place at the hotel, nothing that will back up Wendy’s stories of ghosts and corpses and rivers of blood coming out of the elevators, nothing out of the ordinary at all. And then he gives Danny Jack’s tennis ball, the ball that had figured so prominently in Jack’s breakdown. It’s Kubrick’s intent that Ullman, as an agent of the hotel, is complicit in the hotel’s demand for blood.
Which brings me back around to 2001. In 2001, Kubrick pulled a similar narrative trick, to a similar narrative effect. He gave us an invisible protagonist, a group of extraterrestrials who set the narrative into motion and who commandeer the narrative every step of the way, but whom the audience never sees. These invisible extraterrestrials plant a monolith for the apes to discover, the monolith gives them super-intelligence (for an ape), which causes them to murder, which sets human history into motion, until soon we’re sending people into space to uncover a second monolith, buried beneath the surface of the moon, which leads us to the third monolith off the coast of Jupiter, and so forth. The narrative effect that results from having this invisible protagonist is that it disorients the viewer and puts them into a state of heightened awareness. All of the usual cues of storytelling – that is, “let’s follow around the protagonist” – vanish, and the viewer is made to examine each piece of narrative for its hidden meaning, in order to figure out who the protagonist is and “what it all means,” or else give up and become bored.
(One of the consequences of the shift in protagonist from the novel to the movie, is that Danny’s ability to “shine” goes from being the catalyst of the plot to a coincidence that, in many important ways, adds nothing to the plot. Danny no longer “draws the ghosts out of hiding,” his ability is completely unrelated to Jack’s experience of the ghosts, and the one thing his ability is good for, to “call for help,” ends up with the helper dead within seconds of showing up to save the day.)
It’s this narrative strategy, not the startling imagery, nor the exaggerated central performances, nor the elliptical script, that makes The Shining such a compelling viewing experience. We enter the Overlook Hotel, and Kubrick spends an entire act of the movie introducing us to it, and we get sucked in just like the characters, get sucked into its mysteries and intrigues, not knowing that it, itself, is the protagonist of the story we’re watching. We’re kept off-balance through the entire viewing experience, there’s nothing else in filmmaking to judge it against, we have to watch it in order to fathom how it works.
Todd Alcott is a screenwriter in Hollywood. You can read more of his film analysis at his blog, What Does the Protagonist Want, as well as read about his in-progress graphic novel, Feeder Birds. He currently has a movie, Medusa, in production at Sony Animation.