A couple of weeks ago, I attended a Halloween-time showing of The Shining, a revival of the Turner Classic Movies “event” screening, thankfully on a colossal screen at a remote cinema on the coast of Maine. There was only one other viewer in the theater, though fleetingly, a middle-aged woman who bolted out the door early on, as soon as Jack Nicholson’s Jack Torrance viciously lashed out at Shelley Duvall’s Wendy with an arch stream of verbal vitriol. I’m not sure if that woman even saw me sitting in a dark corner of the back row, so perhaps thinking she was alone with that particular film at the cinema was just too much for her to bear? More room for me then, and Kubrick’s psychological horror masterpiece (though it never rests snugly in that genre for very long) allows for plenty of interpretive space of its own. Critics have surmised that it’s about everything from colonization of the Americas to overwhelming addiction that hinders an artist from creating. Considering that the film was released in 1980, at the height of what I’ve come to refer to as the “divorce generation,” I’d say that the film is about the dread and anxiety provoked by how many young kids’ family units, including my own, were rapidly falling apart at right around that same time.
Nearly the entire film takes place inside the sprawling Overlook Hotel, a notoriously claustrophobic setting, despite how spaciously Kubrick designed almost every interior that we see in the film. The deceptively vast spaces are clearly intentional, highlighting the impossibility of intimacy between the characters, while also forcing the audience into a kind of distant intimacy with the characters inside those spaces. It’s one of the few films that transports us, indeed envelops us, so fully and immersively within its imagined, hallucinatory world. The discomfort is palpable throughout every room and winding corridor of this seemingly warm hotel as a blizzard rages outside; the Overlook is a place that’s supposed to be a home away from home, though it never feels like one. The fractured family that inhabits it for a winter, under the guise of caretakers, is rightly Kubrick’s focus, which is perhaps why Stephen King felt that Kubrick’s adaptation was the wrong fit for his 1977 novel. The scenes that shift to the typical trappings of horror — rivers of blood cascading from the elevators, the impish ghosts of identical young sisters — have now long retained their value as camp as much as horror, and they distract from the central trio of characters, momentary diversions that audiences have fixated on at the expense of the film’s core family drama. Ultimately, because Kubrick must acknowledge his source material, King’s novel haunts the film that Kubrick tried to wrest away from it.
The theme of impending divorce is indeed explicit in King’s book, and while Kubrick’s approach to the topic is more implicit, it’s clearly the one thing on Jack Torrance’s mind. Upon the film’s initial release, Jack Nicholson’s performance, along with Shelley Duvall’s, was criticized and even ridiculed for being so far over the top. But it’s also obvious from any scene in which the two actors appear together that Kubrick relentlessly pushed them there and, from accounts of how long and grueling the takes and overall shooting schedule were, intentionally exhausted them into a kind of manic overdrive. The result is a stark and darkly humorous portrait of a mother and father trapped inside a structure that’s driving both of them crazy and that they know can never last. Jack might be attempting to use his “work” of writing a novel as a smoke-screen, providing a form of escape for himself as a charade of “providing” for his wife and child, yet his ruse collapses horrifically when Wendy discovers his hefty manuscript: page upon page upon page of “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” endlessly repeated and arranged differently from line to line and paragraph to paragraph.
That neurotic and empty perfectionism is the primary counterpoint and antithesis to Kubrick’s own rich and full perfectionism that’s become the film’s critical trademark over the past four decades. The performances that he coaxed from the actors within the context of strikingly meticulous visual compositions, all nestled within a semi-mythological framework of the narrative, guaranteed within a few years of the film’s release that its initial critics were wrong, which I’m sure Kubrick knew from the start. His certainty in the ambition of his vision is much of what drives the film itself, as well as what’s secured its enduring popularity. The head-on shot of Jack staring out over the small-scale model of the labyrinth of mazework hedges that lies waiting just outside the hotel is probably the film’s most revealing image. His lordlike gaze is at once imperious and uncertain, with a touch of an early bemused realization of what he’s up against. And the gleefully violent flipside of that image is his later realization, in the film’s drunken and iconic climax, that if he can’t write his way out of the maze of his own alcoholism and insanity and familial entrapment in his unwanted, conscripted role of being a husband and father, then he’ll just have to try to hack his way out of all of it with an ax.
Kubrick’s film plays with time in a way that’s unavoidable in addressing all of this as well. Jack is, of course, at odds with the decades of masculine expectations behind him for how a father is supposed to act, how his worst sin would be to be remiss in caring for the well-being of his wife and his son. It’s a duty that many men in American culture had begun to shrug off by the arrival of the 1970s and early ’80s, in the wake of a sexual revolution that made it clear to them that if the choice to be made was between working day and night as breadwinners and caretakers or sitting alone at the bar to drown their sorrows, then they’d honestly rather just be sitting at the bar. Hence, Jack’s tipsy yet forthright interactions with Lloyd, the bartender in the Gold Room prior to the flashback of the historical ballroom scene and the ghost of the hotel’s former caretaker and waiter Delbert Grady, who’s rumored to have murdered his own wife and children in the hotel, precipitating all of the hauntings of various kinds that transpire throughout the film.
It’s easy to overlook the key role of Danny (Danny Lloyd) in all of this. Jack’s son is gifted with frightening and telepathic abilities that give the film its title. Whether or not he’s too young to intuit everything rationally, he does realize on some level what’s coming, how doomed his family is, how doomed his father is, and what exactly he may need to do in order to salvage something for himself and for his mother, who’s tried her best and sometimes failed to succeed in protecting him. With his mother’s help, he’s able to escape from the confines of the Overlook just prior to Jack’s most dangerous moments. Danny slides his way down a steep snowdrift that’s almost entirely buried the side of the hotel, in one of the most unforgettable images from any of Kubrick’s movies, and from there Danny devises his plan to trap his father in the snow-filled labyrinth that awaits just outside the interior mazelike corridors of the Overlook. We can be liberated from the labyrinth of the family, but only into the far more difficult and potentially equally lethal maze of society and the world.
I felt like I knew that labyrinth well the first time I saw Kubrick’s The Shining at the age of nine in 1983, when it aired as ABC’s Friday Night Movie for its network television premiere here in the United States. My parents had divorced several years before, so the idea of the lost father was already quite familiar to me, and all that’s lost as collateral alongside that original archetypal loss. Even at such a young age, I intuitively understood that particular undercurrent of Kubrick’s film. I’ve written elsewhere about that aspect of my childhood and how it shaped my life then, how it continues to shape me over time, so I won’t have much else to add about it here. After Danny loses Jack inside the labyrinth’s twists and turns and again escapes to his survival, and Jack gives up to freeze to death out in the snow, we see a somewhat younger ghost of Jack enshrined in one of the Overlook Hotel’s vintage photographs of a black-tie ballroom celebration of the 4th of July from 1921, reabsorbed among the lineage of the other lost fathers and sons of history. With my own father lost, I knew that I’d always remain somewhat lost, too, while still trying to find myself in the wake of his presence.