Stanley Kubrick has shaped his career around his mastery of the craft of storytelling. His films always convey a riveting, and powerful story at face value. What may be even more impressive, however, is how Kubrick is able to shape his stories below the surface, offering insights into the human psyche through abstract symbolism and metaphors. Kubrick spent his movie making career exploring and defining human nature and interaction. His horror masterpiece, “The Shining” is no exception. Through his use of cinematography, symbolism, and story pacing, Kubrick offers the audience insight on the effects of extreme isolation, and the dangers of alcoholism. While based off of Stephen King’s novel by the same name, Kubrick takes a lot of artistic discretion, and really turns this adaptation into his own stand alone story. Because of the significant changes between the book and the movie, it is best not to look at King’s source material when looking for expanded meanings and explanations to Kubrick’s film.
“The Shining” is the story of a man, Jack Torrance, and his wife and son, Wendy and Danny. They are hired to be the care takers of a mountain retreat hotel during the cold winter months. During this time, they will be completely isolated because of severe winter storms which bury the hotel in snow each season. Danny, who seems to have telepathic powers called “shining” and the rest of his family become subject to unusual events by what appear to be ghosts haunting the hotel. These apparitions haunt the family, making it clear that they are not welcomed in the hotel. The most affected by all this is Jack who, succumbing to the hotel’s influences over his mind goes on a rampage attempting to kill his wife and son.
On the surface, “The Shining” appears to be a basic ghost story that has been told countless times before. Instead, Kubrick uses this classic story of haunting isolation to delve into the psyche of an alcoholic, as illustrated in the character of Jack Torrance. On the surface, Jack is a very sophisticated, polite person. As he meets with the hotel personnel about his duties as grounds keeper, the level of chivalrous etiquette is almost overpowering. Nothing but smiles, pleases, and thank yous. The effect is very superficial, and taken at face value, letting the audience know that there is something else to Jack that they are not being told about.
The hotel is large and spacious, there is lots of room for Jack and his family to move around, hardly an environment to cause a sense of claustrophobia. Yet, that is exactly the feeling that Kubrick establishes to keep his audience uncomfortable and on the edge of their seats throughout the film. This feeling is primarily established through tight camera shots on the characters through the film, as well as the use of a full screen anamorphic ratio being used, as opposed to a traditional 16:9 widescreen format. As the uneasiness continues to rise, it makes the few actual scares in the movie highly effective, focusing instead on a general atmosphere of discomfort and suspense. During one of the scenes in the film, Danny is seen wearing a wool sweater with “Apollo 11” knitted on it. Being the first space shuttle to land on the moon, those astronauts would have been subjected to extreme isolation and confinement, which is a connection that can be made to what the Torrance family is being exposed to as well.
It is mentioned early on in the film that Jack is a recovering alcoholic, and that he has been sober for a few months now. In talking with Danny’s teacher, his mom Wendy discloses that Jack decided to quit drinking after he came home one night and accidently hurt Danny during a drunken furry. After this traumatic event, Danny began talking to an imaginary friend named Tony. Tony seems to be more than just a figment of Danny’s imagination, as he is able to tell Danny about his dad getting the job at the hotel before he even gets it. When first getting to the Hotel, Danny meets a man named Dick Hallorann. Dick apparently posses the ability to shine just as Danny does. Because it is fairly well show that Danny’s ability to shine is real, it adds legitimacy to all the supernatural events that take place during the Torrance’s stay at the hotel.
Jack, who is an author who is using the time at the hotel to work on his book, very quickly begins to delve into madness while at the hotel. He becomes severely short and angry with his wife and son. His frustration and anger lead him to the empty ballroom. When he gets to the bar, there is a bartender there waiting for him. Jack begins just casually speaking to this apparition, even ordering a glass of bourbon. The bartender, however, pulls out a bottle of Jack Daniel’s Whiskey and pours it for Jack, an obvious mistake for any bartender, thus suggesting that this exchange may all just be in Jack’s head. An interesting thing to note is the situations in which Jack communicates with these ghosts of the hotel. Whenever he is speaking to a ghost, there is always a mirror within the shot, adding even further suggestion that these exchanges may all be happening simply within Jack’s mind. Perhaps the combination of isolation, and struggling with a past addiction to alcohol simply caused him to go insane. Or, could it be that the hotel itself does harness some sort of paranormal powers, and simply plays to Jack’s weaknesses, exploiting them for its own unclear purposes. The strongest piece of evidence to support the idea that the ghosts really do exist, is the fact that Wendy locks Jack in a food cellar in an attempts to protect her and Danny from him. After he gets locked in, one of the ghosts physically unlocks the cellar door, instructed Jack to go on and kill his family.
As Jack continues to dig deeper and deeper into his madness, Dick Hallorann, who is all the way at his home in Florida, gets a bad feeling. It is highly likely that Danny’s shining ability communicated to Dick, calling out for help. And if not him, then probably his imaginary friend Toby who seems to know the future. During most of the film, Dick spares no expense in trying to make his way to the hotel in order to save Danny and his mother. Many scenes are used to show Dick’s journey up to the hotel, continually giving the audience cause to hope that Danny and Wendy will be safe, because help is on the way. When he is finally able to get there, he only takes a few steps into the hotel before Jack jumps out and takes Dick out with an axe. After all that build up of hope, it is immediately crushed and the audience is now hopeless, feeling that Jack has basically just won.
In the final scenes of the movie, Jack continues to chase Danny and Wendy through the hotel. Just as he had hurt Danny during a drunken rage before, he is now setting out to do it again. Eventually, Wendy and Danny are able to get into a snow cat, and escape the hotel, leaving Jack to freeze to death in the snow. The final scene is a shot of a party that took place at the hotel in the 20’s. Front and center in the photo is a picture of Jack smiling, obviously enjoying himself along with all the other guests. The shot pulls out, and the film ends. The hotel can be seen as a symbol of pure evil, or seen as having the ability to shine, just as Danny and Dick. In either case, symbolic or literal, the photo at the end has the same meaning. Jack succumbed to the forces that were pushing on him. Whether allowing the evil of the hotel to essentially posses him, or allowing the influences of the hotel drive him back to an alcoholic madness, Jack still went mad. It can be said that his soul, or his negative energy, has now become a part of the hotel, and the seemingly unexplainable evil that seems to fill its halls.
Stanley Kubrick offers a very deep, layered story that is open to many interpretations as to its true meaning. The story of a family isolated in haunted motel at face value seems like it would just be a typical horror film. Instead, Kubrick offers so much more to those who are open to draw from the techniques he uses to guide the audience through this terrifying story. His use of creative camera work, and well crafted symbolism, tells the story of a man slipping into madness, and the forces that drive him to that madness. Kubrick has created a masterpiece of the horror genre that will be appreciated by film fans for years to come.