Based on the novel by Stephen King – with some notable changes by Kubrick – The Shining, upon first look, is a story about a writer who descends into madness and tries to murder his wife and son. The Shining’s storyline focuses on struggling writer Jack Torrance who accepts a job as the winter caretaker at the remote Overlook Hotel with his wife Wendy and young son Danny. Although he’s been informed by the hotel manager that the previous caretaker had a psychotic break; chopping up his wife and daughters to bits before shooting himself, Jack chooses to keep this information to himself. Meanwhile Danny has a chat with the hotel chef and we learn they both share a remarkable gift- the ability to “shine”.
The plot, filming technique, and storytelling style of The Shining made this film truly ground-breaking, both during the time period in which it was released and in the present day. The Shining’s screen play was drastically different from Stephen King’s original vision- from details as small as room numbers to events as large as the actual ending of the story (In the novel, Jack regains his sanity and his final act is rescuing his wife and Danny from the hotel before it blows up, killing him). These changes lend themselves to many different interpretations of the meaning and purpose of Kubrick’s The Shining. So many, in fact, that an entire documentary, Room 237, was made to discuss just some of the potential messages behind this film.
Among many differing opinions, The Shining can be seen as addressing sexism, corporate America, and racism. One of the earliest and most well-known viewpoints was discussed in an essay by ABC reporter Bill Blakemore entitled “Kubrick’s ‘Shining’ Secret: Film’s Hidden Horror Is The Murder Of The Indian,” He believes that indirect references to American killings of Native Americans pervade the film as exemplified by the Indian logos on the baking powder in the kitchen and Indian artwork that appears throughout the hotel, though no Native Americans are ever actually shown. Film historian Geoffrey Cocks has extended Blakemore’s idea that the film has a subtext about Native Americans to arguing that the film indirectly reflects Stanley Kubrick’s concerns about the Holocaust. Cocks claims that Kubrick has elaborately imbedded many of his historical concerns into the film with manipulations of numbers and colors and his choice of musical numbers, many of which are post-war compositions influenced by the horrors of World War II. A perhaps more obvious issue addressed within the film is the expected place of the woman compared to the man. Isolated within the halls of the Overlook and separated from society’s opinions and anti-sexist movements, Jack’s real sentiments concerning his wife and her place come through often in the form of violence.
The Shining had a slow start at the box office and opened to mixed reviews. Many thought that the movie was slow, boring and that Kubrick had ruined all that was terrifying about Stephen Kings novel. A psychological thriller of this nature, one that played so subtly with the subconscious mind, had never been seen by a wide audience before. Most horror films of the time dealt with the more concrete aspects of horror; the flight-or-fight reflex, making the audience jump, and centering the fear of the audience on a single, physical entity. The fear cultivated by The Shining is splintered and hesitant. Is the evil encountered by the family centered in the hotel as a location, or in Jack himself? Are ghosts or insanity to blame for the disappearance and reappearance of objects in the background? This uncertainty and confusion contributed to the initial rejection of the film and also the later establishment of The Shining as a classic horror film.