"I am sorry to differ with you, sir:"
Thoughts On Reading Kubrick's The Shining

by Kian Bergstrom

© 2000 Kian Bergstrom. All Rights Reserved

The Shining stands at a turning point in Stanley Kubrick's career in two important ways. Coming after the monetary failure of Barry Lyndon, and being adapted from a Stephen King bestseller, it is clearly an attempt to regain a popular footing. Barry Lyndon would be the last film Kubrick made with full confidence. Starting with The Shining, his films would become increasingly concerned with the differences between 'popular' taste and 'high culture,' between sensationalism and intellectualism, internalizing this dialectic within the themes and actions of the works, even as Kubrick wrestled with it externally, in terms of marketing, casting, and choice of material. The Shining ended up one of the top ten grossing films of the year, and is one of the top fifty grossing films of its decade (1971-1980). (1)

It also marks the beginning of his critical downswing. Following the four Academy Awards, and nominations for Best Picture, Director and Screenplay, that Barry Lyndon was honoured with, The Shining became the first Kubrick film in 23 years not to be nominated for a single Oscar. Out of Kubrick's final three films, The Shining, Full Metal Jacket, and Eyes Wide Shut, only Full Metal Jacket would receive an Academy Award nomination, for Adapted Screenplay, which it lost to Bertolucci's The Last Emperor. Initial critical responses to The Shining were lukewarm to virulently negative, accusing it of being muddled, inconsistent, and poorly contrived. Kubrick's mastery of the technology of filmmaking, and his willingness to utilize it in new ways, distanced reviews, who saw in his interest in the machinery behind the scenes a disinterest in the drama on the screen. Paul Mayersberg, for example, wrote that "[i]t seems technically brilliant and yet fundamentally heartless. (2) " In Pauline Kael's scathing review as well, we read that "though we may admire the [visual and special] effects, we're never drawn in by them, mesmerized. When we see a flash of bloody cadavers or observe a torrent of blood pouring from an elevator, we're not frightened, because Kubrick's absorption in film technology distances us. (3) " She goes on to dismiss the film as not trying to continue and advance the art of terror, writing

[c]learly, Stanley Kubrick isn't primarily interested in the horror film as scary fun or for the mysterious beauty that directors such as Dreyer and Murnau have brought to it. Kubrick is a virtuoso technician, and that is part of the excitement that is generated by a new Kubrick film. But he isn't just a virtuoso technician; he's also, God help us, a deadly serious metaphysician. (4)

Stephen King, disappointed in the changes Kubrick had made in adapting his novel, wrote:

There's a lot to like about it. But it's a great big beautiful Cadillac with no motor inside. You can sit in it, and you can enjoy the smell of the leather upholstery - the only thing you can't do is drive it anywhere. So I would do everything different. The real problem is that Kubrick set out to make a horror picture with no apparent understanding of the genre. (5)

The underlying criticism, which is best articulated by King, is a questioning of Kubrick's ability to read. Kael accuses Kubrick of being unable to effectively follow the tradition, of not understanding it. Moreover, she tells us that his interest in the mechanics of his art has rendered him incapable of making legible characters. Kubrick doesn't let us read his characters sympathetically, and thus he fails at engaging our emotions when he places them in danger. Mayersberg, too, focuses in on Kubrick's use of his camera as a sign of his inability to use his actors well. The fault, he tells us, is that in giving attention to the technical aspects of filmmaking, Kubrick has failed to put 'heart' into his movie. Kael and Mayersberg are so threatened by Kubrick's understanding of how his medium works, it seems, because their prejudice is for the horror film to be, in Kael's words, "scary fun" or "mysterious beauty." When it becomes clear that The Shining is going to frustrate viewers looking only for one or both of those, they, like King, see only a film that doesn't know its place, that is, for want of a better word, uppity. Even those filmmakers Kael holds up as being successful in the horror genre, Murnau and Dreyer, would not stand up to their predilections. Murnau's Nosferatu and Dreyer's Vampyr, undoubtedly the movies Kael was thinking of, themselves pushed the technical envelope so far that it was years before audiences or critics knew how to react. Vampyr in specific seems to have been a near direct inspiration for The Shining, with its roaming and unsettled cinematography, highly stylized acting, and widely open ending.

Standing at the dual crossroads between the supermarket bestseller and the ignored classic, The Shining performs as the capstone on Kubrick's artistic arc. Both the beginning of his increasing interest in definitions and analyses of popular culture and the end of his definitive standing as a critical darling, it is a film that functions to exacerbate and instigate these changes. In viewing the film, we see played out within its structures a new, hitherto unseen (within his own work) stylistic questioning that will be elaborated upon and transformed in his final two works. The Shining is a film aware of its position within the canon of Kubrick's art, and it reacts to its unusual situation through a disruption of its own form. As we view the film, we see interrogations of these two themes of popular culture and intellectual rigor. Consequently, the film itself is a terribly hard piece of work to read seriously. Is it, as Robert Philip Kolker has claimed, "a broad, loud, perfectly unsubtle film, ... more a parody of the horror film than a film seriously intent upon giving its audience a fright, (6) " or is it, in fact, a film so inquisitive and heart-breakingly intricate that its insides are unplumbable? The Shining, perversely, has it both ways, as it positions itself as an unreadable film filled with acts of reading and writing. This is a film that deeply queries our ideas of what interpretation is, what its purposes and methods are, and what, in the end, its value is.

Within the thematics of the film, the tension between the desire for popular success and acceptance and that for artistic expression finds itself symbolized, almost as a cruel joke on Jack's behalf, in the figure of the typewriter. Originally invented to increase speed and legibility of written documents, the machine functions against itself in the course of the film. Jack's opus, pounded out day after day on its keys, is an exercise in futility and illegibility. The ten words of his mantra, "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy" become, in their stupefying repetition, divorced from meaning and context, and float freely within what Emerson would in his late essay "Nature" call a "system of approximations." Jack's attempts at self-expression, the holy grail of Modernist art, are stymied and coagulated into incomprehensibility by virtue of their own purity and lack of intercession or explanation. His creative endeavor becomes more meaningless and unapproachable than the worst potboiler or cheapest exploitation.

The hotel itself feeds his work, at one point silently placing a fresh sheet of paper in his typewriter, and at another changing the machine's colour. In direct contrast to Jack's work is his son, Danny, who threatens the hotel in unknown ways. Danny's psychic abilities allow him a preternatural access to truth. 'Shining,' as Hallorann calls their shared visionary capabilities, is a kind of super-legibility, a reading with unexpected clarity. As we will see, though, even 'shining' is illusion. Danny's and Hallorann's powers are linguistically as phantasmic as Grady or Lloyd, and just as hard to read. In a sense, they function as Derrida's 'dangerous supplement,' threatening to undermine the hermeneutic labyrinth into which Kubrick has led and left us. We are accustomed to works of art seeming impenetrable and becoming, through our close attention, ever more understandable. The longer we look into this film's workings, though, the more complicated and confusing it becomes.

One of the clearest places to see this illegibility is in attempts to summarize the action and plot of the film. How are we to describe what we have seen? On the surface, surprisingly little actually happens: Jack and his family move into the empty hotel to see it through the winter; Jack loses his senses, sees some ghosts, and goes after his wife and son with an axe; finally, he is outwitted in the hedge maze adjacent to the hotel, as his would-be victims escape. This is an enormous change from Kubrick's previous two films, A Clockwork Orange and Barry Lyndon, both of which are strongly plot driven films. In comparison to the tendencies of his work, The Shining is remarkable in that it can be boiled down so completely (7) . But because in part of the somber seriousness that every scene is given, the tone of importance that every smallest gesture has, this plot summary cannot but be unsatisfactory. It is not just that events are missing. That is the nature of synopsis. It is that moments have been omitted that seem, though we perhaps have no understanding of why, to be of vital importance in understanding even on a basic level what has gone on. It is, upon closer examination, impossible to tell basic plot points apart from the fantasy life of Jack and the psychic life of Danny. That distillation of the events depicted in the film is thick and sticky; it refuses to stay compact and easy to deal with. The Shining's plot summary is a tar baby, a trap out of which it is quite difficult to escape. It engages us actively in a colloquy of distrust: we find that while there is little to believe, little we can believe, in the film, what with its ghosts, apparitions, and psychic visions, there is also good grounds for not doubting their tricky existence within the shimmering world we've entered.

The Shining, I believe, is, out of all of Kubrick's films, the most open to dialogue between the audience member and the film itself. His previous films are characterized by a kind of didactic tone, an approach to filmmaking that is, in effect, a monologue. 2001: A Space Odyssey is engrossing in its meticulous detail, filled to over-flowing with intellectual energy and conclusions, and yet, it is Kubrick actively telling us the viewers a story. To watch 2001 well is to seek out meanings, depths, and import; to watch The Shining is to graze in a field of possibilities, to lose oneself in a phantom garden, to seek the shapes of clouds. 2001 is a passive vision of the universe, and history, and thought itself. The Shining is an active experience, like an intimate conversation with an uncomfortable relation, or an old, nearly forgotten friend, who remembers more of the friendship than we do. It pulls us gently in and traps us there to tell us horrible things (8) .

Unlike more straightforward works, and I'd even place 2001 in that category with regard to The Shining, I would argue that this film beckons to us to help it out. Kubrick's strategies involve a radical and extreme involvement on the part of the audience. At every crucial point in the film we as audience members are given moments to reflect, to question, and to disagree. The most apparent of these is when Jack leaves the locked pantry in which Wendy has confined him. The unexplainable nature of the escape he manifests calls into question nearly everything we've seen so far. Are the ghosts he sees, then, real, and he not mad? The Shining practically begs us to ask questions of it, and to demand answers back. And the film is prepared to provide us with a meaningful dialogue. The pace is certainly more leisurely than horror films are "supposed" to be. We're prejudiced into thinking that horror = gore + no time to think + catharsis. The film undermines each of these. We're given only sporadic bloodshed, a puzzling and contradictory ending, and, most upsetting of all, much more time to think on our own than we feel we ought to have. This is far from a 'roller-coaster ride of terror.'

Kubrick again and again asks us to look at why we came to The Shining and to feel ashamed. How small, how petty we are, to expect to be entertained by watching an abusive alcoholic terrorize his enabling and confused wife and disturbed son (whom we know he has a history of beating). How pathetic of us that we would imagine spooks and spirits to be scarier than a man who attacks his wife with an axe. There's very little gore, but there's enough to make very certain we're thinking about how little blood there is in the film. Think of how soon it is after we see what Tony is showing Danny about the elevators that we enter into the meat locker. During the tour of the kitchen Hallorann gives to Wendy and Danny, the cook turns to open a large metal door, saying, "Now right here is our walk in freezer." The film cuts to a shot from inside the freezer looking at the opening door, which is now being pulled open with its hinges now on the other side of the doorframe. "Now here," Hallorann says to his captive audience, "is where we keep all of our meat." Winking at us, the narrative has made a direct connection between the players in the film and the carcasses of dead beasts that the hotel keeps inside its walls. When you add this moment to Danny's vision of Grady's dead daughters the emphasis placed on physical consumption that abounds in so many scenes, such as the early discussion about the Donner Party, the implication is clear: Kubrick knows that we have come expecting to be scared in part through the making visible of guts and organs, and he laughs at us. "Oh, really?" we might imagine his disembodied voice cackling; "this place is so scary, they eat the gore." After the film is over, with its final images being those of repetitions and broken closures, the cycle of the film feels more like its gearing up for another round than ending. As far as catharsis goes, as far even as explanation goes, we're left after the film without a sense that either took place for us, but should have, that somehow, we missed 'it,' or didn't get 'it.'

Even as The Shining elbows us in the ribs and mocks us for seeking after those easy, cheap thrills, Kubrick's genius makes it such that if we stop looking at the film from outside, but actively try to get inside its head as much as it is in ours, it becomes, in addition to a critique of the horror genre, a genuinely emotional and horrifying experience. Scarier than being rushed into a situation is being dragged kicking and screaming into it. The most pivotal moment of legibility is when Wendy finally and suddenly decodes Tony's muttered "redrum," by means of a mirror (hardly a passive object in this film) into the word, written in blood-red lipstick, "murder." Bartok's music swells suddenly, as we see fear explodes across her face, and we hear a loud thump. Jack is chopping down the door with his axe. The conventional move in this case, in order to keep the audience on its toes, at the height of emotions, would be to stay with Wendy and Danny, to follow them as they try to escape from the noises, and to gradually reveal their source by glimpsing Jack through a hole he has newly made in their door. Instead, the film negates the surprise potential of the scene by cutting immediately to a shot of Jack outside the apartment, chopping away. While an ordinary horror film might have the axe suddenly rip through the door with no warning, The Shining shows us in detail what's about to happen. The pacing and editing of the film almost guarantee that we're picturing within our minds not just the axe going into the door, but what Jack's going to do once he gets in there with Wendy. (9) And while the surprise of a regular film might have given us a thrill, the horror of knowing that Jack is chopping up the door behind which his wife is cowering in order to kill her in the most violent manner available to him in the hotel is much more acutely felt and moving. We feel for Jamie Lee Curtis' Laurie Strode when we don't know where Michael Myers is hiding, waiting to kill her. We feel with Wendy when we know much more than we want to know about where Jack is coming from.

Audience self-identification with the characters in distress is always a key goal in any horror film. If we don't care one bit whether the threatened one will be hurt, if the emotional connection is lost or never established, inevitably there the scares will be few and far between. Many films of this genre will show us one or two scenes that serve to establish the main players as normal, everyday individuals who happen to be played by beautiful movie stars, and then assume that we as audience members will connect viscerally to their plight afterwards. The Shining is most unusual in that we are given a great many scenes in which we learn very detailed things about the characters, and even more unusual in that the character we learn the most about is the 'monster,' Jack, who nominally fulfills a role that would ordinarily be opaque and sketchy, under the assumption that an unknown menace is more terrifying than a known one. The Shining is, as many critics have pointed out, a very wordy film; everyone who talks seems to talk at length, and those words are inevitably turning against their users. The notable exception of Lloyd the bartender, who is clearly the manifestation of the will of the hotel, might be explained by virtue of the fact that the hotel is itself a vision of silence; it is forever covering up the past and present. It was, as we are told by Ullman, built on an "Indian burial ground;" considering the visions of violence we are given from the hotel's past, it's foundations must be soaked in blood to the core. Of course, "all the best people" who stay there would never discuss the atrocities the hotel has seen. The manuscript that Jack pounds out day after day mirrors this white-washing of history, in its lack of vision into his soul. We learn as little from his 'novel' as we learn from Ullman's tour. Jack, who claims to be a 'writer,' that is, one versed in the artistry of words themselves, progresses through the course of the film (regresses, possibly) from being articulate and verbose, to being able to write only one sentence, again and again, to being able to speak only in television and fairy-tale cliches, (10) to incoherent grunts and wails.

Words in The Shining consistently fail to bring about their desired effects, with disorienting and distressing results. While the 'redrum' moment is the most obvious and viscerally effective of the obfuscated linguistics at work, it is far from the only example. Creepily central to the thematics of the film is an early scene between Danny and Hallorann, in which Hallorann explains the power that the two of them share. He calls it 'shining,' specifically naming the conversations he and his grandmother were able to have "entirely without ever opening our mouths." What he's describing is a mythological state of linguistic purity, divorced from the corrupting and inexact influence of words themselves. Hallorann, with his (significantly) highly reflective, totally bald head, is relating to us in his explanation of 'shining' what Derrida discussed as the impossible arche-anchor of signs: "[t]here is no phenomenality reducing the sign or the representer so that the thing signified may be allowed to glow finally in the luminosity of its presence. (11) " Derrida's shining signified, the deconstructor's Excalibur, is Hallorann's romantic vision of the psychic power with which he has been gifted. His faith in the non-threatening nature of 'shining' is nothing more than wishful thinking, though. He is as trapped by the hotel as the Torrances are, though psychologically. Hallorann is obviously not as strong in the shine as Danny is, but he still knows much of the history of the hotel (or at least room 237). Why, then, does he continue to work there? Does he not recognize the nature of the hotel? He cannot think that it is a passive entity, merely the site of the various acts of violence and bloodshed and depravity that have been committed there in the past. It seems in his conversation with Danny that he knows much more than he lets on.

It is my belief that he is afraid of reprisals from the hotel should he leave. We know how the building feels about him ("a nigger cook;" it doesn't even dignify him with a name), and given that he has 'the shine,' he must know that there will always be weak willed men who will be absorbed into it, ready to track him down. When in his bedroom in Florida he makes the connection with Danny, and subsequently makes the arduous trek back to Colorado, he sacrifices his own self-interested desire in safety in order to finally act. His reasons for not telling Danny the truth about room 237 are not just that he doesn't want to disturb the young and impressionable boy. His whole demeanor is one of a man constantly terrified, who's putting on a brave face in front of these strangers. He bowed legs seem bent to the breaking point under the weight of his terrible knowledge. The decorations in his home lend themselves also to this reading of his character, being so outrageous and tasteless. He is reacting to the excessive control over his actions and decorum while in the hotel by going overboard with the freedom that distance gives him. When he's no longer under constant surveillance, he goes a little out of control. And yet he returns, year after year (so many years that he's been promoted to head cook, a position of power that still keeps him in the kitchen). He is a slave without chains or dogs; he has been oppressed so long he can't comprehend the lack of oppression. It is only when he makes the human connection with Danny, when he allows himself to see through Danny's eyes, and thus prevents any possibility of objectifying him as just another addition to that wonderful walk in freezer, that he finally acts, not out of knowledge, but compassion.

The Shining is not as easily fooled as he is. It knows with Derrida that the play between image and 'reality' is not nearly so simple, that even his extra-sensory abilities cannot break free of the infinite play of signs. The Shining, playing the same games with us as audience that 'shining' plays with Danny and Hallorann, shows us 'real life' events in the lives of its characters and impossible or dreamlike events from their hearts, minds, and histories. It is a film built out of mirrors and reflections and glass and (snow) crystal.

There are things like reflecting pools, and images, an infinite reference from one to the other, but no longer a source, a spring. There is no longer any simple origin. For what is reflected it split in itself and not only as an addition to itself of its image. The reflection, the image, the double, splits what it doubles. The origin of the speculation becomes a difference. What can look at itself is not one; and the law of the addition of the origin to its representation, or the thing to its image, is that one plus one makes at least three. (12)

As Wendy brings her husbands his breakfast in bed, the camera slowly zooms into their image reflected in a mirror at the other end of the room. Jack looks into our eyes and tells us he has never been so happy as he is at the hotel, and that he'd never want to leave. The scene ends with the camera still gazing at his mirror image, an image repeated in Eyes Wide Shut as Alice and Bill Harford make love before their own reflections, and in a sense, we never leave that position, poised between schizophrenia and dissection. In The Shining, we are always already in search of a footing to stand upon, a stable position from which to launch our critical apparatus. In its repeated challenges to us, daring us to read it on its own terms, we find ourselves as lost as Jack is at the end, within our own labyrinth, led there by our own Danny figure, who, like a ghost, has followed his own trace back to safety, and left us to freeze in the insubstantial night.


(1) Stanley Kubrick Companion, by James Howard, p. 157  (back)

(2) "The Overlook Hotel: Paul Mayersberg reviews Stanley Kubrick's The Shining," by Paul Mayersberg  (back)

(3) "Review of The Shining," by Pauline Kael (back)

(4) ibid.  (back)

(5) Quoted in Stanley Kubrick, a Biography, by Vincent LoBrutto, p. 453, from the 1986 issue of American Film  (back)

(6) A Cinema of Loneliness, by Robert Philip Kolker, p. 80  (back)

(7) This has, though it may at first glance appear otherwise, very little to do with the genre of the film, I think. It might be said that a horror film, by virtue of the fact that it attempts to capture the emotions of the audience more wholly and domineeringly than any other kind of film, must possess a consequently more rarefied plot. It is true that when the aim is to scare, many films choose to have little action other than people running about and screaming at each other. This could certainly be seen in popular films such as Halloween or Jaws.

The opposite of this trend can be almost as easily seen, however, in the consideration of the genre as a whole. Nosferatu, probably the first horror film, has a plot that defies understanding, let alone synopsis. Psycho and Peeping Tom, the two films that stand over the explosion of interest in the genre in the fifties and sixties like gargoyles over a church steeple, both defy easy description. More recently, Cronenberg's experiments in horror, epitomized by his masterpiece Videodrome can be seen as actively working against the possibility of summarization.  (back)

(8) Perhaps the essential difference between The Shining and 2001 in terms of interpretive strategies could be best seen in analogy to the world of print. Two authors Kubrick is often compared to are James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, and the works of the two seem to want to be read in similar ways to the early Kubrick (The Killing through Barry Lyndon) and the late Kubrick (The Shining through Eyes Wide Shut). In reading Ulysses, we find that every detail complicates and reveals new subtleties of the characters we meet and know. In Waiting for Godot, Krapp's Last Tape or Endgame, it seems as if every new moment or observation throws everything we thought we knew into disrepute and doubt. Joyce's artistry is a constructive one. His language builds upon its own foundations. Beckett's is a contradictory, destructive muse. It almost feels as if we know less about his characters after we've seen them in detail than when they were strangers to us. While 2001 moves in clockwork precision, adding insight to insight, metaphor to metaphor, The Shining breaks down in ever more interesting and difficult to characterize ways the closer we look into its workings.  (back)

(9) It is interesting to note the editing strategies that we see in The Shining, and compare them to traditional Hollywood practices. In his textbook On Film Editing, director and editor Edward Dmytryk writes that :

[i]f that viewer, during his first look at the film, is critically conscious of the sets, the photography, the acting, the director's 'touches,' the 'brilliance,' of the dialogue or the musical score, the good director knows he has come up short of perfection. A film's first viewing should evoke emotional, not critical, reaction.... The finer the cutter's technique, the less noticeable is his contribution.... No nonprofessional viewer will remember the cutting, even in postviewing analysis, since most cuts are specifically contrived to pass unnoticed. If the film is well shot and well cut, the viewer will perceive it as a motion picture which seems to flow in continuous, unbroken movement on a single strip of film. -pp. 11-12

Hollywood has long striven for complete transparency in films: the viewer should have the sense that the story has been told in one continuous line, without interruption or upset. Dmytryk's attitude towards the art of editing on film is characteristic of nothing about The Shining, I think, for that film flaunts its cuts, and works for the viewer to be completely unengrossed mindlessly into the action. It is very important for The Shining to have our complete attention, but it is not a zombie-like captivation it is after. The edits in the film are nearly always somewhat jarring, breaking established rules that we've grown used to in our years as audience members seeing more traditional films. Similarly the camerawork calls attention to itself at every opportunity, from the low Steadycam shots of Danny on his tricycle to the fast zooms into the word "redrum" written on the door.  (back)

(10) "Little pigs, little pigs, let me come in," "Come out, come out, wherever you are," "Wendy, I'm home," "Here's Johnny!"  (back)

(11) Of Grammatology, by Jacques Derrida, p. 49, my italics  (back)

(12) ibid., p. 36  (back)


Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. 1967 (translated by Spivak, 1974)
Dmytryk, Edward. On Film Editing. 1984
Howard, James. Stanley Kubrick Companion. 1999
Kael, Pauline. "Review of The Shining," in The New Yorker, June 9, 1980
Kolker, Robert Philip. A Cinema of Loneliness. 1988
Kubrick, Stanley. The Shining. 1980
LoBrutto, Vincent. Stanley Kubrick, A Biography. 1997
Mayersberg, Paul. "The Overlook Hotel: Paul Mayersberg reviews Stanley Kubrick's The Shining," in Sight and Sound, Winter 1980
Walker, Alexander (with Taylor, Sybil and Ruchti, Ulrich). Stanley Kubrick, Director: A Visual Analysis. 1999