The Shining (Kubrick's): The Overlook as a Metaphorical Place. (5800 words)
I was never a big fan of Kubrick’s The Shining and last year I decided to read King’s novel hoping it’d give me a few clues about what in the world happens in this movie.
I was agreeably surprised to see that Jack Torrance is more fleshed out in it. And for some reasons, I had this feeling that it was very unlikely that Kubrick would have wanted to transform such a nuanced character into the one-dimensional disagreeable bastard with virtually no narrative arc that is Jack Torrance in the movie. On the wikia page, there’s a list of differences one can find between the two versions and one of them is: Jack is already schizophrenic from the start in the movie.
"The problem with King's Jack Torrance was that it was too nuanced, too fleshed out, too subtle. To put it simply, it was too good. I wanted a one-dimensional clown." S. Kubrick, LIFE october 1980.
Also, I only heard of the broken arm story in the novel, I had never exactly noticed it in the movie. This story is the perfect entrance door to an alternative reading:
Danny messes Jack’s home office up. Jack grabs his son’s arm out of anger to bring him in front of him and tell him off. The arm snaps.
Jack Torrance will claim that it was a regrettable accident. Spectators think that they’re required to read between the lines: He beats his kid.
Except that the idea of an accident is very believable. Jack didn’t hit Danny. He didn’t slap, he didn’t punch, he didn’t whip him. He grabbed his arm. It wasn’t one “domestic incident” amongst others, it happened once. Jack never defends an idea like "a good slap in the face can teach a kid a lot of thing." It’s not that the man is a brutal, violent man, he was drunk and probably didn’t measure his strength exactly like when you’re drunk, like he says. And final element: he doesn’t drink anymore (even if it’s not clear to me when he stopped).
Later on in the Overlook hotel, Danny is bruised, Jack looks absolutely dumbfounded. Nobody seems willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Of course it’s him, who else ? Well, he was sleeping when Danny entered the room 237 and was assaulted so maybe, just maybe, Jack is not the one who hit the kid ? You know, as an experienced sleeping person myself, I can tell you, it’s hard to beat your kids while you’re asleep.
On a narrative level this raises a problem. What would be the point of telling the story of Jack becoming a maniac who tries to kill his family while making him innocent of Danny’s bruise ? There would be no point in that, because if Jack isn’t responsible for Danny’s bruise (and he isn’t) then his slow descent into madness misses a serious step. I suppose that’s one of the main reasons why spectators just take it for granted that he is.
Anyway. Jack Torrance isn’t responsible for Danny’s bruise. And Jack never becomes crazy. Wendy does. But not in the “I’m gonna chase you with an axe” kind of way.
There are several allusions to fairy tales in the movie, “Hop-o'-My-Thumb”, “Bluebeard”, “Three Little Pigs” and also the Labyrinth cannot but remind us of the Minotaur. There also are a lot of allusions to modern tales like cartoons, Walt Dysney’s characters and the trip to the moon (lol). It goes as far as having Jack imitates the Big Bad Wolf before striking the door with an axe. Jack and Wendy call Danny Daffy Duck. And Wendy is the girl from peter Pan. And there exists a tale called “Jack and the Beanstalk.” Also, there’s a reason for the chase between Jack and Danny and its superb conclusion to resemble a Bip Bip and Coyote episode, and for Wendy to be dressed like Goofy.
Through these allusions, the movie announces itself as a metaphor for something universal. As a fairy tale, it prioritizes metaphors, imagery and meaning to realism.
Everything in The Shining is perceived through Danny’s eyes. It’s a mental reconstruction of what’s happening in his life, a metaphor for it.
The core of the story is when Jack broke Danny’s arm.
The kid knows that he had done something wrong and that his father was legitimately angry. (That’s important, Jack represents the law).
But he also is now scared of his dad, scared that his dad might wanna hurt him again because he secretly enjoys it, scared that his dad might be evil. => This is the reason behind Nicholson's super constant satanic overacting, that's how Danny now perceives his father.
His trauma made him create Tony, a double of himself that speaks for him so that Danny doesn’t take any risk of displeasing his father. Tony serves the purpose of saying problematic things. I believe it is explicitly said someone that the imaginary friend appeared when Jack broke his son’s arm. (I can't remember where at the moment though).
"Dad, can Satan have kids ?" "Why would you ask that question Danny ? Of course Satan can have kids ! Mouahahahahahhaahah"
The accident of the broken arm created a rift in the family.
Wendy, if she wasn’t what she is, would try and heal the wound by explaining that Jack didn’t mean to hurt Danny, that the broken arm wasn’t the response to the kid’s bad behaviour and that his father loves him. She would explain her son that he shouldn’t be scared of his father, that it won’t happen ever again even if Danny behaves in the same way, but that, at the same time, he shouldn’t mess with his dad’s papers or enter his home office.
Jack cannot do it because he lost his son’s trust. He needs Wendy to bridge the gap but this she will not do because she is what she is.
The shot of the car travelling on the road through the mountains that opens the movie tells you the Torrance family’s situation. They’re lost in the wilderness. Nature/urges have colonized nearly the entire space and there’s only a very narrow path for a civilized future. Their “It” has nearly overcome their “selves.”
The core of the story is the broken arm, but the story starts when Jack loses his job and decides to stay home/work as a guardian (in Danny's mind).
What does a guardian do ? He overlooks. The guardian job is Jack staying at home. The Overlook hotel is the Torrance’s house under Jack’s supervision now that the father is going to be constantly at home... now that home is going to be his workplace.
The situation might be critical for the Torrance and the unlimited reserves of food that we see in the Overlook could well be the result of a lie (and again, Danny’s deforming perception). They’re short on money, but Wendy forges a lie to make sure that Danny doesn’t worry: there’s plenty of food for months to come.
The hotel space is built like an extension of the Torrance’s house. Their room is their house, the space where Jack isn’t at work, where he’s only Danny’s harmless father. The hotel is their house when Jack is at work and he can break your arm if you step in his territory.
From the very beginning, Danny is going to have hallucinations relating to his fear that if the house becomes his dad’s workplace, then anything that Danny does can trigger his father’s anger. The twin sisters represent the blending of Danny with Wendy. Little girls are innocence and harmlessness, Danny and Wendy are two little girls in front of Jack, ready to be slaughtered as soon as they’ll do anything that displeases him and they will as their desire is to play.
The conversation in the car is a very revealing one. To put things simply, Wendy wants to talk about cannibalism but as she only wants to look innocent and harmless, she innocently tackles the topic “isn’t it here that the Donner group got stuck in the snow ?” and leaves the rest to Jack: “They had to resort to cannibalism to survive.” Danny is captivated.
The topic of cannibalism isn’t just incidental here. I wish I had a specific word to refer to the idea because it’s quite important in the movie and I’m struggling with referring to this concept. So, let’s just say that in order to exist human beings have to accept that they will hurt others, they have to accept that they might need to be violent towards others or indifferent to other people’s suffering.
It’s kind of the lesson kids can deride from Bip Bip and Coyote. One character is trying to kill the other and of course we want Bip Bip to escape, but we have sympathy for Coyote and we understand that he just want to eat. What’s funny is that he’s called Evil Coyote.
Danny is trying to give room to this potential violence in him. He isn’t turning evil, he’s doing this as a normal stage of psychological development. The problem is that this brings him closer to his father while moving away from his mother. Wendy is all selflessness, devotion, innocence and harmlessness (of course this is just her persona).
This aptitude for violence is very strongly associated with birth. It’s the desire to take space in the world of the living. The desire for absolute innocence makes birth an immoral act of which you are guilty of. The desire for absolute innocence makes eating an apple an immoral act. Bringing people to desire absolute innocence is a very strong tool to submit them.
Birth as something violent. This vision is the taboo that lies behind the structure of the Torrance family. Wendy's behaviour and psychology suggests that she is harmless and would never hurt anyone. She is a walking lie. These vaginal doors spread blood and a corpse.
I’ll come back to this later on. Here, I’ll just like to add that beyond all these considerations, the cannibalism discussion also means that Jack and Wendy are probably entering a fight to the death.
Wendy is unhappy that Jack has decided to stop working for some times. He is jobless/guardian of the house. It’s the last straw, as she is what she is, the man has to bring money home. But Jack wants to write a book.
And so, the atmosphere is not exactly light at the Torrance’s house. Except that it totally is for one month. Everything goes fine as long as Jack considers himself on holiday. That’s why the movie immediately jumps to the second month which corresponds, how surprising, to the moment when Jack decides to start writing/working.
Suddenly the house changes into the Overlook. Danny remains in the corridors where he is sure he won’t enter his father’s home office. Except on this specific day when he doesn’t know his father is going to start writing and we see him in the typewriter room.
And thus starts the fight between Wendy and Jack.
Wendy truly doesn’t care about Jack’s ambitions or happiness as long as he brings money home and behaves according to expectations.
And so, as Jack is doing something that is problematic, she starts brainwashing Danny. She invites him in the meanders of her mind: the labyrinth. Jack knows it and it prevents him from working on his book. He’s obsessed with what Wendy and Danny are doing.
I’m surprised so many people consider the labyrinth to be an echo of the Overlook. To me the Overlook is Jack and the exterior is Wendy.
As they walk together, Danny and Wendy are holding hands. For the first time that day, Danny stops in front of room 237. It’s closed.
Wendy visits Jack and gets thrown away harshly. The man is annoyed at her because he knows she is using her free time to create a bond with Danny that excludes the father. She’s not trying to make things work. She is using the broken arm story to maintain an influence over her son. If this sounds very accusatory, I can only say that I’ve seen more family in which there was this rivalry between parents than not.
Danny still remains in the corridors. He is still scared of his working father.
As an answer to her rejection, Wendy goes out in the snow and has a snowball fight with Danny. Jack is very pissed off at her behaviour.
The arrival of the snow underlines Wendy’s deepening loneliness.
Or course, Wendy could just be playing with her son. But I’m saying that it’s not what’s happening in my opinion. Wendy is showing off how much Danny isn’t scared of her, how much she’s close to her son and it explains Jack’s rising annoyance.
But the man remains decided to carry on working on his book.
I’d like to underline how much this interpretation perfectly hugs the unfolding of the scenes. It allows us to perceive each new scene as a consequence of what happened in the previous one, whereas The Shining is most of the time perceived as an enigmatic display of random moments, isolated in time, that magically ends with Jack trying to kill his wife and son. So much so that people consider that Jack is actually already crazy at the start and thus has no true narrative arc.
Wendy runs out of ideas in order to prevent her husband from writing. That’s a very common practice too, to have parents using their kids in order to manipulate their partner and as soon as she’s “finished” with Danny, he’s left on his own again. The labyrinth was seduction, the snowball fight was an attack sent at the father. Let’s move on to…
...her sexual frustration. Wendy’s attempt at using the phone is her attempt at finding company. The line being broken is her failure to do so, or the result of friendship not being enough in the situation. She then shifts to the radio. We see her walking down the main hall, holding a lit cigarette: she is frustrated sexually and is thus looking for a sexual partner. Her Exchange with the young and handsome cop proves to be unsatisfying. He understands that something is wrong but at the same time he prevents the conversation from going into light chatting territory.
Even though Wendy states that it’s good to talk to someone, we’ll never see her come back to the radio ever again. I know I’m going to be impossible to understand here but it’s important because it means that Wendy’s problem isn’t loneliness and is egocentered. She is lonely, sure, but she is also vexed that Jack could do without her so easily when she clearly can’t and considers that, as her husband, he should always be there for her.
Jack makes a step towards Danny and tells him he loves and would never hurt him. As it seems that she’s losing the fight, Wendy decides to counter-attack.
- She is frustrated sexually.
- She’s been using Danny as a tool to get to Jack.
- She’s jealous of Danny’s interest in his father whenever he is not in “work mode” even though Jack broke Danny’s arm.
- She wants to assert her possession of their son.
- Danny already tried to open the room 237.
When he approaches the open door of the room 237, Danny calls “Mum ?” He’s right. It’s his mum inside, waiting for him.
He already tried to enter after their walk inside the Labyrinth but she didn’t want it at that point. Then they watch summer of 42, a movie about an older woman having a romance with a man half her age.
Wendy abuses Danny sexually.
I wish to underline again that what happens in the Overlook hotel is only Danny’s perception. Everything is filtered.
And for example, Jack’s traumatizing dream of cutting Wendy and Danny in tiny bits is most likely Danny’s idea of what his father would do to them if he learnt what happened.
Wendy’s attempt at re-igniting the boiler represents her effort to fight solitude. Boiler against snow.
There’s no easy way of explaining Danny’s mark on the neck. Even spectators who consider that it’s Jack have to admit that 1-He’s asleep when Danny enters the room 237, 2-He looks honestly surprised and innocent when he sees the mark and 3-He repeats it when talking to himself/the ghost in the Gold Room, where he has no reason to lie.
In order to consider that it’s Jack who made the mark on Danny’s neck, one needs to consider Jack schizophrenic and an aggressive sleepwalker.
…except that, as the Overlook’s universe is just Danny’s perception, Jack wasn’t necessarily asleep when the aggression took place. Jack’s sleep and dream only mean that the father is unconscious of what’s going on, but that if he knew, he’d most probably kill Wendy and Danny.
So again, Wendy is abusing Danny sexually.
I’ve been unsettled by the place of the bruise for a long time. Beaten kids don’t get bruises on their necks (in movies), they get them on their arms or faces. The choice was always weird to me, even when I believed it was Jack who was responsible for it. But now, I understand, this bruise on the neck is a “lovebite wound.”
There are a few other elements that indicate that it’s Wendy who hurt Danny.
The Kid never accuses his father. Instead he tells his mother that it’s a crazy woman who did this. Jack will ask his wife “Are you sure you’re not crazy too ?” when she reports it to him.
The man has understood what happened but he is in denial. That’s why he gives up on his book and goes back to the Gold Room of alcoholism. If the Overlook is only Danny’s perception, then Jack’s ghostly return to alcoholism is actually a real one.
I don’t think relapsing isn’t that unjustified when your wife abuses your kid sexually though.
Another thing that makes Wendy a more believable culprit than Jack, is that Danny doesn’t jump into her arms when he reappears with the bruise on his neck. He doesn’t cry, he doesn’t look for comfort from his mother. That’s extremely strange. He just sucks his thumb => He looks for comfort from himself. Wendy takes him in her arms and carries him outside the room, the kid doesn’t move a finger, he is paralyzed.
In the American cut of the movie, there are a few more scenes showing Wendy and Danny together. The kid never talks to his mother ever again except through Tony. If she wasn’t the abuser, he wouldn’t need Tony. He’d say something like “Mum, I’m scared” with his normal voice.
His son doesn’t look for comfort from Jack because the father is in his “working” form. Danny doesn’t want to bother him. Still the fact that he should dare enter the room after he was assaulted is a sad indicator of how serious the situation is and that it’s his dad’s help that he is looking for. Wendy was in the boiler room.