DENIAL OF TRUTH:
The Act of Acting in THE SHINING
Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is a cinematic inkblot; what you see on the screen is interpreted differently by each viewer. Look at it long enough and you’ll likely come away with your own vision, your own meaning.
There are many interpretations of The Shining, covering a variety of subjects. What follows is just my own thoughts regarding a few specific areas of analysis, namely the themes of truth, denial, and the danger of repeating past mistakes, how these themes are reflected in the characters, and about some common criticisms regarding the central characters and why I feel these criticisms are unwarranted.
One of the most frequent criticisms of Kubrick’s version of The Shining has to do with the characters of Jack and Wendy; the actors Kubrick chose to play the parts, and how they are portrayed, especially when compared to the Stephen King novel on which the film is based. The changes, the critics opine, aren’t just unnecessary, they detract from the story, robbing King’s creation of its inherent power and purpose. That would be true if we were talking about a literal adaptation of the source material. But we’re not. We’re talking about an artistic interpretation, a case of the filmmaker using the source material as a blueprint, a jumping off point to create his own unique vision, a platform to invest his own ideas and themes into an already existing world.
Let’s first look at the character of Jack Torrance. A common criticism is that Jack, as played by Jack Nicholson, goes crazy too soon (or is already loony to begin with). This in turn doesn’t let the viewer feel his plight as a man who goes crazy while staying with his family at The Overlook Hotel.
This perceived flaw comes down in part to expectations. What the viewer assumes the movie is about as opposed to what the movie is actually about. They assume, perhaps largely based on their familiarity with the novel, or with horror tropes in general, the film is about a sane man who gradually goes crazy while working as a caretaker at a hotel over the winter. So, they automatically place these assumptions onto the movie, these prejudices, and when they don’t conform to these assumptions, they consider the film inherently flawed. But a film should always be judged on its own terms.
Kubrick was a fiercely intelligent and creative filmmaker with his own unique ideas and style, and the choices he made regarding character behaviour shouldn’t be tossed away as simply poor judgment. In Kubrick’s films, artistry and authenticity take precedence over convention and realism. I believe there was a reason he chose an especially animated actor such as Jack Nicholson to play Jack Torrance, and had Nicholson play the character unhinged from the get-go. Having Nicholson’s character already half-crazy to begin with cuts into what I see as one of the movie’s central themes: denying your true self, and how by doing so, you’re doomed to be trapped in a cycle of repeating the mistakes of the past.
Rather than the conventional plot of King’s novel, that is, a story of a relatively normal family dealing with the horrors of the spirit world and past indiscretions while staying at the Overlook, I believe Kubrick wanted to look at an already fractured family and how refusing to face up to their true selves and deal with their problems is the real cause of the ensuing horrors.
Jack Torrance is a violent, abusive alcoholic. He’s also a man in denial of these parts of his personality, the monster part of him. Rather than face up and deal with his demons, he instead puts on a front, a mask of normality. It’s this Jack we meet at the beginning of the movie: an apparently congenial, friendly man who’s looking forward to spending five months at the hotel. But, it’s an act. All’s not well with Jack; he may appear together, but his disordered interior is starting to show itself externally (notice, for example, the small yet obvious flap of wild hair at the back of his otherwise presentably combed head during the interview in Ullman’s office, like a piece of himself has split). Kubrick highlights this artificial exterior by having Nicolson give a heightened performance – because you tend to exaggerate when you’re feeling one way inside but putting on an opposite front for the world to see.
This is why Nicholson’s acting is over the top. His character is already unhinged (aside from obvious personality issues – insecurity, rage – he’s an alcoholic who hasn’t had a drink in five months), but there’s more: Nicholson is playing an unhinged man faking a normal, happy exterior. So: burgeoning madness wrapped up in a brittle mask of sanity. It’s when he starts to unravel that his true personality ‘shines’, and the monster is finally unleashed. Which, like the hotel, is ornate, baroque, and larger than life. In Kubrick’s films, theme and content merge, whereby storytelling aspects such as structure, editing, and acting reflect the underlying themes and ideas. So it is with Nicholson’s performance. As Jack Torrance becomes more seduced by the hotel, becomes more a part of it, so his acting reflects the hotel: ornate, larger than life.
His snarling, barking performance in the latter part of the film echoes the monsters of fairy tales: he’s the big bad wolf, the giant from ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’, and the witch from ‘Hansel and Gretel’ all rolled into one. At one point Jack even recites lines from ‘The Three Little Pigs’ as he terrorises his wife and son. Jack has finally peeled off the outer sheep layer, the one he’s been wearing since the start of the movie, to reveal the wolf beneath.
Along with warnings of the dangers of living in denial, The Shining is also about abuse; parental abuse, spousal abuse, and the abuse of man against man. The spectre of Jack’s abuse towards his family looms like the Native American rugs and artefacts that adorn the hotel (which was literally built on the remains of the local indigenous people), reminding us of man’s tendency towards violence and the repeating pattern of violence that will continue unless we face the truth head-on and learn from our mistakes. As such The Shining is filled with references to man’s dual nature of good and evil: twins, symmetrical set design. And mirrors.
In the movie, mirrors represent a kind of truth: the mirror concepts of good/evil, truth/lies. Take the scene in the bathroom of room 237. At first, Jack sees only a beautiful young woman emerging from the bathtub, his blindness to the truth making him see what he wants to see. It’s only when he looks in the mirror (truth) that he sees the old mouldering corpse. Also key is the scene after, when he retreats back to his residence, and Wendy asks him if he saw anything. Even though clearly a horrible, bordering on traumatic, incident, Jack, true to his being in denial about the truth – the ugly monster he really is – denies seeing anything.
Because Jack is a man in denial, he also denies the ghostly truth of the hotel. He sees the ghosts – if you take them as being real spirits, and there’s no reason not to – which means he also ‘shines’ (the title refers not only to Danny, but also to Halloran, Jack, eventually Wendy, and also to the hotel itself). But rather than act accordingly, with fear (like Danny) or amazement, he treats the ghosts as normal. In a way he treats them as real people, just regular hotel staff and party guests, thus denying his gift.
Look at the order of when the Torrance family start to shine, and how this relates to the themes of denial and truth: Danny, the innocence/truth already shines. Jack is next to shine, revealing his true self relatively early on in the movie, but he denies his gift and so descends further into madness, doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past. Wendy is the last to face up to the truth, and hence is the last to shine, but as she accepts the ghostly reality presented to her, she is able to overcome her failings and save herself and her son. Halloran even hints at this denial vs. acceptance early on in the movie. He tells Danny, while discussing the shining ability over ice cream: “There are other folks, though mostly they don’t know it (Wendy) or don’t believe it (Jack).”
So, rather than think about Kubrick’s The Shining as a story of a normal man who gradually descends into madness while staying at an isolated hotel during the winter, I suggest thinking of it in this way: The Shining is the story of an already unstable man tipping over the edge into insanity while staying at an isolated hotel during the winter. It’s a small distinction, but I believe an important point of difference. Think of the basic plot in this way and Nicholson’s performance won’t seem so needlessly over-the-top, with the arc of Jack’s story being about how he loses his tenuous grip on sanity because of his weakness, his denial of truth.
The other performance often criticised is Shelley Duvall’s. Some say she’s terrible, that she overacts (or simply acts badly). That her character is just a simpering fool who’s there merely to play the part of the typical female horror movie victim. A badly miscalculated portrayal of what was a strong female character in the book. I think the Wendy Torrance of the film is deeper than that, a vital component of the story, and that writing her character off as badly written, acted, or that Duvall was miscast, misses the point of her character, what she represents, and how she fits in with the themes of denial, and why Kubrick drastically altered her character for his film.
I think Kubrick made a master decision to alter the character of Wendy Torrance for his film. In the novel, she’s an ex-cheerleader type who, to paraphrase King, hadn’t had to deal with any real problems before and so has to face them in the hotel. Really, Mr King? Wendy hasn’t had to deal with any real problems in her life before coming to the Overlook? What about living with an abusive alcoholic who once broke her son’s arm? I am a big fan of the novel, I think it’s a sensational haunted house story, one of the few novels to unnerve me when I first read it as a teenager, but it’s conventional in its approach: conventional characters going through conventional narrative arcs. The film, however, goes deeper psychologically and is more unconventional.
The Wendy of the film is an insecure person; meek, compliant, someone who has trouble standing up for herself. Someone who finds it hard to leave her overbearing, alcoholic husband, instead making excuses for him, allowances for him, preferring to live in denial and pretend everything is hunky-dory rather than face up to the truth and making the decision to leave her toxic marriage. King thought the Wendy of the book should have been carried over into the film, but I disagree. The Wendy of the film is a more believable character, the type more likely to not only marry but stay with a man like Jack*, and she brings a vulnerability not present in the novel. It’s an aspect of the character – a victim of abuse, someone outwardly happy but inside broken and terrified – that I don’t see many people discussing, let alone recognising.
So as much as the film is about a man struggling with his demons, The Shining is also about a victim of domestic abuse finally getting the courage to stand up for herself and escape her abusive relationship, and in doing so saves both herself and her son. But she has to get to that point, and getting there isn’t an easy journey. She’s trapped, like in a maze.
Like mirrors, mazes play an important role in the film, both story wise and thematically. There’s of course a literal maze, the hedge maze, and the hotel itself, with its winding corridors, vast chamber-like rooms, and dead-ends, acts as another kind of maze. The Overlook, a surrogate home (Jack and Wendy want to believe it’s a kind of extended holiday, but you can never truly escape your problems, no matter how far from home you are) traps the characters inside its haunted walls – the world’s largest and most majestic maze. And the Torrances – Jack and Wendy specifically – are unknowingly trapped in a maze of their own making; they are lost in a maze of pain, abuse and denial, going around in circles, seeing only what they want to see, unable to see the big picture, oblivious to the fact that the exit – the truth – has become obscured, and dangerously out of reach. Only Danny knows the truth, if only instinctively; right from the beginning he – or, rather, ‘Tony’ – doesn’t want to go to the Overlook, knowing the maze of violence and madness that awaits them. And when Wendy does eventually come to the truth, it’s nearly too late. She’s been wandering around in a daze of denial for so long she has become trapped right at the heart of the maze – the self-imposed maze, as well as the labyrinthine Overlook, and now she must navigate the harsh reality if she wants to get out alive.
Like with the character of Jack Torrance, Wendy in the first half is a woman who is acting. She’s also in denial; denial of the true nature of her husband’s personality, and of their toxic marriage. She’s existing in a world of make-believe-happy families. She’s also wearing a mask, a fake ‘happy’ exterior. This false happiness is most apparent when Wendy, like Jack, is around people other than her family. Wendy is reluctant to admit the truth to the doctor about the injury Danny sustained from Jack when he was younger. But when she does, her demeanour changes. She still smiles, but there’s unease behind the smile, a nervousness about her as she convinces the doctor – and herself – that Jack hadn’t meant to hurt Danny, that it was all just an accident. Deep down she doesn’t believe it, but she’s acting; she’s in denial. Again, Kubrick makes Duvall’s faux happiness an exaggeration (this is especially evident during the tour of the hotel early in the film, with Wendy’s over the top observations such as, “This place is fantastic, isn’t it, Hon?”), highlighting the idea that these people are living in denial of their true selves. Their lives aren’t honest, and if they don’t look at themselves and see the truth, then their world will come to a bloody end. If Jack doesn’t face the truth, then he’ll wind up like the previous caretaker, Grady, and slaughter his family. If Wendy doesn’t wake up and admit the truth, then she and her son are in danger of dying at the hands of a madman.
Fortunately, unlike Jack, Wendy does eventually see the truth. It’s a truth she can no longer choose to deny, and it’s only when her mask of denial is removed and she finally opens her eyes and sees it (via that teller of truths, the mirror – Redrum) that she starts to protect her son and her true personality shines through.
This Wendy, however, isn’t the strong action-woman type that viewers are so used to seeing in horror films; the ‘final girl’ so to speak. No, Wendy may have finally seen the truth, but she’s a broken woman beneath the mask, a woman who’s been living in fear and so she regresses to a kind of state of shock, as the truth about her husband and her life – in all its horror, including the danger she has put her son in by staying with Jack – is almost too much for her to bear. Now she’s opened herself up to the truth, she’s overwhelmed by the spectral visions that come flooding at her, like blood gushing out of the elevator. I think Duvall plays this damaged, insecure, abused, terrified woman perfectly. It may not be the type of performance given by the type of actress many viewers are used to or expect (those damn expectations and prejudices again) but it’s an authentic one. Which makes it all the more affecting.
Just a side note about how Kubrick highlights the fakeness of the two adult lead performers by way of exaggerated performances. Notice how he counteracts this with having the son, Danny, underplay. Notice how Danny speaks, his movements: unlike his parents, he speaks quietly, almost at a mumble, without much expression. Because, unlike his parents, he knows the truth about the Overlook. As he plays the truth in the movie, the innocence, he’s the only one in his family who acts with realism – opposite to his parents’ phony exaggeration. The other prominent characters in the film – Halloran, Ullman, Grady, and Lloyd – also underplay compared with Jack and Wendy. These actors seem to inhabit a more conventional style of acting, closer to the realm of naturalism, whereas Nicholson and Duvall often seem to be performing a grandiose play.
So, it appears that having his two adult leads exaggerate to theatrical proportions, when all other actors act naturally, was a deliberate choice on Kubrick’s part, and not merely a result of miscasting or bad direction. The theme of denial of truth, of people trapped in a state of artificial living forced to deal with the violent reality that comes with truthful admission, is reflected in both the structure of the film and the performances. It’s why Kubrick chose to present a family already damaged and living in denial; why Jack comes across as already mentally unbalanced and goes mad quickly; and why Wendy comes across somewhat ditsy early on and bordering on madness later.
The Shining shows us that by taking account of our inherent defects, we can overcome our flaws and ultimately survive and prosper: both as individuals and as a species. Jack is a monster, an ogre who presides over the innocent like a giant, but is ultimately undone by his own weakness. By not admitting his own truth, blinded by arrogance and rage, he remains trapped in a maze of his own doing, a maze of madness, and it’s no coincidence his downfall comes about by him getting lost in the hedge maze. If, like Jack, we refuse to acknowledge the monster in the mirror, then we as a people are destined to remain locked in a repeating pattern of violence and madness (as symbolically portrayed by having Jack – or the spirit of Jack – trapped in an old hotel photo; a kind of purgatory). However, if like Wendy we’re able to stop living in denial and are instead able to face up to the truth, then we’ll break free from the cycle of abuse and lies and make it out alive.
Damaged, yes, but wiser.
False truths are often easier to deal with than reality. But living a lie is damaging to the soul. And the ghosts of the past will come back to haunt you if you don’t learn from history’s mistakes. For me, these are the great underlying truths of The Shining.
*While working on this piece, I came across an interview with Kubrick, conducted by Michel Ciment (as found in the book Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining: Studies in the Horror Film, edited by Daniel Olson). To my pleasant surprise, I read the following, in which Kubrick confirms my own long-held opinions about the character of Wendy Torrance. He also gives a small insight as to why he chose Shelly Duvall to play Wendy and the changes he made to her character: “I think she brought an instantly believable characterization to her part. The novel pictures her as a much more self-reliant and attractive woman, but these qualities make you wonder why she has put up with Jack for so long. Shelley seemed to be exactly the kind of woman that would marry Jack and be stuck with him.”