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Stanley Kubrick’s take on The Shining has long been a source of interesting discussion and debate. Several arguments focus on the Indian burial ground the hotel was constructed upon. Others speculate that Danny’s Apollo jumper proves the film is about how the Moon Landings were rigged. Check out Room 235 if you get the chance, it’s a great study in obsession and the way fan theories can take on a life of their own:
Personally, I’m more interested in Jack Nicholson’s performance as Torrance, the ultimate anti-parent. On watching the film recently, it became clear to me that Jack’s descent into oblivion started long before the overlook brings its spectral presence to bear on the Torrance family.
Look again at that winding drive up to the Overlook. The in-car chatter serves to provide the viewer with oodles of information about the Torrance family. Danny is a smart, observant and inquisitive child. But at the same time, he is also shy and withdrawn, unsure whether approval will be offered for his contributions. Wendy is constantly walking on eggshells, trying to appease Jack and steer the conversation into safe, positive territory. And Jack … Jack is dismissive of everyone. He is snobbish, self-absorbed and quick to anger. He is also completely alone, entertaining thoughts and questions from others as mere irritations or amusements rather than ideas or emotions to be engaged with.
The Shining is a film about a man who hates his family. If that doesn’t chill you to the marrow, I don’t know what does.
It is not simple resentment that Torrance feels (though those notes are present early on in Nicholson’s performance) but outright loathing. Jack is a failure as a writer and as a man. These 2 things are quite possibly related. But rather than redeem himself through his work Jack lashes out at those who love him, taking his own failure out on them.
As Jack stares at the model of the fiendishly complex maze, the film cuts to a fantastic overhead shot of his wife and son navigating the actual maze — a metaphor for the journey wife and child will take into Jacks crumbling psyche.
Wendy Torrance was a bit of an enigma to me when I first watched the film. I think this is because Kubrick presents her to us through Jack’s eyes without telling us that this is what he is doing. This is why there are few initial hints of the capable and resourceful qualities she possess, qualities she demonstrates later-on in the film. It is Jacks complete undervaluing of Wendy and his refusal to see her as a person in her own right that is his ultimate undoing. There are other hints about Jacks attitude to his other half (see the magazine he is reading in the hotel lobby as he awaits his interview) but the car ride to the Overlook gives the viewer a very keen idea as to his general outlook. He constantly appeals to his own authority and responsibilities (caretaker job, writing commitments) to avoid being present for his wife and child.
The first time I saw The Shining I thought the performance of Nicholson was a bit over the top, which is a perspective a lot of people have on first viewing. But as I’ve re-watched it I’ve come to realize that it is this grand, over the top acting that makes it impossible for viewers to avoid confronting their own failings, or the failings of those around them. The performance acts like a signal flare for unhealthy, destructive traits and it cannot readily be dismissed without further thought. There is no get-out clause for the viewer and even discovering the slightest similarity to Jack can be an unnerving experience.
As a modern horror story, The Shining is very good indeed. As a horror story about the modern family, it is peerless.
Karl Milfburn is a writer.