Kubrick’s version of The Shining has long been debated in its divergence from Kings book, and whether the delivery of the films horror is more psychological than supernatural.
In this article I am going to take a look at the hidden depths of Kubrick’s Jack and Wendy. Exploring how Kubrick uses the Overlook as a conduit for far more human horrors. While exploring how the real horror of the Overlook Hotel helps the films enduring appeal, and ability to not only scare but also play with our sense of family.
Criticism is often levelled at Kubrick’s version of The Shining due to the perceived weakness of Wendy in the film. Personally I think this is a narrow view of the character and the interpretation Kubrick delivers.
Throughout the film the spectre of domestic abuse & alcoholism in her home life is inherent. From her nervous meeting with Danny’s doctor to her constant smoking and nerves. Wendy is the glue of the family, doing everything she can to keep Jack balanced in his emotions and actions. She is petrified by his anger and volatile nature, but stuck in a relationship that offers little emotional support.
Once at the Overlook it is Wendy doing the mechanical checks of equipment in the hotel, and Wendy using the radio to check in, she is central to keeping things balanced right up to the the final act.
When things begin to crumble and Jacks behaviour becomes violent, she loves and protects her son beyond any love for her husband. Putting Danny first at ever turn. Wendy is clearly a woman finally accepting the true nature of the man they married. Desperate to take her child and leave, but still committed to a man who taunts and abuses her love.
In Kubrick’s vision the Overlook Hotel is a backdrop to the final family breakdown Wendy has feared; awakening within her the stark reality of her own marriage. As she walks through its corridors in the final act she sees men having secretive liaisons alongside skeletons of people partying, a clear reference to past, endings and reflections.
The hotel represents her eyes being opened to the need to escape the domestic abuse, fear and control she has endured.
So we have explored the character of Wendy in The Shining, but what about Kubrick’s vision of Jack Torrence?
Jack sees his family unit as an inconvenience to the life he thought he would have. He failed as teacher due to his alcoholism and temper, taking these frustrations taken out on his wife and family. Injuring his infant son on at least one occasion that is shared with us during the narritive.
The car journey to the hotel paints a picture of a man who thrives on control, and believes his wife to be a failure in the raising of his child. His discussion on the Donner party with Danny is almost judgemental in nature, not at Danny but at Wendy for letting him ‘watch it on tv’. The winding roads to the Overlook a visual statement on Jack’s own mental health, addictions and demons, and need to find a way out of his current journey.
He sees the Overlook Hotel as a fresh start from his home life, but the isolation only makes his failings more obvious. The hotel acting as a conduit for all his negative thoughts, his alcoholism, his violence and work failures. For example ‘all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy’ highlighting the internal restraint and frustration of his life. Both King and Kubrick playing with modern masculinity, commitment and the restrictions of the male provider.
The hotel feeds these internal desires and encourages the things that led him to failure. The woman in the bathtub is a clear example of his wish for sexual freedom; escaping the domesticity he endures. The hotel providing him with his deepest desires at every turn, while showing him the ugly nature of this desires in equal measure. This is a man in the grips of mental breakdown, all of his dreams and desires imploding alongside the family unit that has never truly suited his character or needs.
Jack eventually sees his only way out as being the removal of his wife and child. Once again as with Wendy, Kubrick playing with the notion of family breakdown, with the hotel a vehicle to making this a reality.
While there are also supernatural references within Kubrick’s vision of Kings work, his film plays more to the true horror of families where abuse and control are a part of daily reality. A horror we can all relate to as being far worse than ghosts and poltergeists. The Shining reflects back to us all that real horror exists in the intent and action of the living, and not the dead.