The Shining is a glaring example of a film that has led to countless interpretations, favoured by its complex and enigmatic nature, sometimes leading to interpretive deliriums – as confirmed by the documentary film Room 237 (Rodney Ascher, 2012). It is our belief that, since the themes are intrinsic to the dramaturgy of the narrative film, the thematic interpretation is valid if it grounds itself in solid dramaturgical analysis, something that even many good studies of the film lack. In this article we offer a basic dramaturgical analysis of The Shining (in both its versions – 144’ and 119’) using a method which follows authors such as Syd Field, Christopher Vogler, and Dara Marks: we deal with both the narrative world, i.e., the characters, their relations, and the environment in which they act, and the narrative structure. This analysis aims at offering a new basis for reconsidering the thematic interpretations proposed until now, in order to test the validity of the implicit and symptomatic meanings1 which have been made about Kubrick’s film.
In spite of being an enjoyable horror film that evokes myths and fables, The Shining does not present a rigorously canonical dramatic framework. Nevertheless, the three-act structure2 is respected: the first act starts at the beginning and ends when Danny enters the Colorado Lounge with bruises on his neck; the second act starts when Jack enters the Gold Room in anger and ends when Grady releases him from the pantry; the third act occupies the remaining part of the film until the closing credits start. At the same time, the 12 stages and most of the archetypes of the hero’s journey as theorised by Vogler3 are traceable in The Shining, albeit being peculiarly distributed between Jack and Danny.4
The narrative world and the first act
The protagonist of The Shining – hence, the Hero – is Jack Torrance, since the majority of sequences describe his actions which determine for the most part the development of the plot. On a pragmatic level, Jack’s desire concerns completing his tasks, namely writing his novel, being the caretaker, and – in the third act – killing his family and Hallorann. On a psychological level, Jack’s fatal flaw pertains both to the fear of failure and – particularly in the 144’ version – to alcoholism. Thus, his need consists of achieving fulfilment, something he attempts to do in a morbid way at the expense of his family. Finally, on a relational level, he has to face his wife and his son, who seem to be an obstacle to all his tasks, and the ghosts as well – symbols of evil, power, and immortality – who want him to be part of their world.5 Obviously, the three levels intertwine: in order to avoid the dreaded failure, Jack desires both to write the novel (though he has no inspiration) and to make a good impression on his employers. The former aim dissolves during the second act, while the latter, proper to the Ordinary World, deviates gradually to its correlative in the Special World – i.e., Jack’s duty of evil caretaker, which entails killing his family and maybe achieving immortality, as we will learn eventually. At any rate, as a character Jack has an overall fairty-tale-like quality, since the intent of the film is to emphasize his allegorical quality rather than narrating an all-around psychological development.
In the first act we have a situation of apparent balance for Jack and his family. His manifest goal or desire (writing a novel), meshes well with the offered circumstances (spending five months of peace and quiet in the isolated hotel). His wife seems to be enthusiastic about the prospect as well. Jack is not even worried about the tragedy that occurred in 1970 – but of course this functions as an omen/foreshadowing for the audience. Danny feels lonely since he has nobody to play with, and he is reluctant about going to the hotel, but he can’t oppose the project. The boy is a young Hero who looks for a sense of satisfaction.
What is unusual about The Shining is also the fact that we have a threshold crossing of sorts inside the first act, when the protagonist and his family settle in the Overlook Hotel. The hotel is a special world for them, thus they have to explore it; in a sense, Jack’s adventure is that of being the caretaker of the Overlook Hotel. However, there is no actual problem yet, but only the potentiality of it because of (1) premonitions due to the tragedy of 1970 and to the images conveyed by Danny’s shining, and (2) uncanny events such as Jack staring at the hedge maze model (followed by an ambiguous high-angle shot of the model) or in the distance with a vacant stare, his use of the words “forever and ever” like the ghostly Grady twins do, and his abhorrent nightmare of murdering his wife and child. Moreover, we will discover later that the actual adventure for Jack is not that of being the caretaker of the ordinary Overlook, but rather the caretaker of the special Overlook, which does not entail running the boiler and the like so much as killing his family. Furthermore, when Jack calls Wendy to tell her that he got the job we have a sort of Call to Adventure for the family – or, in Field’s terms, an inciting incident for Danny – but this is not the adventure proper in a dramatic sense.
The Overlook Hotel is the place that houses the Torrance family for most of the narrative. It is a majestic and luxurious isolated place, with a grisly past: “On the one hand, [the isolation] serves, once again ironically, as the reverse side of communication, in a film which is all about communication, albeit extrasensory (the shining); on the other hand, it makes the Overlook Hotel […] a self-sufficient microcosmos […], a symbolic and absolute space, a home and a familiar place par excellence, where the destruction of the family is carried out.”6 The Overlook was built on a Native American burial ground, and Native American motifs have been absorbed in the hotel in the guise of Navajo rugs on the walls and floors. This suggests that the Overlook and its ghosts are symbols of archetypical and sempiternal psychosocial issues. Moreover, the film is full of references to myths, fables, and horror literature 7: the hotel, a haunted house of sorts, seems like “a ghost ship” to Wendy; Jack huffs and puffs like the Big Bad Wolf when he attacks his wife in the bathroom; likewise, during the tour in the kitchen – which she describes as “an enormous maze” – Wendy evokes Tom Thumb (and hence Hansel and Gretel) by stating “I feel I’ll have to leave a trail of breadcrumbs every time I come in.” This reference serves also as a setup 8 – or, a foreshadowing – both for the climax of the third act, which evokes Theseus and the Minotaur, and for the recurrent spatiotemporal disorientation that occurs in the film. Of course, Danny’s relationship with his parents recalls the Oedipal complex as well.
Jack does not have a strong inciting incident, although something similar happens when he scolds Wendy in the Colorado Lounge, asking her not to disturb him while he is working, and when – in the following short sequence – he is seen staring outside the window while Wendy and Danny are playing in the snow. We start worrying that he may be suffering from cabin fever – and, in the 144’ version, that he may become physically aggressive once again. We also have another proof that Wendy is psychologically fragile, since she is submissive to her husband. In the 144’ version, this is already perceivable when she timorously tells the paediatrician about Jack’s alcoholism and the incident that arose consequently (Jack injured Danny). Nevertheless, in the second and third act she will react strongly to her husband’s aggressions.
Jack’s nightmare of killing his family may be compared to a Call to Adventure, since it is the first explicit sign of murderous thoughts – which are going to be construed as the new desire during the adventure. Therefore, we also have the Refusal of the Call from Jack, because he recounts the nightmare in a hurtful and worried way. The Refusal of the Call is traceable in Danny as well. Differently from his parents, he does not seem to be willing to go to the Overlook, because his imaginary friend Tony does not want to. Tony, the personification of Danny’s shining, represents the Herald, the one who declares the beginning of the adventure. As a matter of fact, Tony’s communication is followed by the first manifestation of uncanny images of the Overlook Hotel, and happens in the same sequence in which Jack calls to inform that he took the job.
Both Jack and Danny have a Mentor; however, only the boy meets his own Mentor in the first act, as in the canon. Danny’s Mentor is Hallorann, an ex hero who is now old and wants to offer his wisdom and his experience to the new generation. Hallorann finds out that Danny has his own power, the shining, and thus gives him some advice: he explains that bad things happen and leave traces, though implying that these are innocuous (as when someone burns toast); he reassures him that the things he sees through the shining are just like pictures in a book. However, he forbids him from entering room 237. Danny is the first to make contact with the evil forces of the hotel. As a sort of Hero, the boy must learn how to use his power in a self-conscious manner.
Danny’s entrance in room 237 is presented as his first real Crossing of the First Threshold, because he accesses the forbidden place, which really is a Special World. Notice that Krzysztof Penderecki’s composition The Awakening of Jacob used here was already heard during the boy’s first vision and will be heard again when Jack goes in room 237. The first plot point follows: Danny enters the Colorado Lounge with bruises on his neck after his father wakes up from his nightmare. Now we have an actual, pragmatic problem: someone hurt the boy, thus there is the possibility of being physically injured inside the hotel. Once again, Jack’s and Danny’s paths interweave: while the boy is in the Special World of room 237, his father has a nightmare; after Danny leaves room 237, Jack enters the Special World.
The second act
In the following sequence Jack goes to the Gold Room (for the first time in the 119’ version, for the second in the 144’ one). This is the Crossing of the First Threshold for Jack, since he enters the Special World inside the Overlook Hotel. The second act has begun. Penderecki’s De Natura Sonoris no. 2, which started in the previous scene (while Danny walks inside the Colorado Lounge), is heard here and will be used once again at the beginning of the third act and at the apparent end of the third act (when Jack dies in the hedge maze).
In the Gold Room Jack meets Lloyd – the first ghost he sees – who acts as a Threshold Guardian. Moreover, Lloyd is the first Ally encountered by Jack in the Special World (Grady will follow). Thus, two parties are starting to be defined: on the one hand, Jack and obscure characters of the Special World, pertaining to the true adventure; on the other hand, Danny, Wendy and Hallorann. Lloyd strengthens Jack’s will, therefore acting as an Enemy of Danny’s. In this case the Threshold Guardian is clearly an objective correlative of an obscure part of Jack’s mind. In the 119’ version, the alcoholism problem is absent: the liquor that Jack asks Lloyd for and then drinks seems to be desired only in order to dampen his anger, with no other implications. In the 144’ we know about Jack’s former alcoholism, therefore the fact he drinks the liquor reinforces the idea of crossing the threshold on the psychological level. At any rate, this subplot is not developed, so that in both versions the liquor primarily represents a magical potion that sanctions Jack’s evil pact with Lloyd (and the Overlook through him) and therefore allows him to start the adventure in the Special World.
Overall, the ghosts who appear to Jack incarnate the Shapeshifters: they are seemingly innocuous but actually subjugate him to the hotel. The most literal Shapeshifter is the woman in room 237, who first appears as a young and attractive lady but then morphs into a repulsive decaying hag – which is herself double as it were, since we see her alternately laughing sardonically and walking toward Jack, and expressionless, emerging from the bathtub (Danny’s vision?) thanks to crosscutting. At the same time, the archetype of the Shadow can be found: it stands for the fury of the evil side, the danger which tacitly lies beneath the surface. In The Shining the Shadow is twofold. First there is the Overlook Hotel, which tries to take advantage of Jack in order to eliminate his family. Then there is Jack himself as Danny’s antagonist, representing what the boy may become if he does not accomplish his own journey.
The first Test for Jack in the Special World is the temptation of drinking liquor. This is stronger in the 144’ version, since we know about Jack’s alcoholism. The second Test is the sexual one, which occurs in room 237, when Jack encounters the shapeshifting woman. Afterwards, Jack quarrels with Wendy about his needs, and then he has a sort of Approach to the Inmost Cave. He goes back to the Gold Room, where a party is taking place: Jack is greeted, he receives liquor at no charge, and he meets his Mentor Delbert Grady. Grady is a Shapeshifter as well, because he is introduced as a jovial waiter in a ’20s-style party but then reveals himself as the unsettling 1970 caretaker. In the red bathroom, Grady subtly instructs Jack about his adventure, preparing him for the central ordeal.
The midpoint – i.e., the “point of no return” 9 – occurs during the confrontation between Jack and Wendy in the Colorado Lounge, after she reads the typewritten text. It is confirmed that Jack’s personality has changed: after having disabled the radio (and – as we will learn later – the snowcat), he seems to be willing to hurt his wife. The metaphorical gate behind his back is definitely close. 10 Jack undergoes an Ordeal: all at once, he faces his wife (now an antagonist) on a pragmatic level, and his fears and flaws in psychological terms – pertaining to the working contract, the writing project, and the relationship with his family. He seems to be failing completely, since the novel is actually the repetition of the same sentence (“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”), his wife wants to think things over because she does not understand his needs, and she knocks him out and down the stairs with the baseball bat, thus preventing him from completing his tasks. Therefore, as in the best midpoints, the scene contains the symbolic death of the protagonist, who will then be left powerless and lame, locked inside the pantry.
Here, Jack undergoes a rebirth of sorts: he fully regains consciousness and makes Wendy become aware of his evil actions (regarding the radio and the snowcat). Then, while still inside the pantry, Jack receives the greatest Reward yet: Grady gives him another chance to do his job and releases him from the pantry. This is the clearest physical interaction between a ghost and ordinary reality in the film, and Jack’s escape is the second plot point of the film. From now on, the protagonist deals with his desire in the most extreme and irreversible way, since he does not come back to his senses. In other words, Jack definitely misses the chance to satisfy his real need.
The third act
In a sense, Jack takes the Road Back to the Ordinary World, as in the hero’s journey. Both in the first and in the third act he has no relationship with the ghosts; after escaping the pantry, he relates only to his family and to Hallorann. At the same time, the Special World invades the Ordinary World, since the ghosts become visible to Wendy as well – presumably because Jack is doing exactly what the hotel wanted him to do. Hallorann is killed by Jack, who now seems to be the strongest character despite having sustained injuries (the blow to the head and sprained ankle), while Danny is shell-shocked, hiding inside a cupboard after escaping the janitorial quarters’ bahtroom. But then, following Hallorann’s murder, Danny runs and makes his father follow him in the maze. Here, the stage of the Resurrection takes place. In a decisive confrontation, Jack tries to kill his gifted son. However, he does not succeed: Danny entraps him in the maze by erasing his footprints – i.e., the only possible clues in order to find the way out. While he kills his father by trapping him in the maze and letting him die of hypothermia, Danny is “resurrected” since he survives his most dangerous and almost certain meeting with death at the hands of a stronger opponent.
At the end of the hero’s journey there is the Return with the Elixir. This event is subtly implied in The Shining, and it is unclear whether it happens or not. After we see Jack frozen to death, we find him “frozen” in a 1921 photograph. This twist at the end suggests a reincarnation that can be compared to the elixir, being the implied reward for Jack’s special adventure in the Overlook Hotel. However, interpretation is unavoidable: Will the evil cycle repeat itself in the future like it did in the past? Or did Danny manage to stop the cycle of violence from repeating forever and ever? In the first case, Jack – i.e., this instantiation of the caretaker – has obtained the elixir, and will return; in the second case, he has missed the chance to get it and is forever trapped in the limbo of an irretrievable past.
Our study is intended as just a first step towards an all-encompassing dramaturgical analysis of The Shining. More research is needed in order to thoroughly examine the psychology of the characters, the progression of narrative events, the film’s relationship with the horror genre, the role of its stylistic patterning (both visual and aural) in the narrational process, and the implicit and symptomatic meanings that may be constructed. In this regard, being sophisticated and cryptic, the film has widely incited scholarly interpretation, focused on psychology (the Oedipal complex, the uncanny), philosophy (the matter of time, the nature of evil), history (the massacre of Native Americans, the Holocaust), anthropology (the coeval US culture, matters of capitalism and Western societal organization), and transtextual aspects (the reworking of tropes taken from myths, fables, and horror fiction, the film’s role in Kubrick’s poetics). 11 We hope that our analysis will offer a well-founded starting point from which to test the validity of the interpretative literature on The Shining as well as to further develop it.
- See David Bordwell, Making Meaning: Inference and Rhetoric in the Interpretation of Cinema, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989. ↩
- See Syd Field, Screenplay: The Foundation of Screenwriting, (New York: Random House, 2007). ↩
- Christopher Vogler, The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, (Studio City, CA: Michael Wiese Productions, 2007). The stages are: Ordinary World; Call to Adventure; Refusal of the Call; Meeting with the Mentor; Crossing the First Threshold (to the Special World); Tests, Allies, Enemies; Approach to the Inmost Cave; Ordeal; Reward; The Road Back; Resurrection; Return with the Elixir. The archetypes are Hero, Mentor, Threshold Guardian, Herald, Shapeshifter, Shadow, Ally, Trickster. ↩
- The only archetype we were not able to find in The Shining is that of the Trickster. However, the character of Stuart Ullman somehow recalls a Trickster, because (1) he remains lighthearted even when he recounts the murderous story of Charles Grady, and (2) he brings Jack Torrance down to Earth speaking about the cruelty of winters, the sense of isolation, and the cabin fever. ↩
- For a methodological framework see Dara Marks, Inside Story: The Power of the Transformational Arc, (Studio City, CA: Three Mountain Press, 2007); John Truby, The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller, (New York: Faber and Faber, 2007). ↩
- Giorgio Cremonini, Stanley Kubrick. Shining, (Turin: Lindau, 1999), pp. 42-43, our translation. Kubrick himself noticed this irony: Stanley Kubrick: Interview by Michel Ciment, in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining: Studies in the Horror Film, Danel Olson, ed. (Lakewood, CO: Centipede Press, 2015), p. 481. ↩
- Ruggero Eugeni, Invito al cinema di Kubrick, (Milan: Mursia, 2010), pp. 101-102; Catriona McAvoy, “The Uncanny, The Gothic and The Loner: Intertextuality in the Adaptation Process of The Shining,” Adaptation 8.3 (2015), pp. 345-360 ↩
- See Robert McKee, Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting, (New York: Regan Books, 1997, pp. 238-239) ↩
- Luca Bandirali and Enrico Terrone, Il sistema sceneggiatura. Scrivere e descrivere i film, (Turin: Lindau, 2009), p. 169, our translation. ↩
- Bandirali and Terrone, Il sistema sceneggiatura, p. 125. ↩
- In addition to the aforementioned sources pertaining to The Shining, see Vincent Jaunas, “Inside the interpretative maze of The Shining (1980). The search for meaning in crisis,” Essais 4 (2018), pp. 79-88; Matthew Merced, “How Narcissistic Injury May Contribute to Reactive Violence: A Case Example Using Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining,” International Journal of Applied Psychoanalytic Studies 14.1 (2017), pp. 81-96; Roger Luckhurst, The Shining, (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013); Michele Guerra, Il meccanismo indifferente: La concezione della storia nel cinema di Stanley Kubrick, (Rome: Aracne, 2007), pp. 119-147; Geoffrey Cocks, The Wolf at the Door: Stanley Kubrick, History, & the Holocaust, (New York: Peter Lang, 2004); Michel Ciment, Kubrick: The Definitive Edition, (London: Faber & Faber, 2001), pp. 135-147; Juhani Pallasmaa, Monster in the Maze. Stanley Kubrick: «The Shining», in Id., The Architecture of Image: Existential Space in Cinema, (Helsinki: Rakennustieto, 2001). ↩