Movie Takes

Kubrick’s Family

By From the August 1980 issue

Stanley Kubrick's new film, The Shining, is about a man who wants to kill his wife and son. It does not matter that the movie uses the conventions of the horror genre, explaining the man's desire in supernatural terms; Kubrick has simply taken the wonderful trash novel of the occult by Stephen King, which was a big bestseller, and has used the basic outline of its plot to tell his more gruesome and more serious story. From the Bomb in Dr. Strangelove, to the Mysteries of the Universe in 2001: A Space Odyssey, to the Family in The Shining -- Kubrick likes to tackle the Really Big Subjects. In this movie he reverses Ivan Karamazov's famous question, asking instead: "Who wouldn't desire his son's death?"

Jack Torrance, a would-be writer, takes a job as winter caretaker at the Overlook, a grand old Colorado resort hotel which must be closed down from November to May due to the cruelty of the snowstorms. During his job interview he is informed that a previous winter caretaker went berserk and axe-murdered his wife and two little girls; nothing like that would happen to me, Jack assures his new boss. Jack moves himself, his wife Wendy, and his five-year-old son Danny up to the Overlook, and things begin to go awry when the first snows come. Jack begins consorting with ghostly presences in the hotel's ballroom, and Danny, who has the gift of precognition (the "shining"), begins seeing the axe-murdered girls all over the place, beckoning him to come and play. Jack's wife, a cipher of a woman, cannot understand what is happening around her. Jack begins to get violent, and finally, egged on by one of the hotel's ghosts (who bears the name of the axe-wielding caretaker), takes off after his own family, wielding his own axe and forcing them to flee in terror through the hotel.

Although there is nothing wrong per se with Kubrick's using just this plot outline from the novel and not the characterizations that went along with it, his changes of characterization (and incidental action, too) are seldom to good effect, and they go a long way toward explaining why the movie fails where the novel succeeds. In King's book, Jack is a devoted husband and an adoring father. What happens to him in the course of the book is the stuff of tragedy: His will is perverted, his soul is corrupted, his love turns to hate. A wonderful man becomes an unrecognizable monster. In the novel, the hotel itself is the agent of evil which forces Jack to go on his murderous rampage, preying upon his weaknesses and his feelings of guilt about his failings.

But in the movie there is something wrong with Jack from the very beginning. (He is played by Jack Nicholson, who uses his natural repulsiveness to brilliant effect throughout the film.) Although outwardly affable, underneath he seems full of contempt for everyone around him; he grins constantly, but his eyes tell a different story. As he and his family drive to the Overlook, he answers his wife's banal questions with a mixture of sarcasm and indifference, and is dismissive of his son's innocent comments. He behaves in a way that always seems to suggest intelligence, but there is still something hateful about him. It would, and does, take very little to turn him into a homicidal maniac.

SO THE JACK WE SEE at the end of the film is much the same as the Jack at the beginning, except for a newfound unkemptness and inclination toward humor ("Wendy? I'm home!" he cries out, having broken through the door to his family's suite with an axe). Where, then, is the drama in the movie? There is none, as it turns out. After an inspired opening sequence and some compelling scenes of Danny racing around the hotel on his tricycle, the movie becomes tiresome, neither very frightening nor very interesting.

If we did not like Jack, but truly liked Wendy and Danny, the movie might have become a nail-biting exercise in sadism; we would have to watch as Jack heartlessly swung his axe at his lovable wife and adorable son. But here again the movie subverts the emotional logic that make the book work so well. Wendy is a tremendously sympathetic character in the novel, as she should be; in the movie, however, she is a dull, stupid woman, and, as played by Shelley Duvall, not even pleasant to look at. She calls Jack "hon" obsessively. She intrudes upon him at his typewriter, saying "Hi hon, how's it going, can I read what you've written?" (finally he screams at her, banning her from his presence when he is trying to write). She sits around a lot watching television; sometimes she gets up enough energy to cook dinner. Moreover, she is emotionally catatonic, unable even to work up too much interest in her son. We cannot help feeling a little sympathetic toward Jack when he takes off after her with the axe.

Danny (played by an angelically beautiful child named Danny Lloyd) is a compelling character -- sweet, moving, vulnerable. His psychic gift manifests itself whenever he talks to "the little boy that lives inside my mouth," whose name is "Tony." By the end, Danny has retreated into himself and "Tony" has taken his place. "You stay here hon, okay?" Wendy says to him. "Yes, Mrs. Torrance," Danny replies in the scratchy voice we know to be "Tony's." The little boy has retreated into schizophrenia when faced with his parents. There is great pathos in this, but unfortunately Kubrick merely makes his point and then retires Danny from the action for most of the movie's second half. Danny comes alive again at the very end, when he must finally save himself from the maniac with an axe, but at this point, roughly two and a half hours into the movie, we can no longer find it in our hearts even to try to care.

All of this paves the way for Kubrick's final, thematic, deviation from the novel and for the realization of his own theme: In the movie, the family is itself the malevolent agent, not the hotel. The family destroys itself, or wreaks psychic havoc on those, like Danny, who are too young to fight back. Indeed, how can the family be anything but malevolent (and grossly unattractive) when it has Jack Nicholson as Father and Shelley Duvall as Mother? And given Kubrick's penchant for the Really Big Subjects, would we be mistaken to assume that he wants us to see the Torrances as representative of all families? As the Family?

NEVER BEFORE HAS KUBRICK so effectively demonstrated his hatred of all things human than in The Shining. Man is horrible; this we got in Barry Lyndon. Women are contemptible; this we got in A Clockwork Orange. Children are the unsuspecting victims of their parents; this we got in Lolita. But the image of Danny fleeing in terror as his father chases him, screaming obscenities and brandishing that axe -- it is more than disquieting to think that this is Kubrick's final word (to date) on human nature. He is, after all, a man with two children -- two little girls.

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