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The Shining – A critical analysis

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Brought to screen by the mastermind of Stanley Kubrick, is this adaptation of the Stephen King novel by the same name. The film has been called the most suspenseful of all time and one of the most carefully thought out movie ever. Many critics will agree that there is something special about this movie, something about the way it manages to enact an emotional response from the viewer. Kubrick uses many devices in the creation of these emotional responses and certainly one of the most important elements used to create suspense and the sense of surreality is his particular use of plot in The Shining. This essay will examine the movie’s plot, looking at how it contributes to the creation of suspense in the shining.

The story is essentially about an uninspired writer, Jack Torrence who takes a job at the Overlook, an old hotel, as the winter caretaker. He then progresses into madness and attempts to kill his wife and son. Like the crazy, unbelievable sequence of events that make up the plot, so to, the timeline that the story follows seems to exist within very little order, jumping in a meaningful, yet sporadic manner, from, “2 months later”, to “a few hours later”, compressing progressively the audiences involvement and scope from the wide open, as in the title sequence of the mountains, through to the final detailed shots of the end. It is through these divisions that the plot is outlined.

The protagonist of the film is the little clairvoyant boy, Jack’s son, Danny. It is mostly through his eyes that we see the story unfold. He is the wisest of the characters and one in whom we vest our interest and concern. It could be argued that Jack is the main character, or indeed one who displays many of the archetypal protagonist characteristics. In many ways the story revolves mostly around his degeneration into madness.

The antagonist is undoubtedly the house itself. We get the clear impression that Jack is merely acting out the wishes of the house. It has the sinister hidden agenda, the motives for which the audience is left open to interpret. Nonetheless, through the dubious ghosts the house drives Jack into raving lunacy and homicidal tendencies.

The movie, in true Kubrik Fashion is full of symbols. Some direct, some very subtle. The gushing red blood, acts as a reminder to the telepathic Danny that all is not well in the house, and the maze itself can be seen as a symbol for potentially hazardous journey of man’s mind. Connected to these symbols is the films theme. In order to really appreciate the theme, the technical mastery and many subtleties this film should be viewed a number of times, however, the theme that stands out and grabs me is the age old question of mans ability to enact violent crime on his fellow man, specifically his family. Kubrik is exploring family abuse, the name of the hotel is infact called the “Overlook”, this could be a comment that in fact those who allow abuse to continue are indeed the ones most held responsible.

The film begins with wide sweeping aerial shots of the mountains. This creates a definite sense of isolation. The world the characters, specifically Jack, is entering is shown as beautiful but potentially dangerous. The wilderness could be a metaphor for the Overlook, or for the nature of jacks mind; easy to get lost in. Apart from setting a geographic orientation, this scene creates an atmosphere of anticipation. Who is going where?

The inticing incident comes when Jack is being interviewed and is told about the history of violence in the hotel. How some year’s back, the winter caretaker killed his wife and kids. This is a definitive forbearer of the dangerous scenario the little family is about to enter. At this time, in a sequence of parallel editing, we are introduced to Jacks wife, Wendy and their son Danny, back home in Denver. Danny shows us his clairvoyant tendencies through his trepidations about the upcoming winter, and we get a fair idea of the complacent and trusting tendencies of Wendy.

At the overlook, Jack is given the job, while back home the hypersensitive Danny has a premonition. He asks Tony, “the little boy who lives in his mouth” what’s wrong with the hotel. Then he sees torrents of blood gushing out of some elevators, in a strikingly vivid, colourful shot, followed or preceding a shot of two young girls, ghosts? The murdered daughters of the mad caretaker? Kubrick adds a serious element of danger. This I feel serves as the turning point/climax of act one. The stage is now set and the characters must now deal with the unfolding body of act two.

The transition into act two takes place as we see the family on the road to the hotel. The conversation turns to the story of some pioneers who, trapped in the same mountain range, resort to cannibalism to survive. Again, a commentary on the inhumanity of humanity, as well as hinting toward the upcoming danger and violence.

At the overlook, they are shown around the mansion. Wendy and Danny meet with the head chef, Mr. Halloran. We learn from him that he and Danny share the gift of sight, the shining, also that the hotel is somewhat dangerous especially the ominous room 237, and that Danny should at all costs stay out of it.

Then we are catapulted forward one month. The scene opens with a beautiful steadicam shot of Danny riding around the hotel. Kubrik creates a very spooky feel, firstly by showing only the back of the boy, in a view that is unnatural to the eye, secondly by the sound the tricycle makes as it goes quietly over the soft carpet, then suddenly, loudly over the hard floor. The slow, long smooth steadicam shot, coupled with the sporadic loud soft audio and the frenzied movements of the boy, combine to create a very absurd audio visual sentence, which cannot help but tell that all is not well, or as it should be.

The first half Act two shows us Jacks progressive deterioration into madness and delusion. His son’s entrenched suspicions about the overlook and increased apparitions, and Wendy’s confusion about it all. Jack experiences further writers block and lashes out at Wendy’s attempts to communicate and help him. On another of his exploratory bike rides, Danny comes across the forbidden room 237 and upon feeling inexorably drawn to it he turns the locked doorknob. Again he sees the gushing torrents of bright red blood, and again he sees the two girls. This time they talk to him, asking him to play, forever and ever and ever with them. Kubrik uses Danny’s ability to “shine” as a powerful cinematic tool. His apparitions are the voice of the house, the major antagonist. They show us what Danny and jack are feeling. We see shots of Jack, sitting doing nothing, with a maniacal smile, as he sinks ever deeper into his schizophrenic realm. In one scene, Danny asks Jack if he would ever hurt him and his mother. Jack says he loves Danny very much and would never hurt him, and that he wishes they could stay there at the hotel for ever and ever and ever, echoing the words of the girls.

I feel the mid-point or point of no return comes when, upon hearing Jack screaming, Wendy rushes in to see him having a nightmare. He wakes and, crying, tells her how he dreamed he killed her. In a scene of parallel editing, Danny is lured into the dubious room 237. He then walks into the main room sucking his mouth. Wendy finds him bruised and accuses Jack of hurting their son.

The rest of act two takes on a faster pacing. Danny is now pushed to far and he sinks into a trance like state of being. Jacks apparitions come more frequently and Wendy loses further grip of the situation. The act two climax and second major turning point comes when Jack is told by one of the “waiters”, ghosts that he needs to “take care” of his meddling family as it id his duty to take care of the hotel. Jack had gone into the bar seeking another drink following a fight with his now estranged and according to him, meddling wife. He was taken aside into a strikingly red bathroom and informed of the outsider his “powerful son” was summoning. Jack agrees whole heartedly and the stage is now set for the final showdown of act three.

Mr. Hallornan, senses the on goings at the overlook and decides to go up there. Meanwhile, in a great, truly disturbing scene, Wendy discovers her husband’s writings; pages and pages of the repetition of the same sentence. She now knows absolutely the extent of her husband’s madness. He finds her there and throws sarcastic remarks at her, in perhaps one of the funniest scenes in the movie.

Jack, after being locked up by Wendy finally becomes the mad axe murderer we always knew he would become. He hunts down his family in a truly terrifying climax. What makes this film so different is that Kubrik doesn’t employ any of the classic suspense techniques. Wendy locks herself and her son in the bathroom, and instead of creating a sense of safety then hitting us with a shock tactic, Kubrik shows Jack axing away at the door from both sides. The simple fact that he is trying to get at his family with an axe is terrifying enough. In this way, Kubrik ties up with his major theme.

In the end it is Mr Halloran who inadvertently saves the day. He arrives and distracts Jack only to become a corpse himself. Jack peruses his son into the maze and in a terrifying chase sequence, shot with the same unique very engaging steadicam technique in what comprises the pinnacle of the climax. Jack meets an icy grave and Wendy and Danny escape in the ice-mobile.

This movie definitely needs a couple of watching’s to fully be appreciated. I feel there were many subtleties in its plot, which make it the engaging, and terrifying story it is. Kubrik uses visions to add the element of suspense. He portrays the house as an ominous almost omnipotent entity on its own. I personally found Jacks slip into madness a bit unbelievable. Perhaps it was to rapid, or through insufficient dialogue we were not given enough to go on to accept his rapid degeneration. I found the plot distinctions in this story rather vague and difficult to spot. Certainly this movie deviates from many of the norms. From the length of the shots, to the nature of the shots. Nonetheless a film with a successful difference and the sporadic nature of the plot does indeed contribute to the success of the film.

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