The Search for Meaning in The Shining

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In the annals of film history, few pictures command as extensive a body of interpretation as Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 masterpiece, THE SHINING. There is essentially nothing new one can say about it. Critics, Kubrick aficionados and conspiracy theorists alike have pored over the film in vain attempts to decode the enigmatic scenes, and while many compelling analyses exist, THE SHINING, much like the Overlook Hotel eternally absorbs the souls of its numerous guests, defies expectation by entertaining the diverse pluralism of ideas surrounding the film’s overarching significance.

A large part of the ambiguity and consequent search for symbolism in THE SHINING comes from how viewers perceive the man behind the camera, Stanley Kubrick. The filmmaker was notorious for his attention to detail and celebrated for his creative genius, but it is precisely these two characteristics that work against the film and its creator to fuel ever more elaborate theories and hinder the development of realistic explanations for events that take place in THE SHINING. For example, there are several continuity errors throughout the film, which include typewriters changing colors, décor being rearranged, and other typical oversights that inevitably occur during the filming of a movie. However, various critics and filmgoers refuse to accept these oversights as mistakes, and are convinced that they are keys to some master meaning that Kubrick intended for his audience to pick up on. This very well may have some truth to it, but the fact is that when a film is edited, it is nearly impossible to catch every continuity error that transpires on screen, even with the most meticulous directors overseeing the project. It is imperative that viewers not try to rationalize every discrepancy by insisting that it was an intentional alteration of Kubrick’s.

A perfect insight into the spontaneity of filmmaking in THE SHINING can be found in the well-documented back-story behind the bathroom scene between Delbert Grady and Jack Torrance. Originally, Kubrick intended for the scene to take place in the Gold Room, but due to budgeting restraints with the extras used for the party, the film crew had to construct the bathroom set to film the scene in. The irony is that this unplanned change resulted in arguably the most visually memorable scene of THE SHINING. Comparisons of the bathroom to hell, as well as notes about the movie’s liberal use of the color red, have emerged in light of this most sinister set. Perhaps some could argue that this reaction reinforces Kubrick’s ingenuity, and they wouldn’t necessarily be wrong, but it also speaks to the unpredictability of filming that great auteurs such as Kubrick were not immune from escaping.

Of course, it is clear that certain inconsistencies in THE SHINING were deliberate. Numerous set members have confirmed that the Overlook Hotel’s architecturally unsound floor plan, including the infamous impossible window, was by design. Just from looking at the Overlook from the exterior shots, one can easily tell that the grand Gold Room could not possibly exist in the cozy hotel. In addition to this dilemma, it has been noted by critics that we never see any of THE SHINING’s characters move from the main rooms of the hotel, such as the lobby or the kitchen, into the hallway leading up to the Gold Room. Whenever the camera cuts to a Gold Room scene, the character about to enter it (usually Jack), is already in the hallway. It is no surprise, then, that a prominent theory that the Gold Room isn’t actually connected to the hotel has gained traction. Once again, it could be that this is just an error that cropped up due to the final edit of the film, but here, at least, the possibility that the director knowingly created a seed of doubt in his viewers is a distinct likelihood.

It is the many quirks of THE SHINING, combined with the aura of Kubrick, that make this film endlessly watchable. Seeing as the director said little to address the bounty of questions that cropped up in the wake of the film’s release, there is plenty of room for viewers to dissect THE SHINING and continue speculating about what is real and what is simply part of the film’s mysterious allure.

Tessa Mediano is a Boston native with a BA in English from Boston College. She has volunteered for several local film festivals, including the Boston International Film Festival and the Independent Film Festival. In her free time, Tessa watches as many films as she can while still guaranteeing at least seven hours of sleep on weekdays, and considerably fewer hours on weekends.

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