The first time I watched The Shining I didn’t think much of it. The second viewing opened my eyes to how deep this film really went. By the time I finished the third viewing it was cemented as one of my favorite films of all time. I recently watched The Shining again – the difference this time was that I made a conscious effort to study the film in an attempt to figure out what makes it work. Basically, my aim was to identify techniques that I could potentially use in my own future projects both as a writer and a director. Here are some of what I picked up on:
The Narrative is a Maze
If you have seen The Shining you will know that both physical and metaphorical mazes play a large role in the story. I want to take this one step further and identify another maze – the narrative itself.
The films begins with a clear and simple setup – a family of three head out to the Overlook hotel which the father (Jack) has been tasked with looking after during the winter months. The first thirty minutes of the film could be compared to the entrance of the maze, we are heading in a clear direction and while there are unanswered questions, such as Danny’s supernatural powers, we generally feel that we know where the story is headed.
However, as the film progresses, things become more complicated. Several new ambiguous plot elements are introduced and more questions are raised with them. As soon as we think we have an idea of what is going on, the theory is disproved by another contradictory theory. We are now lost in the maze.
By the end of the film the main story has somewhat resolved itself with Jack’s death and Danny/Wendy escaping the hotel but we are still left with questions regarding everything we saw when we were lost in the centre of the Maze. This adds depth and makes the film rewatchable.
What did I take away from this type of narrative structure? In the past I have always favored complex narratives but I feel that I have approached them in a flawed way by trying to make them complex from the beginning and then trying to resolve this complexity by the end of the film. What I really like about The Shining is that it starts simple, becomes more complex during the middle stages and then ends in simple fashion also. Kubrick doesn’t try to answer every question in the third act, allowing the viewer to come up with his/her own interpretation. However, Kubrick does wrap up the main plot nicely which leaves an audience satisfied but not so satisfied that they forget about the film.
Character Mindsets as Visuals
A common problem for screenwriters and filmmakers is expressing the inner-state and motivations of their characters. Some choose to express this through dialogue. Other through voice-over. And many through character behavior.
What I think is remarkable about The Shining is how Kubrick uses visuals and symbolism to express the inner most state of the characters. He also manages to reveal character through dialogue and behavior in a very effective way but the use of visuals are what really stand out to me. Let’s look at some examples of how Jack’s character is revealed in this way:
There are several instances throughout the film where Jack is addressing his family through mirrors. There is a subtle significance to this.
First off, it gives us the impression that Jack is self-absorbed and often disregards his family in favor of himself. Jack ignores Wendy, who has just made him breakfast, and instead focuses on himself in the mirror (image below).
Secondly, the fact that Jack is often viewing his family while looking in the mirror, gives us an idea of the way he thinks of them. They are secondary images in his own reflection, not their own individuals. This small insight helps us understand how Jack shows a lack of empathy later in the film.
The setting of The Shining, the Overlook hotel, plays a huge role in the story, so much so that it becomes a character within itself. What I find interesting is how the hotel and its location are used to represent Jack’s mindset.
First off, the hotel is completely isolated in the middle of nowhere. I get the impression that this is exactly how Jack feels as well. He is isolated in his own head. As the film progresses we are shown multiple exterior shots of the hotel with the building becoming less and less visible through the growing snowstorm (see images below). This could also represent the way that Jack stops seeing clearly and eventually loses his mind completely.
The interior of the hotel also works in the same way with a vast and confusing layout. It’s easy to get lost in here, just like Jack gets lost in the Maze later on and just like he gets lost in his own mind.
Colours and Lighting
Colour and lighting are used throughout The Shining to express Jack’s inner state. In the below image we can see that Jack is an icey blue colour which reveals his cold nature. What I like about this scene is that an orange fire burns in the background which contrasts with the rest of the frame – to me this says Jack is icey cold on the surface but there is a blazing rage hidden underneath. A rage that will be revealed later…
In this second image Jack has been silhouetted against the bright background. This image takes place at the point of the film where Jack is finally ready to murder his own family and the full extent of his madness has been exposed to Wendy. Jack is literally a shadow of his former self . The darkness hidden within him is now present on the surface for all to see.
The Shining is an example of a film with effective foreshadowing. Foreshadowing consists of introducing or hinting at something early on in the plot which will come back to play a big role later in the film. Let’s take a look at some examples of foreshadowing in The Shining.
The best example of effective foreshadowing takes place in the scene where Jack and Wendy are being shown around the grounds of the hotel. Within this one scene, two vital plot elements are introduced: Jack and Wendy are introduced to the maze which turns out to be the location of the final showdown and they are also shown the Snowcat which is later considered by Wendy to be a potential method of escape.
There is also a range of more subtle foreshadowing. For example, Wendy playfully chasing Danny through the maze, this mirrors what Jack will later do in an aggressive way. Also, we see Danny’s toy doll face down on the hotel floor with Jack standing next to it, you can see some similarities between this and when Wendy finds Halloran’s body near the end of the film.
To sum up
These are just some of the storytelling techniques I took away from The Shining. I think Stanley Kubrick is able to use both strong visuals and an ambiguous narrative to tell an effective on-screen story. I’m going to try to implement both of these into my own projects.
Also published on Medium.