The Shining: Kubrick Transforms King’s Novel into a Uncanny Narrative of American Colonialism

Jack The SHining

“The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.” -Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte

In Stanley Kubrick: A Biography, Vincent Lobrutto tells us that Kubrick’s intention with The Shining was not to simply let King ‘adapt his own novel’ but rather to make the original author ‘answer questions, which ranged from philosophical to the conceptual, and to elaborate on the characters and plot’.  Kubrick wanted to make The Shining his own and refused to read the script that King had drafted for Warner Bros, instead he wished to ‘infuse the skeleton of King’s story with his own ideas’.

It is precisely Kubrick’s intent to pick apart the “skeleton” of The Shining and create his own uncanny narrative of American colonial guilt, which will be the focus of this article.

Colour and The Sublime

The shining Red
RED, The Shining (1980)

Patti Bellantoni argues that ‘colour influences our choices, opinions and emotional states. Our feelings of euphoria or rage, calm or agitation can be intensified or subdued by the colours in our environment. This [information] is powerful in the hands of a filmmaker’. Kubrick’s use of colour in The Shining ranges from the subtle to the extreme, (see the extreme red of the bathroom of the Gold Room above, or the stark bright white of the snow casting obfuscated light into the Colorado lounge as Danny and Wendy watch tv, below) but with either end of the spectrum his intent to make King’s story his own is apparent.

the shining white
Does that TV have a plug?- The Shining (1980)

Perhaps the most striking example of Kubrick appropriating King’s story as his own, comes with his most subtle implementation of colour. It is noted in the ode to film-fanatic obsessiveness, Room 237, that Kubrick changes the colour of the Volkswagen Beetle in his adaptation from King’s original red to a pale yellow.

The colour of King’s battered red VW bug is introduced shortly after the first mention of Danny’s vision of the word ‘REDRUM’, thus making the colour of the car synonymous with a premonition of death and by default identifying Jack (who is driving the car) with this omen of murder. King’s indirect use of red serves to foreshadow the over-arching theme of impending death in his novel. The seemingly tenuous change of Kubrick’s Volkswagen to yellow is not only to distance himself from King, but a conscious effort from Kubrick to unsettle his audience from the offset.

Bellantoni argues that the colour yellow has been ‘built into our consciousness as a cautionary colour’ which can be ‘anxiety producing’, as well as ‘a perfect signal for obsession’. With this view, it seems as though Kubrick intends to unconsciously manipulate the viewer’s emotional state. He is, as Bellantoni suggests, cautioning the audience from the very beginning of the film.

With the image of the insignificantly small, yellow car meandering through the sublime background of the Colorado landscape during the opening credits, Kubrick produces a sense of anxiety and insignificance in the audience from the offset.

The sublime opening of The Shining (1980)

Simon Morley argues that ‘the sublime experience is fundamentally transformative, [and] about the relationship between disorder and order, and the disruption of the stable…Something rushes in and we are profoundly altered’.

This idea of the sublime seems to be implicit to Kubrick’s intentions; he is transforming the audience’s state of mind by presenting both order and disorder and disrupting their preconceptions, leaving them ‘profoundly altered’. The subtle yellow coupled with the vast, unknown of the landscape create an inherent sense of fear and dread as the ‘awe and wonder [of the image] can quickly blur into terror, giving rise to a darker aspect of the sublime experience’.

By exploring the effects of colour and sublime imagery on the audience, Kubrick has uncannily set the tone for how his version of The Shining. It is not going to be linear and direct like King’s text, it is going to be uncannily obfuscated, leaving the audience in an almost “limbo” state in which they are neither coming or going, they are trapped with the Torrance’s in this nightmare of history.

The uncanny

Linda Hutcheon argues that ‘a novel, in order to be dramatized, has to be distilled, reduced in size, and thus, inevitably, complexity’. Kubrick does reduce The Shining in size, but by no means does he reduce the complexity of the story. In fact by leaving out major parts of the story, Kubrick makes the story ambiguous and more complex. In the film, there is little mention of the hotel’s hedonistic past, and this is intentional from Kubrick in order to create an atmosphere of terror through the fear of the unknown.

The sense of the uncanny is brought into the film through Kubrick’s alterations; the absence of background knowledge in regards to the hotel creates an aspect of the uncanny for King’s readership, as well as Kubrick’s audience. This is because Kubrick’s film presents the familiarity of the hotel, whilst restricting the audience from knowing its full story.

Bennett and Royle cite that ‘the uncanny is not so much in the text we are reading: rather it is like a foreign body within ourselves’, this definition of the uncanny is true within The Shining for readership with the prior knowledge of King’s seminal work. This is because King’s readership is presented with the familiar scene of the hotel; however, it is simultaneously unfamiliar as King’s readership is not given the hedonistic past of the hotel as they are in King’s novel, accentuating this notion of the uncanny being within the reader’s self.

The film is not only uncanny for the percentage of the audience who have read the novel, but also for the wider audience who may not be familiar with King’s work. For example, in the novel, the ghost of Harry Derwent teases Roger who is dressed as a canine at the Midnight Ball in the Colorado Lounge:

“A knot of people had gathered, laughing. In front of Derwent and the girl in the sarong. Roger capered grotesquely on all fours, his trail dragging limply behind him. He was barking. “Speak, boy, speak!’ Harry Derwent cried.”

This scene is transformed and changed by Kubrick in the film, there is no mention of these characters throughout and they only appear to Wendy during the climax of the film in a twisted, sexualised manner.

The uncanny dog man- The Shining (1980)

Wendy is running helplessly around the hotel, knife in hand, and is beginning to see the ghosts and spectres of the hotel appear. At one point, she stops to see into a hotel room a man dressed as a dog (Roger) who appears to be performing fellatio on another hotel resident.

In King’s novel, the context of this would be clear, as the reader is aware of the past of the hotel and its residents as they are given an insight into Jack’s obsession with the hotel’s past. Kubrick deliberately leaves out this context in his adaptation in order to shock his audience, this image is completely alien to both Wendy and the audience and this aspect of the unfamiliar in a familiar setting is what Kubrick incorporates in order to create a truly shocking, uncanny horror film.

Diane Johnson co-wrote the screenplay with Kubrick and has commented several times on her and Kubrick’s use of Freud’s essay of “the uncanny” during the writing process. John Lutz notes that ‘she and Kubrick sought explanations in the works of Freud in general, and his essay on the uncanny in particular, for the key elements that makes something frightening’.

In his seminal essay on the concept of the uncanny, Freud suggests that:

‘there is no doubt that [the uncanny] belongs to the realm of the frightening, of what evokes fear and dread… it is equally beyond doubt that the word is not always used in a clearly definable sense, and so it commonly merges with what arouses fear in general’.

The uncanny elements of The Shining reflect Kubrick’s intent to alert his audience to the real fear of life, by showing them this surrealist imagery within a familiar context, he subverts expectations of the narrative, whilst arousing general fears within the psyche through the withholding of information.

Freud’s principles of the uncanny in the film are not just a device of horror; rather they serve as a tool to portray unconsciously to the audience what Kubrick believes is truly frightening in society: the repression of America’s violent colonialist past.

The Repression of the Past

In King’s novel, ‘the past manifests itself through growing abuse of Wendy and Danny, an abuse that is ultimately revealed to have its origin in Jack’s victimization by his own father’. However, in Kubrick’s film ‘the scope of victimization’ broadens to the wider cultural history of America, transforming ‘the nightmarish violence of child abuse’ into ‘the nightmarish violence lying hidden in the foundations of American society’.

Throughout the film, there are emblems of colonial oppression of the Native Americans and also colonial guilt, which are not evident in King’s novel. The decorations on the walls of the room in which Jack is typing, which Ullman points out to be authentic Navaho and Apache designs, highlight the exploitation of Native American traditions for white-colonial entertainment. Also, the image of Jack standing over a model of the hedge maze whilst Wendy with her “Indian style” plaits walks through with Danny, is a startling visual metaphor of the “white man” oppressively overseeing the actions of the Native Americans.

Jack overlooking Danny and Wendy in the Hedge Maze- The Shining (1980)

Furthermore, the tins of baking powder in the pantry which are labelled Calumet with a cartoon of a Native American chief as a brand-name logo emphasise further the exploitation of Native American culture as their history is being utilised as manufacturing tool for the purposes of commodity production.

the shining calumet
Native Americans become a victim of mass production- The Shining (1980)

Not only does this theme of colonialist oppression and guilt manifest itself in the props of the film, but it also seeps explicitly into the dialogue of The Shining. Whilst sat in the bar of the deserted Gold Room, Jack’s describes the act of drinking whisky to Lloyd the barman, describing it as the ‘white man’s burden, my man. White man’s burden’ (see below at 1:13).

“White man’s burden, my man. White man’s burden”- The Shining (1980)

This line of dialogue ties Jack’s drinking problem (which causes his past violence towards Danny both in the book and film) directly to a reference of white colonial guilt, expanding the existing theme of suppressed and hidden familial violence into a wider theme of cultural suppression of a violent colonial past.

All these instances are Kubrick subtly transforming King’s story into an allegory of American colonial oppression. Through uncanny representations, he has revealed the unfamiliar in the familiar, revealing the ultimate terror that is inherent in all humankind.

He has taken the bones of the skeleton of King’s story and used them for a critique of the collective cultural memory-loss of America’s violent colonial past.


Texts referenced

Andrew Bennett & Nicholas Royle, ‘The Uncanny’, An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory 4th ed. (Harlow: Pearson, 2009)

Patti Bellantoni, ‘If it’s Purple, Someone’s Gonna Die: The Power of Colour in Visual Storytelling, (Oxford: Elvesier, 2005)

Sigmund Freud, The Uncanny, Trans. by David Mclintock, (London: Penguin Classics, 2003)

Stephen King, The Shining, (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2011)

Vincent LoBrutto, Stanley Kubrick: a Biography, (London: Faber, 1997)

John Lutz, ‘From Domestic Nightmares to the Nightmare of History: Uncanny Eruptions of Violence in King’s and Kubrick’s Versions of The Shining’, The Philosophy of Horror, Ed. By Thomas Fahy, (Kentucky: University Press, 2010)

Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,(New York: International Publishers, 1991)

Simon Morley, ‘Introduction: The Contemporary Sublime’, The Sublime, (London: Whitechapel Gallery, 2010)

PS. Remember kids, all work and no film makes jack a dull boy.

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