It occurred to me last night while watching Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) that what we have here is something of a morality play and a harbinger of political trends wrapped into one. It was a lesson with a warning. Stephen King was on to something, he could sense it, he had a “shining”, and put into words. Kubrick sensed it, too, and translated it into a film. Here’s what it is…
In a nutshell The Shining tells the story of Jack Torrance coping with failure and a lack of direction. He’s frustrated and that manifests itself in violence, alcoholism, and insecurity.
Jack aspires then to be a writer, which is the perfect goal for a man in Jack’s situation, and he is given an opportunity to be the winter caretaker of a remote hotel where he will have plenty of time to pursue his literary career. Jack’s wife Wendy and his son Danny appear a bit apprehensive, but go along and make the most of it.
In my assessment we can draw parallels between the characters in this story and the looming political climate emerging around 1980 and discover Stephen King’s premonition. While I believe this is very much like a morality play, I’ll resist the temptation to define Good and Evil. You be the judge.
Jack Torrance represents conservatism in the United States at the time. Frustrated, impotent, and burdened by an uncertain identity and direction. Conservatives, as they are wont to do, see the world going to hell in a hand basket, but hadn’t really been able to change its course. Like Jack, conservatism is looking for its future and frustrated that there is no place for it.
Wendy Torrance represents the status quo. She’s not an imposing figure. She’s vulnerable, perhaps handicapped by naivety and fear, but she is strong enough to survive. She keeps the household running, protects Danny, and even does Jack’s work. She represents liberalism in America.
Danny Torrance is Jack and Wendy’s child. He gets dragged around – sometimes literally – between his incompatible parents. His father hurts him and his mother nurtures him. Dad is irrational discipline, mom is patient caregiver. He’s largely unheard even though he has the clearest vision. Danny has little power to change things, but he is the future and he has the most at stake in this play. Danny represents the people of the United States.
Dick Hallorann is one other character who needs to be mentioned. Dick is the head chef at the Overlook Hotel. Dick represents history and wisdom. He has seen this play acted out in the past. He could be the answer to the family’s safety, but no one pays attention to the facts of history. Dick Hallorann is an important character in this story; a potential anwer and a sane foil to Jack Torrance.
Finally, there is the Overlook Hotel itself. Stephen King was brilliant here! The story starts here, really. Jack and his family go to The Overlook to start their new life. Remember Ronald Reagan’s City Upon the Hill speech? In the film, the hotel literally shines, all lit up from inside and out. Also note the obvious: The story is called The Shining. Coincidence? I don’t think so. I think Stephen King has a crystal ball. The Overlook represents the United States and the story anticipates Reagan’s conservative revolution.
Like Reagan and the conservative movement he enabled, Good and Evil stand out as clearly as black and white. They are both ever-present and real. Problems are to be dealt with directly, or – as in the parlance of the story – they are to be “corrected.”
Government – in this case Wendy – isn’t the solution, it is the problem. And the people? Well, follow Danny in this story. He suffers the outcomes of delusions and poor decisions. He is, in short, a perfect embodiment of the American people struggling to get ahead.
When the family arrives at The Overlook Hotel Jack is in control. The conservative revolution has occurred.
ü When Jack is working and Wendy tries to talk with him, Jack shuts her down, abuses and intimidates her; he has no time for her.
ü Jack hears voices from the past (Nancy Reagan anyone?) and acts on those voices. Likewise, conservatives selectively look to the past for solutions. Solutions to correct problems. Is it a little sign from our filmmaker and writer that Jack and his spiritual mentor talk in racists terms in one part of the film or that Dick Hallorann, the voice of history, is played by black actor Scatman Crothers? The past is a mix of Good and Evil, like everything else, which is black and white to Jack.
ü Jack spends days working on his novel, but really is slipping deeper into insanity. He isn’t writing anything at all, only repeating the same “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” thousands and thousands of times day after day. Sort of reminds you of conservative rhetoric, doesn’t it? The same tired clichés and talking points, words without substance, repeated over and over and over. Serious legislation? Hell no!
ü I could talk about violence, but that’s a touchy point. Conservatives have tossed us into a few pointless wars, turn up the violent rhetoric, and pursue other reckless policies, but I think here King and Kubrick are more subtle. Trashing The Overlook is a metaphor for trashing government. In other words, we will “correct” the problem even if it means destroying what we have.
That brings us to other little parallels. The phones don’t work at The Overlook. Our country’s infrastructure is failing. Nice little touch there.
There is an economic lesson here too. The road to The Overlook is not plowed because back in the long-ago days when the hotel was built there wasn’t much interest in winter sports and the cost of clearing the road was too expensive. Like a true American conservative, the management of The Overlook doesn’t seem to recognize that times have changed. Winter sports is a huge industry now and modern technology might make clearing the road to the overlook economically feasible. Think winter sports equating to new technology and a cleared road as modern infrastructure.
The American people rather than elect people who will support responsible winter management of The Overlook hires Jack Torrance instead. And what do they get? Chased around a maze by a mad man who wants to kill them!
And what’s the point? All that violence and damage and backwardness seems to accomplish nothing. Dick Hallorann shows up – remember he represents history from which the lessons we need exist – and Jack Torrance kills him. Wisdom is a threat. All that matters to Jack is power, answering the voices and spirits from the past, and he’ll destroy rather than build to accomplish it. Does that sound like a liberal agenda or a conservative one?
In the end you have to ask again: What is the point? Jack Torrance ends up united with his spiritual world, living in the past as a smiling ghost at a 1921 Independence Day Ball. So why the axe and the drama?
Stanley Kubrick is said to have liked ghost stories because he thought they gave people an optimistic fantasy about life after death. I like Kubrick’s spin on things, but you have to wonder why the ghosts at The Overlook seem to think you need to employ horror in order to cross over to better days. Likewise, I think you have to ask why conservatives employ destruction — rhetorical and otherwise — to achieve a goal. Smashing what is new to restore what is old again.
I’ll close today’s brief musing on a theme by simply asking you to watch The Shining again and keep my character assessments in mind. Then tell me: Am I right or am I wrong? Isn’t this a story that portends the rise of conservatism in the United States and metaphorically represents the politics we live in today?
I do believe that Stephen King had a shining and Kubrick saw it.