Book vs. Film vs. Audience: The Shining and Room 237

The Book vs. Film vs. TV series merry-go-round of The Shining gets another spin this week with the wide release (available in theaters and on iTunes) of Room 237: Being an Inquiry Into The Shining in 9 Parts.  This provocative and fascinating documentary, a crowd-pleaser at film festivals around the world last year, showcases some of the elaborate theories about what Kubrick was really thinking when constructing his adaptation.  Was he attempting to convey messages about the Holocaust? Create an allegory about the genocide of Native Americans? Apologize for his role in faking the moon landings? Piece together a movie that should be viewed simultaneously backwards and forwards? Room 237 is a must-see for anyone who has ever found themselves over-thinking any aspect of pop culture (Dark Side of the Moon syncs perfectly with The Wizard of Oz! The Lion King is capitalist propaganda!  The Big Lebowski predicts 9/11! The real Paul McCartney was decapitated in a car wreck in 1966!).

However, those of you in The Shining Book camp may find yourself gnashing your teeth.  The author of the original novel merits barely a mention within the documentary – it’s all about the genius of Kubrick who, one commentator claims, had “an IQ of 200”.  King gets almost no credit for his original authorship of The Overlook Hotel and the Torrance family, and there’s little acknowledgement in Room 237 that The Shining – like Kubrick’s other films – is based on pre-existing material.  Kubrick innovates, but he doesn’t, essentially, create, providing a neat parallel for Room 237’s Shinologists, weaving their own complex stories over the scaffold of Kubrick’s adapted texts. 

Room 237 is a must-see for anyone who has ever found themselves over-thinking any aspect of pop culture.

Room 237 also provides a timely illustration of how far a story can stray from initial authorial intent.  The Shining, the novel, is an exploration of the way alcoholism and rage can fracture a family.  Kubrick spins it into a yarn that questions the effect on us of time and space.  Viewers of the film extrapolate the story still further, until it serves their own intellectual pursuits, whether that involves World War Two history or a NASA cover-up.  So far, there’s been no official response from Stephen King about Room 237.  Says director Rod Ascher, “He’s one of the people I’m most interested to hear a reaction from.  You can see this as a game of telephone: he’s the one who started it.”

The novel that begins the telephonic chain is a relatively straightforward horror story.  It climaxes with the destruction of the hotel, and an epilogue that sees the survivors fishing off the end of a sun-soaked dock, the trauma receding into the past.  The End.  There’s no need to search for any hidden meanings – King wraps events up decisively.  By contrast, the movie is elliptical and open-ended, distorting time and space.  The sudden ending leaves the viewer wondering “What just happened?” We’re not sure of any of the main characters’ fates (other than, perhaps, Halloran).  We’re left with a lot of unanswered questions about the nature of ghosts, madness, mirrors and immortality.  Was Jack the caretaker all along? Or has he finally found a home?  Ascher thinks it’s this very ambiguity that invites viewers to take another look, to re-watch the movie and come up with their own explanation for elements that appear, superficially, to make little sense.

The Shining is really a puzzle that’s missing a few pieces.  Even at the simplest level of story there’s huge gaps in what we know about what goes on in it.  The central event of the film — what happens to Danny in Room 237 — is never explained let alone shown. That black and white photo at the end of it is presented as if it was the answer to some kind of puzzle that we had all along, but if anything, it’s an entirely new question about what’s happening in the film.  I think people are attracted to watch it and re-watch it, to try to solve those sorts of puzzles, and they find all these new ones.”

Room 237 presents The Shining as a delicious riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.  Who could resist such intellectual temptation? The obsessives interviewed in Room 237 certainly aren’t tinfoil hat-wearing kooks.  Veteran foreign and domestic correspondent Bill Blakemore, professor of history Geoffrey Cocks, playwright Julie Kearns, musician and culture-jammer John Fell Ryan, and author, filmmaker and hermetic scholar Jay Weidner all contribute, drawing on their areas of academic, cultural and historical expertise.  They approach the unraveling of this enigma from wildly different directions, but they all agree that Kubrick, the Master, would never make “just” a genre film.  Therefore, there must be something more to it, a more substantial symbolic meaning that only becomes clear over repeated viewings.  It can’t “just” be a haunted house flick.  

These Shinologists saw the movie for the first time in a theater – often at a very young age – and remember being blown away by a visual majesty they couldn’t quite comprehend.  It might be years later – thanks to advances in home video – when they became obsessed with spooling back and forth within the movie, that they attempted to pin down the cause of their initial awe and developed their initial instincts into full-blown alternate readings.  Technology gave them the same agency to flip back and forth through the text that readers of books have always had, so it’s no surprise that they view Kubrick as sole author of what they’re seeing. They all share a reverence for Kubrick’s genius (Tim Kirk, Room 237‘s producer, says “almost everyone we were interviewing thought of Kubrick as just a little bit smarter than them”) and refuse to believe that anything seen on screen could possibly be a mistake. Kirk says “Just because he was so known to be so meticulous and such a perfectionist with multiple takes and so forth, there’s this feeling that if there’s anything in the frame he put it there.  There’s a reason, and that reason can be determined.” Ascher agrees that Kubrick wears a near-Papal halo of infallibility. “With the possible exception of Spartacus, he’s always been a filmmaker who’s done things exactly to his own vision, so there is more reason to assume that unusual choices and small details in a Kubrick film are intentional, than you might assume with another filmmaker.”

Even [authors] as established and powerful as Stephen King can’t expect to maintain control of their own work.

Kubrick was no doubt a perfectionist, an auteur in the purest, theoretical sense of the word, but The Shining is a collaboration, the result of over a year of principle photography sprawled over every soundstage at Elstree Studios in the UK (which explains a lot of the topographical dissonance of the interior of the Overlook) involving top class creatives in every department.  Many, many people created elements within the finished movie, from co-screenwriter Diane Johnson (a novelist in her own right, hired by Kubrick for her understanding of the Gothic) to star Jack Nicholson, who improvised several scenes (including the “Three Little Pigs” lines as he’s hacking open the bathroom door.  In the short documentary Staircases To Nowhere, the Elstree crew reminisce about the time spent working on The Shining, and it doesn’t sound as though Kubrick was working to a rigid, ruthless master plan. The publicist Julian Senior recalls giving advice about where the film should end, advice Kubrick initially rejected but, after the movie’s less-than-enthusiastic critical reception, then took, ordering the last two minutes to be cut from every theatrical print. Kelvin Pike, the camera operator who also worked with Kubrick on Dr. Strangelove and 2001: A Space Odyssey, says “he was open to ideas, very open — there are things on the screen which are someone else’s idea.  He would acknowledge the fact that if someone had a better idea than he, it would be used.”  Leon Vitali, Kubrick’s personal assistant dismisses most of the theories expounded in Room 237 (“There are ideas espoused in the movie that I know to be total balderdash”), suggesting that elements identified as deeply symbolic by the Shinologists could be present on screen through mere happenstance.

Yet the Shinologists of Room 237 aren’t interested in the cut-and-dried facts of the 'Making Of'.  Kirk says that was a deliberate creative choice. “Before we interviewed anyone, one of the decisions was that we weren’t going to talk to people who had worked on the film, it wasn’t going to be behind-the-scenes or ‘Here’s the answer’.”  Instead, the documentary lets the mysteries – and the labyrinthine theories – unfold without editorial comment.  The Shinologists are free to overwrite the images with their hypotheses.  Listening to their explanations can be frustrating especially if, try as you might, you really can’t see Kubrick’s face in the clouds.  But you have to respect the ingenuity that goes into linking the pattern in the carpet with Apollo 11.  And there’s a whole world out there of further alternative readings of The Shining – the five Shinologists interviewed represent merely the tip of the iceberg. Kirk says they started out thinking that Room 237 could be “a comprehensive overview of every theory that’s out there [but] it became clear that was just insane”.  Ascher adds “When you hear that this is a 104 minute exercise in the study of the symbolic layers of The Shining, you might think ‘Man, they really had to stretch to fill up that much time.’ It was actually the opposite, this thing could have been ten and a half hours.”

In writing a sequel to the novel (Doctor Sleep, out August 24) it seems as though King is determined to reclaim The Shining and Danny Torrance as his creations, to have the final word in this game of telephone.  King has never been enthusiastic about the way Kubrick wrested authorship from him with the movie (especially changing the ending), and is less than keen to endorse plans for a prequel (“Am I eager to see that happen? No I am not.”), which might divert the mythology of The Overlook and its ghosts even further from his original concept.  Yet the whole Book vs. Film vs. TV Show vs. Documentary About The Movie hoopla illustrates that authors – even those as established and powerful as Stephen King –  can’t expect to maintain control of their own work.  Once it’s out there, especially once it’s adapted into another medium, readers will have their wicked way with your baby, twisting it into the shapes dictated by their intellects, not your intentions.  If you want to avoid ever saying “No! That’s not what I meant!”, you must lock your finished stories in a box and never let anyone see them.  But where would be the fun in that?

Have you seen Room 237? What did you think? Are there any other movies or books out there that deserve the same kind of scrutiny?

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Karina Wilson

Column by Karina Wilson

Karina Wilson is a British writer based in Los Angeles. As a screenwriter and story consultant she tends to specialize in horror movies and romcoms (it's all genre, right?) but has also made her mark on countless, diverse feature films over the past decade, from indies to the A-list. She is currently polishing off her first novel, Exeme, and you can read more about that endeavor here .

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Frank Chapel's picture
Frank Chapel from California is reading Thomas Ligotti's works April 11, 2013 - 10:52pm

Room 237 is not a documentary. Not knocking your excellent article which is a voice of reason. I just hate it when a film that slaps together wild theories somehow becomes a documentary. I've watched it and it seems that each person's view is affected by their own background, the guy with the background in WWII history saw an allegory of WWII, and so on. It reminded me of an inkblot test, what do you see when you look into it?

I've read a far more interesting article, (more interesting than the "documentary"), about how it can be percieved as a look into the role of a father in the family. How Jack feels inadequate as a provider etc., and this somehow drives him mad enough to destory his own family. 

Ultimately the film itself is an excellent descent into madness, and the thing about a crazed act is that people always try to rationalize it. You say to yourself, well the guy must've had a bad childhood, or the cause was this or that. Sometimes madness is it's own explination, and there's no reason you can attatch that will set order to its chaos.

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