The Shining is my favorite Stanley Kubrick film as well as my favorite adaptation of a Stephen King novel. It’s striking and powerful, the wildly heightened tension throughout, the constant push-pull between crazy and supernatural, the sights, symbols and sounds that come together to create frightening and intense isolation and terror.
I’m also fascinated by how much Stephen King hated it. While quite different from the book, in many ways I think it captures the same sense of horror perfectly. But what I find especially telling is how much King hated Wendy in the movie. He found her to be whiny and weak and too different from book Wendy. And while her physical description is very different, I disagree in every other way. Plenty of people have written great discussions about the Shining, but these are some thoughts on Wendy.
Wendy to me is the real hero of the story, not to diminish Danny or Dick Hallorann at all. The terror that she seems gripped by is actually the reality she works through daily. Wendy is haunted by abuse. It’s clear from the start that she is compromised, that this marriage is strained and that Jack has already passed a point where she could not forget the hurts, and soon would not forgive them. Yet from the start she is the most functional. Care taking is Jack’s job, but she does most of the work. They are parents together, yet she does all the work, emotional and practical. He is immersed in writing, not an ideal or selfless gig for a provider, and she is supportive and kind. And he berates her. He intimidates her, gaslights her and erupts at her unpredictably. There is neither a kind word nor tender moment. But there is constantly the thing that lurks beneath.
She is also scared for her life, but this is not a weakness. In fact, it’s what helps her survive. Wendy has been braced for the worst for some time. Functioning through her daily chores gives her strength, like is does many of us in tough spots. When the shit hit the fan she was able to do what she had to. And Wendy is accustomed to isolation; while Jack deteriorates, she exhibits that she already knows how to navigate this, because there is nothing more isolating than living with someone you do not trust. As this escalates for Wendy something in her eyes becomes very clear to me, they are not just wide with terror but they are wide with knowing. He has shown his true self to her. As the saying goes, when someone tells you who they are, believe them.
I suspect a couple of things are at work here in King’s criticism. One is interpreting her screaming and crying in a gendered way and thus seeing it as weak. For the record I think it shows how terrifying things are and yet she finds a way to get through. And two, King identifies with Jack. He is a former drinker, a writer who I am sure struggled at times to provide and be a good father, like most people. But Jack is not most people. Jack is the monster inside no longer kept in check.
And I think Kubrick knew this, that the real horror is the family in pain, domestic abuse and male cruelty. It was said he was deliberately cruel to Shelley Duvall on set and ordered others to do the same in order to provoke her strong performance. And Duvall herself hated the experience while admitting it was one of her best roles.
Like all great horror movies, Kubrick’s Shining reveals a truth often too horrible to face in real life, that there are monsters among us, that those monsters are us.