Room 237: Navigating the Maze of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining

Stanley Kubrick’s film The Shining is tricky to describe, much less to pin down to a genre. Notice that I don’t just say “The Shining” or even “Stephen King’s The Shining,” mostly because, although King’s novel is unusual, effective, worthy of discussion in itself, and one of the scariest books I’ve ever read, Kubrick’s film version of it is possibly even more enigmatic.

For one thing, though it’s not odd for an author to be disappointed with a film adaptation of his work, as King was with Kubrick’s The Shining, it is unusual that the film in question was not only both a huge critical and financial success but also considered by many to be among the most frightening movies of all time. Also, Kubrick’s The Shining is one of the most iconic works of one of the twentieth century’s most iconic filmmakers.

Speaking for myself, Kubrick’s film is one of the few book-to-film adaptations that I find as captivating as its source material, despite the significant differences between them. (Another, in case you’re interested, is the film Blade Runner, which was adapted from Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) King’s novel is good, scary stuff, and Kubrick’s film, while also scary, defies definition. Is it a horror flick? Is it a psychological thriller? Yes to both, but it’s much more than that.

When considering Kubrick’s The Shining, one place to start is Room 237, a film that presents theories on many of the possible meanings behind the film. It includes narration by Bill Blakemore, Geoffrey Cocks, Juli Kearns, John Fell Ryan, Jay Weidner, and Buffy Visick, and as for interpretations, they range from symbolism, referring to the genocides committed against Native Americans in the United States and the Jews during the Holocaust, to the idea that Kubrick may have helped stage and film the allegedly faked footage of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Not surprisingly, some of the theories are more directly supported by the film than others. A few, in fact, while interesting, seem tenuous and even downright flaky. Despite this, they’re all still fascinating.

Some of the most compelling theories in Room 237 deal with the physical inconsistencies of the Overlook, the hotel in which the Torrances find themselves trapped for the winter. Characters enter rooms from hallways only to walk back out into changed environments. Between shots, furniture disappears, and carpet patterns change. Jack Torrance walks through the hotel lobby, establishing the hotel’s geography, and then walks into the hotel manager’s office, a room that has a window that should not exist. This is called the “Impossible Window,” which sounds like something Stephen King might use to write a novel.

If you’re a fan, either of Kubrick or The Shining, you owe it to yourself to watch Room 237. Throughout the documentary, the filmmaker features lots of eye candy scenes from other Kubrick films—Eyes Wide ShutA Clockwork OrangeSpartacus2001: A Space Odyssey, to name just a few—as well as a few others like Capricorn One and The White Buffalo. Also, there’s a great deal of attention paid to Danny Torrance’s Big Wheel rides through the Overlook, some of the most mesmerizing, beautiful, and eerie scenes ever committed to film.

Interpretations of art are always good for us as readers, viewers, and consumers, regardless of how solid or shaky they appear, because they make us evaluate and reevaluate how we interpret the work in question. And Kubrick was such a devoted perfectionist that it’s easy to believe that few, if any, of the choices he made in making The Shining were random or without meaning. As to whether those choices mean what the interviewees in Room 237 claim they do, well, that’s another story. Someone should make a film about that