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Room 237: An Analysis of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, Film Review

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Hidden Meanings and Symbolism in Kubrick’s The Shining

Room 237, Movie Review

Shelley Duvall and Danny Lloyd in The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980). Photo Courtesy of Warner Brothers.

Although this particular event was not well attended, the Lake Placid Center for the Arts “shined” once again in presenting diverse entertainment options for film, theatre, and art fans.

You probably won’t understand the title of Room 237 unless you are a diehard fan of the Stanley Kubrick film The Shining. In fact, I believe that name was detrimental to the success of the documentary, since no one except diehard Kubrick and The Shining fans would understand the title. Therefore, there was a very select group of patrons at the Lake Placid Center for the Arts on May 20th to see the film. I don’t consider myself to be in the “superfan” category, although I do appreciate the film and consider it both a film classic and one of my favorite movies. I had been reading about the documentary for months, since it was featured at the New York Film Festival this past fall. So when the documentary appeared on the sign of the Lake Placid Center for the Arts, I knew I had to attend.

Room 237 was a film festival entry that intrigued many. Here was a film that took all the interpretations of  The Shining and presented them to the public. It’s not surprising that the film has been dissected over the years considering the cult status surrounding Kubrick’s film and his entire oeuvre of movies in general.

For those of you who haven’t seen The Shining, it is based on a book by Stephen King and reinterpreted for the screen by film savant Stanley Kubrick, who discarded some of the source material in favor of bringing a new, more distorted version of the story onto the silver screen. The gist remains the same: former alcoholic Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) accepts a job as winter caretaker in a remote mountain resort called the Overlook, bringing his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and clairvoyant son Danny (Danny Lloyd) to the hotel. It soon becomes apparent that the hotel is possessed by the spirits of yesterday who are intent on claiming Danny’s power, “the Shining”, to continue their reign over the hotel. In the meantime, they possess Jack and turn him into a madman who tries to kill his family (as the caretaker before him did) before being outsmarted by Danny and becoming yet another of the hotel’s victims. Perhaps the most famous scene associated with this film is when Jack Nicholson swings an ax into the bathroom door, bellowing, “Here’s Johnny!!” as he peers inside, terrifying Wendy and giving a whole new meaning to Johnny Carson’s signature sign on.

In the book, Jack Torrance was a somewhat sympathetic character that actually died in the hotel instead of in the circuitous maze on the grounds. He tells Danny that the ghosts are overpowering him and apologizes for what they are making him do. Dick Halloran (Scatman Crothers) doesn’t die either, and the book ends on a hopeful note, with Wendy and Danny moving down South with Halloran to live peacefully after their ordeal at the Overlook. Kubrick strips away any sympathetic characteristics from Jack and makes him cruel and barely sane from the very beginning. Wendy is almost cartoonish in her fluctuations between the hopeful, chirpy wife and terror stricken survivor, who takes to running around the hotel with a knife to defend herself from Jack. It’s not a cheerful movie by any means, and is unsettling from the very first panoramic view of the Colorado Mountains to the chilling final shot, where Jack is seen in an old photograph dated July 4th, 1921. He had been there all along.

There are a whole host of conspiracy theories and ideas surrounding The Shining and it seems everyone sees what they want to see when viewing the classic. A great story can hold a different meaning and display altered symbolism for each person who watches it, and The Shining is no exception.

Stanley Kubrick on the set of The Shining, circa 1978. Photo Courtesy of Warner Brothers.

So what are the theories presented in the film? They run the gamut from outrageous to potentially possible, and we’re left to our own devices to figure out which one makes the most sense to us. The imagery of the Indian style furnishings inside the hotel, as well as the fact that the hotel was built on a Native American burial ground are two of the biggest indications, according to one researcher, that Kubrick was alluding to the Native American genocide perpetrated by the white men upon their arrival to the New World. One man insists that the film was referring subtly to the Holocaust, citing the presence of the German typewriter that Jack was using to type his book. Another thinks that Kubrick made the film as atonement for helping the US Government stage the Apollo moon landing. One of the symbols is the sweater Danny is wearing, as well as the number of the room (237), which was altered by Kubrick from 217 (as in the novel) to 237. Supposedly the letters on the key ring are anagrams of “moon” and “room”, to represent the soundstage where Kubrick supposedly helped stage the moon landing. Yet another fan uses the playing of the movie forward and backward superimposed over each other to interpret hidden meanings that otherwise would not be visible. This is a film about the symbolism, hidden meanings, and conspiracies, and it’s akin to a film studies class focusing extensively on one movie. One thing that ties all the contributors together, however, is their reverence for Stanley Kubrick. A man with a 200 IQ, the interview subjects all believe that Kubrick was a man with a fastidious attention to detail that never put anything in his films that didn’t have a hidden subtext. This is what leads several Shining theorists to analyze the film obsessively, trying to find what Kubrick was really trying to say with this film. Room 237 is a compilation of all of these theories presented side by side, allowing the viewer to consider each one.

My biggest criticisms of the movie are the organization, the run time, and the production value. The theories are all jumbled together, which is less effective than grouping them by their individual theory. Then we would have been able to hear all the evidence at once, instead of a chaotic mass of voices jumping from talking point to talking point. One minute we’re hearing that The Shining is simply a metaphor for the Holocaust, the next we have leaped inexplicably into the topic of the sexual imagery inherent in some of The Shining’s scenes (and not just the infamous Room 237 scene). This allows the viewer to sort between which theories they consider to be outrageous and which could be true. However, the viewpoints shift quickly enough that the viewer might become confused. The documentary uses scenes from other Kubrick films such as Eyes Wide Shut, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and A Clockwork Orange, sometimes not in the context of the discussion. For the more casual observer, both this and the quick shifts between theories were disorienting.

And then there was the run time. The documentary was 1 hour and 40 minutes, and although I was interested throughout the film, I did notice repetition in the theories, and at times it seemed like the various narrators were saying the same thing and making the same points over and over again. Nearly halfway through the film I could see fellow moviegoers eyes glaze over as someone explained something again for the umpteenth time, occasionally with the same visuals. Some of the segments (such as one contributor leading us through the scene where Jack meets his new boss in the Overlook lobby to point out continuity errors) ran a little long in my opinion. This is the point where several people in the audience took their restroom breaks.

Lastly, the production value was a bit lacking. Although the visuals were well done, the audio levels were inconsistent. Some of the interviewee’s audio had an almost fuzzy quality to the background noise, and the sound quality was always different depending on who was talking. In one instance, one of the contributors interrupted his discussion because who we assume is his child was screaming the background and he had to slam the door shut before continuing. As other reviewers commented, couldn’t he have at least edited that part out of this final interview? I understand that documentaries are supposed to be realistic and “true to life” in some cases, but I think improving the audio would have kept our interest focused on the material rather than on the fluctuating audio quality.

Overall, I enjoyed the movie. As a former film studies major, I love nothing more than dissecting the “hidden meaning” of films. In Room 237, the film theorist and Shining fan will find more than enough theories and viewpoints for interpreting the film, and even with it’s flaws, it’s well worth a look.

For more information on Room 237 including other screenings, visit

Christie Sausa is a Contributor to The Free George. Photos Courtesy of Warner Brothers.

The Free George is the online magazine and visitors’ guide of Upstate NY, covering things from Albany to Lake Placid, including Saratoga, the Lake George region and the Adirondacks. Check out our City Blogs section for our extended coverage areas as well.

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