Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining: Who is the Antagonist?

Kubrick’s film adaptation of “The Shining” focuses on how thin the line between rationality and irrationality can be in the human psyche. This theme is frequently reinforced by symbols such as the big maze outside the Hotel that illustrates the ease with which one can lose their own essence. The director is so clever that he tricks the audience’s minds into wondering about the reality of the events portrayed, practically demonstrating the core of the film.  shining-kubrick-nicholson-labyrinth

The audience experiences the film through Jack Torrence’s point of view. Kubrick chose to portray Wendy in the way her husband felt about her: disturbing, creepy, useless and annoying. The director is so successful in this that the audience are led to hate the character themselves almost wanting Torrence to kill his wife. Despite this, towards the end of the story it is almost impossible to relate to Jack Torrence. In fact, he goes through a psychological transformation, which turns him into a terrifying, crazy animal. This metamorphosis shifts his position from the protagonist to the antagonist.  

The film’s visuals and sound make the audience believe that someone is spying on the Torrences, rather than reflecting Jack’s point of view. These cinematic techniques suggest that the protagonist of the story has always been The Overlook Hotel. 

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If we think about the exposition delivered throughout the film,  almost all the information concerns the resort. The Overlook Hotel is present in the story since the first page, and despite it not having a voice, all of the characters are speaking about and for it, giving it one.

During the two hour build-up in the first three acts, we are lost in a place where time and space mix together. Night and day are not two separate elements anymore. All you can hear is the sound of a typewriter and the wheels of a tricycle echoing in the vastness. In this environment, we actively participate in the discovery of the horrors behind the Hotel’s walls. The Overlook, spies on it’s residents and wants Jack to kill his family so that more ghosts and horrors can be added to it’s registry. Kubrick’s mastery resides in the fact that we don’t relate to the Hotel and feel like we are spying on the Torrences. On the contrary, we ourselves feel observed and persecuted. Kubrick manipulates us into this crazy game of reality and fiction, making us feel like the new guests of the Overlook Hotel.  

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3 Responses to “Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining: Who is the Antagonist?”

  1. Joanna Folino Says:

    August 16th, 2016 at 11:26 am

    If you look at is from this POV, it is not unlike Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. By the end of the story the main character who the reader feels sympathy for throughout becomes unhinged enough to commit suicide or sacrifices herself to the house and we think less of her, root less for her. So like The Shining, we move from the shift in the main character’s place as protagonist to if not antagonist at least to someone we lose affection for. It’s a very interesting POV in both of these stories: the hotel/the house as protagonist bringing to fruition what was inside the characters’ all along and their repressions.

  2. Jay Quantrill Says:

    August 16th, 2016 at 1:11 pm

    How is “Othello’s” Iago like or unlike Jack in “The Shining.” Obviously Iago is the villain from the start, but is he the central character?

  3. RFinney Says:

    August 16th, 2016 at 5:38 pm

    The BlueCat staff writes above, “The audience experiences the film through Jack Torrence’s point of view.”

    Actually, the film narrative is not the P.O.V. of Jack Torrence. If it was his character’s P.O.V, we would not be seeing scenes that are separate from anything involving Jack, which are objectively shot to depict the real protagonists in the film ( who are “Danny” and “Wendy”).

    The original book by Stephen King depicted the character of Jack in a way that one could see him as a “protagonist,” (along with the other protagonists in the book – the characters of Danny and Wendy). And this is at the heart of the many problems King had with Kubrick’s adaptation of his book. From the beginning of the film’s narrative “Jack” (played by Jack Nicholson) is clearly shown as a man who is on the edge, a bit desperate in his life because of his recent past. Nicholoson is a likable persona on screen, so it can mislead viewers (which was the reason he was cast) to believe he is our “hero” who we are rooting to succeed. However, he is depicted very much like any antagonist is depicted in a movie if we were picking up a storyline that showing how the antagonist ends up becoming a killer who targets his family.

    Yes, the film is a completely different handling of the original book, in so many ways, but the change Kubrick made with his adaptation of the two characters, Jack and Wendy, end up informing all the other changes. While the book begins with a depiction of three characters battling opposing odds, and along the way, one of the protagonists ends up succumbing to darker forces and changing sides… the movie story is very different. The film essentially opens with “Jack” as the antagonist and what becomes fascinating about Kubrick’s take is how someone who is terrible, but “family,” (a fact that allows his past violent behavior to be excused by the other protagonists within his family), escalates, which then forces the protagonists to finally confront the antagonist in the third act if they are to survive.

    This BlueCat Staff written piece states, “Kubrick chose to portray Wendy in the way her husband felt about her: disturbing, creepy, useless and annoying.” This is a point that is meant to support the wrongheaded opening premise (“The audience experiences the film through Jack Torrence’s point of view. “). Whatever audiences of the Kubrick version of the film think of the Wendy character, which I agree she is at one level, “annoying,” she is, unfortunately, one of your protagonists in the film. Along with her son, Wendy is the protagonist who goes up against the antagonist of the film, her husband, Jack. The depiction of her character in the film actually does follow through with some familiar beats in the standard horror template — a “weak” protagonist that becomes stronger by the end of the movie, who either survives the ordeal and/or helps another protagonist to survive.

    The character of Wendy couldn’t be more different in Kubrick’s movie when compared to King’s book (where Wendy is depicted in a much stronger way regarding her self-esteem and personal attributes.) But Kubrick chose to go with his creative take on Wendy’s character because he believed that anyone who would stay with a husband like Jack was inherently weak in some crucial way, or she would have left the marriage when Jack had violently abused their son (an act of violence that is a back story element in both book and film adaptation). Perhaps Kubrick would portray “Wendy” differently if written today. We now know more about the dynamics of abuse between a husband and wife, and the more nuance view is that there are complicated reasons females stay with an abusive male spouse that might not have anything to do with a personality flaw that is broadly visible from anyone looking in from the outside.

    The other protagonist in the film, Danny, is a boy who is faced with a true protagonist challenge — how does he overcome the antagonist who threatens his life, and who also happens to be his father. This set up is key to understanding how Kubrick’s film continues to resonate over generations of new film watchers. Discovering that the bad guy who wants you dead is your own flesh and blood, family… a parent, is truly horrifying whether it is set at a resort hotel or in a suburban house, anywhere, USA.

    The maze in the film’s hotel is a swap for what King depicts in his novel as a park of hedge animals that end up coming alive and chase after Danny at the climax of the story. The change was made for budgetary and FX reasons (Kubrick didn’t believe that the state of FX technology would live up to the task of rendering scaring Hedge animals). But the swap for the maze ends up being consistent with Kubrick’s set up — Danny is running from a killer, not a hedge animal manifestation conjured up by the evil spirits haunting the hotel. The boy is running from his own father who wants to kill him.

    The above is my support for why the premise of the BlueCat piece is flat-out wrong — Jack is not a protagonist in Kubrick’s adaptation. The character is not the P.O.V. What Kubrick does is depict Jack as the Antagonist, but like any great writing, the best way for audiences to connect with the story is to be given a “human” take on both the protagonist and the antagonist. “The Shining” spends time with the antagonist in a way that we are entertained by his crossover to the dark side of his human personality… which allows us to fear for our protagonists and their prospects for survival. There is no “growth” in the way Jack proceeds through the narrative (just one indicator of a true protagonist and his journey from page 1 to page 110). On this one point, Wendy and Danny, do change, grow as the storyline plays out. And they are different, smarter, by the conclusion because of their ordeal. Their growth emerges from a fight with an enemy that is not the hotel spirits, but a family member hell bent on killing the ones he loves.

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