The Shining ending spoilers to follow. (Kudos to you if you've managed to avoid 'em for the last 41 years.)
It was a box-office flop when it was released in 1980 and Stephen King, who wrote the novel on which it's based, doesn't like it. Nevertheless, Stanley Kubrick's The Shining is now widely considered one of the most effective horror films of all time.
King's original version reads (and most notably, ends) like a fairly standard ghost story about a father and husband who succumbs to personal demons and poltergeist-like forces before attempting to murder his family.
Kubrick's take is slightly less straightforward, culminating in a mind-bending final shot that has sparked many a 'what do you think it means?' debate over the past four decades.
Like the book, the movie begins with writer and recovering alcoholic Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) putting himself up for a job as the winter caretaker of the historic Overlook Hotel. And it's established fairly early on that this Jack has a snide streak he's not all that bothered about suppressing, unlike his literary counterpart.
During his interview, the manager informs Jack that the last guy who looked after the place, Charles Grady, killed his family and then himself. Convinced that the hotel's solitude will inspire his creativity, Jack accepts the position anyway, and he, his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and their son Danny (Danny Lloyd) head up to the vast venue for the off-season.
During the first month of their stay, Jack becomes increasingly irritable about his lack of focus and chastises Wendy often, accusing her of distracting him. He rarely interacts with Danny, who, due to his psychic and telepathic abilities, starts experiencing terrifying visions of two twin girls and a decomposing, naked old woman.
Things take a turn when Danny emerges bruised from a room he was instructed not to enter by the hotel's head chef Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers), who possesses the same supernatural skills as the littl'un. At first, Wendy accuses Jack of beating Danny, which enrages him and causes him to storm off. He then stumbles across an empty ballroom and sits down at the bar, prompting the 'arrival' of a lone bartender.
Nursing a bourbon, Jack confesses to hurting his son once when he'd been drinking. His admission is interrupted though when Wendy, frightened, rushes in and tells him that Danny was attacked by a "crazy woman" in room 237. Jack goes to check out said room and winds up kissing a young woman, who reveals herself to be a rotting corpse.
Jack then lies to Wendy, assuring her that he didn't see anything and that Danny must have harmed himself, before heading back to the ballroom – which is now full of guests dressed for a 1920s-themed party.
This sequence is one of the movie's most significant when it comes to making sense of its ending, as it sees Jack interact with a waiter, who introduces himself as Delbert Grady.
He mentions his wife and two daughters, which prompts Jack, who recognises the moniker and family set-up, to ask him whether he's ever worked as the hotel's caretaker. Grady rebuffs the question by noting that Jack has "always been the caretaker". When Jack disputes the notion, Grady insists that he would know because he's "always been" there as well.
As the chat continues, Grady tells Jack that Danny has contacted Hallorann using his talents, and that the cook is subsequently on his way to the Overlook. He urges Jack to "correct" his son's behaviour and suggests that if Wendy gets in the way, he "correct" her, too – much like he did his own wife and children.
'Redrum' and 'All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy' moments aside, what follows is a tense game of cat-and-mouse as Wendy tries to flee the hotel with Danny, as an axe-wielding Jack runs around the place trying to find them.
When Hallorann shows up, Jack murders him. (In the book, Jack only injures Hallorann. Kubrick and co-writer Diane Johnson rewrote the scene to give the movie more of a horror edge.)
Elsewhere, Danny manages to exit the hotel through a bathroom window. Jack chases after him and the pair end up in the huge maze inside of the hotel's grounds, where Danny tricks his father by creating false footprints in the snow.
He hides as Jack drives himself more mad trying to find the youngster, before eventually escaping and reuniting with Wendy. The duo drive off in Hallorann's snowcat.
The following morning, Jack is seen frozen to death in the snow, before the camera cuts back to the hotel hallway and zooms in on a photograph of a suited-and-booted Jack celebrating at an event dated July 4, 1921.
Over the years, viewers have stated that the photo symbolises how the hotel has consumed Jack entirely, and absorbed him into its history. According to Diane Johnson, however, there's more to it.
"There is an explanation, though it's a bit strange and paradoxical because it's both real and unreal — the idea that Jack was always at the hotel in some earlier incarnation," she told Entertainment Weekly back in 2017, which harks back to Grady's "you've always been the caretaker" line.
Jack Torrance is Delbert Grady, much like Delbert Grady is Charles Grady, and so the cycle of violence recurs. "Jack had somehow been the creature of the hotel through reincarnation," Johnson continued. "There's no way of resolving that, it's meant to be magical."
While he dies in the novel, too, Jack's death plays out differently on the page. In his final moments, the character who is tasked with ensuring the aging boiler doesn't overheat – a detail that doesn't feature in the movie – and the evil entities controlling him are "warned" by Danny that they've neglected the duty for so long, the boiler is on the brink of combustion.
Possessed Jack hurries to the basement, before realising it's too late and getting killed by the explosion. "The ending was changed almost entirely because Kubrick found it a cliché to just blow everything up," said Johnson.
She explained that the filmmaker saw the hotel as an antagonist in itself and by leaving it standing, it can haunt audiences long after the credits rolled. "He thought there might be something else that would be metaphorically and visually more interesting."
Talking in Michel Ciment's Kubrick, Kubrick himself shared that he thought the ending of The Shining to be confirmation that Jack was a reincarnation and that, despite not believing in ghosts, he always viewed the paranormal events that took place at the Overlook as "genuine".
In the past, it has been suggested that the writer-director made his Jack nastier as a way of establishing the picture as an allegory for abuse, and to distance itself from more traditional spooks and scares – a theory he publicly rejected.
"[Jack] doesn't have very much further to go for his anger and frustration to become completely uncontrollable," Kubrick said. "He is bitter about his failure as a writer. He is married to a woman for whom he has only contempt. He hates his son. Jack comes to the hotel psychologically prepared to do its murderous bidding."
He also claimed that "a story of the supernatural cannot be taken apart and analysed too closely. The ultimate test of its rationale is whether it is good enough to raise the hairs on the back of your neck."
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