Saturday, August 20, 2016

How "Experts" don't know the difference between Heroes and Villains in "The Shining"

A piece on The Shiningposted on the BlueCat Screenwriting site asks this question in the title - "Who is the Antagonist?" I'm sure the post by blucat was meant to be provacative, not only with the title, but in the content as well. The goal was to have the piece resonate with readers interested in the art and craft of screenwriting. However, the piece, apparently "staff" written by those who work at blucat, is wrong headed no matter who authored the post because of this premise -- In the Stanley Kubrick movie adaptation, Jack Torrance, is a protagonist who eventually becomes the antagonist as the story progresses. 
The above premise is supported by many objectionable passages including this one -- "The audience experiences the film through Jack Torrence’s point of view."  

None of the above is close to an accurate reading of Kubrick's movie.  
Why should I bother to respond? 
I believe that any company attempting to get fledging screenwriters to enter their contests (which is how blucat makes money - via the entrance fees and other add on purchases that contest entrants are offered during the online process) should at least demonstrate a basic understanding of the standard principles of screenwriting when they are judging screenwriters and their efforts. 
For the record, I have never entered any of my screenplays in a blucat contest, nor do I know any of the people who are, or in the past, have worked at the company.   

Let me begin my response to blucat's piece stating the obvious -- Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of The Shining was designed with the character of Jack Torrance as the Antagonist from the very beginning of the narrative. There are reasons that this might have proved to be a mystery to the staff at blucat, but anyone viewing the film for some pointers on screenwriting can proceed forward without any concern that this is an ambiguous issue.  

We'll start our support of this position by attacking the ridiculous statement in the blucat piece cited earlier — "The audience experiences the film through Jack Torrence’s point of view."  
Kubrick's film is definitely not shot with the P.O.V. of Jack Torrence. If the story was seen through his character's P.O.V, we would not be experiencing scenes separate from anything involving Jack, which are objectively shot to depict the real protagonists in the film - "Danny" and "Wendy". There are a lot of scenes spread throughout the three acts that don't include Jack's character (let's mention three, all in the first act -- Wendy's interview with the Social worker / Danny talking to Tony in the
bathroom before he faints / Danny talking to Hallorann about his gift). And every scene is treated as if Jack is not privy to how any of the content of those scenes affect his character or the overall narrative. The filmmaking also handles these scenes with an objective P.O.V., with every scene consistent in style, tone, and plot development with the rest of the film.

Indeed, the filmmaking ends up also being consistent with almost every other movie Stanley Kubrick shot in his career. Similar to the films "Barry Lyndon" and "2001," Kubrick utilized a narrative style that was essential and equal to the content of the material, a omniscient P.O.V. that almost seems to be looking down at the folly of humankind's existence in a cold, detached way. Take for example, the opening credit sequence of The Shining, shot from a helicopter, with Kubrick's camera tracking a small motor vehicle making its way on the long winding road toward a destination (which turns out to be the Overlook hotel), completely surrounded by an open expanse of nature, not just mountains and surrounding bodies of water, but as the car drives to a higher elevation, the sequence depicts a change in the surrounding environment, similar to seasonal changes - sunny turns to snow covered mountains. The entire credit sequence is show with an omniscient P.O.V. a technically flawless tracking shot that would end up being employeed by the director (in some form) again and again (think of Danny being followed by the camera as he drives his big wheel through the hotel hallways) throughout the rest of the film.  

The original book by Stephen King depicted the character of Jack Torrance in a way that one could see him (when reading the novel before Kubrick's adaptation) as a "protagonist," along with the other protagonists clearly defined in the book, Wendy and Danny. The book's clear definition of these three protagonists is at the heart of the many problems King had with Kubrick's adaptation. From the beginning of the film's narrative "Jack" (played by Jack Nicholson) is clearly depicted as a man wearing a mask to hide the emotional desperation he's feeling in his life. Nicholson has a likable, charming persona on screen (one of the reasons he was cast), which can mislead viewers who might buy into the charming mask he is wearing like the hotel executives who hire him. However, this is all part of the film's creative construction (and another aspect of the adaptation that King believed was wrong with the film -- the way Nicholson plays Jack reveals he's a nut waiting to crack from the very beginning), that Kubrick wants audiences to witness -- how someone like Jack is given opportunities of responsibilities that count on his mental soundness to succeed. 
The character we watch at the beginning of the movie is not our "hero." He's the villain of the movie. Jack Torrance is a seriously flawed human being, with "pre-offense behavioral indicators," facing a "precipitating situation" (two phrases grabbed from the verbiage used by profilers to describe violent offenders) that will push the character from being someone who in the past has hurt the ones he loves to someone who will end up trying to kill his family.  

There is no doubt that the film has a completely different creative take than the original book. The changes Kubrick made in his adaptation of the two characters, Jack and Wendy, end up informing many of the other creative liberties he took with the source material. The book is essentially about three characters battling the supernatural forces haunting the hotel. Eventually the dark forces lure one of the characters to change sides. This is completely different than the movie adaptation which opens with Jack as the antagonist as he takes on a new job that he hopes will allow him a new start in life, but ends up being the final catalyst to a darker transformation. What is fascinating about watching Kubrick's take on the dynamics of a family unit is how a terrible member is excused time and time again for his behavior by his loved ones, until their is an finally escalation that threatens their lives. 

From the blucat piece -- "Kubrick chose to portray Wendy in the way her husband felt about her: disturbing, creepy, useless and annoying." This statement was written to support the wrongheaded opening premise ("The audience experiences the film through Jack Torrence’s point of view. "). Whatever audiences of the Kubrick film think of Wendy, her character (depicted objectively, not through Jack's P.O.V.) is one of two main protagonists in the film.  
Not that it really matters, but those who don't "like" Wendy as a protagonist should know the depiction of her character in the film actually is consistent with some traditional beats in the standard horror template (a "weak" protagonist who becomes stronger by the end of the movie and survives the ordeal and/or helps another protagonist to survive) which Kubrick was trying to immulate so he had some of the trappings of a typical horror genre film while at the same time expanding the creative scope in other ways. 
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.) 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 main protagonist in the film, Danny, is a character 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 the 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.  And every new generation of young viewers who see the film tap into this fear. 

The maze in the film's hotel is a swap for what King depicts in his novel as a park of hedge animals that come alive and chase after Danny at the climax of the book. The change for the movie adapatation was made for FX reasons (Kubrick was convinced the state of 1980's FX technology was not up to the task of rendering scary Hedge animals for the big screen). Regardless of the motivation behind the swap for Hedge animals for the maze, the change ended up being consistent with Kubrick's thematic take on the material he was creating. Danny is still running from a killer in the third act, but not hedge animal manifestations conjured up by the evil spirits haunting the hotel. The boy is trying to stay one step ahead of his own father who wants to kill him.  

Kubrick depicts Jack as the Antagonist from the very beginning of the film. But like any great writing, the best way for audiences to connect with the story is for the creator to depict the "human" side of both the protagonist and the antagonist. The Shining spends time with the antagonist in a way that we are entertained by his complete crossover to the dark side of his human personality... which allows us to fear for our protagonists and their prospect of surviving the winter. 

There is no "growth" in the way Jack proceeds through the narrative (one potential indicator of a true protagonist and his journey through the three acts of the story). On this one point, Wendy and Danny do change, both grow as the storyline plays out. They are different... smarter, by the conclusion of the story due to their ordeal. Their growth emerges from a fight with an enemy, not so much the hotel spirits, but a family member hell-bent on killing the ones he loves.