The Shining (1980) is a horror film directed and produced by Stanley Kubrick and is an adaptation of the 1977 novel The Shining by Stephen King. The film stars Jack Nicholson, who plays aspiring writer Jack Torrance. Jack takes his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and his son Danny (Danny Lloyd) to the Overlook Hotel in Colorado to live whilst Jack is there to be the off-season caretaker. The family become trapped inside the isolated hotel due to a storm, and the supernatural elements in the hotel cause Jacks sanity to fall apart, leaving his wife and son in danger of him. Throughout the film, the elements of mise en scène used such as setting, costume, props, lighting, colour and performance all slowly adapt to the eerie storyline of The Shining, which as a whole enhances the chilling atmosphere for the spectators and drives the narrative of the film forward.
Kubrick’s use of setting in The Shining is a significant element of the mise en scène in the film when it comes to the making of the successful horror film. The film features a small group of individuals that are restricted to artificial surroundings, by a hostile natural setting. The baggage that the family bring into the isolated setting will determine what happens to them once put in such confinement, and determines how their own mind will allow them to overcome the stresses of that result (Rasmussen, 2001). The opening sequence of the film presents establishing shots of the mountains near the hotel. The beautiful scenery juxtaposes with the chilling nature of the film, setting the scene for the audience right from the outset.
One of the most significant uses of setting in The Shining is the maze outside of the Overlook Hotel. The maze can be interpreted as a metaphor for Jack’s mind and how it is rapidly deteriorating. As he is chasing Danny through the maze in the ending sequence of the film, Falsetto (2001) states that this could be seen as a metaphor for Jack’s mental condition and the dead ends of the maze are a reflection of Jack’s block of creativity in his writing.
Falsetto also identifies the allocation of certain areas in the hotel with certain character’s in the film. For example, the Gold Room and Jack’s writing space are allocated to Jack and the corridors where Danny is on his tricycle and the maze outside are Danny’s areas. Not only does this allow the audience to become familiar with these specific spaces, but it also allows each character to have control when in their own space due to familiarity. When Jack is chasing Danny in the maze, Danny has the advantage as he has been in the maze before and so he knows where the dead ends are, allowing him to escape quickly and hide from Jack. If Danny was not familiar with the maze, the ending of the film could be completely different with Danny ending up being killed, therefore the use of setting is a significant part of the film’s narration.
The setting of The Shining plays around with the idea of space or lack of it. The majority of the film is shot inside the Overlook Hotel, restricting the audience and the character’s, making the hotel seem claustrophobic and unsettling due to its confined space and lack of exploration of setting. The idea of restriction of space is displayed early on in the film when the Torrence family are driving up the hotel in their Volkswagen. The restricted space of the car’s interior reflects other locations of the film that are cramped such as the Torrence’s area of the hotel that is fairly run-down, which juxtaposes against the rest of the hotel that is spacious, such as Jack’s writing area. (Falsetto, 2001). This element of mise en scène helps narrate the film as the confined spaces that the Torrence’s are living in impacts their sanity and therefore makes the film unsettling to the audience as they watch the family’s mental deterioration.
Costume is one of the most visible elements of mise en scène and can present a character’s personality to the audience. The Torrence family’s clothing in The Shining portrays the deterioration of each character and also how they are adapting to their new environment. When Wendy is walking through the hotel wheeling a breakfast cart through the corridors, she is wearing a dressing gown and slippers and her hair is messy, suggesting how she is out of tune with her surroundings. Similarly, Jack is also out of sync with his surroundings. His clothing is casual and careless, and the stubble on his face is overgrown, an image he would not acquire when in an
interview with Mr Ullman at the beginning of the film, displaying how his sanity is falling apart as the film goes on. Rasmussen (2001) states that Jack’s overgrown stubble is an expression of
liberation from social conformity. The clothing and hair in The Shining are important for the audience to identify the development of the character’s as it reflects the rapid decline of each character’s sanity.
The colour a character wears in a film can give an audience an insight and ideas about a certain character’s mood, personality or even situation. When Wendy and Jack are fighting in Jack’s writing area in the hotel towards the end of the film, Jack is wearing a red jacket and Wendy is wearing a green shirt. Red and green are complimentary colours that contrast each other as they are on opposite sides of the colour wheel, and so Jack and Wendy wearing clashing colours reflect the conflict of the argument and their opposite personalities. The colour red also has connotations of aggression, danger and compulsiveness, which mirrors Jack’s personality perfectly. The blue dresses that the twins wear in The Shining also reflect their eerie nature as the colour blue is the coldest colour on the colour spectrum, connoting death or even heaven. The Victorian dresses that they wear also reflects the time period that they’re from, telling the audience that they are not from this era.
The use of props in a film’s mise en scène helps to confirm a narrative, indicate a genre and reveal something about a character (Dix, 2016). In The Shining, the use of props are used to display contrasts between situations. When Wendy is on the phone in her apartment, she is using a white telephone, which in early Hollywood cinema was seen as a symbol of wealth and upper class. This is contradicting to Wendy’s surroundings as her apartment is cluttered with books and looks shabby. Another prop that is used for contrast is balloons. Towards the end of the film when Wendy is running from Jack in the hotel, there are numerous colourful balloons that are on the floor in the hotel’s corridors. Colourful balloons are associated with celebration and happiness, which juxtaposes against the nature of the scene as Jack is running through the hotel with an axe trying to kill his family.
Props in The Shining are also used to signal to the audience that something bad will happen soon. Each time Danny is going through the hotel’s corridors on his tricycle, he discovers something paranormal or dangerous such as the twins or Room 237. The tricycle is also paired with an eerie squeaking sound from the wheels and such sound is a typical generic convention for a horror film. Consequently, the audience can guess what will happen next in the narrative from seeing Danny’s tricycle.
A significant factor of mise en scène is the lighting and colours of a shot. As said by Bordwell, Thompson and Smith (2017), lighting is more than just illuminating the subject in order to see it, it must provide some sort of visual impact for the audience. In The Shining, Kubrick avoided the stereotypical dark, low-key lighting that is common in most horror films and opted for the hotel to be well-lit and high-key, a reflection of the mad electricity of Jack’s increasingly insane mind. Kubrick’s use of lighting in the Gold Room when Jack goes to the bar gives the audience an insight into Jack and his personality. The bar is radiantly lit as if it were ‘the light of heavenly grace’ (Rasmussen, 2001), which informs the audience how Jack feels about alcohol and also indicates that something bad maybe happen later on as Jack is a recovering alcoholic.
Colour is also a crucial aspect of the narration of mise en scène that goes hand-in-hand with the lighting in a scene. Colour can create meaning, the mood, sensations and emotive cues (Dalle Vacche and Price, 2006) in film. As Jack enters the bathroom of Room 237, he sees an attractive woman in the bath, illuminated from overhead, creating a glamorous image. The room is painted green with even the sink and toilet the same shade of green, casting a green tint over the woman. In Bellantoni’s 2012 book on colour in visual storytelling, Bellantoni claims that the colour green is ‘The Split Personality Colour’ in film, as it can signal health but also decay and danger, and this theory ties in well with this scene in The Shining. When we first see the woman, she is young and attractive as she is a product of Jack’s imagination, however, once Jack looks in the mirror he wakes up to reality and sees his fantasy as a nightmare when he realises that she is an old, decaying woman. The colour green therefore hints to the audience that this woman is not all she seems before we are actually shown the truth, giving the film an omniscient narrative structure.
However, the most dominating colour in The Shining that appears in almost every single shot of the film until the end is the colour red. As the Torrence family enter the hotel, there are accents of red everywhere, if not as a centre point of the shot. The hotel guests have red luggage, the bellhops have red jackets, and the furniture and carpets are red. Danny consistently wears red throughout the film and when Jack starts to lose touch with reality, he begins to wear red. Red acts as a motif that indicates to the audience that something bad will happen each time there is red in the frame and as said by Nichols (1985), the colour score can unfold inner drama. From the red fire alarms, the red fire extinguishers and red no smoking signs, the colour red is closely linked with objects that are used as warnings, as red is a colour associated with danger. The colour red is seen as the devils colour and has connotations of danger, death, blood and anger, which gives the viewers visual clues as to what is to come for the Torrence family.
An actor’s performance in a film can form the personality of a character and determine the entire film’s mood. Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall’s acting styles in The Shining are the antitheses of each other, forming a contrast between their character’s personalities. Carnicke’s (2006) journal on The Material Poetry of Acting states that Nicholson’s exaggerated performance clashes against Duvall’s convincing and naturalistic style, which creates such an abstraction that character empathy from the audience becomes impossible. However, Nicholson’s facial anatomy has been seen to individualise his work by giving an ‘emotionally charged performance’ (Baron, Carson, Tomasulo, 2004) and also highlight to the audience that his character is out of control of his own sanity.
In conclusion, these six key elements of mise en scène not only act as a visual concept for an audience, but these factors interact with each other to guide the audience to dictate the narrative structure of the film that gives them insights into deeper meanings. Kubrick’s use of isolated setting in The Shining impacts the character’s sanity, and Kubrick’s choice of lighting, clothing and colours helps represent this sanity to the audience. The props used indicate to an audience something about the character that interacts with these specific props or that something bad will happen, and the performance of the actors support this further. Therefore, Kubrick’s use of mise en scène in The Shining acts as part of the narration of the film, and each factor of mise en scène work together to create the narrative’s overall structure.
College Film & Media Studies. MISE EN SCENE. Retrieved 20th December, 2017, from https://collegefilmandmediastudies.com/mise-en-scene-2/
ThoughtCo. Contrasting Colours. Retrieved 20th December, 2017, from https://www.thoughtco.com/contrasting-colors-in-design-1078274