In the scene from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) where Wendy Torrence (Shelley Duvall) discovers her husband’s manuscript is nothing but stacks of pages repeating the infamous line ‘All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy’, the snowed-in hotel’s haunting impact on its inhabitants, most notably Jack (Jack Nicholson), is forcefully realized. The sense of panic and fear depicted by Wendy’s wide-eyed horror-stricken face at the sight of the manuscript allows the viewer to visually understand the scope of the hotel’s supernatural power over Jack and his mental instability. However, it is through the film’s sound design that Jack’s deteriorating psychological capacity is fully understood. The film’s ingenious combination of music, dialogue and sound effects alongside stylish hypnotic imagery creates a powerfully dramatic relationship structured to heighten the affect of the hotel’s influence on its central character, Jack. This particular scene becomes a pivotal part of the story as it portrays a transformation in Jack’s character, including his increased schizophrenic-like tendencies and psychopathic behavior towards his family. Here, Stanley Kubrick accompanies the scene with intense extra-diegetic music, but places greater emphasis on contrasting the performance between Wendy and Jack, particularly their voice characteristics and delivery of dialogue. By emotionally dramatising this scene through the contrasts of performance and elements of sound design, Kubrick skillfully gives personification to the physical environment that the characters are placed in and also effectively portrays the Overlook Hotel’s negative influence on Jack’s psychological state.
It is evident in the film that the contrast of speech characteristics in the dialogue between Jack and Wendy emotionally enhances their visual performance and the intensity of the drama. In this scene Jack Nicholson portrays his character visually as a mentally unstable character, as shown by his eccentric facial expressions and decorative body language. He is presented on screen with unkempt hair, he leans forwards as he casually walks towards Wendy, he frequently smirks, and he moves his arms around forcefully as he talks. Although these actions on screen characterise Jack’s state of mind, it is Nicholson’s skillful interpretation of the dialogue that really emphasizes the instability of his character. As author Luis García observes, “The Shining uses Jack’s diction and delivery to show his sophisticated nature, which seems capable of anything.” (1) In this scene Jack’s rhythm of speech is unusually leisurely and flowing. He speaks in an articulated and intimidating voice with sinister undertones. As opposed to the responsible and trustworthy character seen at the beginning of the film, these new voice qualities change our perception of Jack Torrence, establishing him as a manipulative, threatening, and unstable character. In contrast to Jack, and to great dramatic effect, Wendy is portrayed through the sound of her dialogue as confused, inferior and frightened. Her wide-eyed tearful facial expression visually suggests that she is petrified by her husband’s transformation, almost a direct reflection of how the film’s viewers are responding to Jack’s actions on screen. However it is the sound of Wendy’s voice that emotionally intensifies the scene and accentuates her performance. Wendy’s voice is loud, high-pitched, and she speaks in a hysterical broken rhythm therefore strongly suggesting her weakness, doubt, and fear about the situation.
The Shining also employs sound effects to dramatically emphasise the hotel’s impact on its characters. “Sound effects may serve all three functions simultaneously: defining location, creating mood and portraying the environment’s relation to characters.” (2) Kubrick uses sound effects to personify the Overlook Hotel as a supernatural force, allowing the viewer to understand that it is responsible for transforming Jack. By altering the acoustic qualities in the speech of his characters in the chosen scene, Kubrick stresses the isolation and alienation of the location. This is achieved by the distinct use of an echo in the extraordinarily large room that the characters are situated in. Other sound effects have also been included to a short montage that crosscuts between the action of Jack advancing on Wendy and a montage of the psychic insights that their traumatised son Danny (Danny Lloyd) is experiencing. The montage shows Danny sitting fear-stricken at a dining table, followed by an image of a hall completely flooded in blood, and then a shot of a door graffitied with the word ‘REDRUM’. As these shots are played, all sounds that should correspond faithfully to the image are non-existent. Instead Kubrick has distorted the acoustic qualities of Jack’s speech so that it feels other-worldly, and has placed it as a voice-over for the quick montage, increasing the volume as the camera is covered in blood, signifying the submerging environment or presence that is consuming the characters.
Extra-diegetic music is employed within this scene to intensify Jack’s disturbing psychological transformation. “[B]y ‘importing whole’ the rhythmic structures specific to music, film sound can provoke in the spectator a perceptible rhythm which the image track itself is incapable of provoking…” (3) What is of great importance in this scene is the nature of the music that is included as it signifies much that the image and diegetic sounds cannot represent. Kubrick has chosen music that is dictating and overwhelming, immediately evoking tension and giving the sense that the supernatural hotel is swallowing the characters. More importantly, Kubrick employs irregular fast paced instrumentation that avoids any sort of harmonious coherence, including the rapid and random plucking of violin strings and the high-pitched twisted screeching of similar string instruments. This music dramatically depicts the disturbing supernatural power of the environment that is overwhelming the characters, and also depicts Jack’s inner turmoil and descent into madness. Extra-diegetic music in this scene depicts the interiority of the characters and their world; a fulfillment that image alone cannot suffice.
Overall, Kubrick’s The Shining combines the elements of sound design with the film’s evocative imagery to convey the power of the hotel and the role it plays in transforming its characters. The contrasts in performance between Wendy and Jack, particularly their voice qualities, play an integral part in establishing these shifts in character and situation. Without the mastering of performance and sound effects, such as carefully defined atmospheric noises and craftily manipulated voice over, the hotel would lose much of its personification within the narrative. The extra-diegetic music is also composed effectively for the film as it describes the sinister inner workings of Jack, as well as emphasising the overwhelming intensity of the supernatural environment. Without the precise construction of sound in correlation with the action on screen, The Shining would lose much of the dramatic psychological intensity evoked by the dialogue, sound effects and music.
- Luis M. García Mainar, Narrative and Stylistic Patterns in the Films of Stanley Kubrick, New York: Camden House, 1999, p. 59
- Maria Pramaggiore and Tom Wallis, Film: A Critical Introduction, London: Pearson Education Inc. 2006, p. 220
- Brian Lewis, Jean Mitry and the Aesthetics of the Cinema, Michigan: UMI Research Press, 1984, p.28