The Shining

Nicholson as Jack Torrance

One of the many memorable moments from Kubrick’s version of The Shining is the scene at the beginning where Jack Torrance, played by Jack Nicholson, starts grinning devilishly while talking to his wife and son about cannibalism and the Donner party. It happens while they are in the car, on their way up a winding mountain road to the hotel, where they will remain snowed in alone all winter, while Jack serves as caretaker.

Jack is the one driving, and the way his eyes light up, the way he arches those wolfish eyebrows of his, you just know bad things are in store for this family. The thing about Nicholson as Torrance is that he always has a fiendish air about him. If anything, the hotel just made him become all the more gleefully unhinged.

The scene where his behavior comes closest to that of a loving father is probably the one where he takes Danny up on his lap and asks him, “How’s it going, Doc?” Yet even that scene is laced with knowing malice. And it comes mere minutes after we have witnessed him become openly hostile to his wife, cussing her out for breaking his writing concentration.

The performance Nicholson gives is that of a man brimming with spite, right from the get-go. In many ways, he just comes off as a jerk, so much so that if you remove the only overt supernatural happening (specifically, the opening of the locked pantry), one reading of the film would just be to see it as a character study on the banality of human evil. In this reading, Jack is just a case of cabin fever. Beyond that, there is not much dimension to him as a character.

As the film progresses, Nicholson almost over-compensates for this by becoming a living caricature. The actor seems to relish each outburst as an opportunity to show how animated his facial features can become.

Even Steven Spielberg, who counts The Shining among his favorite films, conceded that he initially found Nicholson’s performance to be over-the-top. He likened it to an exaggerated kabuki performance, whereas Kubrick likened it to a scene-chewing James Cagney performance.

Kubrick articulated his take on the character of Jack Torrance this way:

“Jack comes to the hotel psychologically prepared to do its murderous bidding. He doesn’t have much further to go from his anger and frustration to become completely uncontrollable. He is bitter about his failure as a writer. He is married to a woman with whom he has only contempt. He hates his son.”

This is clearly a different reading on the character than the one King had. Granted, it made for an unforgettable screen villain, one the American Film Institute ranked as the 25th greatest of all time. But Nicholson’s Joker made the same list, and if there is room for other interpretations of that character, then there is no reason why the big-screen and small-screen Jack Torrance cannot exist side-by-side, as well.

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Weber as Jack Torrance

What Steven Weber manages to pull off with The Shining TV miniseries is nothing short of a miracle. At the time, Weber was an actor known primarily for his comedic work on the ‘90s sitcom Wings. To have the goofball who played Brian Hackett fill the almighty shoes of Jack Nicholson at first seemed like a ridiculous prospect. The way Weber got around this was simply by sidestepping those shoes, not even attempting to fill them. His Jack Torrance is, accordingly, a completely different character than Nicholson’s was.

In a 1983 Playboy interview, Stephen King said The Shining was “about Jack Torrance’s gradual descent into madness through the malign influence of the Overlook.”

“If the guy is nuts to begin with,” he said, “then the entire tragedy of his downfall is wasted.”

In Weber, we see the full, frightening transformation of Jack Torrance brought vividly to life. His version of the character starts out weary and at times irritable, in keeping with his background as a recovering alcoholic. But we also see glimpses of him having playful interactions with his wife and son.

As a man capable of genuine affection, Weber is much more convincing. Gradually, however, his Torrance slowly succumbs, not so much to cabin fever, but to an obsession with the Overlook. This allows the hotel’s dark supernatural forces to effectively possess him.

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At one point, his wife even notes that all the old habits are back from when he was an alcoholic. Except that now he is a slave to obsession. When bottles of alcohol do magically materialize, courtesy of “The Management,” his relapse into drinking comes about more as a byproduct of that obsession. Whiskey is just another means for the Overlook to control him.

The initial scenes of domestic violence against his wife are harrowing. By the time he starts chasing his son through the hotel (with a croquet mallet in this telling, as opposed to an ax), his face has morphed into a ghoulish mask, his forehead split open, blood in his teeth. This nightmare image is made all the more horrifying because we know there used to be a loving husband and father under there.

Originally, King had envisioned an actor like Jon Voight or Martin Sheen, someone with more of an “everyman” quality, playing the part of Jack Torrance. Weber has that everyman quality, yet there is also a vaguely reptilian quality lurking in the contours of his face. This has only grown more pronounced as the actor has gotten older. When he guest-starred as a shifty character on How to Get Away with Murder, there was something deeply unsettling about the way his lizard-like eyes gazed out from two browless sockets. Residue from the Overlook?

Even just his voice can be scary. If hearing Steven Weber yell things like, “Damn nosy little pup. You get down here and take your medicine!” is not enough, check out the unabridged audiobook version of It. Weber is the narrator, and his voice is perfectly suited to the role of Pennywise the Clown. If nothing else, the audiobook might make a good primer for the upcoming It feature film in September.

Continue Reading In Defense of the Much-Maligned The Shining Miniseries>>

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