Wednesday, May 01, 2013

The Ultimate Story Checklist: The Shining

Updated to the sixth and final checklist!
Frustrated novelist Jack Torrance accepts a job as winter caretaker at the snowed-in Overlook resort hotel, accompanied by his fragile wife Wendy and their psychic young son Danny. The hotel’s cook Dick Halloran shares Danny’s power and warns him that the hotel is haunted. Just like the previous caretaker, Jack begins to go crazy and lets the spirits of the hotel convince him to kill his family. Cut off from all communication, Danny psychically summons Halloran and tries to escape with his mother, but in the end, it’s Danny vs. Jack inside a snowy hedge maze.
PART #1: CONCEPT 15/19
The Pitch: Does this concept excite everyone who hears about it?
Is the one sentence description uniquely appealing?
 A family agrees to take care of a snowbound hotel, but when the father is driven mad by spirits and tries to kill his family, his psychically-gifted son must stop him.
Does the concept contain an intriguing ironic contradiction?
 Somewhat: the family becomes a source of danger, when the world goes crazy only the crazy kid seems sane...
Is this a story anyone can identify with, projected onto a bigger canvas, with higher stakes?
 Yes, fear of isolation and being trapped in a marriage, set in the most isolated place in America trapped with a monstrous man.
Story Fundamentals: Will this concept generate a strong story?
Is the concept simple enough to spend more time on character than plot?
 Yes.  As opposed to the book, Jack’s internal problems drive the movie, not the external complications.
Is there one character that the audience will choose to be their “hero”?
 No.  This movie has one hero at a time but it’s a tag-team effort: first Jack, then Danny, then Jack, then Wendy, then Halloran, then Danny.
Does the story follow the progress of the hero’s problem, not the hero’s daily life? 
 Yes, it follows the progress of the problem as it passes from hero to hero.
Does the story present a unique relationship?
 Somewhat: we’ve seen a wife and son afraid of the dad before.  The Halloran/Danny relationship is unique.
Is at least one actual human being opposed to what the hero is doing?
 Not at the beginning, but yes once they’re opposed to each other.
Does this challenge represent the hero’s greatest hope and/or greatest fear and/or an ironic answer to the hero’s question?
 Yes. Jack’s greatest hope (time alone to write) becomes his greatest fear (hurting his family).
Does something inside the hero have a particularly volatile reaction to the challenge?
 Very much so, especially for Jack and Danny.
Does this challenge become something that is the not just hard for the hero to do (an obstacle) but hard for the hero to want to do (a conflict)?
 Yes for Jack, Danny and Wendy, since they have to oppose family members, no for Halloran.
In the end, is the hero the only one who can solve the problem?
 No, Jack gives up quickly, and others have to take up the fight, making this a tag-team hero movie. In the end, it comes down to just Danny as the new hero. 
Does the hero permanently transform the situation and vice versa?
 Yes, each one does.
The Hook: Will this be marketable and generate word of mouth?
Does the story satisfy the basic human urges that get people to buy and recommend this genre?
 Yes, lots of blood and scares.
Does this story show us at least one image we haven’t seen before (that can be used to promote the final product)?
 Very much so: the blood, the big wheel, the the face through the door, the all work and no plays sheets, the hedge maze.
Is there at least one “Holy Crap!” scene (to create word of mouth)?
 Very much so: “Here’s Johnny”, all work and no play, etc.
Does the story contain a surprise that is not obvious from the beginning?
 Not really.  We see where it’s going early on.
Is the story marketable without revealing the surprise?
NA, so I’ll give it a
Is the conflict compelling and ironic both before and after the surprise?
NA, so I’ll give it a
PART #2: CHARACTER 15/22  (I’ll score this only for Jack’s answers, because the audience is hard-wired to care about the original hero and depend on him to solve the story.  This movie successfully shifts our hopes from Jack to Danny, to Wendy, to Halloran, then back to Danny, but the great risk was in making our initial hero so weak, so I’ll highlight that risk here.)
Believe: Do we recognize the hero as a human being?
Does the hero have a moment of humanity early on? (A funny, or kind, or oddball, or out-of-character, or comically vain, or unique-but-universal “I thought I was the only one who did that!” moment?)
 Jack: No.  Danny: Tony seems like a fun quirk early on.
Is the hero defined by ongoing actions and attitudes, not by backstory?
 Jack is defined more by his backstory than his present.  Danny is defined by his present actions.
Does the hero have a well-defined public identity?
 Yes, Jack’s the recovering alcoholic bad dad, frustrated writer.  Danny seems innocent.
Does the surface characterization ironically contrast with a hidden interior self?
 Jack thinks so, but he’s wrong: they’ve got him pegged.  Danny has a dark power.
Does the hero have a consistent metaphor family (drawn from his or her job, background, or developmental state)?
 A little bit.  Pop culture: “Here’s Johnny.”  Calls son “Doc” like in Bugs Bunny.
Does the hero have a default personality trait?
 Yes.  Jack is testy and insincere.  Danny is meek. 
Does the hero have a default argument tactic?
 Yes, Jack is mock-jocular, accusatory and condescending. “Have you ever thought about my responsibilities?” He keeps quizzing each about the other for fuel to use against them.
Is the hero’s primary motivation for tackling this challenge strong, simple, and revealed early on?
 Yes for both.
Care: Do we feel for the hero?
Does the hero start out with a shortsighted or wrongheaded philosophy (or accept a false piece of advice early on)?
 Jack: “That happens to be exactly what I’m looking for.”  Danny: “I don’t want to talk about Tony anymore.”
Does the hero have a false or shortsighted goal in the first half?
 Jack: finish his novel, Danny: Be a normal kid
Does the hero have an open fear or anxiety about his or her future, as well as a hidden, private fear?
 Open. Jack: going broke. Danny: No.  Hidden: Jack: going crazy. Danny: that something horrible will happen at the hotel.
Is the hero physically and emotionally vulnerable?
 Yes, both for both.
Does the hero have at least one untenable great flaw we empathize with? (but…)
 Jack has many flaws.  Danny is over-sensitive to evil, and spends the middle of the movie catatonic.
Invest: Can we trust the hero to tackle this challenge?
…Is that great flaw (ironically) the natural flip-side of a great strength we admire?
 Jack has no strengths.  Danny has the ability to sense evil spirits.
Is the hero curious?
 Yes, both investigate room 237, for instance.
Is the hero generally resourceful?
 No for Jack, yes for Danny, as seen by his walking backwards through the footsteps. 
Does the hero have rules he or she lives by (either stated or implied)?
 No, Jack’s lost and has no self-image.  Danny doesn’t really either.
Is the hero surrounded by people who sorely lack his or her most valuable quality?
 Jack has no best quality.  Danny: Yes.
…And is the hero willing to let them know that, subtly or directly?
 Jack, yes: he’s a snapping, snarling beast.  Danny: no.
Is the hero already doing something active when we first meet him or her?
 Jack: yes, trying to get the job.  Danny: no.
Does the hero have (or claim) decision-making authority?
 Yes, they have the run of the place, with no police available.
Does the hero use pre-established special skills from his or her past to solve problems (rather than doing what anybody would do)?
 No for Jack, who does what anyone would do.  Very much yes for Danny.
PART #3: STRUCTURE (If the story is about the solving of a large problem) 20/21
1st Quarter: Is the challenge laid out in the first quarter?
When the story begins, is the hero becoming increasingly irritated about his or her longstanding social problem (while still in denial about an internal flaw)?
 Jack: Yes, he’s a dry drunk, has anger issues, hates his family, etc.  Danny: Yes, he’s determined to deal with his Tony problem.
Does this problem become undeniable due to a social humiliation at the beginning of the story?
 Jack: It happened in the past, when he hurt his son and quit drinking.  Danny: Somewhat. He’s interrogated by doctor about Tony.
Does the hero discover an intimidating opportunity to fix the problem?
 Jack: Yes, offered a job that will allow him to dry out in a liquor-free hotel.  Danny: yes, meets Halloran.
Does the hero hesitate until the stakes are raised?
 Jack: Yes, he’s a little taken aback by the warnings. Danny: Yes, he tries to ignore his visions.
Does the hero commit to pursuing the opportunity by the end of the first quarter?
 Jack: Yes, he begins the job.  Danny: yes, he starts pursuing the ghosts.
2nd Quarter: Does the hero try the easy way in the second quarter?
Does the hero’s pursuit of the opportunity quickly lead to an unforeseen conflict with another person?
 Both: Not with another person at first, but with the demons of the hotel.  Eventually with each other and both will clash with Wendy.
Does the hero try the easy way throughout the second quarter?
 Jack: Very briefly.  Tries to write and tries to get along with family only for a very short time, then quits trying and becomes the villain.  Danny: Yes, he chases them through the halls, but won’t enter the room.
Does the hero have a little fun and get excited about the possibility of success?
 In horror movies, it’s usually the villain who has fun at this point (which the audience enjoys and the heroes hate) but this is more like a standard movie: Jack seems to do well here, (but we later find out he was faking it all).  Danny definitely has fun here, big wheeling around and going through maze is fun for both he and Wendy. Jack seems to get excited about the possibility of success, and so does Wendy but Danny doesn’t: he’s getting scared.
Does the easy way lead to a big crash around the midpoint, resulting in the loss of a safe space and/or sheltering relationship?
 Yes for both: Danny enters the room and becomes injured, Wendy blames Jack.  Jack’s wife no longer trusts him, Danny becomes catatonic.
3rd Quarter: Does the hero try the hard way in the third quarter?
Does the hero try the hard way from this point on?
 Yes, everybody takes everything more seriously from this point on.
Does the hero find out who his or her real friends and real enemies are?
 Yes, Jack realizes that the spirits want him to kill his wife.  Danny realizes he needs Tony.  Wendy realizes she can’t trust Jack.
Do the stakes, pace, and motivation all escalate at this point?
 Yes: Jack cuts off contact with outside world, Wendy knocks him out.
Does the hero learn from mistakes in a painful way?
 Jack doesn’t.  Danny and Wendy do.
Does a further setback lead to a spiritual crisis?
 (Danny re-emerges as sole hero) When Danny assumes his mother is dead, and then his spiritual mentor Hallorann is killed, he finally shakes out of it and goes mano-a-mano.
4th Quarter: Does the challenge climax in the fourth quarter?
Does the hero adopt a corrected philosophy after the spiritual crisis?
 Danny barely speaks, but he seems to have accepted that his dad must die.
After that crisis, does the hero finally commit to pursuing a corrected goal, which still seems far away?
 Yes, Danny commits to stopping his father.
Before the final quarter of the story begins, (if not long before) has your hero switched to being proactive, instead of reactive?
 Yes, finally.
Despite these proactive steps, is the timeline unexpectedly moved up, forcing the hero to improvise for the finale?
 Yes, his rescuer is killed and his father hears his scream.
Do all strands of the story and most of the characters come together for the climactic confrontation?
Does the hero’s inner struggle climax shortly after (or possible at the same time as) his or her outer struggle?
 It never climaxes.  He’s still freaked out at the end. 
Is there an epilogue/ aftermath/ denouement in which the challenge is finally resolved (or succumbed to), and we see how much the hero has changed (possibly through reversible behavior)
 No, an ambiguous final scene was cut out, leaving us with a quick cut to black as soon as they get away. 
PART #4: SCENEWORK 18/20 (Sample Scene: Jack finally takes a drink from the ghosts in the ballroom. A waiter spills a drink on him, and takes him to the bathroom to clean it off.  While he does so, Jack realizes that the waiter is actually Grady, the former caretaker that killed his family.  Grady encourages him to do the same, but Jack is uncertain.)
The Set-Up: Does this scene begin with the essential elements it needs?
Were tense and/or hopeful (and usually false) expectations for this interaction established beforehand?
 We’ve been afraid of Grady showing up, yes.
Does the scene eliminate small talk and repeated beats by cutting out the beginning (or possibly even the middle)?
 No, it begins at the beginning.
Is this an intimidating setting that keeps characters active?
 Yes, it’s a bar and he’s a recovering alcoholic.  It’s also intimidating because we know it’s not real, and it’s active because they’re there to get the stain out.
Is one of the scene partners not planning to have this conversation (and quite possibly has something better to do)?
 Yes, Jack just wants to get back to the party.
Is there at least one non-plot element complicating the scene?
 Yes, the stain.
Does the scene establish its own mini-ticking-clock (if only through subconscious anticipation)?
 Slightly: they’re trying to get the stain out before it sets. Yes, he knows his wife may be searching for him.
The Conflict: Do the conflicts play out in a lively manner?
Does this scene both advance the plot and reveal character through emotional reactions?
 Yes, Jack is very disturbed.
Does the audience have (or develop) a rooting interest in this scene (which may sometimes shift)?
 Yes, we’re on Jack’s side for once (not only because Grady is so evil, but because Jack is finally investigating and resisting.)
Are two agendas genuinely clashing (rather than merely two personalities)?
 Yes, the butler wants Jack to kill his family, Jack “wants to know who’s buying his drinks”
Does the scene have both a surface conflict and a suppressed conflict (one of which is the primary conflict in this scene)?
 Yes, surface conflict is over the stain, then over who is the caretaker, suppressed is over whether or not he should kill his family.
Is the suppressed conflict (which may or may not come to the surface) implied through subtext (and/or called out by the other character)?
 Yes, see exchange of object below…
Are the characters cagy (or in denial) about their own feelings?
 Yes, both.
Do characters use verbal tricks and traps to get what they want, not just direct confrontation?
 At first (“you a married man, are ya?”), but they fail and then confront each other directly.
Is there re-blocking, including literal push and pull between the scene partners (often resulting in just one touch)?
 Not really.  It’s very still, which is typical for Kubrick. The butler cleans the jacket until Jack takes his rag away in order to confront him.
Are objects given or taken, representing larger values?
 Yes, the exchange of the towel, which parallels the dialogue about who the caretaker is (“You were the caretaker here.” “I’m sorry to differ with you, sir, but you are the caretaker.”), passing the mantle of family-killing.
The Outcome: Does this scene change the story going forward?
As a result of this scene, does at least one of the scene partners end up doing something that he or she didn’t intend to do when the scene began?
 Yes, Jack is convinced to go after his son.  The butler is forced to admit what he is.
Does the outcome of the scene ironically reverse (and/or ironically fulfill) the original intention?
 Yes, Jack comes in to be served by the house, ends up serving it.
Are previously-asked questions answered and new questions posed?
 Previous: more about Delbert Grady’s past.  New: what will Jack do?
Does the scene cut out early, on a question (possibly to be answered instantly by the circumstances of the next scene)?
 “When my wife tried to keep me from doing my duty, I ‘corrected’ her.” Then cut to a shot of Wendy. 
Is the audience left with a growing hope and/or fear for what might happen next? (Not just in the next scene, but generally)
 Yes, we’re terrified now that Jack’s really going to kill his family, now that the former caretaker has pushed him to do it.
Empathetic: Is the dialogue true to human nature?
Does the writing demonstrate empathy for all of the characters?
 No.  The movie takes the shocking step of showing little empathy for its main character (and little empathy for Wendy, for that matter).  Kubrick is cold!
Does each of the characters, including the hero, have a limited perspective?
Do the characters consciously and unconsciously prioritize their own wants, rather than the wants of others?
 Yes and no.  Wendy doesn’t, but that’s clearly her flaw, not a strength, so that’s okay.  One could argue that Halloran literally serves some sort of “good spirit”, but you could also see it as him merely protecting his own kind.  Kubrick does a good job at keeping him from being a 2-dimensional “magical black man.” (the nude photo on his wall, the call he makes about the caretaker being “a real asshole.”)
Are the characters resistant to openly admitting their feelings (to others and even to themselves)?
 Yes, even Tony is reluctant to reveal his feelings to Danny!
Do the characters avoid saying things they wouldn’t say and doing things they wouldn’t do?
 Yes.  Wendy’s very reluctant recounting of Jack’s abuse comes to mind. Also Danny’s lies about his hallucinations.
Do the characters interrupt each other often?
 Not really.  Kubrick loves quiet conversation.
Specific: Is the dialogue specific to this world and each personality?
Does the dialogue capture the jargon and tradecraft of the profession and/or setting?
 Yes, a long description of the duties of caretakers.
Are there additional characters with distinct metaphor families, default personality traits, and default argument strategies from the hero’s?
 Metaphor Family: Boss: boosterism (“all the best people”),  Grady: sinister servility. Default personality traits: Halloran: folksy, Wendy: meek, etc. Default argument strategies: Wendy: passive aggressive asking everything except what she needs to know, Grady: leading questions
Heightened: Is the dialogue more pointed and dynamic than real talk?
Is the dialogue more concise than real talk?
Does the dialogue have more personality than real talk?
Are there minimal commas in the dialogue (the lines are not prefaced with Yes, No, Well, Look, or the other character’s name)?
Do non-professor characters speak without dependent clauses, conditionals, or parallel construction?
Are the non-3-dimensional characters impartially polarized into head, heart and gut?
 No.  The characters are three dimensional.
Strategic: Are certain dialogue scenes withheld until necessary?
Does the hero have at least one big “I understand you” moment with a love interest or primary emotional partner?
Just between Danny and Halloran
Is exposition withheld until the hero and the audience are both demanding to know it?
 Not really, we get a pretty big info-dump about the past right up front.
Is there one gutpunch scene, where the subtext falls away and the characters really lay into each other?
 Pretty much, when Wendy finds the pages.  But even then, she’s able to let him have it with the bat, but still not verbally.
Part #6: Tone X/10
Genre: Does the story tap into pre-established expectations?
Is the story limited to one genre (or multiple genres that are merged from the beginning?)
 Yes, classic straight-up horror.
Is the story limited to sub-genres that are compatible with each other, without mixing metaphors?
 Yes, haunted house, “Gaslight”-type story, and ax murderer.
Does the ending satisfy most of the expectations of the genre, and defy a few others?
 It satisfies them all: the black guy is killed, the ax murderer is killed by the innocents who live, there is a brief implication at the end that events may re-occur, etc.  Nevertheless, many genre-fans are not satisfied with this movie, because of the reluctance to commit to the supernatural element.
Separate from the genre, is a consistent mood (goofy, grim, ‘fairy tale’, etc.) established early and maintained throughout?
 Yes, cold, clinical, dehumanized creeping horror, established by the scene with Danny looking in mirror, seeing blood, then mom describing his abuse in a detached way.
Framing: Does the story set, reset, upset and ultimately exceed its own expectations?
Is there a dramatic question posed early on, which will establish in the audience’s mind which moment will mark the end of the story?
 The question is raised early on of can they make it through the winter without going insane, so we know that the movie will end when they leave, one way or another.
Does the story use framing devices to establish genre, mood and expectations?
 Yes, Danny has flashforwards of the horror to come.  We wonder what will go wrong at the hotel.  Who are those twin girls?
Are there characters whose situations prefigure various fates that might await the hero?
 Yes.  The previous caretaker and his family.
Does foreshadowing create anticipation and suspense (and refocus the audience’s attention on what’s important)?
 Yes, lots and lots.
Are reversible behaviors used to foreshadow and then confirm change?
 Yes, Jack begins drinking again, Danny refuses to channel Tony, then starts again.
Is the dramatic question answered at the very end of the story?
 Yes, they leave in the final shot.
PART 7: THEME 12/14
Difficult: Is the meaning of the story derived from a fundamental moral dilemma?
Can the overall theme be stated in the form of an irreconcilable good vs. good (or evil vs. evil) dilemma?
 Lots of thematic questions: Family vs. masculinity, loyalty to father vs. loyalty to mother, trust your parents vs. trust yourself, making it work vs. moving on, etc…
Is a thematic question asked out loud (or clearly implied) in the first half, and left open?
 Sort of in the Donner Pass discussion: why do we do horrible things?  To survive?  Because of madness?  Because of evil? Because we’re part of a violent culture?
Do the characters consistently have to choose between goods, or between evils, instead of choosing between good and evil?
 Somewhat.  The characters don’t get to make a lot of choices. Kubrick was a big Fate guy.
Grounded: Do the stakes ring true to the world of the audience?
Does the story reflect the way the world works?
 Yes. The mechanics of how the hotel works and getting snowed in all make sense.  The dynamics of an abusive family ring true.
Does the story have something authentic to say about this type of setting (Is it based more on observations of this type of setting than ideas about it)?
 Yes. King was definitely tapping into his own life: he was a frustrated novelist and a dry drunk with a young family. He staid in a similar hotel while writing the book.
Does the story include twinges of real life national pain?
 Yes, Jack’s slaughter is tied into many famous American atrocities, the movie can be seen as cautionary tale of the rise of the “angry white man”.
Are these issues and the overall dilemma addressed in a way that avoids moral hypocrisy?
Do all of the actions have real consequences?
Subtle: Is the theme interwoven throughout so that it need not be discussed often?
Do many small details throughout subtly and/or ironically tie into the thematic dilemma?
 Yes.  See the documentary “Room 237” for many examples.
Are one or more objects representing larger ideas exchanged throughout the story, growing in meaning each time?
 Yes, the ball, the bat, etc.
Untidy: Is the dilemma ultimately irresolvable?
Does the ending tip towards one side of the thematic dilemma without resolving it entirely?
 As in many horror movies, it tips overwhelmingly: Family is better than masculinity, mother is better than father, self-protection is better than loyalty to parents, moving on is better than making it work, trusting yourself is better than trusting your parents.
Does the story’s outcome ironically contrast with the initial goal?
 Yes, they save their family by killing the dad.
In the end, is the plot not entirely tidy (some small plot threads left unresolved, some answers left vague)?
 Yes.  We don’t understand the final shot, for instance.
Do the characters refuse (or fail) to synthesize the meaning of the story, forcing the audience to do that?
 Yes, the epilogue was cut.  There is no attempt to process that we see.  Danny doesn’t even speak after the finale begins.
Final Score: 101 out of 122


j.s. said...

THE SHINING is one of my favorite films period. Also one I've probably seen the most number of times. Yet I'm ashamed to say I've never analyzed it quite so closely as you have in your checklist. (Perhaps, in part, out of fear that I'd somehow break its spell over me, or in the assumption that I couldn't learn anything repeatable from a work of genius?)

I had a little argument a year or so ago with another one of your readers about who the protagonist of THE SHINING is. Turns out we were both right (and wrong)!

"Theory: in horror movies, could the promise of the premise be that bad things, not good things, will happen?" In a word: Yes.

"Danny commits to killing his father." Does he really try to kill him? Or is he still just trying to survive and get away?

"We get a pretty big info-dump about the past right up front." This is one of the things I've always loved and admired about THE SHINING. There's a certain amount of information we need to know before the story kicks in and Kubrick doesn't try to do anything remotely clever about disguising it. Especially nice is the walk-and-talk tour of the Overlook, where we check in with every prop (radio, Snowcat) and location (hedge maze, pantry) that will be important latter on. To top it all off we get a whiff of bad juju from the ancient Indian burial ground!

"Yes, almost everyone survives." There are really only four major characters in the film. There's no lone final girl/guy, but half of them die and one does it in such a way that he's pretty much damned for all time. I wouldn't say "almost everyone" survives.

Regarding the idea of a tag-team hero: "The presence of two protagonists here should remind us that a narrative’s
hero is less a single character than a functional role that can be filled by one or more characters. (Hitchcock seems fond of this pattern. In PYSCHO, different characters at one point or another occupy the role of the inquiring protagonist.)" I jotted this in my notebook, but don't remember where I read it. Maybe it's someone writing about ROPE?

I remember reading the Stephen King novel for the first time after I hadn't seen the film in a while and becoming pretty bored by all of the extraneous explanations, hotel history, business with the topiaries, etc. But every once in a while, I'd come across an image, an idea, a line of dialogue or description that perked me back up. And to a one, they were all details that somehow made it into the finished film. Kubrick had an unerring sense of taste when it came to paring all the fat out of that book, editing it down to its essence, and you can see proof of that in the traveling exhibit (soon to leave LACMA) or the big Taschen book, where the master's marked-up copy of the novel is on display. Kubrick's distillation of King's story takes what's good about it and improves it in almost every way, such that I've come to think of it as one of the greatest literary adaptations ever.

Beth said...

This sounds like Jack is a hero who becomes a villian, while Danny is initially over-looked (by even the audience) but becomes the hero by the end. I can't wait to read the next post!

By the way, the genre break-downs in this series are personally very helpful! Thanks.