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Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Wendy Torrance from "The Shining" Is One of the Most Misunderstood Female Heroines of Horror

Over the last few weeks I've noticed a great deal of criticism surrounding the character of Wendy Torrance in the big screen version of The Shining (1980). As a fan of both the Stephen King book and the Stanley Kubrick-directed film, I'm perplexed by the suggestion that Wendy (Shelley Duvall) is a "weak" character and made a number of "dumb" decisions throughout her ordeal with her possessed husband, Jack (Jack Nicholson).

I realize this may have something to do with the translation of the story from book to film. While the movie is a fair depiction of the novel (and a true classic, if not only for its mounting suspense, striking cinematography and frightening portrayals), it doesn't offer as much back story into Jack and Wendy's relationship before they arrived at the Overlook Hotel as the book did. It also doesn't include Jack's inner emotional struggle triggered by his tortured relationship with his father (and a vicious encounter with a high school student), which influenced his eventual psychosis later in the film.

From the book we learn that there was turmoil in the couple's relationship long before the birth of their son, Danny (whose arm was once broken by his dad in a drunken rage, as Wendy sheepishly admits this to a doctor in the beginning of the film). Wendy and Jack broke up a few times before they even got married. After an altercation before their nuptials, Wendy parted ways with Jack. Though they reconciled later, Jack's constant attempt to not become the man his father was (a manipulative, abusive drunk), and the disappointment he feels each time he fails, helped him become even more vulnerable bait for the spirits that haunted the hotel later. Wendy may not have known every detail about Jack's childhood, but she did try to acknowledge that he was trying. But after Danny's birth, she became more cautious of Jack even when he tried to reassure her. Her uneasiness toward him, which she genuinely tried to hide, only fueled his rage. This isn't to say that her reception of him led to his erratic behavior. Rather, they both felt responsible for his downfall, but Wendy felt the need to stick by him, possibly due to the guilt she felt.

Wendy loved Jack, yet that could have been influenced by both her fear of him as well as her memory of the great man he can sometimes be. It was a complicated adoration that perhaps only few could really understand. Despite his troubles, Jack did provide for his family, and he tried to love them as much as he could. But once he fell into the clutches of the Overlook, already shackled by his own demons, it really was just a matter of time until his madness would come out in full force.

So why didn't Wendy just take Danny and leave the Overlook and Jack behind? Both the book have slightly different ways of explaining this. From the book, Danny was actually a large part of the reason why Wendy wanted to stay committed to Jack even though she felt that he was losing control. Danny's bond with Jack was far more intense than his bond with his mother, and Wendy was jealous of that at times. Danny would also keep his supernatural "gifts" to himself even when he was wrought with them, so that his problems wouldn't put a further wedge between his parents, which made Wendy realize how important it was for him that they all stay together.

There were other factors that attributed to Wendy's decisions that were echoed in the film. Once she realized there was no saving Jack, and that Danny was in serious trouble, the snow had piled up so high at the hotel that she was unable to escape (plus, Jack had destroyed their snowmobile so she had no mode of transport anyway). While the movie's depiction of Wendy was a slight variation of her book character, in both instances Wendy is the victim (hence why she completely unravels into a shaky, suffering shell of a character desperate to at least save the life of her son). It's interesting how she was manipulated, by her own mind as well as Jack's, into believing that he could get better. With everything going on around her, Wendy felt helpless. How can you wrap your head around the notion that your husband (however a recovering drunk) could be possessed by the spirits of both his deceased father and the past guests of an old hotel who have been dead for years? Just the mere thought of that is enough to rattle anyone, especially a mother with all her family baggage.

While I love the movie, I do think that the virtual absence of back story made both lead characters less complex than they were in the book. Yes, Wendy was a victim of Jack's possession, but both characters were much, much more than that. Kubrick, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Diane Johnson, focused on certain aspects of Jack's struggle--his alcoholism and subsequent possession/obsession--but we didn't get to see the character humanized for a long period of time. Aside from the movie's beginning, we see the monster come out of the man fairly soon in subtle actions. From there, it becomes a wild, bitter, escalating battle between Jack and Wendy (and subsequently between Jack and Danny).

But while there are many ridiculous victim characters that persist within the horror realm, Wendy Torrance is not one of them. Both King and Kubrick (with Duvall) created layers to a character that is too seldom seen in the genre that has become oversimplified with special effects and gore.


Daniel said...

Wendy's backstory is one of the rare failings in the film. In the book it's a much fuller story, offered a more rounded feel. I've always thought you get a greater appreciation for the movie having read the book.

37paddington said...


Brittani Burnham said...

I've never read the book, but this article makes me want to now. Great post!

Anonymous said...

I don't agree with some of your statements on the novel. Jack and Wendy parted once prior to getting married, and it implies that Jack wanted to give Wendy a chance to get over her daddy issues. It says that when they got back together, Jack proposed immediately. I sense no animosity there, or even up to Danny's birth. The beginning of the mistrust in my eyes is the night Jack got his article published, went out wasted, came home wasted, and he picked Danny up out of the crib and dropped him. It also goes on to say that this night is the first time Wendy has slept apart from her husband.

I would love to read an analysis on Wendy's relationship with her mother, as not much context is given aside from the hostility her mother holds for her over "ruining her marriage". The quick few sentences are there, but I find them very difficult to work through and would like your insight.

I appreciate your time,

Holly Lynn

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