The obsession with meaning and interpretation in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is enough to make Stephen King hate the auteur even more for stealing the thunder from his book. In Rodney Ascher’s documentary Room 237, the director steps back and lets fans and enthusiasts of The Shining lay out their detailed gleanings from one of the most iconic films in American cinema. The result is often disturbing and, at times eerily convincing because of how vehement the commentators are—proving, once again, that all you need is confidence to scare people into believing you.
The primary theories set forth in terms of the true underlying theme of Kubrick’s illustrious film are: 1) It’s about the broken promises toward and treatment of Native Americans, 2) It’s about the Holocaust and 3) It’s about Kubrick’s involvement in the fake filming of the Apollo 11 moon landing. All of these postulations are fairly disparate, but each of them shares the common motif of a cover-up—trying to forget or ignore what really happened. While none of the interviewees, like Geoffrey Cocks (a college professor partial to the Holocaust theory) and Bill Blakemore (an ABC news correspondent partial to the Native American genocide theory), are ever actually shown on camera (the crux of the documentary is the use of scenes from various Kubrick movies), the certainty in each of their voices ends up making the arguments more believable than they would sound if we actually saw them onscreen.
Discussing with exacting detail the most incredible minutiae of the visuals in The Shining, including everything from the layout of the Overlook Hotel and how Ullman’s office had an “impossible window” to the presence of Snow White’s Dopey on Danny’s door, Room 237 toes the line between being intense and farcical. Noticing subtleties like the fact that Jack is reading an issue of Playgirl as he waits for Ullman to give him a tour of the hotel, these callouts often seem more like Kubrick’s practical joke on viewers than symbolism that conveys any significant meaning.
As the most conspiracy-related theory, the moon landing segment of the documentary is what perhaps stands out with marked bombast. According to one theorist, Room 237 was changed from Room 217 (as it is named in the novel) because Kubrick was told by the Mount Hood hotel to alter it so that future guests wouldn’t be averse to staying in the room. The twist, of course, is that there is no Room 217 in the Timberline Lodge (the real name of the hotel). Thus, the true motive for Kubrick changing it is to make reference to the fact that it’s 237,000 miles from Earth to the moon.
However, some of these passionate assertions are questionable in that, as one interviewee admits, they’re “grasping at straws.” For example, a speculator noted that Kubrick’s desire to throw the movie back in King’s face is blatant in changing the color of Jack’s Volkswagen to yellow instead of red. However, a red VW does appear in one scene, in which Dick Hallorann passes a wrecked red Volkswagen--evidence that the commentator states is proof of Kubrick's sadism toward King in that this is the original color of the vehicle in the book. Said “symbolism” is just one among many of the ardent interpretations garnered from seemingly arbitrary moments in The Shining.
No matter what analysis of the film the viewer buys into most, I suppose what’s most remarkable about Room 237 is comprehending that Kubrick was great enough—and one of the most adept creators of semiotics in film—to evoke this many reactions and versions of understanding. As Kubrick once said, “I have found it always the best policy to allow the film to speak for itself.” In this case, it might be speaking a little too much.