Room 237 and what it tells us about author intention

Last November, I think it was, we went to see the excellent documentary by Rodney Ascher, Room 237, at the ICA. I’ve been waiting since then for a DVD of the film to arrive because I immediately wanted to see it again.

It’s a documentary that has quite rightly garnered a lot of praise – its subject is the hidden meanings of Stanley Kubrick’s film version of Stephen King’s The Shining – but the way it goes about discussing the film is unusual.

It features the voices (only) of five different commentators on what they think The Shining, or Kubrick’s take on it, is actually about. No, it’s not really about a writer getting cabin fever in a deserted hotel and trying to turn his wife and son into sushi with a fire axe.

According to the theories propounded in the movie, it’s about various other things too: the Holocaust, the genocide of the Native American Indian, how NASA got Kubrick to fake the moon landings and then forced him into secrecy over the subject (!) and so on.
Instead of seeing the various commentators on screen, Room 237 uses a nice trick of using footage from various Kubrick films to play with, or against, the narrators of each theory, some of which turn out to be remarkably convincing, some, well, let’s just say, some less so.

If you’re interested in how these symbolisms play out, get hold of Room 237 and have a look, it’s well worth it. What’s most interesting about all this however is what it shows us about author intention.

A question I get frequently when visiting schools goes like this:
Student: ‘You know when you write a book?’
Me: ‘Uh-huh?’
Student (with one eye on their English teacher): ‘Do you actually mean all those things our teacher says you mean?’
Me (smiling): ‘Some of them.’

The (post) modern view holds that it doesn’t actually matter whether the author meant that thing about the curtains:

This cartoon is harsh on teachers: the intersection in the Venn diagram is much larger in general, I think.

What matters is what the reader took away from the text, whether or not the author meant to put that meaning there.

From my point of view, sometimes I’ve meant things to be in a text, and people have ‘got it’, sometimes they haven’t. Sometimes, I haven’t intended a particular meaning to be in a text, but people have found that meaning anyway. At which point, if it’s cool, I immediately claim I meant it all along, and if it’s fatuous, I deny all knowledge 😉

Room 237 is wonderful because we see this process happening twice over. Stephen King wrote his book, and Kubrick made his film of it. So there’s one instance of change in the ‘text’ already, and in this case, there are some significant changes between the book and the film; most of them improvements in my opinion: the book has giant topiary rabbits etc coming to ‘life’ in Jack’s mind; the film has that frozen maze. The book ends with the over-signposted explosion of the hotel’s boiler; the film ends in the maze in much more sinister fashion. King has Jack going ape with a Roquet mallet (huh?), Kubrick gets right to the point with a damn big axe. And so on. King famously hated what Kubrick did to his book, which  Kubrick was well aware of. One of the narrators in Room 237 makes a nice point about how Jack’s specifically red VW Beetle in the book becomes a yellow one in the movie, and then as if to put two fingers up to King, places a red Beetle under the wheels of a truck in the traffic accident scene; ‘take that, author.’

And at this point, the wild theories about what Kubrick was actually trying to say with the film kick in –  and fascinating it is to try to unpick where valid interpretation becomes ludicrous conspiracy theory, and perhaps the modern view is right, that if you find ‘it’, ‘it’s’ real. But if that’s so, just don’t expect the author to put his hands up and admit to it too. He may well have meant nothing of the sort. Especially if you’re the guy who believes Kubrick intended us to watch the movie backwards…

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