The past 40 years have been an interesting journey The Shining. Though now considered a classic, the 1980 release had a slow box-office start and mixed reviews. Along with the latter were some complex feelings from Stephen King himself. One of the author’s biggest criticisms was with the film’s version of Wendy Torrance. In a BBC interview, King said she’s basically in the film to scream and be stupid—a sentiment that many fans agree with to this day.
It makes sense for King to not be thrilled about this version of his character because she’s quite different from her novel counterpart. The novel Wendy is even-keeled, independent, and courageous, while film Wendy Torrance, portrayed by Shelley Duvall, is quite the opposite. She’s not the “badass” female horror protagonist that most fans crave. But her story—and, by extension, Duvall’s on-set experience—deserves compassion and respect.
It’s exciting and thrilling to see women and girl characters break past societal expectations to be their authentic selves. Who doesn’t love Arya Stark’s evolution into a Night King killer? These women typically represent our idealized selves—in other words, who we would be without limits and fears. Sometimes, these characters exhibit “masculine” traits that society associates with success and power.
But a woman character doesn’t have to physically, mentally, nor emotionally “strong” to be an effective, valuable part of a narrative. Women are humans with a wide range of experiences, flaws, and personality types that deserve exploration. Basically, not everyone can (or should) be a bold and outspoken baddie who is tough as bricks. There are countless women just like Duvall’s Wendy: timid, passive, anxious, and dealing with the complexities of an abusive relationship.
Wendy Torrance’s The Shining Story
The film quickly establishes Jack and Wendy’s dynamic. He’s a struggling writer who accepts a hotel caretaker position to make some money and hopefully pen a book. She is a supportive, kind, dutiful, and optimistic wife and mother who hopes Jack will realize his dreams. However, Wendy’s meeting with a doctor reveals a darkness in their relationship.
Wendy reveals that Jack dislocated their young son Danny’s shoulder in a moment of drunken anger. Wendy downplays and defends the disturbing encounter, likely in an effort to keep her husband from getting in legal trouble. There’s an underlying tension in her interactions with Jack as she replies with optimism to counter his cynical nature. She asks lots of curious questions about the hotel’s origins and looks at it as an adventure while Jack simply sees it as a work opportunity. Her positive nature increasingly annoys him as time goes on.
She essentially takes on Jack’s caretaker job, maintaining the building during the winter season while Jack’s mental state begins to unravel. He becomes verbally abusive, using expletives while blaming Wendy for his lack of focus and overall success.
Jack slowly chips away at her cheerful outlook and confidence. Wendy begins to question everything—the decision to stay at Overlook, her son’s safety, and her husband’s motivations. She’s subject to his constant gaslighting, blatant lies, and emotional manipulation along with her concern over Danny’s mental health. This is shown in one scene where Jack goes off the rails after Wendy suggests that they leave the hotel.
“It is so f**king typical of you to create a problem like this when I finally have a chance to accomplish something! When I’m really into my work. I could really write my own ticket if I went back to Boulder now, couldn’t I? Shoveling out driveways, working at a car wash, wouldn’t that appeal to you? Wendy, I have let you f**k up my life so far but I am not gonna let you f**k this up.”
We can guess that this is not the first time that Jack has lashed out towards Wendy in anger. His harsh tone and words hurt her feelings, but she shows no real shock over his actions. The situation is a lot for anyone to digest, especially when they are alone in a strange place. As reported by Psychology Today, isolation is one of the primary reasons why women stay in abusive situations. Wendy Torrance likely didn’t have the confidence or drive to leave without Jack because of his verbal badgering.
The extent of Jack’s instability shakes Wendy to her core. Her clumsy, frail baseball bat swings at Jack still make many fans cringe, even laugh. Why is she so weak? Why doesn’t she immediately clock him good and get out of there? That would be the normal, natural reaction for anyone in that situation.
But is it really the normal reaction? Would we have a steely reserve if a loved one threatened to bash in our head? It’s not easy for us to admit nor accept that perhaps we wouldn’t channel our favorite action hero in a life-or-death situation. It’s often bothersome to see others exhibit the traits we don’t like to acknowledge within ourselves. Wendy’s fear is quite authentic and believable.
It honestly took a lot of guts (and some physical strength) for her to hit Jack and drag him into the pantry in the midst of almost paralyzing fear. Wendy’s reactions are perfectly normal and justified throughout the remainder of the film. Who wouldn’t scream profusely if their spouse rammed an ax through a door?
She’s not some big hero who jabs a knife through her husband’s chest while delivering a quotable line. But she does the needful, throwing her son out of a window to save his life. Ultimately, Wendy Torrance is a survivor whose personality type serves as an excellent foil to Jack’s descent into madness.
Shelley Duvall’s Real-Life Shining Experience
Shelley Duvall’s performance as Wendy Torrance has been the subject of endless criticism. However, she portrayed the character’s intense fear, pain, and anxiety in a way that felt terrifyingly real. In a reflective article by Shining co-writer Diane Johnson, she admits to giving Wendy more dialogue to make her a more well-rounded character. However, she says writer/director Stanley Kubrick cut many of the lines because Duvall “couldn’t say them.” Meanwhile, Duvall said they were cut because she was at odds with the director. Kubrick and Duvall’s on-set tension is often a topic of discussion.
Duvall’s 1980 interview with Roger Ebert reveals that her experience filming The Shining was miserable and exhausting.
“Going through day after day of excruciating work. Almost unbearable. Jack Nicholson’s character had to be crazy and angry all the time. And in my character I had to cry 12 hours a day, all day long, the last nine months straight, five or six days a week. I was there a year and a month, and there must be something to Primal Scream therapy, because after the day was over and I’d cried for my 12 hours, I went home very contented. It had a very calming effect. During the day I would have been absolutely miserable.”
The Shining ran far past its production schedule because Kubrick, who was often called “difficult,” shot every single scene multiple times. For example, the aforementioned baseball bat scene was filmed a grueling 127 times. Nicholson spoke about the Duvall and Kubrick friction in Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures, admitting that he was treated differently from Duvall by Kubrick on set.
The tension between Kubrick and Duvall is clear in rare behind-the-scenes footage by Kubrick’s then-teenage daughter Vivian. They get into heated debates over her performance and lines. He later tells crew members to not sympathize with her, even after she admits to pulling hunks of her hair out. Duvall admits that she was frequently sick during the six-month-long shoot due to stress from the role and being away from home. Those raw, shaken emotions in the film are legit.
In a sense, Duvall could relate to Wendy Torrence’s plight. She was in the midst of an emotionally taxing situation that got progressively worse, causing her to doubt her ideas and thoughts. Duvall was also pushed to the brink of fear and terror and subject to callous treatment.
Duvall went on to other TV and film roles, acting regularly until 2002, when she left the industry for unknown reasons. She made a controversial 2016 appearance on Dr. Phil after years of living away from the spotlight, leading many to suspect that she may have a mental illness. On the episode, Duvall told Dr. Phil that she has been threatened by the Sheriff of Nottingham and believed that Robin Williams was a shapeshifter. Moreover, the actress admitted to Dr. Phil that she was “very sick” and “needs help.” Dr. Phil was criticized by many public figures, including Vivian Kubrick, for exploiting Duvall’s mental state on his show. Per USA Today, Dr. Phil said he worked with Duvall’s family to get her into a treatment center but that she refused treatment.
No one except a mental health professional can make a direct connection between Duvall’s treatment on The Shining set and her current mental health standing. But a traumatic experience certainly doesn’t foster an environment for mental well-being. It may not be clear what is going on with Shelley Duvall but, no matter what, her performance in The Shining is as real and raw as it gets.
Does Wendy Torrance have to be on your favorite horror heroines list? No. Is it okay to still think that she could be annoying at times? Yes. But, examining Wendy’s fictional story and Shelley Duvall’s real-life filming obstacles will hopefully make many fans want to show more compassion and understanding towards her integral role in this classic horror thriller.
Featured Image: Warner Bros.