Kubrick, 'The Shining' and Christopher Nolan's 'Tenet'

Stanley Kubrick and Christopher Nolan Split -Getty-H 2019
STF/AFP via Getty Images; Venturelli/WireImage
The Stephen King adaptation and Nolan's latest film both tackle themes of time.

Time and time again, Christopher Nolan has told the story of going to see 2001: A Space Odyssey when he was 7 years old. One need not look further than Inception’s rotating hallway fight sequence or the look of Interstellar to see that Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 sci-fi classic left a big mark on Nolan. Even Nolan's war drama Dunkirk has shades of Kubrick's Paths of Glory. Could Nolan be turning to the late auteur for his next film, the mysterious Tenet?

Twenty years after his death, Kubrick still looms over much of today’s film landscape. Though it faltered at the box office, this month's Doctor Sleep was both a sequel to Stephen King's The Shining and Kubrick's own 1980 adaptation. Nolan has largely eschewed the horror genre, but there are clues that Tenet could change that. Toward the end of The Shining, Danny Torrance (Danny Lloyd) writes “redrum,” murder backwards, on the iconic bathroom door that Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) later breaks through with an axe. The middle R is flipped horizontally, stylized as RED?UM.

As can be seen on the movie’s official website, Tenet, which is a palindrome, is designed very similarly, with the last two letters flipped vertically, stylized as TEN??. Tenet being a palindrome par for the course for Nolan, as the director has long had a fascination with time and explores it in his films. 

And the notion of going backward in time is also at the heart of The Shining. While viewers may interpret a lot of what happens in The Shining as Jack Torrance slowly losing his mind, it’s easy to read Jack as a character who is fluid through time — or, as Kubrick himself suggested, that Jack is a reincarnation of a previous guest, which is something that may have happened to other hotel guests and employees, like Delbert Grady (Philip Stone). 

The Shining uses the past to slowly reveal the central tenet that Jack has always been at the Overlook Hotel. Grady suggests as much to him in the ballroom bathroom. And the final shot, a framed picture of Jack at the head of a crowd at the hotel’s July 4th Ball in 1921, reinforces that idea.

The official description of Tenet — as “an action epic evolving from the world of international espionage” — makes it clear that the film will not share tone or atmosphere with The Shining, and might be more like Nolan’s own Inception. But the filmmaker could certainly take loose inspiration from The Shining, and re-work it into the context of Tenet’s story, like he did when adapting 2001’s rotating spaceship to the rotating hallway in Inception

And the two films could very easily share a symbolic and potentially structural use of time. The word “tenet” means principle or belief, and it’s likely that there’s a central principle entrenched in the past that the characters will discover over time, much like viewers do of Jack’s existence at the Overlook.

Danny Torrance and John David Washington’s Tenet character could even roughly share abilities. Danny “shines,” and is able to see flashes from the past, like the twin daughters of Grady. That ability to interact with time may even be what causes him to write “redrum” rather than simply “murder.”

And in the opening of the Tenet teaser, released in theaters in August, John David Washington’s character seems to be moving in reverse, potentially to investigate the past — though if that is the case, Nolan, a materialist, would likely involve technology of some form rather than point to a supernatural ability.

Regardless of influence, it seems like it’s time for Nolan to dig deeper into horror, the genre that many critics and fans believe he can succeed in. There are traces of horror in Insomnia, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and Inception. And the director took an offscreen, Jaws-esque approach to portraying the Nazi soldiers in Dunkirk, which resulted in plenty of jump-scare moments when bullets were fired at the main characters. 

While a potential influence of The Shining on Tenet wouldn’t take Nolan completely into horror, due to Tenet’s setup, it would potentially allow him to explore new ground and diversify himself even more — as he might need to do to jump to the level of a Kubrick in the eyes of critics and scholars. And he would have an editor familiar with the horror genre in Jennifer Lame, who co-edited Hereditary and was an additional editor on Midsommar.

Audiences won’t learn much about Tenet for a while, as Nolan a secretive filmmaker. But whenever Nolan is ready to talk about Tenet, it’s safe to say that Kubrick will be mentioned in some capacity, as Nolan’s experience watching 2001 was seemingly a central cinematic tenet of his own past.