Boys to Men: The Horror of Facing Adulthood in The Shining and Full Metal Jacket


In childhood there is a kind of insulating bubble of ignorance that surrounds and protects against the horrors of the adult world—the real world. Cartoons, fairy tales, and playing make-believe are primers for the skills needed to navigate through it, and when the bubble bursts their lessons become go-to techniques for surviving it. Kubrick uses both Danny Torrance and Private Joker to exemplify this transition, and both must deal with violent traumas by using weapons tempered in their boyhoods. For Danny, this means employing the lessons learned in cartoons and fairy tales; for Joker, the superficial “good guy” heroics of John Wayne-like figures and an enduring immaturity help him keep the grim realities of war at bay. Both films showcase the horrible realities we must confront when entering the adult world, and how our childhoods ultimately serve as a help or hindrance to face them.

When we first meet Danny he’s already a reserved and internalizing child, qualities that are ramifications of the injury he sustained some years earlier at Jack’s drunken hands. Tony is a logical result of this trauma then, since he will ease any future confrontations—he protects Danny as he prepares him to face the ordeal of growing up through his experiences at the Overlook. Early on, we see Danny talking to Tony in the bathroom, where Tony shows him the blood and the Grady girls. During this shot, we push in past Danny’s bedroom door, which is covered in childhood figures: Snoopy, Minnie Mouse, and most notably Dopey from the Seven Dwarves. After Danny’s “episode”, when we see the door again, Dopey is absent, implying Danny’s matured from being a naïve “dope”. His “Doc” moniker, too, goes toward this ripening of character, and seems to be more rooted in Doc from the Seven Dwarves than the Bugs Bunny nickname it derives from, since Doc is the wisest of the dwarves and the antithesis of Dopey.

Danny’s cartoon influences play a large part in forming his transition from boy to man, most importantly through the Road Runner and Coyote toons he frequently watches. Danny, channeling the Road Runner, rides his Big Wheel through the hotel, with each ride taking him closer to danger: the first is uneventful, the second leads him to Room 237, the final ride has him confronting the dead Grady girls. On this last trip, the image of the mutilated girls is combined with their chanting “Come and play with us”, instilling the idea in Danny that playful irreverence will lead him to violence and death in the Overlook—he must be mindful and prepared if he wants to survive. The Grady girls are the perfect warning about this irreverence, since Delbert Grady later says he “corrected” them. And Danny already has some experience with this idea of “correction”, since it’s the same way Jack dislocated his arm.

It’s the idea of “play” that also brings him into Room 237. Danny is playing with trucks when a ball rolls up to him—the universal children’s toy for playing. The Hotel wants to “play” with him in the sense that the Grady girls do, again reinforcing the idea that to be playful is to flirt with carnage in the Overlook. After encountering the “witch”, Danny retreats further inward, with Tony taking the reins until Danny is adequately prepared for later events (it’s notably Danny’s lack of preparation for what awaits in Room 237 that causes his intense reaction to it). This importance placed on preparedness echoes Wendy’s earlier comment about needing to “leave breadcrumbs”, unconsciously suggesting Hansel & Gretel to Danny, where children survive by outwitting a witch. While he fails to implement this readiness with the “witch” in Room 237, he uses this technique at the climax to best Jack, using his own footprints as breadcrumbs to trick his murderous father.

With Tony taking over Danny’s body after being assaulted in Room 237, Danny is given time to prepare himself internally for Jack’s coming violence, aided by Tony’s disjointed but prophetic warnings of “Redrum”. Danny has “gone away” to be steeled for the coming conflict, to mature sufficiently under Tony’s protection. When he “comes back”, it’s first under the control of Tony, where he croaks “Redrum” and writes on the bathroom door. But here Tony is assimilated into the now ready Danny, audible in the change from Tony’s voice to Danny’s, and resulting in Danny reemerging as a braver, more mature person who can now adequately deal with Jack. Danny survives the Overlook because of his ability to synthesize the moral iconography of his childhood into lessons he can apply to overcome trauma.

Private Joker, while technically a young “man”, is especially prone to childish irreverence and mockery, and where Tony protects Danny from the horrors of adulthood, Joker uses humor and derision to keep that reality at bay. If Joker mocks a distressing situation, it’s easier to not be emotionally affected by it. Like Danny, Joker is accompanied by images of childhood that he both identifies with, and is identified by. His propensity for impersonating John Wayne shows him to be deeply revering of the boyhood ideal of “playing soldier”—he likes the idea of being a Marine, but can’t help himself from mocking the journey to becoming one, since it helps him deal with the severity of being a soldier.

Where Danny begins his journey already privy to the harsh “real world” of adulthood, Private Joker is as “phony tough and crazy brave” as the rest of the recruits. His introduction to the Marines begins with being told, “Speak only when spoken to”, a common but strict rule for children to follow. His John Wayne comment shows him to be derisive of authority, a wisecracking kid despite his age and circumstances. He claims he joined up “to kill”, but pair this with the Wayne comment and it looks more like Joker wants to play soldier as he did as a boy. And though Joker might be one of the “phony tough”, like Tony, it’s his resolve that carries him through training, especially through Hartman’s murder and Pyle’s suicide.

In De Nang, at the Stars & Stripes editorial meetings, Joker is surrounded by pop culture characters throughout the room that he personifies. Snoopy, Mickey Mouse, and Beetle Bailey all feature prominently on the walls of the room, and it’s here Joker cracks wise the most, until he’s sent off to “the shit” with Raptorman. Hartman uses the phrase “Mickey Mouse shit” to describe Pyle’s occupation of the barracks’ head, indicating that Mickey Mouse equates to disorder and a complication of his rigid command. And like Beetle Bailey, Joker is really more of a mock-soldier than a true one. He wants to be a good Marine, to get “in the [Mickey Mouse] shit” like the other men, and more importantly like the heroes he watched on television as a child. But when he sees the murdered bodies of Vietnamese civilians covered in lye, he begins to understand the difference between “playing” war, and being in one, if only momentarily.

When Cowboy is killed, Joker is confronted with the consequences of this “boy soldiering”. This death does not wash over him like Pyle, it’s not something he can dismiss, it stays with him and he cannot escape it. He reacts like an immature boy, toughening up to go “get some payback” like the war-movie heroes of his youth. He’s going to avenge his friend and right a wrong. But when he confronts the sniper, his concept of heroics dissolves in the face of an enemy he is unprepared for—this is no faceless, generic opponent; it’s a young woman who wants to murder him. When Joker misfires, he fumbles in his role as a hardened Marine, exposing himself as a “phony” tough-guy, and here we see the boy in a man’s uniform.

In seeing the wounded Vietnamese soldier, he’s now confronted with the cruel reality of the adult world—the real world he’s been keeping at a distance with jokes and derision through the film. He must end a young woman’s life now, and in the moment he pulls the trigger we finally see Joker’s true “war face”, and it’s one that’s marked by disgust and aberration. Yet despite this moment, in the next scene Joker has rejoined the other “boys” in their playing soldier, mocking (adult) reality with the “Mickey Mouse Club Song” to keep it at bay. The only way Joker can survive a world of shit is to laugh at it, to chuckle at the horror of war like it’s a scene from a stylized movie or a childhood cartoon.

While both characters must make the journey from boyhood to manhood, each evolves in starkly different ways. For Danny, lessons are imbibed and put to good use; for Joker, he rebels against growing up until he absolutely has to. Both characters retreat inward when faced with suffering, but Danny has a benevolent faction of himself—“Tony”—to protect him, while Joker has only his derision. It’s Danny then, when he ultimately absorbs Tony, that makes the more complete transition, while Joker continues to skirt grief with a smirk on his face. In each case the message is clear—growing up is hard to do.

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