Wait…it is the start of summer here in the northern hemisphere, yes? Yet, our book-film duo post series has us veering into cold, dark horror territory this month. How can this be? Credit my partner down under, the blogger otherwise known as the Scientist Gone Wordy. Rachel put forward this famed, some would label infamous, combo. The wordy one will look at the 1977 novel well-known by a legion of readers, which was adapted to the cinema screen three years later by an equally renowned filmmaker, which I will review.
Still, it’s not going to be that simple.
To tell the truth, it’s going to get downright contentious. For we’ll be examining once again a work by Stephen King — his third novel (under his own name), The Shining. Naturally, it’s one of his best; certainly one of his most chilling. What set off the friction with this fiction was its initial film adaptation at the start of the ’80s by none other than the American film-screenwriter-producer-auteur, Stanley Kubrick. Shall we plunge the knife in, then? The wordy one’s book review can be found here:
A brief synopsis of the film: Jack Torrance, family man, former teacher, and struggling writer, has brought his family out west to Colorado to make ends meet. Having signed a contract to be the winter caretaker of the Overlook Hotel in the mountainous region of Sidewinder. A job that carries five months of smothering isolation amidst the cold as the resort is normally snowed-in during this stretch.
Except, they won’t be really alone. For the Overlook has its share of ghosts…and a dark past. While Jack battles alcoholism and his rage through writing, something malevolent has taken a shine to the family. If they are to survive this place, the talents of their five-year-old son Danny may be the only thing that can save them from what became of the previous off-season custodian and his family.
[spoiler warning: some key elements of the film could be revealed in this review]
“Love means never having to say you’re sober.”
Just not going to be any winning here. There, I’ve said it. Y’know, looking back on my jaunt with the works of both Stephen King and Stanley Kubrick over the years, both longtime favorites of mine, should undoubtably be a happy one. Certainly memorable. Yet, only the latter seems to fit here when examining the intersection of these two well-regarded artists. Their common work being one they and their respective fans have glommed on to with zealousness. Perhaps, I should adjust my approach to the problem.
Jack: “Wendy, let me explain something to you. Kubrick’s version of King’s novel on film is a masterpiece of psychological horror. His is THE BEST crafted genre film of the ’80s, bar none. This director made some of the finest, most visually stunning films around. How can you question Kubrick’s adaptation of the material? It’s among his, and King’s adapted, best. Whenever you come in here and interrupt me, you’re breaking my concentration. You’re distracting me. And it will then take me time to get back to where I was. You understand?”
Wendy: “Oh Jack, what are you talking about? As stunningly “crafted” as you say it is, Kubrick’s film sacrifices Stephen King’s substance, his unique take of horror, in general, and the haunted house, specifically, with his story by changing it to another thing entirely. The aesthete film director siding with you and this damn hotel (and whatever the Hell you coldly symbolize) instead of the dark but humanist tale King wrote, which was the dissolution of a family under extraordinary circumstances and surviving it. And you ain’t fooling me with that all typing, Jackie-boy.”
Danny: “Dad…mom…could you stop fighting? Please? Besides, that little kid in the movie talking funny through his frickin’ finger just creeps me out!”
Jack, Wendy [in unison]: “Exactly!”
This ain’t helping.
Admittedly, when I saw this, having read the novel when it was making the rounds as a young twentysomething, I was deeply disappointed. As were other book fans, and famously, the author himself1. I’m well aware that book-to-film translations, by their very nature, involve changing aspects and storylines to fit the cinematic needs of the moving picture form. It damn well requires it. They’re different animals, I get that. Happens all the time, excluding…say…something like Rosemary’s Baby, for instance2.
* both connotations apply
Through the years, though, I confess to have come to appreciate, to an extent, what Stanley Kubrick accomplished. The brilliance he delivered to the screen with his diverting* translation. Grudgingly, one of the creepiest films to have laid claim to a portion of this here psyche of mine. Call it my bipolar disorder approach to The Shining. Love the freak out cabin fever the film produces with each screening, along with the visual acuity on display as it disorientates and chills the audience, while growing ever so pissed with it.
Miffed for what the film is missing — what the auteur-stylist Kubrick could have brought to King’s original story3.
Yes, yes. The director was well known to radically amend source material he directly touched with his films. His Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Worry and Love the Bomb being a prime example. Turning the Cold War thriller, Red Alert by Peter George, into one of the most remarkable black comedies ever. The closest Kubrick stayed to the original content likely were A Clockwork Orange and Full Metal Jacket. Even then the former’s author, Anthony Burgess, praised and found fault4 with what the director did with his novella.
“Mr. Grady, you were the caretaker here. I recognize ya. I saw your picture in the newspapers. You, uh, chopped your wife and daughters up into little bits. And then you blew your brains out.”
* more on that below in the Room 237 section of this review.
Like a few of his productions, The Shining didn’t so much as land on movie theater screens as thudded. Generated less than stellar reviews and criticism at the onset. Yet, within a few months and years, a slow appreciation began to build. Mostly by those who revisited and re-examined the work. Digging out the unique aspects of its tremendous cinematography5, art direction, and…dare I say…clues Kubrick left scattered throughout to give his enthusiasts’ wet dreams via their ongoing analyses of the film*.
As much praise as each form of the work receives, there is seemingly similar criticism one side periodically lobs at the other, and vice versa, especially when comparing this key composition across their respective mediums. I think it comes from the comparable statures, within their own fields, the director and the author lay claim to. Neither can or will budge the other. Perhaps, why Kubrick’s other film adaptations weren’t as controversial as this, though even those can get vehement when you come across them.
Maybe if the filmmaker hadn’t made symbolic cinematic prods at the writer in the film, it wouldn’t have gotten so personal. Casting Jack Nicholson (Jack), Shelly Duvall (Wendy), and Scatman Crothers (Hallorann) seemed to fly against Stephen King’s characters of the novel6. The film’s wrecked red VW Bug (used in the book), laid wayside as Hallorann drives passed to rescue Danny and his parents, emblematic. Surely, that ‘axe to the chest’ greeting the character met could be construed as Kubrick’s defiant pith for King’s haunted house tale.
“[It’s] cold, I’m not a cold guy,” he told the BBC. “I think one of the things people relate to in my books is there’s a warmth, there’s a reaching out and saying to the reader, ‘I want you to be a part of this.’ And with Kubrick’s ‘The Shining’ I felt that it was very cold, very ‘We’re looking at these people, but they’re like ants in an anthill, aren’t they doing interesting things, these little insects.’” ~ Stephen King 2013 interview by the BBC
Still, this film had a great deal going for it. An acclaimed cast, which went through some arduous shooting during film production; a hotel set that has to seen to be believed (and stood up well to the likes of all great haunted house fare out there, The Haunting and The Legend of Hell House great examples); and a music soundtrack so representative of the grandiose Kubrick. The classical music used, along with Wendy Carlos’ minimal scoring, stressed the malefic and disturbing atmosphere of the Overlook. Typical.
Truth be told, I know I’m not going to convince in whoever’s camp one way or the other with my take. Nor maybe those reading this that The Shining was both a masterful piece of filmmaking by Stanley Kubrick, in spite of the fact he failed utterly at bringing the essence of a indelible novel by Stephen King successfully to the motion picture screen. Conceivably, the only thing I’ve done was prove I could be as wishy-washy as the next guy, or merely just another manic depressive…with a metaphorical axe to swing. Who knows.
My duo post partner requested for this month’s review to include a brief examination of the 2012 documentary by Rodney Ascher. A factual film about The Shining through the eyes of various fans and scholars about perceived meanings in Stanley Kubrick’s film. I’ve seen it, watched it twice now.
It’s much like the movie. On one level intriguing, even insightful. On another, the myriad of hidden meanings offered, and the variety of connections, mind-blowing. Along with being mind-numbing; some even batshit nuts and egotistical. Worth a look, though. But like the film adaptation, your mileage may vary.
Parallel Post Series
- The Accidental Tourist
- Apollo 13
- Brokeback Mountain
- Breakfast at Tiffany’s
- – 2014 posts
- – 2013 posts
- – 2012 posts
- – 2011 posts
- – 2010 posts
- Stephen King, the author of the book on which the movie was based, was quite disappointed in the final film. While admitting that Stanley Kubrick‘s visuals were stunning, he said that was surface and not substance. He often described the film as “A fancy car without an engine.” ~ IMDB ↩
- Roman Polanski’s 1968 film having somehow delivered a rather faithful film adaptation almost as visually stunning as this, and without leaving the original story as Burnt Offerings (might as well namedrop Dan Curtis’ under-appreciated 1973 horror flick that did similarly). ↩
- The 1997 three-part television miniseries based of Stephen King’s novel, directed by frequent film collaborator Mick Garris using the author’s own teleplay, while faithful to the novel, was a bit lackluster. Think the SyFy miniseries adaptation by John Harrison to David Lynch’s Dune and you’ll get my meaning. ↩
- Despite this enthusiasm, he was concerned that it lacked the novel’s redemptive final chapter, an absence he blamed upon his American publisher and not Kubrick. All US editions of the novel prior to 1986 omitted the final chapter. ~ Wikipedia ↩
- This being one of the first films to use the recently developed Steadicam, ultra-low tracking shots, along with other masterful camera work (like balancing the blades of a helicopter to remove vibrations for that breathtaking opening sequence so that the camera to the front appeared to eerily glide). Take that Paul Greengrass and your damn shaky-cam! ↩
- The Shining being Stephen King’s most autobiographical novel, and thereby most personal, with its writer character (along with his family) suffering the effects of his alcoholism. ↩