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Shine On You Crazy Diamonds: Stephen King, Stanley Kubrick, and The Shining

Stephen and Stanley, Sitting in a Tree, S-H-I-N-I-N-G

When it comes to film adaptations of novels, few are as heatedly debated as Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 adaptation of Stephen King’s 1977 novel The Shining. Regardless of whether you prefer the novel or the film, it is impossible to deny that the film has entered the popular consciousness in a way that the novel simply has not. This is not unusual in and of itself, of course (largely due to differences in how the two media are consumed), but Stephen King is no ordinary writer; he is a literary phenomenon, an entire industry unto himself, and it is not unusual for his works to overshadow their adaptations. Of course, Stanley Kubrick was himself no ordinary filmmaker but rather a legendary figure, one who inspires almost fanatical devotion, especially among cinephiles. While Kubrick was and is certainly the biggest name ever to take on King’s work, that list is not without its other luminaries—Brian De Palma (Carrie), David Cronenberg (The Dead Zone), and John Carpenter (Christine) among them.

However, unlike these directors, whose adaptations hewed fairly close to King’s works, Kubrick was unique in creating an adaptation that retained basic structural elements of the novel while simultaneously dramatically altering other key aspects of it, even to the point that the film is arguably not really the same story at all. This is, of course, what King has long famously and vocally criticized Kubrick’s film for—fundamentally changing the story and, in the process, robbing it of its power. Now, it should be noted that enjoying both the novel and the film are not mutually exclusive; many people, myself included, appreciate both. However, given the vast differences between the two, appreciating both entails considering each on its own terms and its own merits. Of course, even with that said, it simply isn’t possible not to draw comparisons between an adaptation and its source material. So, with that now said, let us compare apples to oranges, dissect gossamer, and attempt to fit a square, subjective peg into a round hole of objectivity.

More Than One Way to Shine

If adapting a novel into a film entails merely creating a highly faithful visualization of the source material, then The Shining is, in fact, a fairly bad adaptation. Perhaps the most glaring difference between the novel and the film concerns character arcs. The characters in the film are, for the most part, essentially static; they change very little, or not at all, from the beginning to the end of the film. This is not true of King’s novel, in which the characters, particularly Jack Torrance, all go on their own respective psychological and emotional journeys (interestingly, in spite of being called The Shining, both the novel and the film are really about Jack, not Danny). King’s novel then follows well-established conventions of storytelling, in particular, the convention of the protagonist who prevails (if not literally, at least symbolically) through trials and tribulations and emerges as a different, usually better person in the end.

This character arc is one of the most enduring models of classical storytelling, and it is one that King and many, many other writers of narrative fiction across media use over and over again. And there isn’t anything wrong with it. But it isn’t the only way to tell a story, and there are storytellers who rarely, if ever, employ this model; Kubrick was certainly one of them. Is it because he didn’t care about characters? Is it because he was fundamentally pessimistic about people’s ability to change for the better? I don’t know the answer to either of those questions, though I suspect the answer might be “yes.” I do know for sure that King, on the other hand, cares deeply about his characters; he is also, as I noted in my article on Silver Bullet, a fundamentally optimistic, sentimental, and traditional storyteller. Kubrick was very clearly none of those things. I believe it was King himself who noted the appropriateness of the film ending with Jack freezing to death, whereas in the novel he dies in a fiery explosion; Kubrick’s film is cold (and fairly detached) and lacks almost entirely the emotional warmth and sense of human connection that runs through King’s novel.

King also famously compared the film to a beautiful car with no engine. For King then, emotional resonance is the most important, perhaps the only, driving force behind any narrative. No wonder that he accused Kubrick of being someone who “thinks too much and feels too little.” I have no idea whether Kubrick ever responded directly to that particular criticism, but I can imagine that it would have been tempting for him to turn the statement on its head and retort that perhaps King is a writer who “feels too much and thinks too little.” At any rate, the vast differences between the novel and film are due not only to the fundamental differences between their respective mediums but also to their creators’ irreconcilably different approaches to storytelling. Similarly, one’s preference for one or the other has much to do with how closely one’s own sensibilities align with either King’s or Kubrick’s. As is always the case in such matters, neither is right or wrong; these categories simply don’t apply here. I would say that if we are to judge each on its own merits and with consideration for how effective each is using the tools of its medium, King’s The Shining is a good book, while Kubrick’s The Shining is a great film.

Two (Wildly Different) Portraits of the Artist

It’s certainly arguable that the strongest elements of King’s novel are not those that deal with external supernatural occurrences but those that concern the characters’ internal psychological turmoil, especially Jack’s. If the supernatural aspects of the novel were removed, a big “if” of course, what would be left is an intensely interior story. And those are precisely the stories that are most difficult to faithfully adapt from page to screen. For this reason, it makes sense that Kubrick would forego much of the novel’s interiority in favor of something more explicitly sensory. Of course, one can recognize the prudence, even the necessity of doing this and still not like the way Kubrick chose to do it.

You might argue that he could have retained more of the novel’s interiority, rather than neglecting it almost entirely; for example, the film could have tried to convey some of Jack’s pathos through subtle bits of dialogue and nuances of performance. Of course, there is very little of either in the film; most of what Jack says, how he says it, and what he does conveys a range of emotion that begins at “slightly peeved” and ends at “filled with homicidal rage.” As a result, his character is never sympathetic, his arc is almost nonexistent, and the potential for his transformation into an axe-wielding maniac to have any real emotional impact is severely hampered. This is, of course, the exact opposite of the novel, where Jack is a basically decent but flawed character who goes from fighting figurative demons to literal ones and ultimately sacrifices himself to defeat them and save his family.

Both novel and film depict the familiar trope of the artist struggling, mainly against themself and their own destructive tendencies, to produce their art. It is no secret that King wrote much of himself and his own experiences into the character of Jack. Unsurprisingly, his stance toward the character is honest in its recognition of his faults, as well as unshakingly sympathetic to his good intentions. Kubrick, on the other hand, paints Jack as an asshole, plain and simple. His Jack is a petulant, self-pitying, monomaniacal jerk; he treats his wife with contempt and his son largely with indifference. He is singularly focused on his work, to the exclusion of all else, and seems ready at any moment to lash out at whoever is there to take the misplaced blame for his inability to get said work done.

Recovering or not, he is the stereotype of the drunk writer; more specifically, he is the stereotype of the failed drunk writer (and a failed drunk writer is, of course, dangerously close to being merely a drunk). I don’t know what experience or direct knowledge, if any, Kubrick had of this personality type, but it is clear it was one for which he had neither empathy nor sympathy; as a result, Kubrick never wants us to like Jack. While I have never heard anything to suggest Kubrick struggled with alcohol or any other substances, he was well known for his artistic temperament and a hubris that bordered on being pathological and dictatorial. So, is Jack, in part at least, Kubrick’s recognition of the worst aspects of his own personality taken to their absolute extreme? Again, I don’t know, probably no one knows. Though, if I had to venture a guess, I would confidently say “probably.”

Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance in The Shining, visible from the chest up, sitting with one arm crossed in front of him, looking directly into the camera with wide eyes, mouth agape in a crazy smile, and eyebrows archedI think it’s safe to say that Kubrick’s Jack would—in the words of Homer Simpson—“rather drink a beer than win Father of the Year.”

Wendy, What Went Wrong, Oh So Wrong?

I feel I would be remiss if I did not at least touch on the character of Wendy Torrance. Besides his issues with the character of Jack, King’s most stinging criticisms of Kubrick’s film (criticisms since echoed by many others) concerned its depiction of Wendy. According to King, the film’s version of Wendy is deeply sexist, even misogynist; it takes King’s strong female character and turns her into, in his words, “a screaming dishrag.” For King (or any writer, for that matter) to take issue with the ways in which aspects of his work are changed for an adaptation is eminently reasonable and understandable.

However, the tack that King takes in this case feels to me epically wrongheaded. Frankly, it comes off as pseudo-progressive posturing, as a self-congratulatory humble brag by an entitled man so convinced of his own liberal credentials that he fails to see the mile-deep irony of his leveling charges of sexism and misogyny in patently sexist and misogynist terms. I can only assume that, as a feminist, King felt things had finally been set right with the release of the ABC miniseries Stephen King’s The Shining in 1997, in which Wendy is reassigned her proper role as the Strong Female Character. This of course required giving the character a visual upgrade that would more closely align with King’s original vision. Gone was Shelley Duvall, with her frumpy Everywoman looks and lack of sex appeal, and in her place was blonde bombshell Rebecca De Mornay, wearing a sexy nightgown like nobody’s business.

Shelley Duvall as Wendy Torrance in The Shining, in the middle of the frame, visible from the chest up, her arms folded across her chest with hands on her arms, as she leans against a bare wall.Come on, Wendy. Be more like a male writer’s vision of the wife of an alcoholic tenuously holding on to sobriety and prone to violent anger. Also, be hotter.

Rebecca De Mornay and Stephen Weber as Wendy and Jack Torrance from The Shining miniseries; Wendy walks beside and slightly behind Jack as she glances to the right at something out of frame.I mean, I think we can all understand why Jack would want to kill Shelley Duvall’s Wendy. But this blonde goddess? Now, that’s a female character audiences can root for!

Evidence Suggests Director Behind Maximum Overdrive *Not* Visual Artist of Highest Order

No doubt, Kings’ novel has a great deal to do with Jack’s psyche—his memories, his regrets, his resentments, his insecurities, etc. In this sense, it is partly grounded in the realities of human experience and the human condition; however, it is also explicitly a supernatural horror story. Unsurprisingly, it is highly visual. It is in this area that the film easily outdoes the novel (know that I resisted the strong urge to say “outshines” here). Despite the fact that his work has now been steadily adapted for screens both large and small for several decades, I never get the sense that King is “writing for the screen,” as it were. Or, if he is, he isn’t that good at it. Ironically, I find that King’s highly visual style tends to work best if the reader doesn’t actually try to picture the things King describes.

King strikes me as a writer whose m.o. is to think of an idea first (“Wouldn’t it be cool/crazy/scary if x happened?”) and then describe it in great detail based on what he thinks it would look like but without much thought to whether the idea, once given shape, might upon any lingering consideration actually come off as silly and ridiculous rather than cool and scary. I think The Shining is a good example of this, as several of the visuals King conjures up for the novel just aren’t that effective. These include a snakelike fire hose stalking the hallways of the hotel; topiary animals that come to life, block the road, and attack Hallorann as he tries to make his way to the hotel; and Jack, now fully possessed by the hotel’s evil, menacing his family armed with…a croquet mallet. As ideas, all of these are scary in the sense that if any of these things actually happened it would be scary. But, when I try to picture these things, they inevitably end up looking kind of stupid.

I think Kubrick realized this and as a result, these things are conspicuously absent from the film. I suppose that technological limitations at the time of the film’s production could partly explain why certain visual elements of the novel, mainly the topiary animals, were not incorporated. CGI as we currently know it (or even as we knew it at the beginning of its widespread popularity in the ’90s) did not exist in 1979 when the film was being made. However, early forms of the technology did exist and were in limited use at the time, usually in conjunction with top-notch practical visual effects. Given that The Shining was a major studio feature with a large budget, I am sure that if Kubrick had wanted killer topiary animals, he would have had them. Furthermore, if he had really wanted them but was worried about producing the desired visual effect, he certainly could easily have incorporated them in more subtle ways through tricks of camerawork and editing. The fact that he did not strongly suggests that his decision to excise them entirely and to replace them with the iconic hedge maze had less to do with issues of feasibility and more to do with his superior aesthetic sensibilities (and arguably his keener appreciation of the thematic significance of visual elements).

Stanley Kubrick Doesn’t Have Time for Your Topiary Animals (or Your Context)

Contrasting the novel’s visuals with those from the film, we find numerous instances of Kubrick either taking King’s ideas as a starting point and expanding on them or, in most cases, creating something wholly new. In addition to the replacement of the topiary animals with the hedge maze, Kubrick changes a killer hose to the infamous Grady twins; instead of seeing some blood and brain on the wall, Danny sees a surreal deluge of blood pour forth from the elevators, and Jack’s croquet mallet is replaced with an axe (certainly a case of the more obvious choice sometimes being the better one). Instead of the novel’s extended scene of ghostly dominant-submissive, furry sex play (with the backgrounds of the characters provided), the film reduces this element to one brief shot of a man lying supine on a bed as another man wearing a dog costume kneels suggestively at the foot of the bed (though it could be mistaken for a bear costume, I assume it is in fact a dog costume, as this is made clear in the novel). When Wendy and we as the audience see this, it is entirely without context; this inexplicability makes it all the more jarring, and it is arguably one of the most unnerving moments in the film. For another scene in the film, in which Jack enters Room 237 and encounters the young woman/old hag, Kubrick similarly removes background information that the novel provides. So, while in this case the scene in the film largely occurs as it does in the novel, its effect is dramatically different due to the removal of context.

Returning to the hedge maze, compared to the topiary animals, it is simply a far more elegant way of using a setting’s physical details to add impact to the story. Rather than the garish spectacle of shrubbery come to life, a hedge maze, even without supernatural adornment, beautifully plays on several themes, for example: the melding of the natural and the man-made into a kind of unnatural hybrid, the natural fear of getting lost and of being trapped, and the mirroring or “twinning” nature of the maze and the hotel itself. Besides bringing to mind thoughts of the minotaur of Greek mythology, setting Jack’s pursuit of Danny in a maze also allows for gorgeous tracking shots using the relatively new technology of the Steadicam. Finally, and this harks back to the hot/cold dichotomy between novel and film best symbolized by their respective endings (explosion vs freezing, fire vs ice), the use of the hedge maze allows the film to take full advantage of what is a major detail in both the novel and the film: The Overlook is isolated due to its location and the prevailing weather conditions. In the novel, King treats the weather largely as happenstance; the weather compounds the Torrances’ isolation, but otherwise, it’s fairly unimportant, narratively speaking.

Jack, with strands of hair in his face, his right hand clutched in front of his chest, grimaces with clenched teeth directly into the camera; beside him are the snow-covered walls of the hedge maze, while behind him the floodlights of the maze illuminate the windblown snow.An indelible cinematic image.

In the film, however, and particularly during the climax, the weather is elevated from mere circumstance to an integral part of the film’s aesthetic. No doubt, throughout its duration the film feels cold, both literally and figuratively, and that feeling of literal coldness is never more pronounced than it is during the climactic chase through the hedge maze. The wintry storm raging outside The Overlook becomes itself another threatening presence, made palpable by each gust of windblown snow causing near whiteout conditions, especially against the backdrop of the hedge maze’s floodlights. The bitter irony of Danny escaping one maze only to enter another (and of going from one hostile and alien environment to another) is heightened by the fact that nature itself is now conspiring against him. Even once he is outside the haunted hotel, Danny is far from safe; the fact is that even if his father doesn’t get him, the elements will (luckily for Danny, of course, they get Jack first). Kubrick’s altering of the story’s climax is just one salient example of the way in which he mines King’s novel for the raw materials that best suit his purpose and shapes them into an entirely new vision.

Jack from the miniseries in fully possessed mode, his eyes clouded over, mouth open exposing discolored teeth, wielding a croquet mallet in his right hand.An image.*

Stephen King, Bright-Eyed Optimist, vs Stanley Kubrick, Cynical Curmudgeon

According to King, when Kubrick called him to ask about adapting The Shining, he told King that he considered ghost stories fundamentally optimistic because they suggest the existence of life after death. To this, King replied, “What about Hell?” and Kubrick responded only with “I don’t believe in Hell.” Based on what I know about Kubrick, I can imagine this account is likely fairly accurate. The Shining would be the first and only time Kubrick would adapt a work of supernatural fiction (horror or otherwise). While King has, of course, written a great deal of non-supernatural fiction, the bulk of his work falls squarely within the realm of the supernatural, which is where King seems to feel the most comfortable. Kubrick, on the other hand, feels far more bound to the here and now, flesh and blood world of the non-supernatural.

It is unsurprising then that Kubrick’s adaptation is less explicitly tied to the supernatural than King’s novel is. The film is famously ambiguous regarding the existence of actual supernatural phenomena until fairly late in the film (when Jack is let out of the pantry, which seems possible only through supernatural intervention). While the film has no shortage of surreal visual horrors up to that point, all could conceivably be understood as visions rather than as ghosts in the traditional sense (that they are visions of a sort is, of course, a conceit built into the novel as well; however, I would argue that their supernatural nature is never in doubt in the novel). The film, on the other hand, holds out for much of its runtime the possibility that these visions may not be actual presences but manifestations of Danny’s (and, later, even Jack’s) own fears and anxieties.

That the film ultimately does confirm that there are supernatural happenings afoot at The Overlook doesn’t change the fact that, on the whole, the film places far less emphasis on the supernatural than the novel does. I don’t believe this is merely a stylistic choice; I think it has a lot to do with King’s and Kubrick’s distinctly different sensibilities as artists but probably also as people. The difference in how the novel and the film treat the supernatural represents perhaps the single most important distinction between the two versions of The Shining. More specifically, it is the difference in the role that supernatural evil (evil with a capital ‘E’) plays in each version of the story.

In King’s work, supernatural evil is a very real, very active force in our world. This is not to say that King does not draw parallels between Evil and evil, or even use Evil as a manifestation of its lower-case cousin, but it is always clear that he does not intend Evil to be understood in a purely allegorical way. Unsurprisingly, Kubrick is far less interested in this version of evil. As such, in King’s The Shining, Jack is not an evil man, he is not even a bad man, but he is a weak man. The hotel is evil. It is a place of Evil, and it is Evil that infects Jack and drives his actions. In the novel, the existence of supernatural evil is key; without the influence of Evil, Jack never tries to kill his family. The Jack of the novel could never be driven to murder his family simply by a combination of isolation, cabin fever, writer’s block, and alcoholic cravings. The Jack of the film, on the other hand? It’s at least conceivable that he might.

The Torrances in the car on the way to The Overlook; Jack is at the wheel, Wendy is beside him in the passenger seat, looking straight ahead; Danny has pulled himself up from the back seat and rests his arms on the backs of his parents' seats; he is looking at his father, whose eyes are pointed upward, suggesting a glance in the rearview mirror in order to better see Danny.“No, we’re not there yet. And if you ask one more time, I will turn this car right around and we’ll go back to Vermont. And then you won’t get to see any of the cool stuff at the hotel. No waves of blood, no creepy twins, no nothing. Do I make myself clear?!”

And therein lies one of the most persistent criticisms of the film. Because Jack seems, at the very least, a bit “off” from the very beginning, one could argue that all of the supernatural goings-on at The Overlook are somewhat unnecessary; the circumstances of the situation alone, without ghostly intervention, are enough to drive Jack over the edge. And I think it is this—in short, the evil that men do—that truly interests Kubrick. I would not go so far as to say that the supernatural elements in the film are incidental, but they certainly aren’t as central as they are in King’s novel (and, by comparison, one could be forgiven for thinking that they feel incidental). However, by this logic, the non-supernatural elements of King’s novel—the isolation, Jack being a recovering alcoholic and struggling writer–are likewise unnecessary. After all, if we are accepting the existence of supernatural evil, couldn’t Jack just as easily have been possessed and driven to kill his family without these factors? Of course, but the fact is that King wanted to include these things because they mattered to him; he felt a personal connection to them.

So, in the novel, Jack is a good man, a loving husband and father, whom Evil uses as a vessel to do its bidding; in the film, Jack is a bad man—a selfish, bullying drunk—who, with just a little push from Evil becomes an evil man (one might even say that the dynamic is more a partnership than anything else, given how little Jack does to resist the temptation of Evil). In the novel, Evil is a force that acts on us and sometimes, even though we are inherently good, it gets the better of us (at least temporarily; in the novel, Jack ultimately triumphs over Evil). In the film, our own innate evil, or at least our tendency toward evil, is at least as dangerous as Evil. For Kubrick, evil is always more frightening than Evil for the simple fact that evil is real. As noted, Kubrick saw the silver lining in stories of supernatural evil; i.e., perhaps we live on after death, maybe even happily ever after (forever and ever and ever…?). At the same time, he understood that with stories of non-metaphysical evil—just your garden variety, mundane, banal evil—hopes for storybook happy endings are much harder to come by.

Stanley Kubrick: The Cinematic Equivalent of a Filet Mignon and Pommes Frites

The real story of the novel is clearly that of Jack’s redemption more than it is of a haunted hotel and people with extrasensory perception. The story of the film is…honestly, I’m not sure. I think that, ultimately, the film is less concerned with story in the proper sense and more interested in creating an experience, a sustained mood, cinema as temporary affective disorder (albeit with the capacity to linger on in the mind after the images and sounds fade). But it’s definitely not about Jack’s (or anyone else’s) redemption, realization, actualization, or any of that stuff which cinematic dreams are so often made on (if it were a dream, it would certainly be the fevered kind; more fittingly, still, it would be a waking nightmare). As such, it makes little sense to compare and contrast novel and film as stories; if forced to, I would concede that the novel is the better story by default.

But as for which is the better, richer, more immersive experience? I will always say the film, which was, is, and will remain a strikingly singular piece of work. I like the book, but I don’t feel compelled to return to it again and again. The things I find most compelling in King’s novel, its interior elements, I can find handled as well or even better elsewhere. By contrast, I am hard-pressed to find many (if any) other films that operate on the same wavelength and with the same level of craft as Kubrick’s film. Maybe what I have been beating around the bush in saying, perhaps for fear of being accused of glibness or snobbery, is that differences in artistic and personal sensibilities aside, what separates King’s novel and Kubrick’s film is that one is the work of a good writer—competent, imaginative, passionate, certainly prolific—while the other is the work of one of cinema’s greatest filmmakers.

The fact is that Kubrick and The Shining was an odd pairing from the start (really, Kubrick and any of King’s work is a bit of a mismatch). Of course, it’s a pairing I’m happy we got, as it resulted in that most unusual of cinematic occurrences: a film adaptation that surpasses its source material and achieves masterpiece status not merely in spite of being a poor adaptation, but precisely because it is a poor adaptation.

*Yes, this image is from the miniseries, and this piece is about comparing the novel and the film, not the film and the miniseries. However, I say it’s fair game, as King was directly involved in the project and it was very much touted as being his true vision. And the miniseries is, if nothing else, a very literal adaptation of King’s novel.

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Written by Corey Callahan

My name is Corey Callahan. In terms of my background, I am from the village of Minerva. In terms of education, I have a bachelor’s degree in sociology, a bachelor’s degree in history, a master’s degree in public administration, and a master’s degree in communication. I have been a horror fan in times good, and I have been a horror fan in times bad. If you read my articles, I promise each and every one of you I will hit the ground running, come out swinging, and end up winning. Finally, I will not apologize for my tone tonight (or any other night, for that matter). Thank you.

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