Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Stephen King's The Shining vs. Stanley Kubrick's The Shining

I've been reading some of the classic 70s blockbuster novels. Partly I'm doing this because I'm a writer who wants to reach a wide audience, and it's interesting to think about what makes these books tick, what it is about them that strikes a chord with so many people. Mostly, I'm doing it for my own enjoyment.

Although we recognise the 1970s as a golden age for a number of things: the new wave of Hollywood, muscle cars and flares, to name but three, I think the decade is sometimes underestimated as the last time when we had a series of big, blockbuster mainstream novels followed by cinematic versions that were even bigger, blockbustier and more mainstream.

The interesting thing is that these were predominantly genre books that found a massive audience, that then attracted serious talent for the movie. I don't think that really happens anymore, with the exception of something like The Da Vinci Code. I guess the closest we'll get to that in 2012 is the inevitable Fifty Shades of Grey flick.

So I've just finished William Peter Blatty's The Exorcist and am halfway through Peter Benchley's Jaws. Both are pretty enjoyable reads, and it's easy to see why they found such a wide readership. Both were arguably improved upon (actually in the case of Jaws, there's no argument about it) by their respective movies, with William Friedkin and Steven Spielberg leaving their indelible stamps on the source material. Interestingly, both are about inexplicable horror impinging on a well-realised every-day setting.

That made me think about an author who was (career-wise) born against the backdrop of this era: Stephen King. Horror impinging on the every-day is pretty much a summation of King's career. He's also an author that writes wildly successful genre books - becoming a genre unto himself, in fact - which attract interesting directors: De Palma, Kubrick, Carpenter, Cronenberg, Darabont, Romero, Reiner and many more.

My Kindle book Shining in the Dark - Stephen King: Page to Screen takes a look at this in greater detail; focusing on four of King's most characteristic works and the four cinematic adaptations they spawned. The book is a revised version of my final year English dissertation at university, so I use more academic language and I bullshit a little more than I would nowadays (diegetic and non-diegetic sound, that kind of thing), but I thought it held up pretty well after a thorough rewrite.

It's actually my biggest Kindle seller in the US. It's not overly long, just over a hundred pages, and if you're interested in reading it you can pick it up for Kindle from Amazon UK and Amazon US.

Below, I've posted the chapters on The Shining, taking a look at the novel first (for my money, King's best work) and then examining how Kubrick adapted it. People tend to like either the novel or the film, because they're so different. Unlike Spielberg and Friedkin, Kubrick didn't just put his own stamp on the existing narrative, he pretty much ripped the book apart and built his movie from the pieces.

Though it's my favourite King book, I actually don't mind how different the two works are. For me, a good adaptation is not necessarily a faithful adaptation. Books and movies are different beasts, and they don't always translate literally. I much prefer it when a director with an individual style takes the basic idea of a book and then does whatever they think will work best, without slavish regard for the source material. L.A. Confidential is another great example of this: great book, better movie.

When anyone asks me what I think of the Kubrick Shining, I answer "the best parts of the book aren't in the movie, and the best parts of the movie aren't in the book."

Which is basically what I'm saying below, using a lot more words...

Stephen King’s The Shining

King's third novel, The Shining, was published in 1977. The story concerns a failing writer and recovering alcoholic, Jack Torrance, who accepts the job of winter caretaker at a remote hotel in Colorado. At the interview, he discovers that a previous caretaker, also an alcoholic, succumbed to extreme cabin fever and murdered his wife and two daughters with a hatchet before killing himself. Brushing this aside, Jack, along with his wife Wendy and five year old son Danny, moves into the hotel which quickly becomes completely snowbound. At the beginning of their stay, there are two important things of which Jack and Wendy Torrance are unaware: the first is that their son, Danny, has a telepathic power known as 'The Shining'; the second is that the Overlook Hotel is haunted by a malevolent force which wants to use Danny's gift for its own ends. As the Torrances become increasingly isolated from the outside world, the hotel exerts its influence over Jack, pushing him to act as its murderous pawn. This plot, of course, follows King's most common gambit of introducing a chaotic agent to a familiar and lifelike setting to create horror. The Shining slightly alters these roles, however, in that the seemingly everyday setting of the story is actually the source of the evil, and that the catalyst for the horror is (as with Carrie) one of the story's main protagonists, five year old Danny Torrance.

In Danse Macabre, Stephen King's book on the horror genre, he talks about the inspiration for the novel, a speculative article he once read which suggested that:

"So-called 'haunted houses' might actually be psychic batteries, absorbing the emotions that had been spent there, absorbing them much as a car battery will store an electric charge. Thus...the psychic phenomena we call 'hauntings' might really be a kind of paranormal movie show - the broadcasting back of old voices and images which might be part of old events...the fact that many haunted houses are shunned and get the reputation of being Bad Places might be due to the fact that the strongest emotions are the primitive ones - rage and hate and fear...I began to wonder if the haunted house could not be turned into a kind of symbol of unexpiated sin."

In a nutshell, this theory describes the premise of The Shining. Jack's early discussions with some of the hotel's employees reveal that the Overlook has a murky background of scandal, murder and suicide. As one of the characters says: "Any big hotels have got scandals...just like every big hotel has got a ghost. Why? Hell, people come and go."  

A haunted hotel serves as the perfect 'symbol for unexpiated sin', and the Overlook seems to have a haunting in every room. King gives the theory a twist in The Shining with the introduction of Danny, whose psychic powers have the side-effect of bringing these 'paranormal movie shows' to life, in the process rendering them dangerous.

The character of Danny Torrance embodies two of King's favourite themes: childhood and otherness. Danny is 'other' because of his psychic abilities. Although his parents do not fully understand his powers, they are aware that Danny is different from other boys his age and are unnerved by the fact that he continually seems to be aware of their thoughts. We learn that Danny had no real friends in the family's previous neighbourhood, presumably because other children his age were similarly unnerved. In an essay on the novel, Frederick Patten complains that “King does not portray Danny as a five year old child. He's too mature; he seems nine or ten at least." This, however, is the point: Danny is not a normal five year old child. As Dick Hallorann, the Overlook's cook who also has 'the Shining' puts it:  "you've got a large thing in your head, Danny. You'll have to do a lot of growin' yet before you catch up to it."

Perhaps more than any of King's other books, however, The Shining is about the theme of fall and redemption, and this theme is played out in the character of Jack Torrance, who falls victim to the Overlook's evil influence and attacks his family with a croquet mallet, but manages to redeem himself at the end by allowing them to escape.

The detailed characterisations in The Shining are of great importance to the story, and each character, major or supporting, is expertly drawn. Reading the book, one gets the feeling that each character has a life which begins before the story and continues (in some cases, at least) after it has finished. This is evident from the first scene, Jack's interview with Ullman, the hotel's overbearing manager. From the outset, Jack Torrance is established as a character of barely repressed anger, and there are constant references to him holding his tongue to avoid saying something he will regret:

"'Of course you wouldn't allow your son up in the attic under any circumstances.'

"'No,' Jack said, and flashed the big PR smile again. Humiliating situation. Did this officious little prick actually think he would allow his son to goof around in a rattrap attic full of junk furniture and God knew what else?"

Much of the story's buildup is spent revealing background details about each of the main characters in lengthy flashbacks. This also applies to the hotel itself, which becomes an active character as the story progresses, both literally and figuratively. To a great extent, The Shining is a book about facades: The Overlook is a respectable hotel with a murky past; Jack is a caring husband and father who struggles with an alcohol problem; and Danny is a seemingly normal boy with hidden powers. Even Wendy has another side to her: she tries to be loving and supportive to Jack, but inside she is constantly concerned about his alcoholism and even jealous of his relationship with Danny. The theme of facades becomes explicit at the climax, with the hotel using Jack as a mask. Throughout the novel, we are privy not only to characters'  thoughts as they speak, as in the case of Jack's interview, but also to the deeper subconscious fears behind their normal thought process. These thoughts are parenthesised in brackets, italics or capitals in order to separate them from the text. The technique works effectively, mimicking the way in which unwelcome thoughts can stray into one's mind.

The carefully crafted and genuinely unnerving atmosphere of The Shining is probably the single most important reason why it succeeds as a horror novel, a subject that will also be important when we come to discuss Kubrick's film version. King sets the mood from the outset with an epigraph taken from Edgar Allan Poe's story 'The Masque of the Red Death'. The quotation recounts a masked ball that is interrupted every hour by the striking of a strangely sinister clock. This represents another feature common to King's fiction: his intertextuality. Although the writing style is completely different, The Shining's atmosphere is heavily influenced by Poe, just as Salem's Lot owes a debt to Bram Stoker and Christine, as we shall discover, draws its dark power from 50s rock and roll. The quotation from 'The Masque of the Red Death' is appropriate not just to the atmosphere, but to the story as well, which also features a ghostly masked ball and a sinister clock. In addition to this, King's frightening and sentient Overlook Hotel brings to mind Poe's House of Usher.

Although some critics complain that King spends too much of the book on exposition and character development, the earlier sections gradually build up a tangible sense of foreboding by using minor scares and Danny's precognitive flashes of the future. The atmosphere is enhanced because King avoids many of the usual clich├ęs of the haunted house subgenre: the Overlook is not the standard decrepit mansion full of creaking floorboards and cobwebs, it is a classy, well maintained and beautiful hotel. It should not be frightening, but it is, nevertheless. Jack wonders at this disparity when an antique invitation to the masked ball brings to mind the phrase 'The Red Death held sway over all':  "Surely the Overlook - this shining, gleaming Overlook on the invitation he held in his hands - was the farthest cry from E. A. Poe imaginable."

In fact, the only drawback to creating such palpable tension is that no conclusion can possibly satisfy the expectation. In part, this is an inevitable flaw of the horror genre, particularly when atmosphere is built up over the course of an entire novel. As King himself admits in Danse Macabre, 'nothing is so frightening as what's behind the closed door.' Although the ending of The Shining is perfectly adequate, there is no denying that the horrific events themselves are less frightening than the foreboding, as Marc Laidlaw points out:

"King's creation of atmosphere is masterful...where the novel falls short is in the fact that the conclusion is not nearly as frightening as the mood that has been predicting it."

The constant build-up of tension is paralleled within the story by the Overlook's boiler. At the beginning we are told that the boiler will overheat and become dangerous if it is not dumped every day. When Jack is overcome by the Overlook's influence, he forgets to dump the boiler, which eventually explodes and destroys the hotel at the story's conclusion.

The boiler is, of course, also an excellent symbol for Jack Torrance's fragile psyche, which has been weakened by stress and alcohol abuse, and (with the help of the Overlook) ultimately explodes into rage and destroys him. Even after this has happened, however, Jack manages to salvage enough of his humanity to fight the Overlook's influence momentarily, enabling his wife and son to escape at the climax of the novel. This is the point at which it becomes clear that The Shining is the story of Jack Torrance's redemption.

What makes 'fall and redemption' so integral to the story is the way in which Jack comes to personify the theme. In some of King's stories (such as Pet Sematary) a character brings about his own 'fall' by a foolish or selfish act. In others ('Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption', for example) the character is an innocent victim of circumstance. Jack Torrance embodies the theme on both levels: in one interpretation, Jack's 'fall' comes when he is possessed by the hotel and forced to turn on his family. He redeems himself at the end by fighting to regain enough control to save them. From another point of view, however, Jack's fall occurred well before he even set foot in the Overlook: his alcoholism resulted in accidentally breaking Danny's arm and the near-destruction of his family. In this sense, he has already redeemed himself by giving up drinking and attempting to become a better husband and father. As usual the process of redemption is not easy and it is made clear that remaining sober is still a constant struggle for Jack:  "would he ever have an hour, not a week, or even a day, mind you, but just one waking hour when the craving for a drink wouldn't surprise him like this?"

Tellingly, it is Jack's alcohol addiction which the hotel uses to take hold of him. Looking at the story from this point of view, it can be seen as an allegory: Jack Torrance is a man fighting demons, in both senses of the term. Although it is clear that the theme of fall and redemption is of great importance in many of King's stories, in the case of The Shining, it actually becomes the story. It is therefore all the more puzzling that this is a theme which Stanley Kubrick chooses to abandon completely in his film adaptation. 

Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining

The celluloid version of The Shining appeared in 1980, three years after King's novel. It was directed by Stanley Kubrick and stars Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall and Danny Lloyd as the Torrance family. Critical opinion at the time was radically split, and this division is still evident today. Even though the film is now regarded as a horror classic, some critics maintain that it is unfathomable and impossible to love. It is interesting to note that, while both novel and film are highly regarded examples of the horror genre, they are very different works, and the film digresses wildly from its source. Indeed, without knowledge of the novel, the film is baffling and inscrutable. Kubrick, who co-wrote the screenplay with Diane Johnson, has clearly disregarded King's intentions and made his own film, something which resulted in friction with the book's author, as director Mick Garris discusses in an interview for the BBC's Omnibus programme:

"I think [King] was actually hurt by Kubrick's film. The book he wrote was all about alcoholism...about feeling responsibility for a family and not being able to meet that responsibility, it's all about a boiler underneath a hotel that's going to blow and destroy it...those themes were the first things that Kubrick jettisoned."

The fact that the story has been so radically altered is not surprising when one considers Kubrick’s long-held reputation as something of a control freak. As in the case of Brian De Palma with Carrie, the adaptation of The Shining is quite definitely a Stanley Kubrick film. Kubrick also has the reputation of being a very visual director, however, and this is undoubtedly suited to certain elements of the story, such as the labyrinthine spectacle of the Overlook Hotel, the eerie masked ball, and particularly Danny's frightening hallucinations. Reading criticism of some of Kubrick's other works, some common evaluations that come across are that his films are cold and calculating, bloody and cruel. Above all, he is recognised as, and sometimes criticised for being, a very meticulous technical director. All of this is very much evident in The Shining, and works to create a chillingly distinctive atmosphere.

As in King's original book, the atmosphere of Kubrick's film is of great importance, and in this respect, his film captures an important part of the story. In contrast to established horror movie conventions, Kubrick shoots most of the film in daylight and uses long, drawn out takes, which contrast well with Danny's brief visions, for example his flashes of the two murdered daughters of the previous caretaker. The use of threatening music, even over the early scenes in which nothing much happens, also helps to build an atmosphere of foreboding. There are several examples of excellent technical sequences, for instance the torrent of blood which erupts from the main doorway in slow motion, the one-take scene of Danny pedalling through the hotel's corridors in his buggy, and the climactic chase through the hotel maze. Even the fact that Kubrick's screenplay is so utterly cryptic arguably works to the advantage of the atmosphere, playing on fears of the unknown and the inexplicable. To go back to King's statement that 'nothing is so frightening as what's behind the closed door', the whole film effectively becomes a 'closed door' because we are left unsure of exactly what is going on.

Although some criticise Kubrick's absorption in technology, his coldness and detachment seem to lend the more horrific scenes of the film a most disquieting feeling. The film is more disturbing than shocking, as Kubrick creates an overall mood of horror as opposed to a series of outright scares. However, this impressive mood is created often at the expense of character development and human interest. Frank Darabont, director of The Shawshank Redemption, discusses how Kubrick's film fails to bring across the human side of King's book:

"It was a story that came from the heart. I don't know that Kubrick ever directed a movie from the heart, he always directed from [his head]...I never saw a Stanley Kubrick film that came from [the heart]."

While Darabont here points out that contrasting two such different creative minds will result in an inevitable difference in tone, the film contains numerous alterations to the framework of the story as well. For a start, the flashbacks are entirely disposed of, with the effect of rendering the characters shallow and unmotivated; likewise the Overlook's history, which Jack investigates in the novel as the hotel begins to possess him, is pared down. The sinister topiary animals of the novel are absent, and the climax is relocated to a giant maze, where Danny manages to elude his father, letting him freeze to death in the snow and leaving the hotel intact. The character of Hallorann, who travels up from Florida to help Wendy and Danny escape in the novel, ends up making the journey just to be unceremoniously murdered by Jack Nicholson (who, incidentally, uses an axe rather than a croquet mallet in the film). 

Looking at the sheer volume of changes, it becomes clear that Kubrick has virtually gutted the novel, using only certain scenes and leaving the plot an incoherent muddle. As an adaptation of a book, it fails. And yet, somehow, Kubrick has created a masterpiece. He has created his own Shining.

Because many of the film's best sequences involve details that are not present in the book. The obvious example of this, of course, is when Jack's leering face appears at the ragged hole he has made in the door, yelling  “Here's Johnny!”  This was in fact Nicholson's contribution: an ad-lib that brings across Jack Torrance's madness more frighteningly than anything the character says in the book. A more subtle example is the scene where Danny pedals through the corridors of the hotel on his buggy in a long one-take sequence which demonstrates the vastness of the set. This helps to build tension by contrasting the enormity of the hotel with a small child, showing how vulnerable Danny, and the others are.

Another effectively altered scene in the movie is the one in which Jack investigates Danny's claim that an old woman has attacked him in one of the guest rooms. When he enters the room, he sees a beautiful woman standing naked in the bathtub. She slowly walks toward Jack and kisses him, but when he looks in the mirror behind her, he sees that he is embracing the horribly decomposed corpse of an old woman. If this sequence is the most shocking of the film, then the one in which Jack's wife finally reads his 'play' is the most chilling. After plucking up the courage to defy Jack and enter his writing area, Wendy discovers hundreds of pages of the same line typed over and over again: All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. As Wendy frantically leafs through the pages, Jack appears behind her and asks, simply: “Like it?” Despite the fact that it contains no violence, this moment is more terrifying than anything else in the film.

If the best parts of the film are absent from the book, however, the opposite is also true.

While Kubrick has added several touches of genius to King's story, he also dispenses with the most important theme of the book: Jack's redemption. Whereas in the novel, Jack manages to fight the hotel and allow Danny and Wendy to escape, the film version of Danny is entirely responsible for eluding his father in the maze. In addition to this, the film's Jack never seems to be a completely devoted father and husband. From the beginning he appears to be constantly irritated with his family, telling Wendy to “Get the fuck out” of his writing area even before the hotel has begun to influence him. One almost gets the impression that Jack Torrance has only accepted this job so he can chop his family to pieces. In part this is due to the casting of Jack Nicholson: Nicholson is excellent as the maniacal axe-murdering version of Torrance, and indeed it is almost impossible to imagine anyone else in the role, but his menacing screen persona detracts from the tragic aspect of the character. Even in the earlier sequences he appears to be tolerating his family rather than caring about them. Of course, Kubrick's script hampers Nicholson's performance by failing to develop the character more fully, as Fiona Ferguson criticises:

"To hang the movie's psychological tension on the leers and grimaces of Nicholson's face (suited though it is to demoniacal expressions), while refusing to develop any sense of the man, is asking for trouble."

In the Omnibus interview Stephen King says that he views the characterisation of Jack Torrance as a major flaw in Kubrick's film:

"When people say...'Jack Nicholson seemed crazy from the beginning'...we lost some of the tragedy because, to my mind, [the point of the book] that you're taking a decent man and seeing him warped to breaking strain by this place."

The theme of fall and redemption is clearly absent from this film, even more so than in the case of Carrie, but Kubrick includes a postscript that crystallises the film's unique direction. This final scene is another nice touch absent from the novel, and has the effect of altering the final note of the story. Accompanied by 1920s ballroom music, the camera slowly moves down one of the Overlook's corridors toward a wall adorned with framed black and white photographs, eventually closing in on one in particular. The photograph shows a crowd of people gathered in the ballroom and is captioned with the words 'Overlook Hotel - July 4th Ball, 1921'. At the front of the crowd is Jack Torrance, wearing a dinner suit and smiling. This reinforces the idea that Jack has become part of the Overlook, as if he has always been there, and seems to chime with the idea of timelessness in King's book, symbolised by the sinister clock in the main hall. When Jack joins the masked ball in the novel, there are several references to time ceasing to matter. At one point, Jack reflects:

"All the hotel's eras were together now, all but this current one, the Torrance Era. And this would be together with the rest very soon now. That was good. That was very good."

This is echoed shortly after during an exchange which also appears in the film: Jack's conversation with Grady, the previous caretaker who slaughtered his family. When Jack questions him about this, Grady responds by saying he has no recollection:

“You're the caretaker, sir,” Grady said mildly. “You've always been the caretaker. I should know, sir. I've always been here. The same manager hired us both, at the same time...”

Although Kubrick's film does ignore the theme of fall and redemption, it has its own agenda. Like the director's earlier 2001, it ends up being a film about time and timelessness; and this seems appropriate to a story about ageless ghosts in an old hotel. This final scene sums up why the movie works on its own terms, despite its major differences from King's novel. In the end, Kubrick's The Shining is exactly that: a Stanley Kubrick film first, and a Stephen King adaptation a distant second. 

*          *          *

If you liked reading the above excerpt, there's more on some of the other Stephen King books / movies in my Kindle book Shining in the Dark.

Carrie. The Shining. Christine. The Shawshank Redemption.

Four of Stephen King's best stories. Four outstanding motion pictures directed by auteurs as diverse as Brian De Palma and Stanley Kubrick.

Since the publication of his first novel in 1974, Stephen King has entertained, enthralled and terrified the world in equal measure. Forty-nine novels and more than three hundred and fifty million copies sold later, he’s still going strong. But for a figure who has made such an indelible impact on the landscape of contemporary fiction, King’s influence on cinema is equally profound, with hundreds of motion pictures and television productions based on his work; some more loosely than others.

Get it on Kindle:

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