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Adapt This: ‘The Shining’ – Kubrick Vs. King

Written by on July 12, 2011 

Once upon a time, there was a magical, mystical time known as the 1980’s. I’ve always been slightly amazed at very young people who claim to love the 80’s. These poor, misguided souls always seem to have been born around 1987, and thus don’t know what the hell they’re talking about. I was a child during the 80’s and remember Ronald Reagan giving doddering speeches, the rise of Oprah and the sudden cultural whirlwind of a literary phenomenon called Stephen King.

I’ll spare you the protracted I-Hate-The-Eighties rant, because you’ve heard it before (in an ironic way, probably), but seriously, f*ck the 80’s. The best movies of the 80’s (Blue VelvetRaging BullRaiders of the Lost Ark) exist outside of the place and time in which they were made. The great bands of the 90’s – Nirvana, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains – pumped that 80’s-metal sound full of heartbreak and bile and made rock awesome again. Like the misunderstood and easily-exploited 60’s, the 80’s was a decade of confusion, rampant conservatism and utter hypocrisy.

Like any other era, a handful of artists with particular talents changed everything forever. Keeping strictly to film, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas ushered in the Gilded Age of the Blockbuster, Ivan Reitman elevated the gross-out comedy to similar heights with Animal House and then both Ghostbusters movies, just to ice that money-cake. What Lucas/Spielberg did for the sci-fi/action set and Reitman did for comedy, Stephen King did for horror. He almost single-handedly dragged horror fiction into the modern era with his first two books, Carrie and ‘Salem’s Lot. The first was a disturbing treatise on how high school in American can quite seriously destroy people (while leaving us with the lesson that you shouldn’t fuck with a pyro-kinetic chick.) ‘Salem’s Lot was at the time considered one of the best treatments of the traditional vampire novel since Bram Stoker’s Dracula. And then, in 1977, King published The Shining.

The fact that Stephen King is now a household name is as much due to the early film adaptations of his books as the books themselves. Brian DePalma‘s 1976 film of Carrie grossed thirty times it’s budget. That hit naturally spurred the already-impressive sale of his books and now, over 30 years later, the once critically-reviled author (who once bemusedly referred to himself as “American’s Shlockmeister”) is a respected cultural touchstone. In 1980, King was a young author with a handful of bestselling mainstream horror novels behind him. One morning, King was shaving (and nursing a hangover) when his wife told him that Stanley Kubrick was on the phone, and wanted to adapt The Shining. As the story goes, Kubrick immediately explained how ghost stories are optimistic, as they suggest humans actually survive death in a sense. Or something. There’s no way to tell what Kubrick was on about, really… despite how seemingly close King was to the development process (Kubrick would reportedly call the author at 3:00 AM and ask questions like “Do you believe in God?”), this adaptation of The Shining is definitely Kubrick’s vision of King’s book.

Which is something King never appreciated, evidenced by the slightly campy made-for-TV adaptation he wrote and executive produced seventeen years later. Directed by King’s favorite hack, Mick Garris (who also directed the multi-part adaptation of The Stand as well as the well-intentioned but deeply flawed Stephen King-Clive Barker project Quicksilver Highway), it is slavishly faithful to his novel. King voiced his dissatisfaction to American Film magazine in 1986:

“It’s like a great big beautiful Cadillac with no motor inside, you can sit in it and you can enjoy the smell of the leather upholstery – the only thing you can’t do is drive it anywhere. So I would do everything different. The real problem is that Kubrick set out to make a horror picture with no apparent understanding of the genre. Everything about it screams that from beginning to end, from plot decisions to the final scene.”

How could anyone not like this movie? It’s a cold, withholding, cerebral horror film – those three adjectives can succinctly describe almost any film by Stanley Kubrick – and though it deviates radically from the source material in certain places, there are other scenes which were taken nearly word for word from King’s book. The spine remains unchanged: recovering alcoholic (and frustrated writer) Jack Torrance moves his wife Wendy and young son Danny to the isolated Overlook Hotel in the mountains of Colorado in order to heal their wounds and escape his demons. The hotel has it’s own demons and they go to the work on the family, eventually driving the father to homicidal madness.

In the book, the hotel’s focus is the boy, Danny. The novel’s five-act structure (which corresponds to the turn-of-the-century play Jack is working on) carefully chronicles Jack’s mental breakdown. The hotel remains accessible for several weeks after the summer and spring crew leaves. King slowly turns the vise on the little family – a bug-bombed wasp’s nest suddenly comes alive in the middle of the night, and the little bastards attack Danny. Jack becomes more and more obsessed with the hotel’s dark past, to the point of calling his boss, edging to the point of blackmail in promising to pen a tell-all nonfiction book about the nasty things that went down in the Overlook and were swept under the rug.

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