Although I’m not the biggest horror fan, recently I decided to give Stephen King’s The Shining a whirl. And hey, it’s been years since I’ve seen Stanley Kubrick’s movie so why not check it out for a compare-and-contrast? Even though both have been available for over three decades, I’ve hidden the rest of the post below the fold in consideration of the four remaining people out there who haven’t read/seen either and are extra-super-duper sensitive about spoilers.
The novel’s greatest strength, what makes it get under your skin, is that it’s clearly grounded in King’s own experience. His own fears and paranoias are on display: struggling with alcoholism, the strain of maintaining a marriage, the fear of turning into one’s parents, anxiety over not being able to provide for your family, the way warring parents turn their kids against each other, being unable to protect your children, or having them grow up too fast. “The final crashing failure. He had failed as a teacher, a writer, a husband, and a father,” King writes. The book is a catalog of a young father’s anxieties. As if those terrors aren’t enough, King the artist seems to wonder whether his family is more of a burden than a benefit, that his wife and child are holding him back from professional success. Perhaps his family should be sacrificed to further his artistic ambition. The novel seems to have a Biblical roots as well. The scene where Delbert Grady, the spectral personification of the hotel, urges Jack to kill his son Danny feels like an extended horror riff on the story of the Binding of Isaac.
Whereas the novel is about people in a house, the movie is about a house with people. Kubrick, with assistance from his screenwriter Diane Johnson, takes a detached, objective view of the proceedings. It’s less about a father’s/artist’s subjective fears and more about free-floating existential dread. Pauline Kael said the film is about the “timelessness of evil,” which makes sense to me too, but as themes go it’s fairly abstract and bloodless.
Two things struck me when I compared the book to the film. First, the movie is far less violent than the novel. In the book, during the climax Jack beats Wendy viciously with a roque mallet and Wendy stabs Jack in the back with a knife. Both characters spend much of the last quarter of the book bloodied and bruised. In contrast, the movie’s violence (at least towards Jack and Wendy) is more psychological than physical. Yes, Jack attacks Wendy with an axe but she survives unscathed while Jack merely gets a cut on his hand. I wonder if Kubrick pulled back at least in part because he was still smarting from the controversy surrounding A Clockwork Orange in the UK.
The second thing that stood out to me was that the most striking visual elements of the movie were all Kubrick’s invention. Specifically, the recurring shot of the torrent of blood gushing from the elevator, the celebrated Steadicam shots of Danny riding his bike through the hallways, the Expressionist hedge maze, and the movie’s final image are all absent from the novel. The legend of the hotel being built on an Indian burial ground, a trope that has entered the popular consciousness, is also a Kubrick/Johnson invention. While the movie doesn’t work for me on a narrative level, nor do I find its thematic emphasis compelling, it retains an undeniable visual power.
After reading the book and watching the film, it was only natural that I check out the recent documentary Room 237. Whoa boy, what a hoot that movie is. The doc, which explores different subtextual analyses of Kubrick’s film, isn’t so much about any of the substantive theories (each of which is nuttier than the one that came before it) as it is about how we see what we want to see in art. At the beginning of the movie, the filmmakers point out that when initially released, Kubrick’s movie was a critical and box office disappointment. It’s as if some people simply couldn’t believe that Kubrick failed to deliver a masterpiece, therefore the movie must mean something deeper and, goshdarnit, these people are going to determine what it is. One dude says it’s about the genocide of the American Indians, another says it’s about the Holocaust, one argues that it’s Kubrick’s confession that he faked the moon landing. My favorite by far was the lady who thinks she can see a half-man/half-bull in one of the posters in the background of a scene, thus for her the entire film a retelling of the Greek myth of the Minotaur.
Although I watched the documentary with stunned amusement, one part did have me shouting at the screen. One of the commentators, I think it was Mr. Indian Genocide, seemed to have a lot invested in the idea of Kubrick as a towering genius. He noted Kubrick’s wide-ranging conception of history, how the past impinges upon the present, how in his words, “Kubrick is thinking of the implications of everything!” The past impinging on the present? Dude, that’s straight from King! The book features numerous flashbacks to Jack’s abusive childhood all while he frets over perpetuating the cycle of violence. Sure, Kubrick may have been a deep intellectual, but let’s give credit where credit is due. It’s funny how during the documentary King’s book is hardly ever mentioned. As crazy as many of these conspiracy nuts are, one of them, I think it was Minotaur Lady, made an astute observation. Recall that Jack is hired to be the winter caretaker of the Overlook Hotel. In the book, you actually see him trying to balance his maintenance duties and family obligations while trying to work on his book. In the movie, however, you never see Jack do a single maintenance-related activity. There’s one scene, more like a quick shot really, where Wendy adjusts the hotel’s boiler. It’s a good example of how the lived-in reality of the story didn’t interest Kubrick much.
- I blogged about the Kubrick exhibit at the L.A. County Museum of Art here.
- Fabrizio listed his favorite horror movies since 1980 here. Here he shares some horror movie posters from his collection. And here he reviews Kirk Hammett’s Too Much Horror Business and talks about the monster kid phenomenon.
- I bought my copy of King’s book from Dark Delicacies, the great horror bookstore in Burbank. If you’re in the L.A. area, it’s definitely worth a trip.
- Pauline Kael’s review of The Shining.
- Kubrick’s personally annotated copy of King’s novel.
- You’ve somehow never seen the film? Here’s the entire thing in 40 seconds: