King and Kubrick: Adapting The Shining

Two Sides of the Same Coin

This essay is part of Lewton Bus KubrickWeek – check out the link to keep up with all of our content to celebrate the 50th anniversary of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Look at any movie list of the best films based on the novels of Stephen King to date and chances are Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is in the number one spot. For years fans and critics have gone back and forth over Stephen King’s novel and Stanley Kubrick’s movie adaption. King’s novel is a horror classic; Kubrick’s film rightly is, too. Where opinions differ is on its success as an adaptation, with the consensus seeming to be that while it’s a very good film in its own right, it’s a very poor adaptation. In looking at the book and the film it inspired, there’s a solid through line from one to the other and it’s not a case so much of King vs. Kubrick as it is of two top artists seeing the same thing and each taking something different out of it.

To get a sense of where the adaptation starts, look at some first lines. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” from Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities or “Call me Ishmael,” from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick are great openers, taking you by the hand and into their worlds, and they’ve rightly achieved classic status. Here’s how The Shining opens:

“Jack Torrance thought: Officious little prick.”

This opening line tells a lot of information in six little words. For one thing, there’s the name of the first of what will come to be a trio of protagonists, Jack Torrance (his wife, Wendy, and their son, Danny, are introduced later). For another, it’s not surprising when Jack will reveal that he’s an aspiring writer. That’s a writer’s insult right there, too clever by half. For one more thing, Jack has anger issues. Big ones.

There’s an apocryphal anecdote that goes that Chevy Chase was throwing his weight around behind the scenes on SNL back in the 1970s. Bill Murray confronted him, spoiling for a fight, and in the ensuing shoving match called him a “Medium talent!” This story, such as it is, is funny but more than that, it relates a brilliant, thought out put-down. It’s the kind of insult that sticks with someone because there’s a real loathing in the thinking that crafted it. “Officious little prick” is of much the same quality. It’s definitely not a first thought, even of a very clever writer. It’s the thought of a man who has been with someone (in this case the manager of the Overlook Hotel, Stuart Ullman) for a little while and whose mind has been half on the situation, half on formulating the perfect zinger. And it provides a cornerstone for Kubrick’s take on the story.

Stephen King, when asked his opinion of the movie, is gracious. Gracious enough, at any rate, especially regarding how often it’s come up over the years. The late Stanley Kubrick was the type to let his work stand for itself.

King tells the same anecdotes and gives the same opinions every time. His view is that the film is beautiful but cold, that it’s like a gorgeous car with no engine, no “go” behind it. He points out the coldness in how the film ends with the hotel caught in a violent snow storm, his in a fiery explosion, which he equates with passion. The story he most commonly relates, almost verbatim as if it’s tattooed on the insides of his eyelids (certainly that of his mind’s eye, at the very least) goes that back when Kubrick first optioned the book he’d call King incessantly and at inappropriate hours. In the call that King relates, Kubrick, at roughly 3:00 in the morning, told King he felt that ghost stories were fundamentally happy because they implied a continuance after death. King, sleepy but sharp, rebutted, asking Kubrick, “What about Hell?” According to King, Kubrick’s tone changed abruptly: “I don’t believe in Hell,” he said. Click.

It’s easy to imagine King, at a lanky 6’4”, holding a cold phone to his ear and thinking the 5’7” Kubrick was an officious little something.

We see not only two fundamentally different worldviews illustrated here, but also, it appears, a sundering in what each man thought they’d get out of the other. Kubrick’s original treatment for the film is fairly scene for scene aside from the ending which inserts a twist so weird it undercuts the entire film (and no, it’s not the cut epilogue).  One other story King relates is in his introduction to the book in the Pocket Books paperback reprint. It’s of the only time he met Kubrick face to face, roughly six months before the production was to begin. Kubrick, he felt, was most interested in what he was: what, exactly, was driving Jack to murder.

King’s book itself is a partial amalgamation of various haunted house books that preceded it. Its biggest inspirations would appear to be the “psychics in the haunted mansion of a perverted millionaire” story of Richard Matheson’s Hell House—obviously a touchstone for Kubrick as well, seeing as his movie and King’s own ABC miniseries adaptation both use Matheson’s timestamping technique to delineate the scenes of horror—combined with the “family (father/mother/son) caretake a creepy old house for a season” setup of Robert Marasco’s Burnt Offerings. The story of The Shining involves the Torrance family, on their last legs as a cohesive unit since Jack got himself fired from a teaching job in Vermont, agreeing to caretake the Overlook Hotel, a secluded mountain resort in the Colorado Rockies for the winter season. The caveats are that they have a young son who expresses some psychic ability (the “shining” of the title), the place is purported to be haunted, and they will all be frozen in together when the snows settle in, imprisoned both with each other and whatever unhappy haunts materialize within the hotel’s walls and grounds. As the snow builds up around the walls, so too does the Overlook take ahold of each of them.

The plot, as laid out here, is the same for both book and movie. A common complaint against the movie is that Kubrick seemingly took the character names and book title and made up the rest whole cloth. Not by a long chalk. They both share the same skeleton and much of the same flesh. Kubrick’s version of the scene where the recently sober Jack Torrance gets ghostly booze from the hotel’s bartender, Lloyd, is so word for word King changed his version of the scene when he readapted the book for the miniseries. And where Kubrick isn’t verbally explicit in his adaptation, he’s visually: Jack’s Vermont school sweatshirt is there to remind book readers of Stovington Prep, where he formerly worked; the otherwise unreferenced Horace Derwent (the perverted millionaire former owner of the hotel) is shown engaging in sexual activity with a party goer in a dog costume, combining two aspects of the party scene from the novel. Some changes are minor and, admittedly, feel pointless, such as the number of the haunted hotel room going from 217 to 237 (despite Kubrick’s treatment having the original number).

Overall, Kubrick is faithful as far as most adaptations go when it comes to the beats of the story. He’s not slavish, but he doesn’t gut the place and give it a new floor plan, either. This is not a Lawnmower Man situation. As far as hedge animals vs. hedge mazes, at a certain point nitpicks start to become exactly that: picking nits. Perhaps the biggest loss is that neither adaptation of the story got into the truly weird aspects of it, the unsettling details that hang around at the frayed margins of the novel and drive the eeriness as much as the big set piece scares do. For example, Jack, reading a scrapbook detailing the Overlook’s history, sees this scrawled on the back of a menu: Medoc/are you here?/I’ve been sleepwalking again, my dear./The plants are moving under the rug (Kubrick, of the two, manages to sneak a version of this into his treatment, but not the film itself). The book is chock full of bizarre, unnerving details like this, odds and ends serviced in neither adaptation. Alas.

So where is the biggest change since it’s not the plot? That charge is usually leveled at the characters.

The biggest deviance between the two, so the complaint goes, starts with the character of Jack. Wendy usually has fewer objections. Only Danny1 unchanged aside from neither version being as young as the book’s (and despite which version of the depiction of his psychic mentor, Tony, you prefer—waggling finger and scratchy voice, or free floating young man), is mostly left out of the discussion.

Jack gets the brunt of it, and with good reason. He, aside from Danny, is the novel’s other main driving protagonist. The most common charge is that the Jack Nicholson version is too angry by half right out the gate. That there’s no love in him for his family, and therefore it’s no big surprise when he snaps and goes on a rampage. He was already teetering toward oblivion anyway. It’s not hard to see where the complaint comes from. He is angry right from the start. He’s a guy having to take a menial job to try to make ends meet for his family. He’s a guy who, all during his meeting for the job which is to grant him a second chance, would very much be thinking up nasty phrases. It’s why Kubrick, in playing Ullman off as friendlier than his book counterpart (who mostly comes off as brusque), is really playing with the audience from the start. Kubrick is playing with the false perceptions a violent, recently sober man would have about himself and about the world around him. He’s playing with how Jack is a very unreliable figure in the story. And, above all else, he’s playing off that anger evident from the very first line, “Officious little prick.”

King has long talked about how deeply an autobiographical character Jack was for him. King tends to put himself in most of his characters, though in recent years his glut of famous, wealthy Maine novelist protagonists has shifted into famous, wealthy painter types. His penchant for putting himself in his characters can even be seen in the evolution of their social statuses: as he’s grown wealthier so have his protagonists, even if they still remember their humble beginnings. And being that King has been fairly open about his personal addictions and foibles over the years, and how it both affected himself and his family, and being that Jack was saddled with many of those self-same issues, it comes off partly as a way for King to exorcise himself. Or at least to look at a version of himself from the outside in.

King, like Jack, is a husband and father. Like Jack, he was a teacher. Like Jack, he had a drinking problem. King sees Jack at heart as a good man who makes some pretty atrocious mistakes. He sees Jack as someone who picks himself up and tries to do better. Reading the book with an eye toward that angle, it’s there, wholeheartedly. It’s in the text. But Jack, again shown in the text, is also a pretty horrific person.

In the book he’s a man who decided to go to AA after he lost his job by beating the hell out of a prep school kid who slashed his tires for getting cut from the debate team. Too bad, so sad, move along. Except this comes after a prior event in which, again drunk, Jack breaks the arm of his toddler son, Danny, angrily mishandling the boy who scattered some papers around the home office. It’s a damn rotten man who will continue drinking after he breaks his own child’s arm but will quit when it costs him a paycheck. King crafted the book, so it plays out as he made it play out; in a real-life scenario Jack very well could have killed his son, and Kubrick saw that. He saw the man whose introduction to the reader is thinking up insults about the guy giving him a job, who reluctantly quit drinking not after he maimed his child, but after he got fired.

Kubrick famously left out Anthony Burgess’s final chapter to A Clockwork Orange when he adapted it for film. In it Alex is grown, mature, and has his own child. He sees his child engaging in the same things he did as young Droog and realizes life is cyclical. Kubrick rejected that as he rejects, consistently, the notion that any human has that great a capacity for change. He sees Alex as the character he was—a young man in a gang who raped and murdered—not a “boys will be boys” scamp in need of reform. Exactly in line with that is how he sees Jack. Not as a good man trapped by his own failings into doing bad things, but as a bad man who mistakenly thinks he still has a capacity for doing good. Yes, this is Kubrick’s view, but it’s not made up out of thin air. It’s there in the book. And it ties into his view of Wendy.

In the novel, Wendy is a blonde mother tiger, looking out for her family and trying to make sure they make it through the winter okay. She wants to protect her son and is deathly afraid of having to go home to her domineering mother, child in tow, with her marriage to Jack having unraveled. Kubrick, along the way, changed his view on Wendy, too. She’s not the same woman he has in his treatment. Jack Nicholson originally wanted Jessica Lange for the part, and, going based on the book, she’s a pretty sure fit. Kubrick went with Shelley Duvall: mousy, with a mop of dark hair, and a chin that perpetually wobbles.

The Wendy of the film relates to how he sees Jack. Is she a mother tiger? Would going back to her mother be so bad as risking her child’s safety with a man who has broken her child’s bones? Kubrick’s weaker Wendy, perpetually on the verge of tears (partly because Kubrick and Duvall were at loggerheads, the director always winning, throughout the shoot which lasted for over a year), voice warbling, is his rejection of that idea. When Wendy takes Danny to see the doctor early in the film, she spends the time smoking and making excuse after excuse for Jack. It’s Kubrick’s take to be sure, but again, his take based on what’s present in the text.

Wendy, for all her supposed strength in the novel, is more afraid of returning home to her mother than staying with a man with a temperament that put her son in a cast and lost him a job when he seriously assaulted a student. In fact, she’s willing to risk being shut up alone with such a man who will have no other targets at which to vent for the entire winter rather than go home again. Under the scrutiny of Kubrick’s eye, this doesn’t elevate her. King, in describing the way Kubrick presents Wendy, says it’s one of the most misogynistic characters ever put to film. It’s certainly not a flattering portrayal, to be sure. It’s that of a woman caught somewhere between pride for herself, love for her family, and fear of what could happen on either front.

King’s rejection of the film is simple to understand. He poured a lot of himself into the novel, and into Jack especially. So far as we know King never broke his son’s arm or beat a student of his, nor did he chase his wife around a with a croquet mallet, but he did share many of Jack’s lesser failings and, through the story, tried to find redemption for this broken, pathetic man he had created. Kubrick rejected that idea and did it boldly, using the clout and fame he had achieved as the director of Spartacus, 2001, and A Clockwork Orange to do so. His rejection is 20 feet high, stars Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall, and screened in its first few weeks for more people than ever read the novel. To this day there are people who claim to be Stephen King fans who have seen this movie but not read any of his books. Kubrick’s version, which is very much a rejection of King himself if he identifies with Jack’s redemption arc, and based on his own statements it’s clear that he does, got that rejection projected for months on end in theaters around the world. People crunched popcorn and slurped soda while Stanley Kubrick gave what must have felt like a giant middle finger for two hours and twenty four minutes. More than that, maybe Kubrick made King see something about these characters that he couldn’t see from the closeness of the author’s chair.

That The Shining is routinely voted as the best film ever made of King’s work has to be even more galling. King has always made the argument that the book will still be there long after the movie has gone away and this might be true of some of the real stinkers that have been made of his novels. The trouble in this case is that The Shining has never gone away. And won’t ever go away. It’s up there with The Innocents, The Haunting, and The Legend of Hell House as a classic of the horror genre, and more specifically, the ghost/haunted house story.

Starting with Kubrick’s mostly faithful treatment, the creation of props such as the scrapbook which serves as a focal point for much of Jack’s growing madness in the novel, questions to King about his views on ghost stories and the metaphysical implications thereof, there was something about the supernatural angle to the book that clearly interested him. And somewhere in between his meticulous preproduction and the shooting of the film, his perspective on the book changed, grew more cynical, putting it in the light of a photo negative, highlighting all the darkness and washing out the rest. How much the brief talks he had with King changed his perspective are mysteries lost to time, but it’s not unreasonable to assume they did play some part. King, for his part, doesn’t appear to have quite known what to make out of Kubrick, with his rebuffing answers. Kubrick, based on the final film, shifted the weight from the supernatural to the domestic side of the book. He went from what’s haunting the Overlook to what’s haunting the family. What’s haunting Jack most of all.

Ultimately, the gulf between Kubrick’s version and King’s isn’t so far as most people would like to think. The novel and the film have both secured their places in the pop culture pantheon, and ideas from each (Redrum, “Come play with us, Danny!”) form common cultural currency. It’s not a versus, not a showdown, not fire and ice. It’s two consummate masters, each at the top of their game, seeing the same thing and taking away something different from it for their own reasons. On the part of Stephen King, he has very personal connections to the work above and beyond simply creating it which would make it personal enough. Stanley Kubrick, not beholden to the novel in the same way and not viewing himself as Jack (though with Jack as a frustrated creative, there’s something there) changed gears and went in a different direction than he started with when he set out to film it.

As regards The Shining, in the end it was an S.K. that wrote it, and another S.K. that adapted it. Two men, two views, two sides of the same coin, both trying to scare you. Both thinking, perhaps, of midnight…with the stars and you…

  1. As a side note, there is something horrifying in the fact that the first and second Dannys both sport essentially the same pudding bowl haircut and romper suits almost 20 years apart. They’re like a second set of Grady’s twins.