Tuesday, April 19, 2011

King vs. Kubrick: The Shining.

I picked this up when I was 7.
This isn't going to be easy; I feel like I'm having to choose between my parents or something. I love Stephen King; I love Stanley Kubrick. But I think this "discussion" is a worthy one. And please feel free to tell me your thoughts on this, too, I'd love to hear where everyone else stands. Here we go:

The Shining, 1977, by Stephen King.

Events: Jack Torrance, a writer and former schoolteacher, takes a caretaker job at a grand and mysterious hotel in the middle of the Rocky Mountains. His five year old son, Danny, has a very special talent that allows him to see visions from the past, forecasts of events to come, and into the minds of others---and straight away Danny senses the hotel, The Overlook, is full of secrets and demons.

During their stay, some of the topiary hedge animals seem to move; the hotel elevator begins to operate on its own, and one of the rooms (217) has its own particular franchise on The Overlook's sordid past (REDRUM). These events are at first subtle and would seem almost harmless or hallucinatory were it not for Danny's special gift. From the first moment he learned of The Overlook, Danny saw this stuff happening, he knows that it's real, and he's seen how it ends over and over in his nightmares! Most of the reader's concern involves sympathy and fear for the child, thrust in the middle of events that would make a grown adult soil herself . . . this story is not an easy one to handle: nightmares, lights left on, nightmares, did that book shelf just move? Fire hose, bathtub, REDRUM! REDRUM! I had about three seriously ridiculous nights of discomfort trying to shove these things from my mind and think happy thoughts!

 At the same time the hotel really gets going, tomfoolery-wise, Jack, who struggles with his own personal demons of Daddy Issues, failure, and alcoholism, begins to unravel. It's explained over and over in many ways just how meaningful and complicated Jack's relationship with Danny is, and as he tries to focus on his work, both hotel-related maintenance and his unfinished play, Jack finds himself having strange, angry resentment toward his family and becoming more and more obsessed with the hotel and its history. King said in an interview that many of the events in this novel were confessionals over feelings of anger and resentment a father (or mother) feels toward children, which can go hand-in-hand with feelings of intense love and adoration the parent also feels; it's a complex thing, but not invalid, you know? It's a pretty ballsy thing to do, not only writing about stuff that is taboo, parenting-wise, but then owning it honestly and admitting that it grew from actual feelings. Heavy. Jack Torrance in many ways is an extremely real character because of this, there are many chapters written from Jack's point of view and he's just as bothered and confused by it as we are!

Some might see this as a horror novel, and it is horrifying, but the most disturbing things are not the evil hotel or any of its twisted, rotting minions, but the almost casual subtlety of the evil, those moving hedge creatures scared me the same way the hotel room menu did in 1408: ("the menu was in Russian; the menu was in Italian; there was no menu,") and the documented descent of human beings who are flawed, but still people nonetheless. This is an extremely sad of bunch events, and it's the struggle that has real power here, not the end but the means to it that pack the greatest punch.

Writing: King has a genius ability to do two things in his novels, well, three if you count SCARING THE PISS OUT OF READERS, but that's actually not important right now. The first thing about King's writing that occurs consistently in all of his stories is the knack for telling and explaining things as if he is actually speaking it aloud, to you, personally (or making you feel as if he's your friend Steve, the storyteller). I don't know anything about Stephen King personally, have never met him, probably never will, but dammit, don't you feel like you know this guy? It's clearly due to the heart he pours into his characters, which of course, comes from his own, but seriously, I feel somehow connected to him just because of the way he writes, and that's probably the greatest compliment a writer can get.

Secondly: Humor and Sarcasm. Aces.

(Danny ponders a conversation his father had), " . . . but Mr. Ullman would probably do neither because he was a CHEAP PRICK. Danny knew that this was one of the worst epithets his father could summon. It was applied to certain doctors, dentists, and appliance repairmen, and also to the board of his English Department at Stovington, who had disallowed some of Daddy's book orders because he said the books would put them over budget. 'Over budget, hell,' he had fumed to Wendy---Danny had been listening from his bedroom where he was supposed to be asleep. 'He's just saving the last five hundred bucks for himself, the CHEAP PRICK."

(Jack is locked in the pantry) "Have to use your brain. The celebrated Jack Torrance brain. Aren't you the fellow who once was going to live by his wits? Jack Torrance, best-selling author. Jack Torrance, acclaimed playwright and winner of the New York Critics Circle Award. John Torrance, man of letters, esteemed thinker, winner of the Pulitzer Prize at seventy for his trenchant book of memoirs, My Life in the Twentieth Century. All any of that shit boiled down to was living by your wits."

Comparisons: All right, let's get to it. Is the novel better, or is the film better? The film (as you know from my past ramblings) is one of my very favorites, and is neater, cleaner, and obviously more visually and acoustically moving than the novel. But that doesn't necessarily make it better. I think the heart of the story was honestly about something bad happening to (mostly) good people, and you are only going to see that if you read the novel; the film has no love for any of the Torrances.

Whereas King's Torrance is clearly conflicted, Kubrick's Torrance seems to be destined for lunacy. He hardly shows any (sober) emotion at all to anyone, if you don't count Nicholson's arched-eyebrows grin to Ullman after hearing the unfortunate tale of Mr. Grady et al. The relationship with Danny and Danny as a person altogether hardly matter in the film. ("Dad? I'm hungry." "Well, you should have eaten your breakfast." The end).

You don't sense any emotion between any of the Torrances because Kubrick hardly has them speak to each other; there is a lot more conversation in the book, maybe even a bit too much, but they at least seem to matter to each other or explain what they're thinking. King's Jack was an interesting guy, funny even, and we mourn his metamorphosis into Crazy-Overlook-Jack because we lose touch with the real Jack and we care about Wendy and Danny. Not so in the film. Kubrick and Nicholson's Jack was almost like a man caught in limbo waiting to become Crazy-Overlook-Jack, and as viewers, we find this Jack infinitely more interesting. Where Kubrick is motivated by isolation and insanity, King is motivated by humanity and tragedy. Two very different themes. And while I will always-always-always consider The Shining one of my very favorite films, I'm more of a writer than a filmmaker, and I almost think Kubrick should have credited it "inspired by" rather than "based on" King's original work. I do not get the feeling of closeness to Kubrick that I do with King, and I get the feeling that Kubrick kind of likes it that way.

That said, I wouldn't have either of them change a thing (how's that for diplomacy?)


Donald said...

What a cop out! You totally didn't answer your own question!

Which one was better? The book, by a country mile. The book actually has a story, characterization, and a real point of view that makes sense and is emotionally fulfilling and satisfying.

The film is entertaining, visually stunning, and very, very scary... but that's it. The film gives you no real reason to care about what's happening to these characters nor does it make much of an attempt to explain why any of this is happening or even why the story was worth sharing.

I like the movie a lot and watch it all the time, but I think it's somewhat shallow in terms of story and character, and doesn't rank highly on my list of Kubrick's best. The novel, however, is one of my top five or so King novels.

Anna said...

yeah, I didnt answer it directly, but christ. read between the lines, ey? ( i agree with you)

Donald said...

Did you ever see that TV mini series that King wrote or produced or something? It was meant to be his answer to Kubrick's adaptation. It sucked.

Anna said...

I maybe saw a little of the mini-series but for some reason I didn't tune in all the way. Was the Jack in that a blond?

Something else I liked that the book did was present this idea of history repeating itself, it was very LOST, i dug that a lot.

Donald said...

It was Stephen Webber from Wings. He's a good actor, but his performance wasn't as memorable as Jack Nicholson's.