American filmmaker Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film adaptation of Stephen King’s novel The Shining is widely regarded as one of the defining works in the horror genre. However, Stephen King truly disliked the end result and has spent years publicly criticising it. This, it has to be said, was mostly due to the fact that Kubrick had managed to make the film his own and had deviated from King’s original vision. While making the film, Kubrick wanted to use the novel as a starting point. He did not read Stephen King’s screenplay and he did not even want to collaborate with him on a new one.
A large portion of Kubrick’s films are adapted from previous books, a factor deriving from the fact that Kubrick believed that there were not many screenwriters of his time who were as skilled as some of the greatest novelists. More importantly, making an adaptation allowed him to have a clear and objective view of the story. Kubrick famously said, “If you read a story someone else has written, you get the irreplaceable experience of reading it the first time. This is something you obviously cannot have if you write an original story.” Kubrick had asked for the help of writer Diane Johnson in adapting The Shining to the big screen, a figure who described his approach to the story as “very literary and intellectual”.
In a TCM documentary titled A Night At The Movies: The Horrors of Stephen King, King discussed a phone call between himself and Kubrick in which the director told him that he thought ghost stories were fundamentally optimistic because they portray existence beyond the all-consuming barrier of death. When Stephen King asked him whether he thought hell was optimistic, Kubrick answered: “I don’t believe in hell”. This was symptomatic of the fundamental conflict of their artistic visions. King believed in the traditional, Biblical demarcations of good and evil where the role of evil is relegated to ghosts and demons. Kubrick had a much more pessimistic and nuanced idea of what was meant by “horror”. Their disagreement can be seen in their respective treatments of the character of Jack Torrance who was later played by Jack Nicholson in the 1980 film. King believed that Torrance was inherently a good guy who was “bent one way and then the other” by various cosmic forces of evil. Kubrick masterfully blurred these conventional definitions of morality by making Torrance a psychopath. He thought the horror of humanity was much more compelling.
“I think ‘The Shining’ is a beautiful film and it looks terrific and as I’ve said before, it’s like a big, beautiful Cadillac with no engine inside it. In that sense, when it opened, a lot of the reviews weren’t very favourable and I was one of those reviewers. I kept my mouth shut at the time, but I didn’t care for it much,” King once said.
“I feel the same because the character of Jack Torrance has no arc in that movie. Absolutely no arc at all,” he added. “When we first see Jack Nicholson, he’s in the office of Mr. Ullman, the manager of the hotel, and you know, then, he’s crazy as a shit house rat. All he does is get crazier. In the book, he’s a guy who’s struggling with his sanity and finally loses it. To me, that’s a tragedy. In the movie, there’s no tragedy because there’s no real change. The other real difference is at the end of my book the hotel blows up, and at the end of Kubrick’s movie the hotel freezes. That’s a difference. But I met Kubrick and there’s no question he’s a terrifically smart guy. He’s made some of the movies that mean a lot to me, Dr. Strangelove, for one and Paths of Glory’ for another. I think he did some terrific things but, boy, he was a really insular man. In the sense that when you met him, and when you talked to him, he was able to interact in a perfectly normal way but you never felt like he was all the way there. He was inside himself.”
Stephen King hated Kubrick’s adaptation so much that he made a three-episode horror miniseries on his own novel in 1997. It is safe to say that even though the 1997 effort was more faithful to King’s book, it had none of the cinematic artistry of Kubrick’s film. King elaborated on the difference between Kubrick’s film and his book when he said, “That’s what’s wrong with [Stanley Kubrick’s] The Shining, basically…the movie has no heart; there’s no centre to the picture. I wrote the book as a tragedy, and if it was a tragedy, it was because all the people loved each other. Here, it seems there’s no tragedy because there’s nothing to be lost.”
See the full interview, below.