Stephen King still won't accept Kubrick's genius

What is it that particularly irks King about a film that was so universally acclaimed?

A display from 'The Shining'. Image: Getty

Stephen King's new novel Doctor Sleep, which is a sequel to his horror classic The Shining, seems to have reopened an old wound, namely his utter contempt for Stanley Kubrick's screen adaptation of his original book.

As one of America's most successful and prolific authors, King is well-versed in the business of screen adaptations. Indeed, studios and television networks often secure the rights to his books before a single word has been written.

But what makes King's criticisms of Kubrick's The Shining (1980) unpalatable is the fact that so many of his horror and fantasy stories are routinely butchered on screen.

In an interview with the BBC's Will Gompertz, King highlighted the apparent failing within Kubrick's film.

He said: “I am not a cold guy. And with Kubrick's The Shining I thought that it was very cold.

“Shelley Duvall as Wendy is really one of the most misogynistic characters ever put on film. She's basically just there to scream and be stupid. And that's not the woman I wrote about.”

He added: “I met him [Kubrick] on the set and just on that one meeting, I thought he was a very compulsive man.”

Despite these criticisms flying in the face of popular opinion, King is not being deliberately contrary. In fact, his assertions prove that his connection with these particular characters have rendered him incapable of appreciating a terrific piece of cinema.

In the film, actress Duvall plays a scared and protective mother whose fragility only serves to amplify the terror of Jack Nicholson's crazed antagonist. Also, to accuse cinema's most famous obsessive of being compulsive is just flat-out ridiculous.

A successful screen adaptation needs to manifest a style which is distinct from the original source in order to flourish independently. This is where Stanley Kubrick was a genius.  Every single one of his films, from his auteur period (1962-1999), was adapted from either a book, short story or novella.

Kubrick understood the importance of taking a story and meticulously reworking it for an entirely different medium. The director was a master of genre cinema, stripping it down and blowing it up in its purest form. In fact two other successful King adaptations, Stand By Me (The Body) and The Shawshank Redemption (Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption) are both riddled with inconsistencies between book and film - although not quite as fundamental as The Shining. King has highlighted these two films, along with Misery (1990), as his favourite cinematic interpretations.

Interestingly, both The Body and Shawshank were not major King works, unlike The Shining, but merely short dalliances away from the horror genre.

The author once again admitted that The Shining's Jack Torrance is probably the most autobiographical character he has created. Evidently, the book and the characters mean more to him than any other he has ever written.

While King insists that he is not a cold person, his own disastrous attempt at film directing, which resulted in the cocaine-fuelled Maximum Overdrive (1986), has done nothing to thaw his hatred towards Kubrick's masterpiece.

It is also testament to Kubrick's brilliance, and of course the power of the moving picture, that his film has usurped the book within pop culture. That rare achievement is perhaps something which irks King the most.

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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear