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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Will they, won't they: Freya’s ambivalent relationship with plot

Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed in Anthony Quinn’s Freya.

Freya is a portrait of a young woman in her time (post-Second World War through to the 1950s), place (London and Oxford) and social class (upper middle). Her father is an artist, Stephen Wyley, one of the principal characters in Anthony Quinn’s last novel, Curtain Call, which was set in 1936. We meet Freya on VE Day, assessing her own reflection: dressed in her Wren uniform, leggy, a little flat-chested, hollow-cheeked, with a “wilful” set to her mouth. And even though her consciousness is the constant centre of this novel, the feeling that we are standing outside her and looking in is never quite shaken. Quinn invests intensively in the details of the character’s life – the food and drink, the brand names and the fabrics, the music and the books around her – but he can’t always make her behave plausibly in the service of the story.

In fact, the novel has an altogether ambivalent relationship with plot. For the first two-thirds of the book there’s not that much of it. Freya is one of those young women for whom peacetime brought a tedious reversion to the mean expectations for her sex. When she goes up to Oxford, she realises that, despite her accomplishments in the navy, “she was just a skirt with a library book”. Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed. Quinn makes heavy use of elision – telling us that something is about to happen and then jumping to the aftermath – which would be an effective way to suggest Freya’s frustration, if it weren’t so schematic.

Granted, it’s preferable to dodge the obvious than to have it hammered home, but at times Quinn can be remarkably unsubtle. When a character mentions a fictional writer, he glosses this immediately afterwards, explaining: “He had named a famous man of letters from the early part of the century.” Presumably this clunking line has been inserted for fear that we readers won’t be able to draw the necessary conclusions for ourselves, but it’s superfluous and it jars. Quinn also has his characters make self-conscious asides about literature. Arch observations such as “The writer should perform a kind of disappearing act” and “It’s unfathomable to me how someone who’s read Middlemarch could behave this way” make me wonder whether students of physics might not have more intriguing inner lives than those studying English literature.

And then there is Freya’s sexuality, which is set up as the animating mystery of the novel, but is laid out quite clearly before we’re a dozen pages in. She meets Nancy Holdaway during the VE celebrations and the attraction is instant, though also unspeakable (a critical plot point hinges on the repression of homosexuality in 1950s Britain). The will-they-won’t-they dance extends through the book, but it’s hard going waiting for the characters to acknow­ledge something that is perfectly obvious to the reader for several hundred pages. It’s not as if Freya is a fretful naif, either. She takes sexual opportunity at an easy clip, and we learn later that she had flirtations with women during the war. Why become coy in this one instance?

Nor is she otherwise a reserved or taciturn character. Forging a career in journalism as a woman demands that she battle at every step, whether she would like to or not. “But I don’t want to fight,” she says, later on in the narrative, “I only want to be given the same.” However, she rarely backs away from confrontation. At times her tenacity is inexplicable. In one scene, she is about to pull off a decisive bargain with a figure from the underworld when she defies the middleman’s warnings and launches into a denunciation of her criminal companion’s morals, inevitably trashing the deal. It’s hard to swallow, and makes it harder still to imagine her keeping her counsel about the great love of her life.

When the plot at last springs to life, in the final third, there is almost too much to get through. Quinn introduces several new characters and a whole mystery element, all in the last 150 pages, with the romance still to be resolved besides. After the languorous pace so far, it’s an abrupt and not quite successful switch. Quinn hasn’t got the Sarah Waters trick of mixing sexual repression with a potboiling historical plot, nor Waters’s gift for scenes of disarming literary filth. (Freya announcing that “she finger-fucked me till I came” is unlikely to join ­Fingersmith’s “You pearl!” in the fantasy lives of the bookish.) Freya is a novel about intimacy and honesty, where telling the truth is paramount; but it doesn’t seem to know its own heroine well enough to bring us truly close to her.

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 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism