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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Moving on up: why Ira Sachs is king of the "Rightmovie"

Little Men reminds us that Sachs is the the cinematic poet laureate of the gentrification drama.

There’s a nauseating moment at the end of the 1986 film Stand By Me when the narrator reflects on his childhood. “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12,” he sighs. “Jesus, does anyone?” That sort of retroactive idealism is a temptation for any coming-of-age movie, but the writer-director Ira Sachs resists it in Little Men. His film charts the blossoming friendship between two 13-year-old boys, Jake (Theo Taplitz) and Tony (Michael Barbieri), without stooping to suggest that what they have is somehow purer than anything in the adult world. It isn’t – it’s just subject to different forces. Sachs captures the concentrated joy of youthful larks and loyalty but he is as wise as Fassbinder ever was to the impact of economic and social pressures on our emotional choices.

It’s clear that the film will be discreet from the way the cinematographer, Óscar Durán, shoots Jake and Tony from behind during their first meeting, as though permitting the boys a modicum of privacy away from our prying eyes. Sachs has a knack for finding those pockets of quiet in the hubbub. The opening shot puts the reserved, feminine-faced Jake at his school desk; he’s the still point in the midst of chaos. He takes whatever life – or, in this case, his classmates – can throw at him.

Then Jake gets a bombshell: his grand­father has died. His father, Brian (Greg Kinnear), and mother, Kathy (Jennifer Ehle), move with him into the old man’s building in Brooklyn. Downstairs is a cluttered dress shop that was being leased to Tony’s mother, Leonor (Paulina García), at a cut-price rate that failed to take into account the property boom. Jake’s father considers himself a sensitive man – he is an actor – ­preparing for a production of The Seagull but his life has just become The Cherry Orchard. Family members advise him to jack up the rent or boot out Leonor.

Kinnear conveys the honest terror of a kind man staring into the depths of his conscience and not liking what he finds. García, the star of the superb Gloria, is brave enough to make her character actively disagreeable at times. In her most complex scene, she sacrifices the moral high ground and overplays her hand with a single rash remark.

Yet Little Men belongs to the little men. Sensing the tremors of discord between their families, Jake and Tony stick together. They skate through the streets in a blur as the camera struggles to keep sight of them behind trees and parked cars while the propulsive score by Dickon Hinchliffe of Tindersticks urges them on.

As Tony, Barbieri is the find of the film. He’s twitchy and gangly, his voice a scratchy drawl that belongs to a bourbon-soaked barfly. No one has swaggered through Brooklyn with such aplomb since John Travolta at the beginning of Saturday Night Fever. Then he’ll do something impulsive, such as hugging his sobbing mother by wrapping his long arms all the way around her and clutching her head to his chest, and suddenly he’s a baby again.

With this and Love Is Strange – about a middle-aged gay couple forced to live separately due to financial difficulties – Sachs has appointed himself the cinematic poet laureate of gentrification-based drama. (Call it the dawn of the Rightmovie.) But he isn’t a tub-thumper. He and his co-writer, Mauricio Zacharias, show simply and plainly how money alters everything. Durán shoots the Brooklyn locations in a crisp, summery light that mirrors this straightforwardness. Any poetry springs from the everyday, such as the night-time shot in which blurred blobs of colour from streetlights and headlamps suggest dabs of paint on a palette.

Even the editing (by Mollie Goldstein) speaks volumes. The sudden cut from the gaudy clamour of a disco, where Tony wears a glow band around his neck like a fallen halo, to the chill calm of the subway platform evokes acutely that plunging feeling when the fun is over. As the boys wait for the train, their faces are framed in unsmiling repose in a shot that calls to mind Simon and Garfunkel on the cover of Bookends. And we all know what happened to them. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times