The Shining: King versus Kubrick on Horror

Stephen King was pleased to find out about Stanley Kubrick’ plans to adapt The Shining. But this happiness was short-lived: King thoroughly disliked Kubrick’s film and hasn’t stopped since to express his intense disapproval. King: “He’s kind of a dyspeptic filmmaker, a Type A filmmaker, worrying and wanting to edit right up to the end. He’s very painstaking, obviously. You know what? I think he wants to hurt people with this movie. I think he really wants to make a movie that will hurt people.”

Kubrick on the other hand truly enjoyed King’s novel. In the film he wanted to stay true to his first experience of reading the book: “What I like about not writing original material is that you have this tremendous advantage of reading something for the first time. You never have this experience again with the story. You have a reaction to it: it’s a kind of falling-in-love reaction.” Kubrick praised the plot of The Shining highly, and added that all a moviemaker needs is a good plot. Inner thoughts and dialogue are usually better portrayed in a novel than in a movie, but a good plot can make a movie shine.

Kubrick made everybody who worked on the movie read King’s novel first so that they knew what the goal was and he denied to have changed the heart of the story.

The real problem according to King is that Kubrick simply had no clue about the horror genre . “You can sit in it, and you can enjoy the smell of the leather upholstery – the only thing you can’t do is drive it anywhere. So I would do everything different. The real problem is that Kubrick set out to make a horror picture with no apparent understanding of the genre. Everything about it screams that from the beginning to the end, from plot decision to that final scene – which has been used before in The Twilight Zone.”

Overall the idea seems to be that Kubrick’s film has good qualities – cinematographically – but that King is the better example of the horror genre. But is that correct? Does the heart of horror beat stronger in King’s book or in Kubrick’s film?

Kubrick’s approach: what’s changed in the film?

Kubrick did do a lot of research about horror (and he was interested in the paranormal) in preparation for The Shining: he read lots of gothic horror, Poe, Bettelheim and especially Freud and discussed these readings with his cowriter and scholar on the gothic novel Diane Johnson. Kubrick had specific ideas how he wanted to create a horror feeling in his movie. He wanted it to be authentic, especially the look and feel of the hotel which is a central character in the story. He illustrated this point with Kafka. Kafka’s adaptations tend to be very dreamlike and over the top (like the surroundings in some horror films), while the effect of Kafka’s stories comes from his straightforward almost journalist approach of the fantastic, strange happenings. Kubrick wanted something like that; the labyrinthine layout and huge rooms of the hotel shot in natural lighting (the journalist approach) should create an eerie atmosphere on their own. The then innovative use of the steady-cam as an unknown malevolent point of view helped too. This unnerving point of view can be experienced in the opening of The Shining: the family is being watched, Danny is being followed. However, all this is not too obvious: Kubrick consciously made room for the public to think that the happenings in the movie are psychological, it is only quite late in the move that the supernatural presence can’t be questioned anymore.

According to Kubrick he only made minor changes to enhance the plot: he changed the ending, the animals in the garden were deleted and he changed the type of woman to one he thought it to be believable that she would stay with Jack. The fact that Jack already dislocated the shoulder of Danny before their arrival (and thereby summoned the arrival of shining Tony) made it for Kubrick unbelievable that Jack’s wife was to be a blonde, strong and independent lady. That type of lady would have left. Kubrick did toy around with several ideas about Wendy, to find out what her motives would be to stay with Jack and ended up with a weaker, mousier woman that King described.

Since Kubrick wanted the film to be as authentic as possible, he decided to hide the supernatural presence in the hotel at first, to creep in later. It had to be believable at first that the happenings belonged to Jack’s craziness. In the film the struggle of good versus evil is at the start portrayed strongest within Jack, and not in the opposition between Danny and the hotel. It is much more about violence within the family: how a father hurts his loved ones and is disgusting in their eyes.

The end is the biggest difference. King’s ending gives Jack a heroic quest to prove who he really is. His son says: you are not my dad. Danny knows him best. Jack has a good heart and he as the good dad Danny knows him to be he goes and blows up the hotel. In Kubrick ending the hotel and Jack stay, in a frozen situation. Danny and his mom escape, but Jack is still out there. Forever, and ever, and ever.

Why is King so angry?

King has been an alcoholic himself. The struggles of addiction he knew only too well were the backdrop in The Shining. In the novel he gave Jack much more of a background, sad reasons for him to drink and an evil being that seduced him while deep down he still had a good heart. King’s personal story ended well, he recovered. Jack’s story in the novel ended well too, he saved his family and his son continued to live knowing his father was a good man. Maybe the version of Kubrick came to close to King’s own deepest fears: what if he had went further down the road of addiction? What would he have been able to do?

Personal psychological suggestions aside, King said he wrote The Shining as a tragedy. He wanted to make sure that all family members loved each other. He wanted that there was something precious between them that could be lost, that could be taken away by evil. According to him this all falls flat in the movie because Jack is obviously a dangerous or crazy figure from the start and Wendy is far from a strong independent woman. In the movie the characters don’t develop, and you can hardly root for them.

This might be so, but are personal tragedy and character development necessary for horror?

Calling in an expert-witness: Aristotle about character development and plot

Aristotle defined tragedy through its emotional effect. A tragedy should raise feelings of compassion and fear in the public and the catharsis of these feelings. The most important element to realize this is the plot. Aristotle states explicitly that character development is not wanted in a tragedy, the main focus lies in the events that happen. What exactly happened that caused the sufferings and pains?

Horror can be recognized by an emotional effect as well: to be horrified. One can question if horror needs character development. It’s mostly what happens, the impossible that happens, that makes something into horror. While King is the master of creating stories where normal, good people experience extraordinary things while it usually all ends sort of well, this is not an obligated starting point within horror. It is his style of horror, not the style of horror. Kubrick focuses much stronger on the evil within. The evil we all could do, but wished we couldn’t. And then things are even worse.

Aristotle does make a strong point on the difference between horror and tragedy. According to Aristotle, to be a tragedy, the plot has to realize a cathartic relief. The public has to experience fear and compassion, but has to be able to let that go as well. Tragedy realizes this by describing the entire tragic event and not letting any story element unfinished. In horror this cathartic moment lacks. Horror is best when it is unresolved, when it follows you home, when it creeps up in your dreams later. King wants to have the tragic catharsis, and he includes it in his plot. But it is Kubrick who chose an ending that fits horror better. There is no release, there is still stand. A frozenness in time and space where evil breeds, outside the world as we know it. Danny and Wendy escape, and are safe, but the unknown evil is still out there. An unearthly prowler can follow you home afterwards, you feel watched from a strange place in the ceiling, you close your eyes and see smiling twins and blood.

The verdict

King is a master of horror, but Kubrick created the most horrific version of The Shining. Horror is a genre of the after-effect. The images of Kubrick’s The Shining still haunt us everywhere. The point of view, the lady in the tub, Danny on his little bike, the look of the hotel, ‘Here’s Johnny!’. Kubrick is a master of photography and imagery and managed to instill an unnerving lasting feeling in its audience of The Shining.

In this era the idea of character development is seen as a must for any good movie or novel. This is a sign of the time: a time where as a culture we are preoccupied with our psychological selves and improving,developing, learning about ourselves more and more. King has definitely instilled more character development in The Shining than Kubrick and much more feel-good. However, this is not a necessary ingredient of a good horror. Horror is focused on what’s out there. And what’s out there can be an everlasting, non-developing evil within.

10 thoughts on “The Shining: King versus Kubrick on Horror

  1. Kubrick shows the horror, King tells the horror. Same base, different perspectives. And since the book is his baby/child, I guess Stephen wanted to keep his vision, and so he put out ‘his’ own version. I definitely err on Kubrick’s vision, as a film.

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  2. Fabulous article. If only Aristotle were alive today to write his own blog. Would have looked forward to his review of Titane for example. Not sure I agree with you. The two forms – novel and cinema – are entirely different. Kubrick saw horror as a series of images that could encapsulate his perspective but with King the horror was built-in to his construct. On the plus side the Kubrick is a lot easier to get through. The book, as with most of the King output, is helluva long. I would be surprised to find any novelist who agreed with the director’s take on their beloved project. So much needs to be left out/added to complete the transition from book to film.

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    1. Thank you! And yes, I too would love to see how Aristotle would have described film today! He described the elements of tragedy and called some tragedies as a tragedy better than others because of so and so reason based on the plot. I tried to do something similar, and to find an argument which version is more horror, based on the plot elements. Other than that, to see your book in film must be a strange experience for sure! And I so smiled at your helluva long!! He does write such long long books!!!!

      Liked by 1 person

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