King vs. Kubrick – How Two Respective Legends Clashed Over “The Shining”

Although it received polarizing reviews upon its original release in 1980, The Shining is now widely considered to be one of the first epic horror films, alongside other classics like The Omen, The Exorcist, The Hills Have Eyes and Carrie. Stanley Kubrick’s film has been referenced, parodied and re-appraised on pretty much every level, and it’s hard to find someone who hasn’t seen it.

At the same time, Stephen King’s original novel, published in 1977, was also one of his most acclaimed works. Well before he was a household name, King was dealing with significant turmoil in his life and was afraid for both himself and his family, incorporating some of his deepest fears into the novel. Only the third book he ever wrote, King’s macabre masterpiece catapulted him into the mainstream and helped establish his legacy as America’s most important horror writer.

But when Kubrick’s film came out, King hated it. Or maybe he didn’t. Or maybe he just hated Kubrick, who was known for rubbing some people the wrong way. Either way, when discussing The Shining today, it’s very easy to get caught up in the debate over the novel vs. the film. Now, of course, this is nothing new. There are still Tolkien purists who despise Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings film adaptations, and some of Tolkien’s surviving relatives took issue with them. But this conflict was magnified simply by the sheer fact that King and Kubrick were both men with strong personalities and were never destined to really be long-term collaborators — or even lifelong friends.

So without further ado, let’s dive into why The Shining is so different from page to screen — and why King and Kubrick clashed over it.

Part 1: Background & Inspiration

After the successes of his first two books, Carrie and Salem’s Lot, King temporarily relocated to Boulder, Colorado from his home state of Maine, with his wife and kids in tow. King’s mother had recently passed away, and he had also been hoping to gain inspiration by living in a different part of America.

The roots of what became The Shining were born when King and his family were staying in the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, right outside Boulder. Arriving right before Halloween, the Kings were the only guests in the entire hotel, which was about to shut down for the winter. While the idea of a creepy haunted hotel wasn’t exactly a new horror trope, King couldn’t keep shaking the eerie feeling that he got from the Stanley Hotel. Long interested in psychic powers, premonitions and ghosts as horror themes, King began to wonder about how locations could be legitimately evil if they had similarly evil pasts. Allegedly, when he arrived at the Stanley, he noticed a small group of nuns leaving, and began to wonder how it would look as a hotel with a spiritually dark past, as if God was leaving the building alongside the nuns.

At the time, King was also suffering from alcoholism. Both the pressures of being a newly successful writer and relocating across the country with a young family had taken a toll on King, and he began to have nightmares about hurting his kids. The book’s title was inspired by a John Lennon song which contained the lyrics, “We all shine on, like the sun and the moon and the stars.” While King’s publisher and editor advised him against writing another horror novel after two other successful ones, King said he’d be flattered to be typecast as a horror writer.

Stanley Kubrick came at The Shining from a very different angle. Kubrick, in his late 40s at the time, had already become well-known as one of the world’s most daring and ambitious filmmakers. A perfectionist who never made the same film twice, Kubrick was fortunate to have a rare combination of full artistic freedom and flexibility thanks to his deal with Warner Bros. A native New Yorker who had relocated to the UK in the 60s to make films like Lolita and Dr. Strangelove, Kubrick almost always adapted existing books and novels into films, as he had done with legendary films like A Clockwork Orange, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Paths of Glory.

With that said, by the late 70s, some thought that Kubrick’s career was in decline. His most recent project, 1975’s Barry Lyndon, flopped at the US box office despite critical acclaim and several Oscar nods. When Kubrick read King’s novel, he was immediately taken by it and thought it would be the ideal project to be both a critical and commercial success. When asked why he liked the material, Kubrick responded, “There’s something inherently wrong with the human personality. There’s an evil side to it. One of the things that horror stories can do is to show us the archetypes of the unconscious. We can see the dark side without having to confront it directly.”

Part 2: The Book Versus The Film

While book and film differ significantly, the basic plots are the same. The Torrances — husband Jack, wife Wendy, and son Danny — relocate from Vermont to the Rocky Mountains of Colorado after Jack takes a job as the winter season caretaker at the historic Overlook Hotel. Jack’s turbulent past at the hands of an abusive alcoholic father has continued to affect him to the present, but he genuinely loves his family and wants to prove himself, both as an aspiring writer, and as the caretaker of the Overlook. The hotel manager, Stuart Ullman, tells Jack about the Overlook’s dark past, from its construction on a Native American burial ground to the relatively recent murder-suicide of Delbert Grady, a former caretaker who went mad, murdering his wife and daughters with an axe before shooting himself. It’s clear that the Overlook has a mind of its own, and its insidious influence begins to take hold of Jack as the long winter sets in.

Meanwhile, young Danny is identified by the Overlook chef, Dick Hallorann, as possessing the titular “shining” — a telepathic ability that Hallorann shares. Danny, who’s developed a bond with Hallorann over a short time frame, asks if the Overlook itself is evil. Hallorann says no, but clarifies that the horrific events of the past have given the Overlook a shine of its own. He also strictly warns Danny never to enter a specific room, #237.

Jack continues to descend into cabin fever mode; he falls off the wagon, starts fighting with Wendy, and devolves into his most toxic and violent self. He begins to have premonitions about his relationship with the hotel while also developing a unique bond with it. Is it supernatural? Or simply the effects of alcohol and isolation? Either way, the sinister forces that are beginning to take ahold of Jack will soon rip his family apart and leave no one unscathed, leading to a terrifying climax.

Part 3: An Intense Production

Kubrick and King clashed almost immediately over the direction of the script, which was written by Kubrick and co-writer Diane Johnson. Kubrick had long desired to work with Jack Nicholson, who had won an Academy Award for his performance in 1975’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and was well on his way to becoming a living legend. However, Nicholson’s leering performance as a mental patient in that film had caused him to become somewhat typecast in “crazy” roles. Therefore, King believed that casting Nicholson would immediately make him a walking spoiler. King, for his part, wanted a more everyman type of actor who could convincingly play a family man who tragically succumbs to his demons, fulfilling his own vision of The Shining as a domestic tragedy and a social commentary on alcoholism wrapped inside of a horror shell. King recommended Robert De Niro, Jon Voight or Martin Sheen, but was vetoed every time.

Similarly, for the role of Wendy, Kubrick cast Shelley Duvall early on, but disagreed with King on how to handle the character. The film’s version of Wendy is much more passive and timid than the book’s version, and Kubrick notoriously put Duvall through hell in filming due to his demanding and perfectionist nature. King felt that Wendy wasn’t the strong female character he had in mind, and that Kubrick intended to simply highlight Jack’s toxic behavior, as opposed to the overwhelming situation that Wendy finds herself in at the mercy of her husband.

However, it wasn’t all bad vibes. While King said that Kubrick was far too pragmatic, humanistic and rationalistic to fully embrace the supernatural elements of the script, the two men had several productive phone calls about the subject (Kubrick, as an American expat in England, was famous for his marathon trans-Atlantic calls with colleagues). Kubrick opined that, as a ghost story, The Shining is automatically an optimistic story because “anything that suggests there’s an afterlife is inherently an optimistic story.”

King, a former Methodist who now identifies as a Deist, agreed. “The concept of a ghost presupposes life after death. That’s a cheerful concept, isn’t it?”

The production of The Shining was beset with problems on every level imaginable. A fire destroyed part of the set at London’s Elstree Studios. Due to primitive visual effects, Kubrick had to nix part of the novel’s climax, which includes animal-shaped hedge mazes coming to life and terrorizing Danny and Wendy. Kubrick enlisted the help of American camera operator Garrett Brown, who had recently invented the Steadicam, to help shoot the long, fluid tracking shots of Danny Torrance riding his tricycle around the hotel’s massive corridors — although, contrary to popular belief, The Shining was not the first film to use the Steadicam.

Kubrick demanded dozens and dozens of takes, as he did on most of his films. Nicholson didn’t mind it, as he liked to be able to dive into the minutiae of the decisions that his character would make. However, Duvall was used to working with directors who shot films at a much faster pace, and given the high stress of the role she was playing, she really struggled with the lengthy takes.

Later in his career, Kubrick defended his meticulous methods and denied that he shot infinitely high numbers of takes. The director claimed that he shot so many scenes simply because lots of actors weren’t prepared and didn’t know their lines. “If I shot 20 takes for every single scene, I’d never finish a film,” he quipped.

Barry Nelson, who played the hotel manager Stuart Ullman, once had to say his opening line, “Hello, Jack,” 32 times before Kubrick was satisfied. “I had never done that many takes, and I don’t think anybody else had,” he later said. “But Kubrick was a genius with the camera, so it wasn’t all about whether the actor was pleasing him or not.”

In retrospect, Duvall said that, despite the enormous stress, she instinctively knew that there was a method to Kubrick’s madness and that she could never have achieved such a performance on her own — while also stressing that she wouldn’t be lining up around the block to work with Kubrick again! In the fascinating behind-the-scenes documentary The Making of The Shining, Kubrick is seen losing his temper with Duvall frequently while also trying to wrangle a small crew working over a massive space. Kubrick also chose the rare step of filming in chronological order, which proved challenging, as all of the sets needed to be constructed at once, interfering with other productions that were also using Elstree Studios.

While he may have been short with Duvall, Kubrick took an almost-fatherly approach with Danny Lloyd, who played Danny Torrance. Lloyd, who retired from acting as a young man, later recalled that Kubrick was very sensitive towards the more mature themes of the film and presented them in a way that would be age-appropriate. Years later, Lloyd would admit that, as a kid, he had thought The Shining was a drama, not a horror film, thanks to Kubrick’s decency and protective nature.

Part 4: Other Key Plot Differences

As I alluded to previously, where King felt Kubrick went wrong was deliberately blurring the supernatural issue. The film is more ambiguous in terms of answering the what and why of Jack’s torment and descent into insanity. When you watch The Shining, you’re not automatically sure what’s causing said evil.

“Kubrick fudges the supernatural issue for much of the film, deliberately misdirecting the audience towards a psychological explanation for the manifestations of evil,” said writer David Hughes in his book The Complete Kubrick. “This causes the viewer to wonder whether they’re inside the Overlook itself or merely inside Jack’s mind.”

Kubrick makes very clever use of mirrors and other visual tricks to keep the audience on edge and coming back for rewatches. As for me, I’ve probably seen the film at least five times, and I still have some unanswered questions.

Back in pre-production, Kubrick had thrown out the original script, written by King himself. Kubrick felt like it was too didactic and literal to be a good horror story on its own, so he changed some elements with Diane Johnson to fit his vision. King wasn’t happy, of course, which is why he’s made the distinction ever since: Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining versus his own.

“It was the first time that I had read to the end a novel that was sent to me with a view to a possible film adaptation,” Kubrick said. “I was absorbed in its reading and it seemed to me that its plot, ideas and structure were much more imaginative than usual in the horror genre; I thought that a great movie could come from there.”

According to Kubrick’s executive producer/brother-in-law Jan Harlan, Kubrick explicitly wanted to alter plot details when he bought the rights to the novel. Let’s go over a few differences:

  • The infamous Room 237 from the film is actually Room 217 in the novel. This was done thanks to the insistence of the management at the Timberline Lodge in Oregon, where exterior hotel scenes were shot for the film. The hotel worried that no one would stay in Room 217, so they requested Kubrick to change it to Room 237, which doesn’t exist at the Timberline. Ironically, nowadays, Room 217 is the most requested room by far!

  • Stuart Ullman is described as a “prick” by Jack Torrance in the novel’s first chapter; however, in the film, he’s seen as friendly and charming.

  • The novel goes into much more detail about Jack’s abusive father, his alcoholism, and his struggles in his professional life. The film also prolongs Jack’s issues with writer’s block.

  • The novel also implies that some of the hotel’s malevolence might stem from being built on an ancient Native American burial ground. In the film, this is only mentioned briefly in passing by Ullman, although the hotel’s design incorporates Native American motifs and there are interpretations of the film that have made it a parable about the bloodier parts of American history.

  • Jack is shown to be much more well-intentioned in the novel than in the film, genuinely wanting to turn over a new leaf and stay sober. In both the novel and film, his interaction with a ghostly bartender and Grady (the ill-fated former caretaker) are pivotal to his descent into murder and insanity.

  • Jack kills Hallorann in the film, but only wounds him in the novel.

  • The ghost interaction where the young woman attempts to seduce Jack is very similar in both the book and film.

  • Danny has a powerful interaction with his father towards the end of the novel, where he denounces the monster he sees in front of him as a creature created by the hotel. This prompts Jack to momentarily stop attacking his son and allow him to escape before the hotel possesses him completely. Danny, Wendy and Hallorann flee in a snowmobile while a defective boiler in the hotel’s basement explodes, killing Jack and destroying the hotel completely. In the film, this doesn’t happen: Jack gets lost in the hedge maze while chasing Danny with an ax. Danny then escapes with Wendy while Jack freezes to death.

  • The family tension is more prevalent throughout King’s novel, while Kubrick reveals the dysfunction much more gradually.

  • In the film, Danny has a much closer relationship with Wendy than with Jack; this adds to Jack’s growing sense of paranoia that his family is conspiring against him, which the hotel ghosts use to their advantage, stroking Jack’s ego while provoking him to rage and violence.

  • The film’s epilogue shows a famous black-and-white photo of Jack celebrating with partygoers at the hotel’s ballroom in a previous life, as the photo is dated 1921. The novel shows Danny and Wendy recovering from their horrific ordeal as Hallorann returns to the familiar mentor role for Danny.

The Shining premiered on May 23, 1980 in the US and October 2, 1980 in the UK. Like many of Kubrick’s other films, it drew polarizing reviews at first, but has since been reappraised and re-acclaimed as a modern-day classic.

Anthony Burgess, writer of A Clockwork Orange, famously had a very mixed response to Kubrick’s adaptation of his work, and his involvement with the film’s screenplay was minimal. King was no exception. King referred to Kubrick’s film as “an interesting failure” and “like this big, flashy car with no engine in it.”

Again, while King felt that Kubrick’s film was beautifully shot and contained some memorable moments, he accused the director of not understanding the horror genre. King also claimed that it was the only adaptation of his work that he could remember hating. He believed that Kubrick’s worldview and personality couldn’t allow him to suspend his disbelief and make a full-fledged ghost story.

“Parts of the film are chilling, charged with a relentlessly claustrophobic terror, but others fall flat. Not that religion has to be involved in horror, but a visceral skeptic such as Kubrick just couldn’t grasp the sheer inhuman evil of The Overlook Hotel,” King claimed. “So he looked, instead, for evil in the characters and made the film into a domestic tragedy with only vaguely supernatural overtones…that’s why, for all its virtuoso effects, it never gets you by the throat and hangs on the way real horror should.”

King thought that Kubrick had misinterpreted the themes, specifically viewing Jack’s demons being the sole cause of his actions, as opposed to the insidious influence of a haunted hotel. He also criticized Shelley Duvall’s performance: “She’s basically just there to scream and be stupid, and that’s not the woman that I wrote about,” he huffed.

In a 1983 interview with Playboy, King doubled down, saying “I had admired Kubrick for a long time and had great expectations for the project, but I was deeply disappointed in the end result. Parts of the film are chilling, charged with a relentlessly claustrophobic terror, but others fell flat. Jack Nicholson, although a fine actor, was all wrong for the part. The book is about Jack’s gradual descent into madness through the malign influence of the Overlook; if the guy is nuts to begin with, the entire tragedy of his downfall is wasted.”

The end result of Kubrick’s The Shining was what prompted King to be heavily involved in the production of any of his literary adaptations heading forward. In 1997, he got the chance to collaborate on a TV miniseries version of The Shining. Directed by Mick Garris, who also directed a TV adaptation of King’s The Stand, the miniseries was fairly well-received — and importantly, had King’s seal of approval. Exterior shots of the Overlook were also filmed at the Stanley Hotel in Colorado, which inspired the novel to begin with.

“I had things to say about the Stanley Kubrick version of The Shining when the film was made,” King said in a 1998 interview. “And years later, I had a chance to re-adapt it for ABC as a miniseries. The question was whether or not Warner Brothers, who produced the movie and held the sequel rights, would allow us to do that. Warner Brothers went to Mr. Kubrick and asked if it would be alright, and he said yes as long as I didn’t say anything else one way or the other about the film version. But I did want to remake it, so draw your own conclusions.”

After Kubrick’s sudden death in 1999, King has mostly taken the high road since then. “I’m not able to talk about The Shining,” King told Entertainment Weekly. “I made a deal with Stanley Kubrick that I wouldn’t, and Stan’s dead, so I’m not going to go there.”

“King is, essentially, a novelist of morality. The decisions his characters make – whether it’s to confront a pack of vampires or to break 10 years of sobriety – are what matter to him,” said BBC journalist Laura Miller in a 2013 retrospective. “But in Kubrick’s The Shining, the characters are largely in the grip of forces beyond their control. It’s a film in which domestic violence occurs, while King’s novel is about domestic violence as a choice certain men make when they refuse to abandon a delusional, defensive entitlement. As King sees it, Kubrick treats his characters like insects because the director doesn’t really consider them capable of shaping their own fates. Everything they do is subordinate to an overweening, irresistible force, which is Kubrick’s highly developed aesthetic; they are its slaves. In King’s The Shining, the monster is Jack. In Kubrick’s, the monster is Kubrick.”

When it came to the sequel novel Doctor Sleep, it was a different animal. The novel was published in 2013 and adapted for the screen in 2019 and follows Danny Torrance as an adult, haunted by substance abuse just like his dad and trying to maintain his sanity. In the afterword of the novel, King wrote the following:

“Of course there was Stanley Kubrick’s movie, which many seem to remember – for reasons I have never quite understood – as one of the scariest films they have ever seen. If you have seen the movie but not read the novel, you should note that Doctor Sleep follows the latter which is, in my opinion, the True History of the Torrance Family.”

Doctor Sleep director Mike Flanagan also spoke of the challenges that he faced trying to satisfy fans of both King’s The Shining and Kubrick’s version. While not as consistently terrifying as its film predecessor, Doctor Sleep is a very solid film and Ewan McGregor does a terrific job as Danny. King gave it a thumbs-up as well; he even went so far as to say that everything he disliked about Kubrick’s film was redeemed by the film version of Doctor Sleep.

The Shining is so ubiquitous and has burned itself into the collective imagination of people who love cinema in a way that so few movies have,” Flanagan admitted. “There’s no other language to tell that story in. If you say ‘Overlook Hotel,’ I see something. It lives right up in my brain because of Stanley Kubrick. You can’t pretend that isn’t the case.”

It’s safe to say that — at the risk of using an over-used term — that both Kubrick and King were alpha-male personalities. I don’t really think there’s an alternate universe where they both would’ve been best friends and Kubrick would’ve made a film that satisfied both parties. With that said, I do appreciate both men’s visions and they’ve offered two memorable versions of the same story. And that’s rare.

The history of Hollywood is littered with angry writers who are pissed off at the Stanley Kubricks of the world, but at the end of the day, there’s a reason films and novels are treated so differently — because they ARE inherently different. You can’t please everybody, and when it comes to supernatural horror films, sometimes ambiguity can be your friend, and other times it can’t. I’m interested to hear what my readers think about this though. Let me know in the comments below!

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