Rodney Ascher’s Room 237, a documentary (well, actually, a film essay, but why should we split hairs?), has recently come to Netflix Instant after a run on the festival circuit that generated a noisy buzz. Ascher’s film concerns itself with a number of convoluted, complicated, possibly brilliant and definitely insane theories about the alleged hidden meanings behind Stanley Kubrick’s great psychological horror film from 1980, The Shining. Curiously, though, the filmmaker felt it best not to include perhaps the most famous, and decidedly the most insane, theory about Kubrick’s film. That theory is that the film is at best an inferior version of, and at worst an affront to, the novel upon which it is based, and that its mere existence constitutes an unforgivable Dolchstoß of the book’s author, Stephen King. The originator, and to this day the most vociferous defender, of this theory is Stephen King himself.
The tension between a literary work and its filmed version is nothing new, of course, and so long as authors are alive to see their writing adapted for the screen, there will be those who scream treason. Some of them are more right than others. What makes the King/Kubrick row special is its particular circumstances, and the concatenation of events which have placed it back in the public consciousness at this exact moment. Room 237 was released for home viewing just a week before King’s latest goliath of a novel, a sequel to The Shining called Doctor Sleep, was released to the book-buying public, and, as King has been in the public eye promoting it, he has chosen this moment of cultural cross-pollination to remind the world exactly what he thinks of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining as compared to Stephen King’s The Shining. Spoiler alert: contrary to the opinion of most critics, he thinks it sucks.
An odd circumstance kept King silent on the issue for a number of years; in order to regain the film rights to The Shining, Stanley Kubrick asked him to stop publicly slagging the movie, which he agreed to do. (The end result of this, King’s own 1997 television adaptation, was such an embarrassment that it should have put an end to the entire debate once and for all, but self-restraint has never been a prominent feature of King’s character.) Recently, though, King has admitted rather churlishly in interviews that since Kubrick is too dead to make any formal complaints, he intends to return to vocally savaging the best film ever made from something he wrote.
What’s curious about the revival of this row is that, for the first time, a number of prominent critics and writers have chosen to leap to King’s defense. I’m not sure if it’s ignorance, contrariness, or just the curious manifestation of reverse class snobbery, where populist art must always be treated as a maligned underdog even when the artist in question is possessed of far more fame, wealth, praise, and power than his alleged highbrow detractors. But no fewer than four major online publications specializing in arts and culture have trotted out their finest critics and commentators to make tut-tut noises at that dead jerk Stanley Kubrick and his brainwashed pseudo-intellectual flunkies for daring to suggest that Kubrick did anything better than ruin a perfectly fine novel. So what if Kubrick managed to create a film of brutal psychological intensity and breathtaking visual imagery out of a middlebrow horror novel? King’s book is about important things, like alcoholism and family and, er, telekinesis, and, after all, the author’s word is the word of God, and in their view, that makes Kubrick a heretic.
I’ve written before, at some length, about what I think of Stephen King as a novelist — not only the bad things (he overwrites, he falls into easy and predictable patterns, his characters are an inch deep, his prose lacks elegance, he doesn’t know how to end stories), but the good (he’s a populist in the best way, he’s a truly masterful storyteller, he writes terrific action sequences, and he’s probably a better writer than any other American novelist who’s even close to being as popular as he is). But if this nonsense is any indication, as a film critic, he’s an absolute dunce. Obviously, we are dealing in aesthetic preference here, and the folks must have their strokes, but almost everything he claims as a weakness strikes me as a strength. His complaint that Kubrick strips The Shining of all its supernatural qualities is the worst of his gripes; the fantastic aspects of his books are almost always the weakest elements, and it is unfathomable how he does not understand that retaining the scenes where topiary animals literally come to life and menace the Torrance family does not make the story more terrifying, but merely more silly. It is almost incomprehensible how any of this goblinated gibberish would result in a better film rather than a worse one.
His widely quoted line that the novel of The Shining is about a normal man who goes crazy, while the film is about a crazy man who goes bonkers, works perfectly well as a description, but is terribly short-sighted as a criticism. Who would rather see a normal man go crazy instead of a crazy man go crazier? The former is pathetically banal, while the latter is the stuff of high drama. So, too, does Kubrick take King’s metaphor of a family disintegrating from within when subjected to pressure from without and make it better by making it less obvious, less easy, and infinitely more intense. Even the alcoholism angle falls short: King, again, seems peeved that Kubrick merely takes it as read, showing us in Jack Torrance’s snarling resentment, murderous mood swings, and helpless rage emotional patterns familiar to anyone who’s grown up around alcoholics, rather than beating us over the head with it the way the novel does. (Presumably, in King’s ideal version, Jack wanders around the hotel, weaving around singing “Sweet Adeline” and swigging from a jug with three Xs written on the side.)
King’s critiques of the acting in The Shining ring with a greater honesty to the casual observer, but those more familiar with his public statements may be less forgiving. His main criticism of the casting of Jack Nicholson as Torrance is grounded in the claim that Jack Nicholson is only ever able to be *JACK NICHOLSON*, a man so renowned for playing blustery, outsized personalities teetering on the precipice of sanity that we, the audience, cannot accept him as a normal human being from the very beginning — we instantly perceive him as *JACK NICHOLSON*, and thus his descent into madness lacks a certain depth and tragedy. Now, I don’t happen to agree with this when it comes to cases, as, for one thing, I think Nicholson is good to great in the role of Jack Torrance, and secondly, as noted, I think it’s far more interesting to think of Torrance as profoundly damaged before he ever arrives at the Outlook Hotel, and so when it turns out it’s a quick trip to the liquor store to drive him crazy instead of a long journey down the interstate, I don’t have a problem with it. But even if I agreed, the inherent argument — that certain actors can’t be cast in certain roles because their iconic qualities make them incapable of subsuming themselves into a role — is weakened by the fact that King himself has often engaged in fantasy casting, and invariably picks actors as indelible as Nicholson to populate the imaginary movies of his books. It’s not that King objects to superstar casting; he just can’t afford it.
Possibly the most objectionable of King’s criticisms is calling the Wendy Torrance of the film, as portrayed by Shelley Duvall, a “misogynist” creation, a weak and ineffectual sob-sister in irreconcilable opposition to the character King thinks he has created. Anyone who has read the book knows better, of course; like many of the women in his novels, Wendy is a bit of a cipher, drawn in vague lines and defined largely by her relationship to a man. But she is certainly not much different from her film equivalent in degree, and very little in kind; she is largely a weak woman who acts like an apologetic doormat to an abusive husband, but finds her limit when the safety of her son is threatened. So, too, is Shelley Duvall’s portrayal; if she seems especially hysterical, weak, and scattered, consider only this: she is an ordinary person who finds herself trapped, with no one else around for miles and miles, in a situation where the person who was supposed to love her and care for her more than anyone else is suddenly trying to murder her and her helpless child. It is a nightmare scenario, too familiar to too many people, and more to the point of The Shining, it is a situation almost anyone would react to with terror — which is exactly what Duvall does, while still managing to show resourcefulness and physical courage when it is demanded of her, and unlike in the novel, she doesn’t need a man to tug her hand to ultimate safety. (Kubrick and Nicholson wanted exactly this reaction, and did their best to keep poor Duvall in a constant state of near-breakdown; the tactics are pretty questionable, but as to whether the strategy worked, the results are right there on the screen.) It’s hard to know whether King genuinely believes his own rap about Duvall’s character being a misogynist portrayal of the character, or if he’s just pandering to a newly vocal audience segment of viewers raised in a feminist world who are keenly sensitive to genuine misogyny, but it’s not a very admirable stance either way.
Irrespective of whether the whole King/Kubrick conflict is one of true creative difference, frustrated feelings based on a passionate clash of aesthetics, or just petulance and jealously, it’s one that, unfortunately, King seems to have won. (He’s not yet urging everyone to rush out and watch the 1997 version, which ought to tell you something.) He’s outlived his enemy and his obligations to the peace treaty he made with that enemy; he’s still creating best-selling art after Kubrick’s legacy has fallen into the undeserving hands of Steven Spielberg; and, in a turn of events he’s no doubt relishing like the last jellybean in the bag, for once, a lot of critics are lining up on his side. But in defending the popular purveyor of the obvious against the artsy creator of the subtle, in demanding a robotic fidelity to the source material like all the comics fans who demand panel-for-panel remakes of their favorite books on the big screen without ever asking why, then, a movie needs to be made at all, those critics are doing the exact opposite of what Kubrick intended, and succeeded, in doing with The Shining: mining the depths of a work to its deepest veins, and extracting nuance and meaning that was hidden, or even absent. King should be happy that millions enjoyed his own presentation of the story in book form, and not spend his remaining days sourly spitting on the enjoyment of those of us who see it as the necessary source of something even greater.