It’s no secret that Stephen King is not a big fan of Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining. In 1985 interview with Craig Modderno, King said, “It’s like this great big gorgeous car with no engine in it.” He reiterated that review (verbatim) as recently as last year. While it’s never surprising for an author to have problems with a film adaptation of his own work, one can’t help wondering: What exactly is Stephen King’s beef with one of the greatest horror films of all time?
Reason #1: Stanley Kubrick was dismissive of King as a screenwriter.
According to Diane Johnson, the credited screenwriter of THE SHINING, Kubrick was at one point contemplating two different properties at the same time—Stephen King’s novel The Shining and Johnson’s own novel The Shadow Knows. Kubrick chose King’s novel… then hired Johnson to adapt it. King had already written a screenplay based on his novel, but Kubrick reportedly discarded it immediately. Johnson accepted the job, but not without reservations. In a 2011 interview with Mark Steensland, she conceded that she was “not a big Stephen King fan,” or even a “big horror story fan.” Furthermore, she thought that THE SHINING novel was “pretentious” and “predictable.” Not exactly an auspicious beginning.
Reason #2: Stanley Kubrick was less faithful to the novel than he purportedly said he would be.
In a December 1979 interview in Fangoria magazine, King talked about visiting the set of THE SHINING near the end of principal photography. Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall had already completed their work, so what King witnessed was the filming of some later scenes with Scatman Crothers—presumably the scenes where Dick Hallorann returns to the Overlook. During this visit, King said, “I asked Stanley how closely he was following the plot [of the book] and he said extremely closely. There are going to be some minor changes, but nothing substantial. In terms of plot, it’s going to follow the book very closely.” This makes it seem like the author hadn’t read the script. It also seems like a bit of wishful thinking. King obviously knew that quite a few things had already changed. In the next breath, he added, “I’ve heard that they had done a life-sized head of Jack Nicholson that at some point was going to split open and spill out worms.” Sounds cool… but WTF?
Reason #3: Stanley Kubrick didn’t believe in the supernatural.
In his 1981 nonfiction book Danse Macabre, King relates a now-legendary story about a phone call he received from Stanley Kubrick during the making of THE SHINING. According to King, the filmmaker rang him up in the middle of the night and asked, “Do you believe in God?” King said yes. Kubrick said, “No, I don’t think there is a God,” then hung up. The novelist used this anecdote to illustrate his argument that THE SHINING is a supernatural horror story made by someone who doesn’t believe in the supernatural. King insists that Kubrick located the menace of the story within the characters, and turned a ghost story into a toothless “domestic tragedy.”
King is not completely off base. In a 1980 interview in Soho News, Kubrick admitted that he tried to avoid “the paraphernalia of the standard horror film” and tell “the story of one man’s family quietly going insane together.” Whether Kubrick regarded the film’s ghosts as “real” or a figment of the characters’ imaginations, however, is beside the point. The ghosts in THE SHINING are terrifying either way.
Reason #4: Jack Nicholson is no Jack Torrance.
This is the big one. King objected to the casting of Jack Nicholson, who was at the time best known for his performance in ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST, because “the book is about Torrance’s gradual descent into madness through the malign influence of the Overlook” and Nicholson seems “nuts to begin with.” From King’s perspective, this change undermined the moral struggle at the heart of the story. King reportedly tried to get the filmmakers to consider Michael Moriarty, Jon Voight and Martin Sheen as alternatives to Nicholson. But Kubrick’s mind was made up… because, it seems, Kubrick wanted Jack Torrance to be “nuts to begin with.” The filmmaker said, “Jack comes to the hotel psychologically prepared to do its murderous bidding. He doesn’t have much further to go from his anger and frustration to become completely uncontrollable. He is bitter about his failure as a writer. He is married to a woman with whom he has only contempt. He hates his son….” For King, those were fighting words.
Reason #5: Shelley Duvall is no Wendy Torrance.
In his 1979 interview with Fangoria, King claimed that he saw Wendy Torrance as “a kind of middle-intelligence, beautiful piece.” Shelley Duvall didn’t fit his concept of the character: she was too “nervous and tired.” Stanley Kubrick, however, had a different idea. He told Soho News, “I think Shelley Duvall, in addition to being a wonderful actress, perfectly embodied the kind of woman who remains married to a man like Jack Torrance, even though she knows he has brutally assaulted their son. You certainly couldn’t have Jane Fonda play the part; you need someone who is mousy and vulnerable.” Rumors of Kubrick’s demeaning treatment of Shelley Duvall during the making of THE SHINING are well-documented. Apparently, he was determined to help get her into character by browbeating her like an abusive husband. King’s character would have fought back.
Reason #6: The ending is too “cold.”
In general, Stephen King’s problem with Stanley Kubrick’s THE SHINING is that it’s too “cold.” In the end the characters succumb to the malevolent influences of the Overlook, and there is no indication that their story could end any other way. According to King, Kubrick had always planned to change the ending of the novel. In 1978 the novelist said that the filmmaker initially “asked me for my opinion on Hallorann becoming possessed, and then finishing the job that Torrance started, killing Danny, Wendy, and lastly himself.” Kubrick envisioned a coda in which the family would appear as ghosts, now permanently trapped in the Overlook. King responded that “audiences would have his head if faced with the slaughter of characters they cared about.”
King himself had already wrestled with the possibility of a tragic ending to his story. He told interviewer Marty Ketchum that, when he was writing the novel, “the original plan was for them all to die up there and for Danny to become the controlling force of the hotel after he died.” When it came time to write the words, however, King couldn’t do it. The note of hope at the end of The Shining novel is emblematic of the general “warmth” of Stephen King’s work. He is a romantic and a guarded optimist. Kubrick, it seems, was not.
Last year, the longstanding rumors of an alternate ending to Kubrick’s THE SHINING were confirmed when pages from the shooting script appeared online. The final scene—removed after test screenings—revolved around a scene of Wendy and Danny in the hospital. This, according to Diane Johnson, may have been Kubrick’s concession to Stephen King—a way to reassure audiences that the characters they’d come to care about “were all right.” Johnson, however, never liked the scene. “I was ready to shock everyone by killing Danny!” she said. Ultimately, the hospital scene was eliminated and Kubrick’s film now ends on a note that approximates Kubrick’s original intention: Jack Torrance is permanently trapped in the Overlook. Always has been.
Stephen King eventually had a chance to bring his own version of THE SHINING to the screen. The 1997 TV movie version, directed by Mick Garris, utilized King’s indiscriminately faithful screenplay. It presented Jack Torrance as more of an everyman hero, and Wendy Torrance as a more active heroine. Steven Weber and Rebecca DeMornay delivered respectable performances…. but not performances that will ever displace Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall in the minds of moviegoers. King referred to the remake as “a dream come true,” but this horror fan is inclined to linger on his lesser-known statements about the Kubrick film…
In the mid-1980s, after the fervor over Kubrick’s version had died down, but before King got his shot at a remake, the author confided to TV Guide: “Could it have been done better? Over the years I’ve come to believe that it probably could not. The film is cold and disappointingly loveless—but chilling.” Bottom line: Even Stephen King has to admit that Stanley Kubrick’s THE SHINING is immortal.