Comment: A lasting, shining example

Author Stephen King. Picture: Getty
Author Stephen King. Picture: Getty
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Stephen McGinty reflects on the artistic differences between Stanley Kubrick and Stephen King ahead of the launch of a book sequel to the story that unites two great men

Stanley Kubrick was not a man who enjoyed the bright light of publicity. He refused to be photographed. He gave no interviews during the last 30 years of his life. He refused to fly and was so averse to travel that for his film Full Metal Jacket, he recreated Vietnam in a derelict gas works site in East London. He loved his home, Childwickbury Manor, a large sprawling house, built in 1666, and nestled in the countryside just outside of St Albans, and found few compelling reasons ever to leave the grounds, which contained his editing suites, production centre and an archive so detailed as to include every newspaper advertisement for each of his films.

Director Stanley Kubrick. Picture: AP

Director Stanley Kubrick. Picture: AP

On a dark winter’s night a few years ago, I found myself pondering that if ever there was proof that Kubrick was now dead, it was the sight of a member of his staff holding paper signs outside the local train station that announced: “The Stanley Kubrick Event”. Soon the mini-bus was trundling down winding country lanes and passed through the manor gates where his widow, Christiane Kubrick, was waiting to greet us for a launch party for a massive new book, The Napoleon Archives, published by Taschen, the most lavish publisher in the world, and dedicated to the film that Kubrick was forced to abandon. For a film fan, it was like visiting the Xanadu of Charles Foster Kane, a palace of the imagination from which some of the most startling images in cinema history had been concocted.

The walls of the cloakroom were decorated with the dark, feathered Venetian masks put to so sinister a use in Eyes Wide Shut. Yet it was his library that I found so fascinating, on whose cherry wood shelves sat hundreds upon hundreds of books on Napoleon and as well as history books on the Holocaust, the focus of many years’ toil on a film, The Aryan Papers, that was also abandoned. However, the one book I was particularly interested in seeing, his personal copy of The Shining by Stephen King, sadly, wasn’t to be found.

On Thursday, the British publisher Hodder & Stoughton announced that on 24 September, 2013, a sequel to The Shining, written by Stephen King, would be released entitled Dr Sleep. The book promises to be one of the most anticipated novels in the author’s 40-year career and so I thought it might be an apt time to explore the tensions between author and director, between book and the film of The Shining, for while most authors would be delighted to have a man many regarded as the world’s greatest director adapt their work, King was not.

The inspiration for the novel was a visit King and his wife, Tabitha, made to the Stanley Hotel, in the foot of the Rocky Mountain National Park, in Colorado on 30 October, 1974. It was the last day of the season and the hotel was deserted. They were the only guests and that evening they dined in a vast room with only their solitary table set for supper, with all the rest covered by upturned chairs.

They checked into Room 217, which, according to staff, was haunted. After Tabitha retired King wandered the empty corridors and by the time he went 
to bed: “I had the whole book in my head”.

The Shining, which was published three years later in January 1977 and became his first hard-back bestseller, tells the story of Jack Torrance, an alcoholic who has been fired from his teaching job and takes the position as winter caretaker in the Overlook Hotel in the Rocky Mountains. He arrives with his wife, Wendy, and their young son, Danny, who has telepathic abilities known as “the shining” and whose arm his father had dislocated during a bout of drunkenness. Alone in the hotel, as winter cuts off the mountain passes, Danny begins to see ghosts in the corridors and the evil spirits begin to plague his father, urging him to murder his family.

For King, at the time a functioning alcoholic – still able to pound out the pages in a drunken haze, but one also aware of the violent temper that sometimes arose within him – the novel was a deeply personal one.

After Kubrick bought the film rights, the pair had a single telephone conversation. King was shaving at the time when his wife said that it was “Stanley Kubrick from London”. As King recalled: “I have shaving foam over half my face and I just sort of picked up the phone and said: ‘Stanley, how are you?’ He wanted to talk about ghosts, and wasn’t the horror story or the story of ghosts always fundamentally optimistic because it suggested that we went on afterwards? And I said, ‘well it is, Stanley, but what if a person died insane and came back?’ There was a long silence. And I also said, ‘what about hell? What if there really is hell?’ And Stanley said: “I don’t believe in that.’ So I said, ‘Well good, cool, do what you want.”

What Kubrick wanted to do was strike out the supernatural elements and have them appear as the conjurings of a child’s mind: the terrifying twins who appear at the end of a corridor; the old lady decomposed and reaching out from the bath; the elevator doors opening to unleash a tidal wave of blood. His real interest was in the twisted insanity unleashed within the character of Torrance, played by an operatically over-the-top Jack Nicholson.

For King, Nicholson’s performance was too insane too early and his previous role in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest carried the theme of mental instability over into The Shining, giving the game away. Kubrick, a perfectionist with a cast-iron contract that permitted him to take as long as he liked on each film, took more than a year to film The Shining and drove Shelley Duvall, who played Wendy, Torrence’s wife, almost to the brink of madness, which appeared to be his goal, by insisting on multiple retakes.

Although finding parts of the film genuinely terrifying, King always said he was disappointed by the movie and, in 1997, he wrote and produced a television mini-series of The Shining, which he believed, more closely resembled the book. Yet books and films are two different art forms and, for me, The Shining conveys an existential dread that is difficult to shake from your mind. Imagination is always more powerful than actuality and I can still remember seeing the trailers of The Shining when I was eight and brooding on the movie poster in which a child’s screaming face is imprisoned in the letter “T”.

Since then, I’ve grown to love both the films of Kubrick and the novels of Stephen King and while I never got the chance to meet the former, I’ve met and subsequently interviewed the latter, who remains for me one of the great American writers, a latter-day Charles Dickens.

I think part of the reason he was so disappointed in the film was his personal relationship to Jack Torrance, his alter ego, the violent man he thought he could have been. In both book and movie, little Danny Torrance escapes from his father’s murderous rage, with Jack left to freeze to death in the middle of a snow-swirled maze. Yet in the book, there is a moment of redemption as Jack fights off the spirits that have possessed him and he urges his son to flee. In all King’s novels, there is always a sliver of hope.

The new novel, Dr Sleep, sees Danny Torrance in his early forties, a recovering alcoholic in AA and working as an orderly in a nursing home, where his uncanny abilities help him to bring a degree of comfort to the dying. There he meets a young girl, Abra Stone, who also has the gift/curse of the shining and is being sought after by a murderous clan of travellers who feed off the “steam” produced when children with the shining are tortured to death. It is an artistic risk to return to a past work, but if anyone can pull it off, I’ll wager King can.

Regardless of their artistic differences, both King and Kubrick created an exceptional work of art, which is set to be read and viewed by future generations of the enjoyably spooked.

Before I left Childwickbury Manor that cold December night, I thought about both men’s different take on the afterlife and, knowing that Kubrick lay buried in the manor grounds, thought that he, at least, will now know the truth.