Watch: How Kubrick Adapted King's ‘The Shining’ into an Entirely Different Masterpiece
Stanley Kubrick took Stephen King's novel and turned it inside out.
To begin our story, when Stephen King received a call from the great Stanley Kubrick (in the middle of the night, natch) informing him that he was interested in his novel, King was understandably enthused. However, this enthusiasm waned once he saw the final film. This video from Cinema Tyler examines the process by which Kubrick changed King's novel into the creation we all obsess over (and if you want to go down a rabbit hole, you might enjoy this mega-post I wrote while back about the adaptation of the film.)
A Novel Idea
Kubrick's films, with the exception of his first, Fear and Desire (which he himself disowned) all came from novels. Even Spartacus, the Dune in Kubrick's filmography, was adapted by Dalton Trumbo from the novel by Howard Fast. His habit was to gather material around him and read through novels, tossing them aside if they not catch his interest. One in particular that did spark his imagination was Stephen King's The Shining. Kubrick secured access to the rights, which Warner Bros. had already acquired, along with an adaptation by King himself.
Kubrick, however, was uninterested in King's version of the script, preferring to start fresh. Of the book, he said, "I found it very compulsive reading and I thought the plot ideas and structure were much more imaginative than anything I've ever read in the genre." And, as was his habit, he brought in a collaborator—in this case, the American novelist Diane Johnson—with whom he developed the first in a number of treatments (read one version here).
"I thought the plot ideas and structure were much more imaginative than anything I've ever read in the genre."
—Stanley Kubrick, on Stephen King's The Shining
Kubrick's motive for adaptation was given by the director himself, when he said, "If you read a story which someone else has written...the irreplaceable experience of reading it for the first time this is something which you obviously cannot have if you write an original story." As Cinema Tyler notes, "Kubrick felt that there aren't many original screenwriters who are at a high enough caliber," and, crucially, it allowed him to see the story objectively.
The Uses of Enchantment
As a director, Kubrick would often light sets and then wait for something to happen. The famous "Singing in the Rain" scene from A Clockwork Orange came about after weeks of waiting around on set for some inspiration to strike; Kubrick was intent on doing anything he did in a new way, and would not rest, or let his actors rest, until he had what he wanted, though he didn't often know what that was. In the writing process, he followed a similar tack, working with Johnson for weeks to produce a treatment, and drawing from sources as diverse as Freud's The Uncanny and Bruno Bettelheim's classic The Uses of Enchantment.
By using a novel, he not only got to see a story fresh, but he was able to take the basic narrative building blocks and break them down into images. He literally translated the words on paper into the language of cinema to solve the problems of story that cinema presents, which is another reason why he did not generally adapt psychologically interior novels, or, if he did, he stripped them down so that the ideas could be communicated through image in a way that would translate to the screen.
When he had to come up with a way to communicate the idea of "shining," of telepathic communication, for example, he contrived the scene where Danny and Halloran speak in the kitchen. As Kubrick said, "His folksy character and naive attempts to explain telepathy to Danny make what he has to say dramatically more acceptable than a standard pseudo-scientific explanation. He and Danny make a good pair."
Kubrick kept many elements from King's novel, but discarded others, and many of the most famous parts of the movie are not in the book, and vice versa. The novel featured topiary monsters that came to life, as well as a sinister hose that did the same, and focused greatly on the archives of the hotel, which Jack discovers in the basement and contribute greatly to his insanity. Interestingly, these are seen only glancingly in the movie, starting here, as soon as the long shot turns into the the medium on Jack. Those papers in front of Jack are the archives, archives which detailed the sinister goings on at the hotel, and which drove him on into madness (though Kubrick was adamant, at least in interview, that "for the purposes of telling the story, my view is that the paranormal is genuine. Jack's mental state serves only to prepare him for the murder, and to temporarily mislead the audience.") Kubrick decided, as he often did, that to cut was better than to show. For instance, he cut a significant chunk of narration from 2001, and it's a good thing he did, as it would arguably have enervated a great deal of the "mythopoeic" energy the film possesses had he left it in.
Other changes: in the book, Wendy is a blond who sticks up for herself, though in the film, he deliberately cast the unprepossessing Shelley Duvall, and dressed her, and Jack, in unflattering clothes (a key reason King disliked the film was that he felt that he had written a hopeful book, one where redemption was possible, especially for the Jack character, and that Stanley Kubrick had come in and tromped all over his story. Which, to be fair, is kind of what he did.)
They had other differences, too. Where King was known to be over the top in his depiction of the supernatural, Kubrick said, "in fantasy, you want things to have the appearance of being as realistic as possible. People should behave in the mundane way they normally do. You have to be especially careful about this in the scenes which deal with the bizarre or fantastic details of the story."
"In fantasy, you want things to have the appearance of being as realistic as possible."
A key element for Kubrick was the imperfection of telepathy: "If Danny had perfect ESP, there could be no story. He would anticipate everything, warn everybody and solve every problem....One of the ironies in the story is that you have people who can see the past and the future and have telepathic contact, but the telephone and the short-wave radio don't work, and the snowbound mountain roads are impassable." But the director, who was constantly rewriting the script, even throughout the shooting, was adamant that, "A story of the supernatural cannot be taken apart and analysed too closely. The ultimate test of its rationale is whether it is good enough to raise the hairs on the back of your neck. If you submit it to a completely logical and detailed analysis it will eventually appear absurd."
Perhaps, then, the most incredible thing is that, almost 40 years later, innumerable people have submitted the film to logical and detailed analyses, and yet, the film still holds its power over audiences.