The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Redrum Redux

I have to confess that in this conflict between Stephen King's and Stanley Kubrick's visions of The Shining, I am squarely on the side of King's:
It’s no secret that Stephen King dislikes Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of his 1977 novel, “The Shining,” but now that King is publishing a sequel, “Doctor Sleep,” he’s being asked once again to explain why. “I felt that it was very cold, very, ‘We’re looking at these people, but they’re like ants in an anthill, aren’t they doing interesting things, these little insects,’” is what King said recently when a BBC interviewer asked him about the film. He also described Kubrick’s characterization of Wendy Torrance, played by Shelley Duvall, as “one of the most misogynistic characters ever put on film. She’s basically just there to scream and be stupid. And that’s not the woman I wrote about.”

Kubrick himself, and the film version of “The Shining” in particular, is the locus of a certain kind of obsessive yet strangely inarticulate worship; the faithful tend to incant the words “genius” and “masterpiece” and “great” over and over again, as if those terms constituted the workings of an argument rather than its conclusion. These are people in thrall to the very idea of greatness, and they cleave ferociously to their idol. Almost as soon as a clip of King’s interview was released, a haughty but insubstantial retort came in the form of an article on the website of the British magazine the New Statesman, “Stephen King still won’t accept Kubrick’s genius” by Mark Hodge. The title sums up the entirety of Hodge’s argument. “[Kubrick's] film has usurped the book within pop culture,” he writes. “That rare achievement is perhaps something which irks King the most.”
I think these criticisms of Kubrick are spot on. Even the harsher of the two--that his depiction of Wendy Torrance is profoundly misogynistic--seems fair to me; Shelley Duvall's Wendy is in the film just to scream and be stupid, and Kubrick's other films display a streak of misogyny as well. As long ago as 1972, Roger Ebert pointed out the distancing effects used in A Clockwork Orange to minimize the violence committed by Malcolm McDowell's Alex, and other camera techniques to make Alex the seemingly most normal character in the film; Pauline Kael went even further:
The writer whom Alex cripples (Patrick Magee) and the woman he kills are cartoon nasties with upper class accents a mile wide. (Magee has been encouraged to act like a bathetic madman; he seems to be preparing for a career in horror movies.) Burgess gave us society through Alex's eyes, and so the vision was deformed, and Kubrick, carrying over from Dr. Strangelove his joky adolescent view of hypocritical, sexually dirty authority figures and extending it to all adults, has added an extra layer of deformity. The "straight" people are far more twisted than Alex; they seem inhuman and incapable of suffering. He alone suffers. And how he suffers! He's a male Little Nell -- screaming in a straitjacket during the brainwashing; sweet and helpless when rejected by his parents; alone, weeping, on a bridge; beaten, bleed- ing lost in a rainstorm; pounding his head on a floor and crying for death. Kubrick pours on the hearts and flowers; what is done to Alex is far worse than what Alex has done, so society itself can be felt to justify Alex's hoodlumism.
The violence in Clockwork only feels real when Alex is on the receiving end. Kael, like King, also accuses Kubric of coldness, describing him as "a director with an arctic spirit."

So King (and Miller) have this one right, I think; for all of Kubrick's impressive set pieces--and they are impressive--The Shining is a much better story as a novel than as a film, and when I heard King was re-visitig it, I was ...wary.

Now, don't get me wrong; I think Stephen King is a very talented writer, and that his best books* don't get the respect they deserve because he is seen as a genre writer, and as one who does not follow the rules of literary polite society. This is a pity, because Stephen King at his best is very, very good indeed--when I read Salem's Lot, I was a in my early teens, but the part of the book that grabbed me by the throat was the heartbreaking spectacle of Father Callahan, whose alcoholism so undermined his faith that he failed in the great challenge he had always yearned to confront. Or the small-town people whose lives have disappointed them, and so they turn sour, and sometimes mean. I re-read that book last year, and it stands up. And so does The Shining.

And so, I am very glad to say, so does Doctor Sleep, King's new book, a sequel to The Shining, which takes Danny Torrance from childhood to manhood. Laura Miller's praise for the book--she describes it as "among King's best books"--expresses my own view. King's revival, so many years later, of the characters from the first book--Wendy, Hallorann, and Dan himself--is extraordinarily successful, although it helps if you remember the woman King, not Kubrick, created. There is even a grace note concerning Jack Torrance--one which makes no sense if you are thinking of Jack Nicholson, but which is utterly perfect if you remember what King actually wrote.

*Speficially excludes Cujo. What the hell was the point of that, dare I say it, dog?

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