Stephen King vs Stanley Kubrick: How “The Shining” went from book to movie

It’s safe to say that if it weren’t for the adaptations, Stephen King would not be the icon that he is today. Love him or hate him, he had made an incredible career out of writing fiction that could be translated to on-screen success. Even if you have never read a Stephen King book, you know his stories: It, Misery… and The Shining. 

Perhaps one of his most personal works, The Shining was an adaptation he might not have been prepared to leave to another artist’s hands. If you let someone else adapt your work, they might make it better… and therefore, the story itself might change ownership. 

This is the story about the adaptation of The Shining, and King’s struggle to reaffirm what was originally his creation, a haunting struggle that has lasted nearly 40 years. 

The Shining was the first book that Stephen King wrote where he was considered financially stable.  On top of his earnings from his previous novels Carrie and Salem’s Lot he also received a multi-book deal from publisher, Doubleday. With pressure off of his shoulders, King decided to take a trip to Boulder, Colorado in 1974 to take on a short residency. 

It was there, during the off season, Stephen King and his family, spent one night at the Stanley Hotel. King had been working on a story called Darkshine — about a boy with psychic abilities in an amusement park, but he preferred a setting that was more isolating and the hotel served as the inspiration. The King family found themselves as the only guests in the 142-room colonial hotel. 

King had a dream that night about his son running through the corridor, screaming, being chased by a fire-hose. He woke up, lit a cigarette, looked out the window at the Rockies and by the time the cigarette was done, the book was in his mind. 

The first draft of The Shining took four months to write and was published on January 28, 1977. 

The Shining was Stephen King’s confession. As a young father, he felt a lot of anger towards his children. Like his character, Jack Torrance, an alcoholic who had recently broken his son’s arm, Stephen King was feeling a lot of guilt for his own poor parenting during those early years as a father and a struggling writer. He poured all of it into The Shining. As he puts it, he was “getting it out of his system.” 

At its roots, Stephen King’s The Shining was about a family disintegrating — his worst fear — however, what Stanley Kubrick had in mind was a bit different. 

Hungover and shaving, King received a call from Stanley Kubrick, one morning, saying that he wanted to adapt The Shining. Immediately, Kubrick started rambling about his philosophy about ghosts and how every ghost story is an optimistic story. 

At this point, Kubrick had nearly 3 decades of experience in the industry and many of his finest films were linked with a literary work rather through adaptation or written concurrently. Lolita released in 1962 was based on the novel by Vladimir Nabakov, Dr. Stranglelove in 1964 was based on a book called “Red Alert” by Peter George, 2001: A Space Odyssey was released in 1968 which was followed by a novel by Arthur C Clark, A Clockwork Orange released in 1971 was based on the novel by Anthony Burgess, and Barry Lyndon released in 1975 was based on the novel by William Makepeace Thackeray. 

It was easy to see how King was flattered to have Kubrick approach him, wanting to adapt his latest work.   

Kubrick had developed a fascination with ESP and paranormal activities, and when he received the manuscript for The Shining from John Calley, an executive at Warner Bros, he was excited to find that the story had a great balance of psychological and the supernatural. He wanted the audience to ask: are supernatural things even happening or is Jack Torrance just crazy? 

Kubrick preferred adapting a story as opposed to writing an original piece because he used the feeling he got when reading a story for the first time as a yardstick for his decision making as he directed the movie.  

During this time, Kubrick wasn’t particularly interested in making a horror movie. Many thought that he would be as he was known to hop around different genres. It was rather there were two stories on his mind. One was Stephen King’s The Shining and the other was Diane Johnson’s The Shadow Knows. Kubrick was a particular artist, he ended up choosing to do The Shining, but he hired Johnson to write the script for it — rather than pursuing The Shadow Knows, even though she had never written a script before. 

Stephen King, on the other hand, had written a script for the movie — but allegedly Kubrick never even read it. After reading the initial manuscript for The Shining — and even though he appreciated the story — he found King’s writing to be “weak”

Kubrick called up Johnson and proposed a meeting, as he had been known to do with other writers, and in that meeting he offered her the job of writing the screenplay for The Shining. So she did. In about eleven weeks working with Stanley Kubrick, Diane Johnson wrote the script.

The movie’s initial release was on May 23, 1980 and it received mixed reviews. The common criticism was that the film was too slow moving for a horror and many found that the characters were hard to relate to. Despite the slow start, The Shining, which cost $19 million to make, ended up earning a profit with a domestic gross of over $44 million. 

Yet, The Shining is one of the few Kubrick films that failed to earn a single nomination for the Oscars or the Golden Globes. 

Still the toughest critic was perhaps the author of the source material himself. At first, King gave a fair critique of the movie, famously saying that “There’s a lot to like about it. But it’s a great big beautiful Cadillac with no motor inside, you can sit in it and you can enjoy the smell of the leather upholstery – the only thing you can’t do is drive it anywhere. So I would do every thing different. The real problem is that Kubrick set out to make a horror picture with no apparent understanding of the genre. Everything about it screams that from beginning to end, from plot decision to the final scene – which has been used before on the Twilight Zone”

Kubrick didn’t care too much for what King said. He had his reasons for the changes he made, feeling that King had spent too much time focusing on the character’s background — or as he would put it overcompensating. 

For King, the character arch was the most important factor of his story. It was his personal tale, after all and Kubrick dismissed all of that. In the film, King felt that the Jack Torrance character was one note — he was always crazy. 

But perhaps the most critical change that Kubrick made to the story was the ending. First, he omitted all the toperaries that came to life in the novel, saying that due to the special effects of the era, it simply wouldn’t do and would have most likely come across as hokey. The second change was how Jack Torrance died. Spoiler Alert. 

In the novel, it was the explosion of an aging boiler that caused the death of the main character — while, in the movie, Jack freezes to death outside. 

King said it best, “The book is hot, and the movie is cold; the book ends in fire, and the movie in ice.”

Finally, the last shot of the movie was a of a framed picture years ago: a celebration at the Overlook hotel. At the center, we see Jack Torrance, smiling. This sparked the theory that Jack was a reincarnation of an employee at the Overlook and he was destined and doomed to be trapped in the hotel forever. This was the Twilight Zone moment that King referenced in his criticism.

While it might have seemed like Kubrick had ultimately disrespected King’s original work, one can actually see many moments in the movie where he was loyal to the source material. The famous ballroom scene, where Jack sits in the bar, desperate for a drink, and then encounters a phantom barkeeper named Lloyd is perhaps the most loyal to the novel. 

And for me, rarely can a novel make my skin crawl, but remembering how I felt when reading the sequence with Danny Torrance leading up to that bathtub scene. Then seeing it come to life so effectively on screen is perhaps the moment that linked both novel and film. Two very different experiences, one chilling visceral effect. 

Even though Kubrick’s The Shining didn’t get the recognition it deserved upon its released, overtime it gained critical acclaim and many even deem it to be his finest work. 

While King and Kubrick continued on with their careers. The Shining entered the height of its pop-culture relevancy: from the highly quoted “Heeere’s Johnny!” to the word REDRUM scribbled on walls to the iconic scene of the twin girls in the hallway. All visuals that Kubrick immortalized. King’s ownership of The Shining had faded.   

Nearly two decades passed. 

After gaining some momentum in television with the four-part mini-series of, what I considered his masterpiece, The Stand, Stephen King jumped on the opportunity to reclaim one of his most precious work, The Shining. 

Essentially, he wanted to fix everything that Kubrick did wrong. The script for the 3-part series was written exclusively by King, and he wanted to stay as far removed from Kubrick’s creation as possible. At times, he even rewrote scenes which Kubrick had used from the original novel — such as the famous ballroom scene. Anything that can be done to separate King from Kubrick, King did. 

On April 27, 1997, The Shining mini-series was released to tepid response. While some critics found it to be a creepy suspense in the drawn out 6-hour experience, many more found it inferior to Kubrick’s adaptation. 

Yes, King had more attention focused on alcoholism, the struggle with work/life balance, and the interpersonal relationships of a family, but it lacked the eeriness that Kubrick was able to incorporate with aesthetics, best shown by the wide hallways that seemed to both be endless and suffocating. All that represented the haunting of the hotel. This was lost  in King’s version, where he had chosen to use the spark for his original inspiration: The Stanley Hotel as the design. 

Simply put, placed side-by-side, Kubrick’s version was deemed scarier. And when it came to a horror story, that was the key criteria. King sought redemption and had lost. 

On March 7, 1999, Stanley Kubrick died in his sleep from a heart attack at his home in Childwickbury Manor, United Kingdom. A few months later, On June 19, 1999, Stephen King was the victim of a life threatening car accident while walking on the shoulder of a road in Lovell Maine. Stephen King survived, but the feud between the two artists was over. 

However, the story of The Shining was not. 

During a promotional tour for Stephen King’s novel Under the Dome in 2009, King brought up a concept for a sequel, a story which will follow an adult Danny Torrance as he navigates the world with his paranormal powers and his haunting past. King made a poll on his official website asking his fans which story they would want to read next: The sequel to The Shining? Or another instalment in his Dark Tower series? 

The poll lasted one month and in the end, The Shining sequel, which will be titled Doctor Sleep, beat out The Wind through the Keyhole, the Dark Tower prequel, by a mere 49 votes. On September 24, 2013, Doctor Sleep was published. 

In 2014, Warner Bros Pictures acquired the rights to the Doctor Sleep adaptation. It took over 3 years to secure the budget, and only when the studio saw success with the remake of the Stephen King classic, It in 2017, that they got the green light to move forward with Doctor Sleep. 

Mike Flanagan, creator of The Haunting of Hill House on Netflix, signed on to direct the sequel that — as he stated would have a three-way connection between Stephen King’s The Shining, Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation, and Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep. Doctor Sleep was a story written completely removed from what Kubrick had created, so one of the earliest conversations that Flanagan had with King was getting his blessing to combine the worlds. 

Perhaps a true test of King’s character was accepting that Kubrick’s film had become the undisputed representation of The Shining. It’s what the world recognized. The conversation between Flanagan and King went well, and King gave his encouragement. The movie is an adaptation of King’s work, but it will exist in the same cinematic universe as Kubrick’s film

Doctor Sleep is expected to be released on November 8, 2019, starring Ewan McGregor in the role as Dan Torrance.  

And with that, there is finally peace on The Shining front. 

What is your favourite version of The Shining? And Is there a movie-based on a book that you are curious about how it got made? Let me know in the comments below.

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