For most of us, the title The Shining first calls to mind the Stanley Kubrick film, not the Stephen King novel from which it was adapted. Though it would be an exaggeration to say that the former has entirely eclipsed the latter, the enormous difference between the works’ relative cultural impact speaks for itself — as does the resentment King occasionally airs about Kubrick’s extensive reworking of his original story. At the center of both versions of The Shining is a winter caretaker at a mountain resort who goes insane and tries to murder his own family, but in most other respects, the experience of the two works could hardly be more different.
How King’s The Shining became Kubrick’s The Shining is the subject of the video essay above from Tyler Knudsen, better known as CinemaTyler, previously featured here on Open Culture for his videos on such auteurs as Robert Wiene, Jean Renoir, and Andrei Tarkovsky (as well as a seven-part series on Kubrick’s own 2001: A Space Odyssey). It begins with Kubrick’s search for a new idea after completing Barry Lyndon, which involved opening book after book at random and tossing against the wall any and all that proved unable to hold his attention. When it became clear that The Shining, the young King’s third novel, wouldn’t go flying, Kubrick enlisted the more experienced novelist Diane Johnson to collaborate with him on an adaptation for the screen.
Almost all of Kubrick’s films are based on books. As Knudsen explains it, “Kubrick felt that there aren’t many original screenwriters who are a high enough caliber as some of the greatest novelists,” and that starting with an already-written work “allowed him to see the story more objectively.” In determining the qualities that resonated with him, personally, “he could get at the core of what was good about the story, strip away the clutter, and enhance the most brilliant aspects with a profound sense of hindsight.” In no case do the transformative effects of this process come through more clearly than The Shining: Kubrick and Johnson reduced King’s almost 450 dialogue- and flashback-filled pages to a resonantly stark two and a half hours of film that has haunted viewers for four decades now.
“I don’t think the audience is likely to miss the many and self-consciously ‘heavy’ pages King devotes to things like Jack’s father’s drinking problem or Wendy’s mother,” Kubrick once said. Still, anyone can hack a story down: the hard part is knowing what to keep, and even more so what to intensify for maximum effect. Knudsen lists off a host of choices Kubrick and Johnson considered (including showing more Native American imagery, which should please fans of Bill Blakemore’s analysis in “The Family of Man”) but ultimately rejected. The result is a film with an abundance of visual detail, but only enough narrative and character detail to facilitate Kubrick’s aim of “using the audience’s own imagination against them,” letting them fill in the gaps with fears of their own. While his version of The Shining evades nearly all clichés, it does demonstrate the truth of one: less is more.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.