How Stanley Kubrick Adapted Stephen King’s The Shining into a Cinematic Masterpiece

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.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Stan­ley Kubrick’s Anno­tat­ed Copy of Stephen King’s The Shin­ing

Decod­ing the Screen­plays of The Shin­ing, Moon­rise King­dom & The Dark Knight: Watch Lessons from the Screen­play

How Stan­ley Kubrick Made 2001: A Space Odyssey: A Sev­en-Part Video Essay

Stan­ley Kubrick’s The Shin­ing Reimag­ined as Wes Ander­son and David Lynch Movies

The Shin­ing and Oth­er Com­plex Stan­ley Kubrick Films Recut as Sim­ple Hol­ly­wood Movies

A Kubrick Schol­ar Dis­cov­ers an Eerie Detail in The Shin­ing That’s Gone Unno­ticed for More Than 40 Years

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.

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