We were last discussing ET, The Extraterrestrial, one of Steven Spielberg’s magnum opuses, and one of the director’s most openly autobiographical films (the non-ET parts, anyway). Spielberg spoke openly of his parent's divorce and its inherent trauma. The family in ET is also clumsily navigating the blast zone of a parental split.
ET is a deceptively dark story. Having just seen it for the first time since its release, I confess it’s darker than I remember it. In retrospect, I’m astounded this sad little weeper outgrossed Star Wars. Throughout the early years of Steven Spielberg’s meteoric rise, the director was often accused of being like Walt Disney, too preoccupied with presenting a superficial, idealized portrayal of life at the expense of “the real world.”
Well, he was like Walt Disney. Both men showcased harsh reality to beat the band and left it hiding in plain sight for all to see.
On the other side of the coin is another pop cultural colossus name Steve. Author Stephen King. Stephen King and Steven Spielberg have a lot in common. They both occupy the rarified air up above even the giants in their field. They are giants among giants. One can count their true peers on the digits of one hand.
They also share an uncanny ability to speak directly to a popular audience, ad an equally uncanny ability to place said audience front and center in their stories. As someone who grew up in working class New England, reading Stephen King often made you wonder exactly when the guy had snuck in your house. How else would he have known all this stuff? I remember reading Christine and shuddering at his accurate depiction of the way grease pools in the pizza in some suburban pizza joints. Like the one I was sitting in while reading it.
Both men rose to fame in the mid 1970s and both shared an initial run of (almost) uninterrupted blockbuster success. Carrie, Jaws, Salem’s Lot, Close Encounters, Raiders, The Shining, ET and The Stand,
Spielberg projected his childhood trauma onto little Elliott in E.T. King projected his trauma into The Shining, but it wasn’t little Danny that stood in for the author, it was the story’s central protagonist (and later antagonist) Jack Torrance. King was still struggling with alcohol addiction when he wrote The Shining, as was Jack Torrance in the novel. Jack was a writer and former teacher, as King was and had been as well. Jack is a very different character in the Kubrick film, and this change is one of the several reasons King is a loud and proud non-fan of the movie. In the book, Jack is, at first, a warm-hearted, affable fellow. He’s got his demons to be sure. His drinking is getting the best of him and he injured his own son in a drunken episode. But he values his family and wants to do right by them. The story of the novel The Shining is the tragedy of Jack Torrance as the demons in the Overlook sink their claws into him. In a way, Jack is the hero and victim and villain.
That Jack Torrance is nowhere to be found in Stanley Kubrick’s film. Now, it’s a testament to Kubrick’s genius that some of the most iconic images one associates with The Shining don’t appear in the book. The twins, the hedge maze, the elevator of blood, “Here’s Johnny!” None of these are in the book, but they all leap to mind when one thinks of The Shining.
King’s gripe with the film is on a much deeper level. Specifically, the film’s treatment of Jack and Wendy Torrance.
In an extensive and oft-quoted interview with Kevin Jagernauth for Indie Wire, King famously opined, “Jack Torrance has no arc in that movie. Absolutely no arc at all. When we first see Jack Nicholson, he’s in the office of Mr. Ullman, the manager of the hotel, and you know, then, he’s crazy as a shit house rat. All he does is get crazier. In the book, he’s a guy who’s struggling with his sanity and finally loses it. To me, that’s a tragedy. In the movie, there’s no tragedy because there’s no real change.”
King took pains to establish the glimmer of decency in Jack Torrance so we could see it wash away. It was a classic tale of Good Vs. Evil. Perhaps it is such that Kubrick is too nuanced a thinker to tell a tale so simplistic. It would not take much pruning to reshape Kubrick’s film and eliminate all the supernatural activity in the story, save Danny’s ESP, and therefore leave all the “horror” to what Jack thinks he is seeing in his decaying mind, but as it is, there are still too many, “wait-a-minutes” to sell that idea (Who let Jack out of the storeroom?). It is in my opinion, a bit muddled. Also, for the record, although The Shining is a brilliant iconic film, I don’t find it the least bit scary, although I admit that maybe just me.
King also objected to the film’s portrayal of Wendy Torrance, saying in the same interview, ““Shelley Duvall as Wendy is really 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 that I wrote about.”
That said, there is no debating the film’s impact, nor the book’s, of course. It’s also telling that, as in ET, the director and novelist of The Shining, both portrayed their very American families as traveling shit shows.
No wonder the little bugger couldn’t wait to get back into space.