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Thursday, July 03, 2008


Kubrick and adaptations

Credit for this theory goes to my boyfriend Gareth, but it struck me as well worth sharing. It has to do with Stanley Kubrick.

Kubrick's movies are glacially brilliant, works of crystalline misanthropy. His characters are almost all elegant grotesques; it's hard to watch James Mason and Shelley Winters in Lolita, for instance, without feeling a scorching shame for ever having wanted anything. Kubrick's camera lens is like Lucian Freud's paintbrush; seen through it, people are viewed with utter, unforgiving beauty that draws its fascination from all the elements of themselves that they'd least like to show. The art is beautiful, but it's hard not to feel ugly viewing it.

Now, it's generally known that Stephen King thoroughly disliked Kubrick's adaptation of his novel The Shining. King claimed that Kubrick had missed the point and made an empty film, and in fact made a TV version himself (which was much less well received). Handing your work over to Kubrick, this was more or less an occupational hazard - many of Kubrick's films are adaptations, and pretty much none of them are at all close to the spirit of the books he adapted: if you let Kubrick adapt your book, you got a Kubrick film rather than a film adaptation, and there wasn't much to be done about that. But among other reasons why King might have disliked the film - he claimed that Kubrick 'set out to make a horror picture with no apparent understanding of the genre', while actually Kubrick's house contained a copy of just about every horror story ever composed, and it seems likely that King's concept of the horror genre was just more, well, genre-ish than Kubrick's - there's a good reason why King might have felt upset by the film. The central character, Jack Torrance, played by Jack Nicholson, is an alcoholic writer. So, of course, is King. In On Writing, King remarks that 'I was, after all, the guy who had written The Shining without even realising (at least until that night) that I was writing about myself.' - which suggests an emotional attachment to Torrance's problems that went deeper than conscious self-portraiture. ('That night' refers to the night he realised he was an alcoholic; The Shining had been written several years previously.)

And that's the rub. In King's novel, the hero is the alcoholic writer, who eventually saves himself from his inner demons. It's a very personal tale; King says 'So when I wrote this book I wrote a lot of that down and tried to get it out of my system, but it was also a confession. Yes, there are times when I felt very angry toward my children and have even felt as though I could hurt them.' - and a confession is a vulnerable thing. Not something you'd be happy to see painted by Freud - or filmed by Kubrick. Because in Kubrick's adaptation, the father is the villain.

Nicholson's edgy, aggressive performance portrays a man whose problems aren't just alcoholism, but an undirected, barely-restrained, chronic state of anger. The incident of breaking his son's arm, described to the barman, Nicholson represents by a single, horrific gesture: having mimed pulling the boy up with an angry lurch, he shrugs impatiently, and snaps his fingers. It's the sound of a breaking bone, and also the sign of how little that broken bone really means to him. Nicholson's Torrance goes into the hotel a dark man: 'You have always been the caretaker', his ghostly predecessor tells him, and it's true. Torrance has always been part of the Overlook's horror. The hero is his son, in terrified flight from a father whose love cannot be trusted and whose evil cannot be controlled. In effect, Kubrick takes King's self-portrait and says: You aren't the hero, King. You're a bad man. You're a danger to your family. The harm you do is not forgiveable. You cannot save yourself. You would be better out of the world.

A superb film, undoubtedly better than King's TV version, but you can hardly blame King for having his feelings hurt.

Now, not every Kubrick film does it quite this way. His Humbert Humbert is altogether a more pathetic and forgiveable creation than Nabokov's brutal, self-flattering paedophile. Full Metal Jacket is upbeat compared with Gustav Hasford's elegantly written, bitterly angry The Short Timers, even though a lot of dialogue is lifted directly out of the book. (You can read an extract from it here, crudely processed but well worth a read.) Hasford's voice is both harsher - he describes the suicide of a comrade thus:

I know that Leonard is too weak to control his instrument of death. It is a hard heart that kills, not the weapon. Leonard is a defective instrument for the power that is flowing through him. Sergeant Gerheim's mistake was in not seeing that Leonard was like a glass rifle which would shatter when fired. Leonard is not hard enough to harness the power of an interior explosion to propel the cold black bullet of his will.

Leonard is grinning at us, the final grin that is on the face of death,
the terrible grin of the skull.

- while also describing vivid nightmares, and commenting on the receipt of encouraging letters from children back home:

Rafter Man reads the letters out loud. He can still be touched by them.
To me, the letters are like shoes for the dead, who do not walk.

Compared with this, Kubrick's comedic adaptation is almost cheerful; Hasford's rhetoric becomes the patter of maniacal sergeant, and the result is a black farce, not a tragedy, closest in spirit to the gleeful excesses of A Clockwork Orange - two films that portray male violence with an unapologetic, deadpan relentlessness.

But there is another film, surprisingly, where Kubrick's eye turns coldly on another artist. And, most surprisingly of all, he got that artist himself to direct it. I'm speaking of AI, Kubrick's late-in-life collaboration with Steven Spielberg.

The story of AI is a tragedy in itself: a robotic little boy, engineered to be the perfect suburban child, is cast out into an adult world that he cannot possibly understand. Trapped under the frozen sea, staring for millenia at a fairy-tale statue and begging for help, he eventually is found by the last civilisation: hyper-intelligent robots who cannot make him understand anything beyond his longing to return to his brief, perfect childhood. All that can be done for him is to reconstruct, artificially and for one day only, a facsimile of his home and mother. He spends a day in this perfect dream, after which he 'went to sleep', with a strong suggestion that there's nothing left to do but turn him off.

Doesn't that sound like the harshest possible interpretation of Spielberg, that genius of the family movie? The desire to reconstruct the perfect suburban childhood, replete with small details of Americana, fascinated with magical tales and always more beloved for his family tales than his adult-only films? The real Spielberg, of course, is an exceptionally successful adult man who seems to have a happy family life as well, so it's hardly a fair assessment - any more than it's fair to say that King's alcoholism destroyed his family, as his family appear to be fine - but Kubrick's eye is merciless: just as it says to King, Your sins are unforgiveable, it says to Spielberg, Your dreams are infantile, synthetic, cannot last, and all you're capable of.

That Spielberg himself directed this might suggest either Machiavellian genius on Kubrick's part or exceptional good will on Spielberg's, neither of which, based on their work, seems out of the question. But to assume either would be making the mistake of assuming conscious authorial intention, and that's a fast route to saying something silly. Let's consider it, instead, an interesting effect of the collaboration between artists, especially when one of them has so unblinking an eye.

I'm with King on the Kubrick Shining: Well made, but a crazy Nicholson is much less interesting than the accursed Overlook.

It also confused the heck out of my friends who hadn't read the book: Several of them asked me how the ghost could have freed Nicholson from the meat locker (or whatever it was) when they were all hallucinations (which the movie up to that point implied them to be).

Interesting thought about AI, though it's possible Spielberg could himself see the flip side of his fantasy. Rod Serling wrote a lot of TZ stories about going back to the past and recapturing lost love or childhood, but he also wrote several about the futility of doing that.

Your dreams are infantile, synthetic, cannot last, and all you're capable of.

That, to me, is a pretty good statement about Spielberg (for the most part -- I haven't seen some Schindler's List).
There are only two Kubrick movies I've ever had the urge to watch a second time: 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Dr. Strangelove.

That can be explained in part because I am a geek, but still, I hated A.I., and turned Eyes Wide Shut off when I realized I just didn't care what happened to these people.

How would you fit the first two movies I mentioned into this template?

(P.S. I had to abandon A Game of Thrones halfway through for the same reason: I disliked everyone in the novel and no longer cared about their destinies in the slightest.)
This is how I heard the story of the Making of AI:

Kubrik originally brought Spielberg onto AI when Kubrik realized he didn't have the ability to get the warm family fuzzies. Kubrik knew he made stark, cold films, 2001 is the best setting for Kubrik - deep space. (Just like Lucas does best when directing actors to be robots on a pure-white psych stage as in THX-1138, Lucas simply can not direct actors to be human.)

As years past, Kurbrik further realized that he was not going to live long enough to get that picture in the can, and so basically threw the whole project at Speilberg to finish, while he went off to die.

The task fell on Speilberg to direct more like Kubrik and not get too far lost into the warm fuzzies.

I thought AI was well done, having lost two children of my four, I cry like a baby, and can't watch the scene where mom abandons the boy robot in the woods.
Oh, and the only thing I hated about The Shining movie was the pointless death of Scatman Crothers. That was the most egregious waste of an important character I have still ever seen.
So sorry to hear about your children...
Thank you, Kit. Out first and forth were stillborn, having a strong detectable heart until shortly before birth.

Our second and third are now 6 and 4 years old. We love them dearly.

And congratulations on your nuptuals.
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