One of the reasons I’ve slowed down my blogging quite a bit is a sense that I’m no longer covering new ground. Instead, I’m writing about the same set of topics over and over. I’d like to try to figure out how to keep the topics fresh. The words new. Which explains why I’m going to be talking about Stephen King, yet again.
Late last month, Mr. King released yet another novel, Doctor Sleep, which is promised to be two things. First, a sequel to The Shining. Second, a return to true horror. There has been a lot of promo regarding Doctor Sleep over the last few months. Among those efforts, is this brief interview, which I found via Andrew Sullivan’s blog. There’s a lot about King’s take on his stories and the original movie version of The Shining that is fascinating. What I find the most remarkable is his perspective that his stories are warm and inviting, but that Kubrick’s version of The Shining wasn’t. That it was cold. Not just cold, but “very cold.” I can’t disagree with some of his other criticisms of the movie — including of Nicholson’s performance. Jack Nicholson portrays one character over and over.
In addition to this interview, I’ve been following a comment chain on Amazon’s page for Doctor Sleep. It has to do with the relative merits of The Shining (the book), The Shining (the Kubrick version), and The Shining (the TV movie version).
The fascination here is that everybody sees different things in his stories and the movie versions and insist that their sense is correct. In the linked piece above, there’s also an excerpt from Laura Miller, who claims that King’s The Shining was about alcoholism and domestic violence. This is a thought echoed in some of the comments on Amazon. I never, ever, ever considered that The Shining was a morality tale about alcoholism and domestic violence. What I thought it was about was a haunted house that had the power to slowly drive its occupants crazy. If it was about alcoholism and domestic violence, why did the boy, who didn’t drink or abuse anybody, see and experience some of the worst the house had to offer. Isn’t the story actually about the boy having “the shining.” See, this is what was so great about King’s earlier works. The books were about evil. Pure and simple, evil. You didn’t have no know anything more than that. Where he started to go downhill, I believe, is with It. A story I absolutely loved until the very end, when it was revealed that there was a source for the evil. A giant spider. I mean really. You can have a spider guarding a path to Mordor in LOTR, but a spider pulling the strings in Derry just made a mockery of everything King had done until that point.
Unnamed, unknown, unfathomable evil is what drives horror. As soon as you put a name to it, a face to it, it’s no longer so horrible. And that’s what King mastered in his early stories.
But back to my main point here. Why must everybody agree to the “point” of a story? Why must my interpretation be the only one? Why can’t it be this instead … The Shining, the novel version, is a masterpiece of written horror. Told in a way that isn’t necessarily translatable to a visual medium in which the story must be told, beginning to end, in 90-120 minutes. And The Shining, the Kubrick version, is a masterpiece of cinematic horror. Those two possibilities are not contradictory.
I’ve read the Lord of the Rings many times over the years. Until the movies were made, I always read them as somewhat of a fairy tale. While there was clearly evil in Middle Earth, there was a certain lightness to the story, a fairytale quality, that suggested a place that wasn’t necessarily dark and foreboding. At least in the lands outside Mordor. Maybe I missed something, but that was always my sense of the books. When the movies came out, I was originally disturbed by the darkness and pervasive evil that existed in it. It didn’t match with my reading of the books. But, guess what? That’s OK. It has actually given me a different perspective on the stories. That’s a good thing.
I went to see the first Twilight movie with my son and his girlfriend. They hated the movie because it wasn’t close enough to the book. I thought the movie was ten times better than the book because I thought the visual presentation of the story and its characters brought something to it that the author had failed to do. I guess what I’m saying is that art, be it a painting, a movie, or a book, is personal. Everybody sees something different and that’s the beauty of it.
What I find particularly odd about King’s comments is his suggestion that his stories are warm and Kubrick’s The Shining was not. Anybody who has loved Stephen King’s books knows that, over the years, most movies made of his stories are sad and pitiful. And, there’s a reason for that. His characters are cardboard and cardboard isn’t good enough for a movie. As a result, the best movie versions of his stories are those that take some liberties.
And, finally, here’s where I go over old territory. From the interview linked to above: “I’m not phoning it in. If I do that, I’m going to quit.”
Maybe it’s me, but as most of you know, I’m somewhat done with the man and his stories. Which explains why I’m still reading them. Mr. King, you are phoning it in. There’s no doubt about it. After all the promises made about Doctor Sleep, I once again dipped into my wallet and bought it. I’m reading Misha Burnett’s second novel and I was also working on The Snow Child. I decided to jump ahead and read Doctor Sleep. I’m less than 20% of the way through and I’m ready to jump ship. Mr. King, there is only cardboard in this story. That might be OK, but for the fact that it’s the same piece of cardboard you’ve been trotting out for years now. It’s crumpled around the edges and if you tried to make a box out of, the bottom would fall out, it’s so weak. I’d rather read Misha’s story then yours and he can’t even find a publisher or readers of his book.
I’m not the type who will stick with the same authors forever. I read a few Grisham and stopped. I read a few Koontz and stopped. The third Khaled Hosseini novel seemed to be a bit of a retread to me and I was disappointed. So, maybe it’s me. I don’t think so, though. Stop phoning it in. Go back to this simple idea — evil is evil and doesn’t need a name or a face.