Monday, December 31, 2007

The Taunting

Having recently read The Shining, I suppose it's time I said something about the book in relation to Stanley Kubrick's excellent film.

Ground that's already been covered a billion times since 1980: whether the film is better than the book? Simply put: YES. The book has its merits, certainly. It's far from being a bad or mediocre book. And the story is sufficiently different from that of the film that it's wholly possible (and probably best) to separate the two entirely. King did his thing, Kubrick did something else, and both are worth your time. But in my mind Kubrick did something vital and original, where King mostly just wrote the second entry in the The Haunting of Hill House-genre, improving on the original in some ways, doing worse in others.

If you want to know why the film is better - well, pretty much any search on Google for "Stephen King Stanley Kubrick" will get you hundreds of reviews, blog entries, college essays etc. explaining the case. You'll probably get even more hits going into the acrimonious public relations war between King and Kubrick that resulted. King feels Kubrick mangled his book by cutting out its most important themes. He has a point - and I would take it a step further: significant parts of the movie come across to me as Kubrick deliberately taunting King with the changes that were made. In particular, this is true of the alcoholism motif. Kubrick hasn't so much cut it out as deliberately inverted it.

One scene that might have seemed a bit discontinuous to movie-goers in the Kubrick film comes right at the beginning. Jack is talking to Mr. Ullman, the hotel manager, who goes a bit too far expressing full confidence in him. Nicholson is already creepy this early in the film; his Jack Torrence hardly seems the type to make such a glowing first impression (and indeed, Mr. Morgan, who is also present for the interview, sits silently slumped in his chair through the whole thing with a look that is one part resignation, one part dread and one part disgust). More to the point, Mr. Ullman seems wholly unconcerned when he finds out that, in fact, Jack is no longer a schoolteacher but now a writer. If he's curious as to why Jack changed jobs, or why he apparently neglected to mention this on his resume, he certainly doesn't let anyone know. Absent having read the book, of course the impression you get is that Mr. Ullman is making a virtue out of necessity: there aren't any other candidates, only a desparate family would take the job in the first place, best to put the best foot forward, keep the applicant you have and give him a pat on the back before sending him off to the mill. Given the tragedy that happened, Ullman needs Jack as much as Jack needs him - and he needs Jack to do a good job.

Of course, if you've read the book it won't escape your notice that this is exactly the opposite of how the interview goes in that story. In the book, Mr. Ullman lacks confidence in Jack and never misses an opportunity to say so. Jack needs Ullman, not the other way around, and he only got the job at all because one of his rich friends called in some favors. Mr. Ullman is a competent manager on fiscal matters, but not on personnel matters; it quickly becomes clear that the staff resents him (though the book is told in third person limited, so we're technically getting our information filtered through Jack). The contrast between the two interview scenes is in fact so stark that it feels like a taunting. And thematically, of course, it is. One of King's axes to grind with Kubrick is that Jack is supposed to have been a basically good guy who falls off the beam. There's a loving father and devoted husband buried in there somewhere, but he's frustrated and weak, and he drinks, and he's made a lot of mistakes. The hotel magnifies all of his bad qualities and supresses his better nature and ... well, you know the rest. The interview with Ullman in the book serves to make two points, I think. First, to showcase Jack's attitude problem. A truly determined and repentant individual's primary reaction to Ullman's dressing down would be to admit that Ullman has a point: Jack's record isn't good and he has pulled some strings to get Ullman to skip better-qualified candidates. He owes it to Ullman and himself (and most of all his high-placed friend Al who got him the job) to prove Ullman wrong. But of course, if Jack were that kind of person, he would hardly be in this situation in the first place. Ullman is a genuine asshole in the book, and noone suffers the kind of verbal abuse he gives Jack without at least a little resentment. Intellectually, we understand what Jack's character flaw is, but emotionally we also see where he's coming from. King has but to exaggerate slightly a natural resentment we all have to get from us to Jack. So where King is setting up a "there but for the Grace of God go I" story, Kubrick is doing just the opposite. In the movie, Jack is just a bad seed. He has no one but himself to blame. He got the job on his own, and not because he tried for it but just because it's there to be plucked from the trees by anyone crazy enough to take it. There's no convenient enemy in the form of Mr. Ullman. Ullman in the movie probably knows Jack's no good for the job too - but he's a good personnel manager and he knows he has to make the best of a bad situation. He's every bit as condescending as Ullman in the book - but in a much more believable, and forgivable, way. King tries to convince us that Jack is at least partly a victim; Kubrick is throwing that attempt in King's face and making it clear that he is no such thing.

This comes to a head in the way Kubrick deals with Jack's alcoholism. The scene in the movie that seemed most of all like taunting to me was that bit where Jack sits down at the bar and says he would sell his soul for a drink. As if by magic ... erm ... by magic ... the bar is fully stocked and complete with bartender to give Jack whatever he wants. Jack's credit is good; the bartender is dressed in red. And so is the bathroom Jack ends up in with Delbert ... nee Charles ... Grady (the other fellow who hacked up his family here ten years prior) the second time he comes to this bar. It's very, very RED. Get it? We're in hell. Jack made a Faustian Bargain for alcohol (for "just a glass of beer," actually), and everything's going downhill from here. First-year film students rejoice! We're in the presence of allegory!!! Woo-hoo!

Except ... well, if it all seems a bit too trite for Kubrick, that's probably because it is. Rewind, and watch the scene again. In fact, go back just a bit further than Jack sitting at the bar to what was happening before. He's been having a nightmare that he killed Danny and Wendy - which is to say, the idea is already floating about in his head - the darker parts of his head, anyway. Danny is now attacked by the female ghost, and Wendy blames Jack. He goes off to the bar in what can charitably be described as a bit more of a huff than a normal person would be in. Certainly he's not too concerned what happened to Danny. It's true that the Hotel shot the queue, but the billiard balls were lined up. Jack isn't making a Faustian Bargain for a glass of beer. Remember - he's sitting at a full bar, and his "credit is good." He's sold his soul some time ago - this is just him cashing one of his paychecks.

The point being: alcohol doesn't really make good people do bad things. Maybe, to be fair, it helps bad people do bad things, but it isn't the cause of Jack's problems. In fact, it's almost like a reward for being a bad soul. So once again, Kubrick hasn't just written King's alcohol theme out of the story, he's deliberately inverted it. Far from being a spring to bad behavior, alcohol is an identifier of bad people. It's like a label Jack wears on his forehead that says "I'm no good!" On the surface, alcoholism is one of Jack's many weaknesses in the book. But really, King uses it as a bit of a sympathy ploy. Jack isn't COMPLETELY responsible for what he's done (at least, the stuff that landed him in the Hotel, I mean). Sure, he's responsible for having gotten drunk, but maybe not for all the specific actions taken while under the influence. Frequently in the book Jack's craving for alcohol is one of the pressures that pounds in on his mind. If he could just have a drink - just a little bit. And Wendy is being unsympathetic by not understanding. We the readers can be forgiven for getting the impression that a glass of beer here or there would've let some of Jack's steam off (Jack's like that terrible furnace in the basement - he has to be cooled down every now and then to function effectively), and that Wendy could've helped matters by showing more faith in his ability to keep it to one or two at a time. In any case, King's take on it seems to be the standard line that alcohol itself is hugely addictive for some people. It isn't some character flaw in them that turns to it - that's just the way they are genetically, an extra burden they have to shoulder that the rest of us don't have.

Watching the movie, I get the impression that Kubrick is taking King to task for this bit of sneaky excuse-making. King was, after all, an alcoholic himself at the time he wrote the book. That explains why he's so good at Jack's internal struggle with the sauce, but also why that struggle is so sympathetically portrayed. Kubrick's calling him out on that portrayal. Jack in the movie doesn't struggle with alcohol at all; he makes a fully conscious decision to start drinking again, and his first toast is in fact to being off the wagon again after 5 months. And note that 5 months, by the way. In the book it's much longer. In the book, Jack has made a real effort. Kubrick seems to think that's hogwash. If you've made it as long as the book's Jack has, you've beaten it, or it never really had you in thrall to begin with. 5 months is a bit more realistic. It's about what someone without a real committment to stopping could manage - and we get the distinct impression that Jack has never had a real committment to stopping. It was just to pacify his wife after he abused their son that he quit. He quit to place the blame for his dislocating Danny's shoulder elsewhere - on the alcohol, rather than on the person who actually did it. The bargain is that he stays off as long as she's willing to believe he's not abusive; he hasn't really made a personal committment to quitting.

Of course it's always hard to talk about addiction because there are really only two perspectives you can take - and which one you have is determined by whether or not you yourself have ever been an addict. Some people seem really susceptible to addictions of any kind, others virtually immune to dependence even on "highly addictive" substances. I'm in this latter category, and so I can't really say much about what addicts go through. I can only say that most of us who have never been addicts suspect - secretly or (as in my case) openly - that addiction is really not that hard to deal with, and that if addicts really wanted to quit, they would. It's a simple matter of putting your choices in front of you. If alcohol is destroying your life, you recognize that fact and make the obvious decision to stay away from it. It's your whole quality of life vs. some temporary, artificial, chemical-induced comfort, after all. Doesn't seem like a hard choice to me. But some people seem to find it hard, and that's just the way it is. Maybe they're bullshitting me, maybe they're not - but as an outsider it's really hard to just take them at their word, frankly. I'm with Kubrick on this one: I find it more believable that Jack's alcoholism is an effect of his actions rather than a cause of it. Put more accurately, alcoholism is correlated with his kind of personality rather than the reason these types exist.

Another plot point in the movie that I can't help but see as taunting is the death of Dick Hallorann. This is the black cook who also "shines." Danny calls him psychically just when things start to get really bad - and Hallorann drops everything and comes to Colorado from Florida to try to save the day. In the book, he does just that. Without Hallorann's heroic intervention, Danny and Wendy (certainly not Wendy) might not have escaped. In the movie, of course, Hallorann shows up in the nick of time and ... gets killed by Jack within seconds. He's barely in the hotel lobby when it happens, in fact. All that long trip for nothing...

Or was it? Again, in the hands of a lesser filmmaker it would just seem like sloppy plotting. Surely you don't bring a character all the way across the country just to have him serve no further purpose? And so I wonder if the purpose is in fact a meta-fictional purpose: to splash some cold water on King's face. Long-term readers of Stephen King novels will know that black characters are invariably good. And Dick Hallorann is the only black guy in this book, so in King's trite little world this makes him more or less Jesus. In fact, King lays it on pretty thick. When Hallorann is frantically calling on the radio to try to get the authorities to go investigate, they're snotty to him, and the implication is it's his black-sounding voice that turns them off. To push the point as far as King surely intended it, the only white people who are nice to Hallorann are those who "shine." Which is to say, the only ones who are nice to him are those gifted with a special ability to see directly into the soul - without mediation through bodies with their skincolor getting in the way. Takes a special kind of white person not to be racist, it seems.

Now, The Shining was only King's third book, so the pattern of "black=good" that is so pervasive throughout King's other novels wouldn't have been recognizable to Kubrick in 1978 (when filming began) - especially given that I highly doubt Kubrick bothered to read King's other two novels. But that doesn't mean he can't sense an artificial plot element when he sees it and make a damn good guess what it's doing there. I've always felt that the preachy anti-racist types are getting goodness on the cheap, if I may put it that way. The argument against racism is so simple it makes itself, really. It doesn't take a whole lot of intellectual sophistication or devotion to the values of individualism to conclude that people deserve to be judged honestly on their own merits rather than collectively on the accidents of their birth. This simple maxim covers much more ground than racism, in fact. And so anyone who feels the need to get too preachy about it has probably got some other motivation than a simple desire to advance the cause of Justice for All. In my experience, he's usually trying to tell you how good the smell of his own shit is to him, and in order to make it work he has to engage in all kinds of straw man exaggerations of the extent of the problem. A common such exaggeration is exactly the kind King indulges in: imagining all members of the oppressed group to be "good," as though that solved anything. Assuming that being born black makes you a good person is philosophically the same error as assuming that being born black makes you a criminal, of course. Both refuse to see blacks as the individuals they are - with all the variation that implies - and so the one is just as racist as the other. And so I don't think that King is really interested in racial justice: he's using black characters (and, by proxy, black people) as a way to make himself feel like a good person without actually having to go to the trouble to be one.

Whether Kubrick had the evidence before him to see this, I don't know - but an artificial "scratch-my-own-balls" plot development isn't hard to spot even if you're not clear on the motivation. Hallorann's natural purpose in the book was to confirm Danny's "shine." That he's a continued presence after he's fulfilled that purpose is fishy. That he's an unqualified good in a book full of self-doubting characters is more so. That he turns out to be the cavalry on the basis of a talent that's lesser than Danny's, and which he himself admits is often wrong, is downright illogical.

Kubrick could've simply quitely written Hallorann's return to the Overlook out of the film. He could've even left in the parts about him being in Florida and making concerned telephone calls to sympathetic but unhelpful rescue workers and just thrown a roadblock in his way to keep him from going to Colorado. The snowstorm would've done beautifully: can't get from Florida to Colorado in time if the airport's closed, after all. But no, Kubrick sent Hallorann all the way to the Overlook and then had Jack chop him to bits. Sorry, but I can't see that as anything other than embodied literary criticism. There's an almost gleeful quality about it, in fact. As if Kubrick's saying "Aha! Here we have an artificial plot development! And what do we do with artificial plot developments, kids? That's right, Janie! We AXE them! Heh-heh." Can't help but call to mind that great bit from Amadeus where Mozart taunts Salieri with his inadequacy as a composer by not only (flawlessly) playing but improving upon one of his sonatas after hearing it only once.

And so I think King has cause to harbor some resentment about Kubrick's treatment of his book. It's painful to any writer to see themes that are important to him sliced out wholesale - but it seems to be that Kubrick is doing a good deal more than just slicing and dicing. He's doing it with glee, and King can't help but have noticed that.


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