This story starts at the end of the 70s, when established top filmmaker Stanley Kubrick acquires the rights of a book called The Shining by the new flame of horror writing, Mr Stephen Edwin King.
Stephen Edwin King
Let’s travel to the 70s. If you asked around -even now- about distinguished horror writers previously to King, most people would mention Edgar Allan Poe and -not many- Lovecraft. Poe lived between 1809 and 1849, and Lovecraft –which I think seriously came from a different dimension; if you doubt this, just read his books– lived amongst us between 1890 and 1937. So both were old history when Stephen King came into this world (1947), especially when he published his first successful novel, Carrie, in 1974.
King was not the only horror writer in the US, but you had to really be a fantasy lover to mention a few books from other authors, like Richard Matheson, the author who influenced more King, his own words. Horror books, in those years, suffered from a lack of prestige – In movies, though, The Exorcist in 1973 gave a patina of quality to the genre. And fantasy movies, since 1968, had started acquiring prestige.
King was writing so fast that the publishers couldn’t cope with his pace, so they decided to publish in parallel a few books of his with the pseudonym Richard Bachman, to release some steam. Who Richard Bachman really was soon become known and all Bachman books became automatically part of the Stephen King canon.
Hollywood jumped onto King like there was no tomorrow. Films started to pour: Brian de Palma’s Carrie , and Salem’s Loth (Tv Series) were made at the end of the 70s. The 80s saw John Carpenter’s Christine, David Cronenberg’s The Dead Zone, Creepshow and many more.
Some films were good, some not very good, some others plain bad, but still, King produced a paradigm shift for horror films and books. He gave a very fresh look at vampirism with Salem’s Loth (Twice adapted for TV, maybe it deserves a better film or series), at telekinesis, at possessed cars, at psychics that could foresee the future, and at haunted houses with The Shining. And it was just the beginning. Stranger Things wouldn’t’ exist without King, that’s a fact.
Strangely enough, two of the better-received films based on books by Stephen King do not belong to the horror genre. Rob Reiner’s Stand by Me (1986) and Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption (1994) were both based in short stories belonging to one single book called Different Seasons: The Body -which became Stand by me- and Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, which became one of the most successful films in decades. By now, at the end of 2019, King has published hundreds and hundreds of works over 5 decades. And he keeps himself somehow always on the front line.
Here comes a Stanley Kubrick
When in the 60s Kubrick contacted the great sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke, he said to him that he wanted to do “the proverbial good science fiction movie”. 2001: A Space Odyssey came out of it. When he approached “The Shining”, he could have said a similar thing about making “the proverbial good horror film”.
The moment Kubrick bought the rights, unsurprisingly knowing his career, The Shining started moving in heart and soul from one S.K. to a very different S.K. Stanley Kubrick was one of the most personal, unique directors ever, so this Shining was going to be his Shining, not King’s.
King of film
Stephen King must be by now used to film adaptations that sometimes hold a scarce relation with the original. The most notorious case being Stephen King’s The Lawnmower Man.
In 1975, King wrote a short story called The Lawnmower Man, which he published in Cavalier but that most fans knew from his collection Night Shift from 1978. It tells the story of a man who hires a very strange character to mow his lawn, a serviceman that turns out to be a Satyr who eats grass and ends up killing the man in a ritual sacrifice. If you watched the film, Stephen King’s The Lawnmower Man, I can imagine the face you are pulling now. You are thinking “I watched that film, and it had nothing to do with that”. You are so right.
What happened here was this: In 1992, an original script, written by director Brett Leonard and producer Gimel Everett, titled Cyber God -which had nothing to do with King’s short story- was offered to New Line Cinema. They were the company that held the film rights to King’s story and decided to combine Cyber God with some tiny elements of King’s The Lawnmower Man, really tiny. The result was a sci-fi movie about Virtual Reality, a storyline completely unconnected from King’s short story. But they kept King’s name on the title just to attract fans. The author was very unhappy and sued and forced the company to take out his name from the film.
Kubrick wouldn’t go that far but did many changes that made King unhappy. King saw Kubrick’s version as cold, the ending of the film changes, there’s no axe in the book, the fate of Scatman Crother‘s character is different too… If you want to know exactly what alterations Kubrick did just click here. The writer defined the film as a “beautiful car that had no engine in it”.
With some of the issues, I can sympathise. King thought that Jack Nicholson was wrong for the part because he looks very easily a loony, just the contrary of what he thinks Jack Torrance should be. Let’s face it, the moment Nicholson moves those eyebrows you can already imagine him slicing people to pieces at large.
But still, Kubrick made it work and The Shining became a classic. I remember though many reviews at the time when it came out, and critics were not so crazy about it -Although now, they deny it. I think they felt betrayed by Kubrick taking up Stephen King, an author that described himself as “the literary equivalent of a Big Mac”. But today the film is an icon. Remember The Shining scene in Ready Player One?
Time passes. Kubrick passed away too. Its been 40 years since the facts. King’s rage has mellowed, which can only be a good thing.
King Vs Kubrick: Doctor Sleep?
In 2013 King published Doctor Sleep, a follow up to The Shining, and Warner Bros. wanted to make it into a film. They had produced the new version of Stephen King’s It to amazing commercial success, and they wanted to give it a go. It didn’t make any sense to film a version of Doctor Sleep ignoring things that happened (or didn’t happen) in the Kubrick movie. Somehow, the producer and director end up getting approval to connect both realities at last. Everybody wins.
Doctors say that sleep has healing power, and at least this time it was true. Doctor Sleep has calmed down everyone’s waters. Someone I know who actually has met Jan Harlan (Kubrick’s producer) confirms that King’s anger has turned into some kind of reconciliation. As said, everybody wins.
More on Stephen King in our post Screenwriting Lessons From Stephen King.