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Monday, January 12, 2015

A Clockwork Kubrick: Comparing the Films of Stanley Kubrick To Their Adapted Sources

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I think it is preposterous that one should think something is good because one is supposed to think that something is good. When evaluating material, a well-rounded viewer or reader should always view that material on its own merits--not merits that have been granted it by others.
As a teenager, I watched most of Stanley Kubrick's films. My classmates recommended them to me for two reasons:
1. They had boobs in them.
2. If they didn't have boobs in them, they were at least violent.
However, as a teenager, I also attained the opinion that I espoused in the first sentence of this post.
For example, I viewed the film Lifeforce when I was 16-years old (thanks Encore Network!). Lifeforce also has boobs in it, really awesome boobs, and I was still objective enough to realize that Lifeforce is a really, really terrible movie, despite Mathilda May's two major contributions. But why start off a serious piece with boobs? Because in a round about way, boobs will be a major part of this discussion.
But ignoring boobs for a moment, Stanley Kubrick was quite fond of adapting novels into screenplays, and subsequently, films. This piece will explore three films that Kubrick made nearly back to back, their source material, and how each fares in light of the other.
We begin with

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968); Directed by Stanley Kubrick, adapted from the book of the same title by Arthur C. Clarke

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Stanley Kubrick began his career as a photographer. As a filmmaker, Kubrick's greatest strength is the composition of images. 2001: A Space Odyssey contains little dialogue--Kubrick himself considered the film a "non-verbal experience^1. Instead, the film relies nearly completely on imagery and sound. Thus, it is Stanley Kubrick's greatest film.
2001 is told in four basic acts. The opening involves apes on a prehistoric Earth. The second involves astronauts visiting the moon. The third involves astronauts traversing the solar system. The fourth involves one of those astronauts venturing into a mysterious object among the moons of Saturn.
2001 plays to all of Kubrick's strengths. Actors make little contribution, outside of Keir Dullea's outstanding work as harried astronaut, Dave Bowman, and Douglas Rain's voice-over for the iconic robot, HAL 9000. Kubrick is free to focus on his well-known perfectionism as much as he wants. The film's imagery is stunning, even 47 years later. 2001's set design, along with Kubrick's framing and camera movement, seer images into the viewer's brain forever. The film's actual story is obtuse, which again plays to Kubrick's strengths, as he is allowed to convey his tale with images, allowing its interpretation to the viewer. Without all that pesky dialogue to deal with, Kubrick is also free to place classical music over nearly every scene, climaxing in a mind-bending moment where Bowman flies his spacecraft into the mysterious object orbiting Saturn. Kubrick uses Gy├Ârgy Ligeti’s Requiem to score Bowman's descent into the unknown, and as I viewed 2001 as a 16-year old, this sequence seemed to last a brilliant eternity--I could feel my face euphorically peeling back from my skull. This scene holds up today to the degree that the director of 2014's Godzilla, Gareth Edwards, used the same musical piece to score a climatic scene where soldiers skydive into the middle of a battle between 1000-feet tall monsters--and it works on the simple basis of evocation.
Arthur C Clarke's novel, 2001: A Space Odyssey, is unique in that it was written in cooperation with Kubrick as Kubrick made the film. Thus, the novel is very close in content to the film. Clarke is a fine and imaginative writer, but in the case of 2001: A Space Odyssey, a picture is worth 1000 words, and the pictures are in the film. Clarke's writing just can't compete with what Kubrick puts on screen, and in perhaps one of the strangest flips of book and movie phenomena, Kubrick's film work actually allows the viewer's imagination more room to work than that of a reader of Clarke's book. So while Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey is simply a great book, Kubrick's film transcends its medium, becoming a part of the viewing body's consciousness. No small feat.

A Clockwork Orange (1971), Directed by Stanley Kubrick, adapted from the book of the same title by Anthony Burgess

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A Clockwork Orange centers on Alex, a violent young gang member living in a future British dystopia. Alex, along with his gang, spend their nights drinking drug-laced milk, beating innocent people they find in the streets, robbing, and raping women. I would generally consider Alex's gang's activities bad, but the film doesn't seem to be sure. Eventually, young Alex accidentally murders a woman his gang is thieving from, and he ends up in prison. There, to drastically speed up his sentence, Alex volunteers for an experimental brain treatment that renders the subject unable to commit acts of violence. Alex is treated, released to the world, where he finds his parents no longer have a place for him, and that the streets are no place for a man who cannot fight to defend himself. Eventually, as Alex becomes a pawn in a political battle, he is "cured" of his treatment and presumably goes back to his merry robbing, raping ways. Plentiful British boobage abounds.
So what is Kubrick getting at here? Let's look at the source material.
Anthony Burgess, in the forward to the most recently printed edition of A Clockwork Orange, admits that he does not regard it as among his strongest works. He says, "It seems likely to survive, while other works of mine that I value more bite the dust."^2. Burgess even goes so far as to wish he'd never written it, as he feels the film that adapted it, missing vital parts of the original novel, seemed to glorify sex and violence. Burgess pushes this point so vigorously, his editor actually includes a note following the forward that seems to apologize for it. However, when reading the complete novel, the reason for the intensity of Burgess' feelings becomes clear.
Stanley Kubrick, despite living in Britain, based his film adaptation on the original American edition of A Clockwork Orange. This version omits the redemptive chapter of Burgess' original draft, published in its entirety in his native Britain. In this closing chapter, as Alex leaves his teenage years behind, he feels himself growing bored with the violent life, desiring a family instead. This rounds out Burgess' theme: it is wrong for a society to control the mind of even its worst citizen--Alex has to make the decision to change for himself. Kubrick's version ends with a "cured" Alex grinning in his hospital bed as he fantasizes a violent sexual encounter. Kubrick, unwittingly, negates Burgess' original theme. In Kubrick's adaptation, society would fare better had Alex not been cured of his non-violence treatment. Now, Alex is off to roam the streets and hurt everyone he comes into contact with once again. Worst of all, the film doesn't seem to have a problem with Alex's actions. In the film, as Alex fights and rapes, he is shot and framed by Kubrick as a hero; perhaps the most egregious offense of this begins in the scene photographed above:
Alex, cool as a cucumber, visits a music store to buy a Beethoven record, takes two beautiful women home, and consensually bangs their brains out in a scene that is fast-forwarded to reveal the almost unbelievable amount of stamina Alex possesses to commit the numerous acts and positions he undertakes. To everyone I went to high school with, Alex was a hero--what sixteen year-old kid doesn't want to do what Alex does in this scene? In Burgess' book, Alex is not given such ample opportunity for hero-worship. He does indeed visit a music store and take two females home to commit hours of unspeakable acts--the two girls are ten years old. Burgess portrays the depravity beneath Alex's youthful, melodious language. Then, in the end, he redeems him. Whether intentionally or not, Kubrick mythologizes Alex's deplorable acts and decides Alex is fine just the way he is.
In all honesty, my impression of the film as a sixteen year-old was unchanged upon a recent viewing: That was weird, but those were some nice boobs. A Clockwork Orange features a lot of boobs. I can only imagine the casting sessions for the ample cache of boobs involved in the film. Kubrick has an unquestionably excellent visual eye, the only real strength of this film, which works so hard to argue against the point it is trying to make, it is meaningless.

The Shining (1980), Directed by Stanley Kubrick, adapted from the book of the same title by Stephen King

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The Shining follows Jack Torrance, a recovering alcoholic, his wife Wendy, and their son, Danny, as they spend a winter in the haunted Overlook Hotel. Danny is gifted with psychic visions of the future. Things do not go well for the Torrances. Kubrick's The Shining received negative reviews upon its release. Of the three films explored here, The Shining is the only one I disliked upon my initial high school viewing. Many people I know love the film. After a decade or so, The Shining went from a critical flop to a film some critics considered among the finest ever made. I wondered if my perception of the film would change over time, as well. It did not.
In this case, I will more directly interweave my commentary between film and adaptation--the book remedies everything I believe ails the film. Let's start from the beginning:
Jack Torrance, portrayed by Jack Nicholson is clearly mentally unstable from the start of the film. After he is briefly introduced to the hotel after his hire as winter caretaker, Torrance picks up his family from a nearby town and brings them to their new winter home. As the family drives in the car, no connection or sign of affection between Torrance and his family is conveyed. These are just three people in a car. No reason is given to care for any of them. In the book, Torrance is fully fleshed out from the start: his battle with alcohol, his struggles with his temper, but most importantly, his love for his family, particularly Danny. The relationship between Danny and Jack is central to the novel. The two share one scene together in the film, and Jack is already completely mentally unhinged--there is no connection between the two of them. The book gives ample reason to care for these three and their struggling, yet tightly knit family. In the film they aren't even characters. Wendy is perhaps the most egregious offense in this department. In the book, Wendy is a strong, self-reliant, flaxen-haired New England woman. She is tied to Jack because her relationship with her family is even more dysfunctional, and because she has well-founded hope that her little family can make it. In the film, Wendy is a dark-haired, wide-eyed, slack-jawed, Southern idiot. Her lines are entirely contained to drawled out statements like, "Wowwee! Ain't this place nice!" Her character has no depth whatsoever, and barely even exists. Jack's distaste for her is apparent from their first scene together, and it is unbelievable that these two would have ever married each other in the first place, let alone copulated. Without characters, all Kubrick's Shining has left is the visuals--they are yet again gorgeous. The visuals are the reason to watch the film. Kubrick framed every shot in The Shining with all of the passion he could summon--his passion certainly isn't in the characters or the screenplay.
And it all comes back to boobs. King's book features one of the scariest passages ever written. It begins with young Danny venturing into a room he has been warned against. Danny then comes back to his family wet, and with strangle marks around his neck. He blames his injuries on a ghoul he sees in the forbidden room's bathtub--the decomposing malevolent ghost of a woman who committed suicide there years before. The horror amps up to a Spinal Tap 11 when Jack decides to go to the haunted room to check things out for himself.
Jack enters, finds the tub dry, scrapes the porcelain with his fingers--the room is empty. Yet just as Jack begins to leave, he feels a strange sensation and inexorably finds himself turning back around. Jack creeps back into the bathroom. Something casts a shadow behind the curtain. Torrance hears the movement of water. He can't help it--he must step closer. The curtain pulls back. The woman is there, rotten, eyes bulging, bloated lips grinning. She begins to stand. Under King's hand, this chapter is terrifying. What do we get with Kubrick?
Boobs.
Once again, one can envision Kubrick lining up a string of naked women to pick out the one he likes best. When Jack enters the room in the film, he finds a nubile, nude young woman in the tub waiting for him. She rises and approaches Jack's waiting arms. They kiss passionately, but Jack catches a glimpse of her in the mirror and sees her true form. Jack recoils in terror, but the scene is more awkward and grotesque than scary.
Finally, I will explore Danny's "shining" ability, from which the book and film take their name. In the book, the shining usually involves Danny blacking out and having a sort of dream where his "imaginary friend," Tony, tells him things that might happen in the future. In the film, Danny's shining ability is almost an afterthought. In the book, Danny's shining awakens The Overlook's demons, and it is what the evil of the hotel covets--why it wants Jack to kill Danny in the first place. The film portrays Tony as something that possesses Danny and causes him to talk with a funny voice while curling up his index finger. It looks as ridiculous as it sounds. Kubrick could have imaginatively portrayed Danny's shining, but the method he chose is a bit ridiculous...it doesn't matter much anyway, though, as the film's Overlook Hotel only wants Jack, who has apparently "always been the caretaker."
In the film's final shot, a hotel photo from 1921 is revealed. In it, Jack smiles from the middle of a group of party-goers, despite the fact that he would not be born for another 30 years. This ponderous image is what has caused The Shining's quality to grow in public estimation over the years. The rest of the film is curiously empty and simplistic. Jack is already nuts when he arrives at the hotel, Wendy is a cardboard cutout of a human, Danny is strange and thinly drawn, and not much happens other than Jack seeing some ghosts that may not even be there, then trying to kill his family. However, with Kubrick's gorgeous imagery, and that mysterious final image, film viewers have done far more work to make the Shining a better film than Kubrick actually did.
The fact of the matter is that Kubrick's The Shining is a visual triumph and a narrative failure. A mysterious final image does not redeem the 140-minutes of subpar story-telling that preceded it. Viewers can dig in to look for a bigger meaning with the information given, but whatever they pull away is what they've brought with them. Many of Kubrick's films have this quality, but the best, such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, possess a depth to support such a dive (The nature of man's place in the cosmos > "You've always been the caretaker"). Jumping into The Shining this way results in one hitting one's head on the bottom, and coming up with conspiratorial theories in the delirium. Every positive review or essay pertaining to Kubrick's Shining, including Roger Ebert's "Reliable Observer" piece, takes such perilous leaps in logic, Plan Nine From Outer Space could be rendered a classic under so little gravity. Ebert, by the way, did not respond so positively to the film the first time he viewed it.^3  
King's novel, on the other hand, is full of depth. Themes abound--addiction, the nature of evil, the sins of the past. One of Jack's most humanizing traits is his deep-seated fear of becoming just like his abusive, alcoholic father. Jack's inherent goodness, eventually overcome by the evil of the hotel, is best revealed by his horror at this possible future version of himself. The film does not mention Jack's father, and without the deep relationship between Danny and Jack in King's novel, the film is left with no method of redeeming the elder Torrance. He is nothing more than a monster. One need go no further than Vivian Kubrick's behind-the-scenes Shining Documentary to see this. Jack Nicholson, who eats scenery in this film so voraciously, it is a shock that the hotel survives this film and not King's book, warms up to his scenes by jumping up and down shouting "Axe murderer! Crazy!" That's all the Jack Torrance of Kubrick's Shining is. There is no nuance.
These three films represent Kubrick at his prime, all featuring screenplays written by Kubrick, adapted from other sources. From these movies, and in comparison to their source material, one can see what Kubrick values most as a filmmaker--not characters or story, but ideas, mood, atmosphere and a subconscious evocation of emotion, generally unease, all conveyed through aesthetics. With The Shining, Kubrick has access to great characters and themes, but he instead renders the material into a visual showcase centered around a ponderous final image. With A Clockwork Orange, Kubrick has access to an incredible moral dilemma, but instead renders the material into a shocking, titillating audio and visual assault on the senses. With 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kubrick is simply handed an open-ended star-field of ideas, ones he can solely represent with visuals and music, and he excels with the material like no other director could.
Thus, one can gather: as a visualist, Stanley Kubrick stands high above nearly all his peers; as a verbal storyteller, he is lacking. It is my opinion that, while Kubrick deserves his status as a filmmaking legend, he should not be given the oft-bandied title of "the greatest film director of all time." Anyone in contention for such a lofty honorific should be greatly skilled in both the visual and the verbal. Unfortunately, Kubrick was only skilled, however immeasurably, in the former.
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1. Wakeman, John (ed.) World Film Directors: 1890–1945, H. W. Wilson Co. (1987) pp. 677–683
2. Burgess, Anthony, Forward to A Clockwork Orange, 1986, Norton Publishing, page v
3. DiMare, Philip (2011). Movies in American History: An Encyclopedia: An Encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO. p. 440

8 comments:

Neal said...

Okay, I've seen all of these, so it's fun to see you talking about them. I also struggled with how revered Kubrick is (and how friends or fellow college students talked about these), as I saw all of these in my college years.

Space Odyssey, I totally agree. It has all these visual and aural elements that are so strong (and the middle sequence with HAL is great), but even when I watched it in college, I thought the other students who thought it was so awesome were a little kooky. Yeah, there are interesting things, but it's just an odd mismatch and not much of a narrative. Still, it's the best of these three.

The Shining... yeah. It was a creepy movie in some ways and strong for that, and it has those memorable visuals as well, but I didn't care for it. And hearing what is actually in the book makes me respect King even more. He knows the needed elements to character and while I've only read a few of his books, they were strong in those respects. Anyway, critics are sometimes right the first time and sometimes right on the second. I'd probably say this movie is between the two viewpoints, to be fair to its strengths and weaknesses (even though I have no desire to see it again).

Clockwork Orange I wish I had never seen. I saw it while traveling with a group through the UK, and it was a big deal about it being released in theaters there: it had been banned when it first came out. So there was talk in the press and from other students about how this was a big thing: rah! no striking down of creative freedom, etc.

I was disturbed by the movie. And beyond the scene you noted, you actually feel a lot of sympathy for Alex after his treatment: everyone else is almost as nasty as him and they all gang up on him (even if a lot of it is disturbed). The overall effect is confusing. And I remember complaining about the artwork in the movie being obsessed with sex too (seriously, a penis statue?) and another student tried to say it was a comment on the society he was in, but it gets confused with the other attitudes toward sex in the movie and the scene you noted.

I'm going to say this here, and I don't often feel comfortable saying this to some people, as they won't get it, but I think it's a good case in point here and you'll get what I mean. Nudity is so rarely needed in movies and shows. It's there for titillation more than anything else, often to the story's detriment. I'm sure people can come up with arguments against, but I've read far more books that used sex well than I have movies.

I'm picking on it more here because it really bugged me with Clockwork (you can maybe argue there is more of a point with The Shining being like a siren or something, I guess). I saw American Beauty in the same timeframe, and I had similar annoyances with it, and argued with other people that the nudity wasn't needed there, either.

Lots of stuff, but you got me thinking about what I didn't like about these movies. I guess a point in Clockwork's failure is its ability to disturb, but I know a lot of dystopias that do that just as well and are stronger in other respects.

Neal said...

Ugh, typo in paragraph five. I meant "(even if a lot of it is merited from his earlier behavior)." Or something like that, heh.

Nicholas said...

Glad you commented on this.
On A Clockwork Orange, I thought about discussing Alex's post-treatment life more, but I agree--the overall effect is very confusing...I think this is because Kubrick unwittingly cancels out any point he wants to make. For those who are objectively observing the details of the film and not just going along with the accepted societal narrative, just about anything rational goes out the window. I've also heard the over-sexualized society argument, but if that's the case, why does Alex's treatment make sex revolting to him? What is the viewer supposed to take from that? Alex's fantasy at the end is rendered gloriously, so the over-sexualized society is good? Bad? Everything cancels itself out.
As far as the nudity, I agree with you on this film--The gorgeous naked woman flopping around, trying to escape from Alex and his gang early on--just titillating. The disrobing of the woman Alex and his gang rape a few scenes later--filmed at objectifying angles, as if Alex is cool for this instead of horrific. The two girls Alex brings back to his apartment--nothing but titillation. The naked woman Alex cannot touch in the demonstration of his treatment--if anything, this is most necessary from a storytelling perspective, though I'm not sure she had to be nude, and if she did, the end result of that part of Alex's treatment makes little sense anyway. The big breasted topless woman having sex with the doctor right when Alex awakes in his hospital bed--in the book, it's a fully clothed nurse reading a book; Alex assumes from the way she is breathing that she is reading a romance novel. Once again, egregious. Then there's the last naked woman in the film's final moment--but I mentioned that one already in the piece.
With American Beauty, I'm on the fence. Her being nude really lays out the temptation. Spacey's character is given the ultimate one, and is humanized by not falling for it, and instead clothing her. I guess the same effect could have been achieved by just showing Suvari in her underwear, but I do think the scene was sort of a culmination of all the fantasies Spacey had leading up to the scene, and I definitely was not titillated when I watched it...I was hoping Spacey would grow up and do the right thing. So I guess I'm on the fence on that one.

Neal said...

I would definitely say that there's a better reason for it with American Beauty--as you are noting, it works with other elements of the movie and what it's trying to say. So win there. And if a story is going to do it, do it for those reasons.

That said, while I don't remember everything from the movie well enough to say "how I would have done it," (hehe) but after all the setup with the fantasies earlier, it seems like a continuation of those in some way would have paid off. The elements are already there. I could hear an argument being made for it needing to be real (and the nudity therefore being needed), not being a fantasy, but there's still ways to do it. That color red was iconic, I remember, and I know that could have been used to powerful effect. And while I know it was a teenage girl, having her be more active (attempting a kiss, or something more than lying there... I seem to remember that detail) clarifies that it isn't a fantasy, actually makes it more of a temptation, etc.

Here's the thing, some of this is definitely decided by a person's attitudes toward nudity (if it's used for story reasons). To some people it's a go-to if needed. That argument is never going to go away, I'm sure. But this is something I'm feeling more sensitive about more now than even fourteen years ago, because nudity is used even more to denote grittiness and "adult" drama.

I dunno. Nudity so often feels like the lazy man's out in the entertainment world. And as much as people want to say it's a go-to if used well, nudity does represent a big line to cross. If you're going to do it, make it for a good reason. And our society is so messed up in regards to women and sex that it gets hard to argue that it's ever not being done for titillation (not saying some might not see it that way, I'm just saying it's a gray area).

If anything, writers have an easier time of it in this department. It's so much easier to make things implicit in this regard. I really noticed it when I saw the early 2000s version of The End of the Affair (around the same time as these movies). The stuff Graham Greene said that was implicit was quite explicit (and that's another discussion if that was a good idea or not).

Anyway, tough issue. I wish more people treated it that way, actually. It's not really a debate I've heard many writers have. Instead, it's just a matter of course. I know faculty mentors that said a piece needs more sex (and said piece didn't need it).

Jordan said...

I read this. You make some good points. Ill have to rewatch 2001 now. I also read your 2004 top nine albums post again what about 11 years later? I saw my somewhat embarrassing comments too! Did you ever check out Constantines? Lol. And I'm sad compact disc store closed. The Internet man. Glad this blog is still going strong.

Nicholas said...

Thanks, dude.
Haha, after reading your comment, I too went back and read my 2004 music list. Quite interesting. A couple of notes:
1. I did indeed check out the Constantines, and if I remember correctly, literally checked them out from Goodwood back when we worked there. Good stuff!
2. I would love to see how my tastes in regard to the albums of 2004 have changed in the last decade. I think I may post something about that at some point in the next few months, since the ten-year point has passed. There are definitely a couple offhand I would change. Then again, as much as I feel like I've changed as a person (I hesitate to say matured), and even as a writer, I still love most of those albums.
The Internet and its physical-media destroying abilities, as well as its archival abilities are pretty staggering.

Anonymous said...

Yeah man, I think that would be an interesting post, the musical interests changing. It does seem like from this blog that you are still heavily into a lot of that music (maybe this is just from me reading your cornerstone posts and every album posts though?! Are you still listening to Five Iron regularly? Why did that whole scene collapse?). I know I listen to a lot of the same stuff I used to. I find myself going back to a lot of the same albums. I just listened to that M. Ward album the other day. Good stuff. Listening to him right now actually :).

Yeah dude, and Kubrick sucks! Thanks for pointing that out.

-Jordan

Nicholas said...

My tastes in music have only changed marginally, if at all. If anything, they have mutated just a bit in regard to specific albums.
I don't know if you heard the reunion album Five Iron put out at the end of 2013, but it is easily the best thing they have ever done. I put that one on at least a couple times a month.