Monday, January 12, 2015
A Clockwork Kubrick: Comparing the Films of Stanley Kubrick To Their Adapted Sources
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
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 György 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
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
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?
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.
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