In the annals of cinema, few film directors have a body of work as impressive and influential as Stanley Kubrick's. Many, if not most, of his films are adapted from popular works of literature, such as Stephen King's #TheShining or Anthony Burgess' #AClockworkOrange. While adapting these and other works, Kubrick would often move away from, and sometimes directly subvert, the intentions of the original author, much to many an author's vocal discontent.
One of Kubrick's most acclaimed films, #DrStrangelove, was adapted from the 1958 novel Red Alert by author Peter George. The plot tells of a general in the USAF who, in the midst of a paranoid meltdown, orders a preemptive nuclear strike against the Soviet Union. The novel follows a collaboration between the governments of the United States the Soviet Union to prevent the bombers from reaching their targets.
Red Alert was a tight thriller, played completely straight with its main focus on building suspense. Kubrick made his adaptation at the height of the Cold War, when nuclear holocaust was on everyone's mind. Kubrick, however, saw something of a dark comedy in the idea that mankind would build a war machine that threatened to wipe out the human race, all in the name of peace. It was that irony he sought to put onscreen.
Unlike Red Alert, Dr. Strangelove is a comedy. Though the plot is identical, Kubrick populates his film with bizarre characters with equally bizarre dialogue and scenery. The paranoid general who orders the attack does so because he blames the Russians for his sexual impotence, the President of the US talks with the leader of the Soviet Union like two women discussing bridge, and the captain of a bomber straddles a nuclear warhead like a cowboy.
Kubrick not only didn't follow the source material, but changed the very genre of the book he was adapting. Nuclear war is the darkest subject matter Kubrick ever tackled, and it's only fitting that he turned it into his most lighthearted affair.
A Clockwork Orange
In the case of A Clockwork Orange, Kubrick changed the entire spirit of the material by altering the story's ending. The original Anthony Burgess novel tells of Alex, a young gangster obsessed with sex and death, who is forcibly conditioned against violence. Rendered passive, his former victims proceed to torment him with the same brutal glee he once inflicted upon them, making him just as much a victim as they.
The book, however, has a different ending than the film. After being freed from his conditioning, Alex starts a new gang for another night of crime. Before he begins, Alex has a chance encounter with Pete, one of his former droogs, a now reformed man with a wife and children. After this encounter, Alex finds that he's bored with violence, and decides to pursue a normal life. The irony being: In spite of society's attempts to force Alex to give up violence, he does so under his own free will. Kubrick took this last chapter of the book and removed it.
Kubrick's film ends a chapter early, right when Alex has been freed of his conditioning and dreams about violence once more. Kubrick's ending places the audience in a moral quandary. The only way to protect society from people like Alex is to take away their free will, but doing so makes Alex just as much a victim. Alex rapes people, and in return society rapes his mind. The audience is now in a no-win scenario, something the book didn't offer.
Burgess was against this change and regularly denounced Kubrick's film. He even went so far as to direct a play adaptation of his book, featuring a character based on Kubrick who is beaten to death by Alex.
Of all Kubrick's adaptations, few have stirred more debate than his adaptation of #StephenKing's novel, The Shining. The novel tells of struggling playwright and recovering alcoholic Jack Torrance, who takes a job as the caretaker of the Overlook Hotel with his wife and son. The Overlook, however, is haunted, and strongly desires to acquire the psychic abilities of Jack's young son, Danny. The hotel drives Jack out of his mind, using him as a weapon against his own family.
The book is a tragic tale of a recovering family destroyed by outside, malevolent forces. The ghosts of The Overlook are very much a metaphor for alcoholism, which Stephen King was suffering from at the time. It is only fitting the hotel uses liquor to finally bend Jack to their will. Kubrick, however, had a vision not of a man possessed, but a man who was already insane.
Kubrick's The Shining insinuates very heavily that Jack harbors a deep-seated hatred towards his family. Jack shows no real warmth towards Danny or Wendy, dismissing Wendy and never spending quality time with his son. The Overlook takes advantage of this hatred, convincing Jack to murder his family with an axe. Other changes included Wendy not being as strong a character, the hedge animals becoming a hedge maze, and the kindly yet heroic Hallorann meeting a grisly fate by an axe.
Like Burgess, Stephen King was greatly dissatisfied with Kubrick's adaptation. While complimenting Kubrick on his stunning images, he felt the tragic core of his book was overlooked, pun intended. He went on to describe the Kubrick adaptation as "a beautiful car without an engine" and later produced a miniseries more close to his original vision.
Cinema Versus The Written Word
Given Kubrick's attitude towards the works he adapted, does this make him a bad artist? While one can certainly relate to the frustrations of these authors, there's no denying the skill with which Kubrick made his films. His version of The Shining may not be as tragic, but it's just as scary. His version of A Clockwork Orange may not provoke discussion the same way, but it's just as provocative. Dr. Strangelove did address a dire issue, but did it in a way that the audience could find humor in.
Kubrick never sought to truly adapt an author's work, merely using that as a template for his own creative vision. In doing so, he made films that truly stand apart from the books upon which they're based.
What do you think of the changed Kubrick made to the books he adapted? Let us know in the comments below!