Is Stanley Kubrick Overrated? David Cronenberg Weighs In

Is Stanley Kubrick Overrated? David Cronenberg Weighs In
Jack Nicholson in "The Shining."
(© 1980 Warner Bros. Entertainment )

Following Stephen King’s recent criticisms of Stanley Kubrick’s direction of “The Shining,” David Cronenberg has weighed in against the 1980 adaptation of King’s novel.

“I think I’m a more intimate and personal filmmaker than Kubrick ever was,” Cronenberg told the Toronto Star film critic Peter Howell last week. “That’s why I find The Shining not to be a great film. I don’t think he understood the [horror] genre. I don’t think he understood what he was doing. There were some striking images in the book and he got that, but I don’t think he really felt it.”

Howell’s interview with the Canadian filmmaker coincided with the opening of the exhibition “David Cronenberg: Evolution” at the TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival) Bell Lightbox, which ends January 19.

“In a weird way, although he’s revered as a high-level cinematic artist, I think he was much more commercial-minded and was looking for stuff that would click and that he could get financed,” Cronenberg said of Kubrick. “I think he was very obsessed with that, to an extent that I’m not. Or that Bergman or Fellini were.”

The September publication of “Doctor Sleep,” King’s sequel to “The Shining,” occasioned an interview (video here) with the BBC’s arts editor Will Gompertz, in which King disparaged Kubrick’s handling of the 1980 psychological horror film.

Noting that “I am not a cold guy,” King attacked the coldness of the movie (a Kubrick trait), Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of Jack Torrance (“crazy from the jump”), and the conception of Torrance’s wife: “Shelley Duvall as Wendy is really one of the most misogynistic characters ever put on film. She’s basically just there to scream and be stupid. And that’s not the woman I wrote about.”

He added: “I met him [Kubrick] on the set and just on that one meeting, I thought he was a very compulsive man.”

Novelists are seldom the best judges of films made of their books, but it’s hard to disagree with King’s assessment. Widely lionized, “The Shining” film has long seemed to me to be an uneven — if technically proficient — mix of shallowness and exaggeration.

True, the visualization of the Overlook Hotel as an expression of Torrance’s insanity is effective and the climactic shot of the 1921 photograph genuinely disturbing. But the Torrances are caricatures that never enable the suspension of disbelief.

Between 1957 and 1965, Kubrick made his four most substantial films — “Paths of Glory,” “Spartacus,” “Lolita,” and “Dr. Strangelove” (though the indulgence of Peter Sellers weakened the latter). “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Barry Lyndon” especially strike me as ponderous and “A Clockwork Orange” as sensationalistic.

The first half of “Full Metal Jacket” succeeds as a critique of military brainwashing through its sheer relentlessness; the second half is labored, though the attempt to film Vietnam in London was bold, if all too clearly an expedient. “Eyes Wide Shut” is interesting if thought of as a psychodrama of its stars’ marriage and Nicole Kidman is very good, but the lapse into Gothic underscores Cronenberg’s point about Kubrick’s commercial-mindedness.

Kubrick’s attempts at pictorial grandeur were no match for, say, David Lean’s. In keeping with the coldness King mentions and Cronenberg’s reservations about “intimacy” in Kubrick's films, there is an absence of passion, and — “Dr. Strangelove” and the mordant “Lolita” aside — a general absence of wit. Kubrick has often been described as a genius, but I am not convinced. In terms of consistency of vision, social commentary, and psychological representation, he comes nowhere close to the maker of “Videodrome,” “Dead Ringers,” “The Naked Lunch,” “Crash,” “Spider,” “A History of Violence,” and “A Dangerous Method.”