Thematic Disparities in the Adaptations of Stanley Kubrick, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying About the Original Text and Love the Film

Long before Stanley Kubrick was a widely respected filmmaker, at the age of seventeen, he studied jazz and played drums in a nine-piece group called the Taft Swing Band. They were fronted by Eydie Gormé, who later went on to an accomplished career as a jazz vocalist, and their repertoire was comprised entirely of popular songs from that era (Baxter, 26). As a drummer, the young Kubrick was not bound to the original compositions to the same degree as the other musicians in the band, and one notable characteristic of this particular style of music is that each arrangement usually contains a break in which the drummer takes center stage in a flashy and often improvised solo. In other words, although the songs were familiar to a contemporary New York audience of the 1940s, the manner in which they were delivered, particularly the percussion, was marked by a unique and creative interpretation of the material.

This, of course, is much like the career that would eventually follow. Of the twelve feature-length narrative films that Kubrick made, ten of them were adaptations of previously published works, and of these ten, with the exception of Spartacus (for which he was brought on during production as a replacement to the original director), Kubrick had a hand in writing the screenplay for every one of them. One could argue that he generally did so with a significant amount of respect for the source material, and in the cases of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Lolita, Dr. Strangelove and Full Metal Jacket, Kubrick even worked directly with the original authors of each of these novels in crafting their respective cinematic adaptations. He seldom changed the characters or the basic story of the source material, and even the titles usually remained the same. Nonetheless, the films themselves were unquestionably his own.    

Several years after the theatrical release of The Shining, Stephen King, who wrote the bestselling novel upon which it was based, said:

There's a lot to like about it. But it's a great big beautiful Cadillac with no motor inside, you can sit in it and you can enjoy the smell of the leather upholstery - the only thing you can't do is drive it anywhere. So I would do everything different. The real problem is that Kubrick set out to make a horror picture with no apparent understanding of the genre. Everything about it screams that from beginning to end, from plot decision to the final scene - which has been used before on the Twilight Zone (LoBrutto, 453).
One can certainly make the case that this is not so much a horror film as it is a Kubrick film. According to the interpretation of critic Kian Bergstrom, the title of the film and the novel alike are a reference to the works of Jacques Derrida ( The ‘shining’ is the ability shared by the characters of Danny and Grady that allows them to communicate without the limitations of language. In his book On Grammatology, Derrida argued that “There is no phenomenality reducing the sign or the representer so that the thing signified may be allowed to glow finally in the luminosity of its presence” (49). Even if a screenwriter strove for absolute fidelity when adapting a novel, as soon as the script is greenlighted for production, it becomes the director’s role to translate these words into the somewhat more abstract text of image and sound. By the time the film hits distribution, the screenplay is an artifact. With this in mind, perhaps it is indeed better to think of the film in an entirely separate light from the novel, which is not to suggest that it replaces the book so much as that it simply exists independently of the source material upon which it is based. 

There are in fact many notable difference between the King novel and the Kubrick film, not the least of which is the overall central theme that each of these narratives presents to its audience. In the book, there is no ambiguity about the fact that Jack is possessed by an evil spirit, which critics have argued is a metaphor that runs parallel to his character’s increasingly erratic alcoholism. In many ways, Jack is therefore presented as a victim, driven toward self-destruction by forces that are beyond his control. 

Conversely, in the film, the final scene that King was referring to seems to provide punctuation on a thematic statement that Jack’s self-induced madness is actually a component of his own personal hell that he is condemned to repeat ad infinitum. This is much like the Twilight Zone episode entitled “Judgment Night,” in which a German submarine captain becomes a passenger on the ship that he attacked, and he is damned to repeat this event forever from the perspective of one of his victims. King suggests that this idea is echoed in the Kubrick film, alluded to in the final shot of the movie where we see a group photo that was taken in 1921 in which Jack prominently appears, coupled with the line that occurred earlier in the restroom, in which he is informed that he has “always been the caretaker” (Kubrick, The Shining). Neither of these events occurs in the novel, and they seem to suggest that the world encapsulated in this film only exists in the mind and/or private hell of Jack Torrance. In contrast, the novel takes place in what is essentially a realistic world that merely contains uncanny elements of the supernatural.   

Another Kubrick film that raises questions of fidelity to the original text is his 1962 adaptation of Lolita, which was even marketed with the phrase “How did they ever make a movie out of Lolita?” The answer to this, of course, is rather complicated. Vladimir Nabokov, the author of the 1955 novel of the same name, in collaboration with Kubrick, penned the original script for this film. It was over four hundred pages long. Uncut, this would have been a nearly seven hour movie. Kubrick then borrowed certain elements from this version of the script in what was otherwise a complete and total rewrite. Part of the reason for many of the changes that were made was the simple fact that Kubrick was unable to secure financing in the United States unless he agreed to a massive overhaul of the original story. One of the changes proposed by Hollywood studio executives in order to make this story filmable included having Lolita and Humbert get married in the end (Baxter, 116). Had Kubrick agreed to this change instead of turn to European investors for financing, the film would have had a completely different theme than the original novel. However, even in the version that was eventually produced, the thematic statement seems to be much different than that which Nabokov had originally intended. 

In the book, Humbert Humbert, convicted for his crimes, recounts the story from a prison cell, and from this perspective, he offers much detail of the psychological motivations behind the actions of his character. Humbert claims that when he was young, he was in love with a girl his own age named Annabel, who died of typhus shortly after their first, albeit awkward, sexual encounter. We are led to believe that this stunted his psychological development in regard to his preferences of attraction and was thus directly responsible for the pedophilia that manifested itself in his adult life. Annabel was the precursor to his first wife, in whom he saw many physical similarities to his lost love, and the memories of Annabel that continued to haunt him were also the central motivating factor in his perverse interest in Delores Haze. Not one of the aforementioned elements was ever even hinted at in the film.

In fact, one could even argue that Kubrick presented Humbert as a victim of sorts, in that he was just as much the object of Lolita’s seduction as she was of his. This presents a theme that calls to question our basic assumptions about innocence. In the book, Humbert addresses the reader as the jury which is to judge his actions with full knowledge of the motivations behind them. In the film, the character of Quilty – who was a very minor character in the book, but his part was expanded primarily to offer Peter Sellers more screen time – performs the role of judge and executioner, despite the fact that he is every bit as perverse and morally corrupt as Humbert himself. Whereas one of the principal themes of the book seems to be that the events that shape our childhood can manifest themselves by having an inverse effect on our adult lives, the Kubrick film seems to suggest that unhealthy obsession leads to self-destruction and that good and evil may not always fulfill our preconceived expectations. The film also attempts to illustrate the hypocrisy of a society in which the sins of others are judged by those who are just as guilty.

A Clockwork Orange is another example of a Kubrick adaptation that offers a very different central theme than the novel upon which it was based. The reason for this is primarily the omission of the book’s final chapter in the film adaptation. Although many details remain in tact, including the names of all of the characters and even numerous and very specific bits of dialogue, the underlying message presented in the movie is almost the polar opposite of that which is illustrated in the original novel. The film famously ends with Alex looking directly into the camera, bookending the first shot of the movie, and offering the line through voiceover dialogue: “I was cured all right” (Kubrick, A Clockwork Orange). Through bitter irony, Alex seems to be suggesting that fundamentally, people do not change, and that the only hope for reform is to take away free will, which stripped away his humanity and proved to be, in many ways, just as bad as the crimes for which he was convicted. This is exactly how the sixth chapter of the novel ends.

  However, the seventh chapter – which in fairness, also did not appear in the original American publication of A Clockwork Orange, though it did appear in the British version – presents Alex with his new gang of droogs, exhibiting the same criminal behavior as he did in the early chapters of the novel. Then he goes to a coffee shop by himself and runs into his old mate Pete, who no longer sports any gang-related garb, nor does he speak in the slang of the subculture to which he once belonged. Rather, he wears a business suit and sits with his young wife, and when he meets Alex again for the first time in years, they barely recognize each other. The inclusion of this ending offers an entirely different reading on the overall thematic statement of the narrative. It seems to suggest that people do in fact change on their own accord, and that this is simply a natural part of growing up. 

One characteristic that is common to the film adaptations of each of the aforementioned novels is that they all feature a protagonist who is fundamentally evil, although each of these characters is presented in what could be considered a sympathetic light. Kubrick had a tendency to lead his audiences to identify with the darker side of humanity, perhaps to offer some kind of statement about the complexity of good and evil. Even beyond the context of these three films, if we are to look at Kubrick’s collective works as part a larger canon, on a very basic level, they all share a common theme. Every one of his films explores the relationships between humanity and the institutions of society. In The Shining, one of the central conflicts was that of man versus the trappings of family, not unlike Lolita or Eyes Wide Shut, which in many ways were about the conflict between man and the institution of marriage. Similarly, the conflict in A Clockwork Orange was that of man versus a misguided legal system, and Dr. Strangelove, Full Metal Jacket, and Paths of Glory all prominently featured the conflict of humanity against each other, but also against the machines of war.

It is also important to recognize the social context of each of Kubrick’s films, as this can also provide hints pertaining to the director’s motivations in choosing which stories to adapt and why. For example, once he had achieved mainstream success with Spartacus, he chose Lolita for his next project. It was made in 1962, at a time when even the book that was published seven years prior was still being harshly criticized for its content. Sexual deviance was not a theme that was commonly explored in the matinees of the time, but with this film, Kubrick made what many critics argue was his first significant move toward redefining the boundaries of cinema. He was a skilled chess player who, even in life, seemed to calculate his every action.  Kubrick followed Lolita with Dr. Strangelove, a dark comedy about nuclear obliteration that was produced less than two years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, and one could argue that this film effectively illustrated the absurdity of humanity’s predisposition toward self-destruction. His next film was 2001: A Space Odyssey, which pioneered the space epic genre, leading the way for Star Wars and countless other films, and with the critical success that it achieved in the spirit of innovation, he was given carte blanche on his next project. 

A Clockwork Orange was the first movie that he made after the MPAA instituted its rating system. It is no coincidence that in many ways, Kubrick, himself, also embodied the conflict of man versus the institutions of society. As he had anticipated, his film was given an X rating, which effectively prevented it from being widely distributed, but this did virtually nothing to diminish its critical appeal. Similarly, Barry Lyndon, in many ways, seemed to be a response to the ubiquity of the action-film genre in the seventies, or even a response to mainstream Hollywood itself. While the industry was making movies that were larger than life, Barry Lyndon offered a naturalistic alternative, a reminder that film need not reinvent the basic principles of aesthetics. 

By the time he acquired the rights, The Shining was already a best-seller. Many critics view the adaptation as an attempt to regain some pull in the industry by creating a movie with built-in box office appeal. Despite being one of the fifty top-grossing films of the decade (, the critical response was lukewarm at best; but in 1987, he made Full Metal Jacket, which once again made him a favorite to the critics. It took him twelve years before he followed this with Eyes Wide Shut, which was still in post-production when he died in 1999. 

As films based on novels, each of these movies raises questions that are common in addressing the importance of fidelity in cinematic adaptations. However, one must also consider that the mythology of our ancestors went through a similar process of adaptation from the oral tradition to the written text. In fact, most classical literature to which we credit authors such as Homer or even Shakespeare can rightfully be attributed to folklore that existed long before they were committed to the page. Nonetheless, these authors made these stories their own. 

In reference to Kubrick’s version of Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov commented that the “author’s goal of infinite fidelity” may be a “producer’s ruin” (Stam, 160). Similarly, Stephen King was so disappointed with the unfaithful representation of Kubrick’s adaptation of his work that in 1997, King was directly involved in the crafting of a four-part miniseries aimed at successfully presenting the central ideas and nuances of the original text in ways that the 1980 film, in his opinion, failed to accomplish. The full title of the miniseries was Stephen King’s The Shining. Even in the case of Full Metal Jacket, which was adapted from the novel The Short Timers by Gustav Hasford – who was also credited as one of the writers of the screenplay – the film contains very few lines of dialogue from the original source material. Much of it, particularly the first half of the film, was improvised on set (Baxter, 337). Kubrick’s working relationship with Hasford involved sending drafts of the script back and forth in the mail along with notes in regard to the changes that needed to be made. After this process had been going on for quite a while, they finally met face-to-face for the first time, after which Hasford was completely shut out of the production, mostly on account of their conflicting personalities and unwavering ideas about how the screenplay should be written (Baxter, 341). 

On the opposite end of the spectrum, in the case of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Arthur C. Clarke wrote the novel concurrently with the screenplay that he was developing with Kubrick. In fact, the title page of the book includes the acknowledgment: “Based on a Screenplay by Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke.” As such, the novel and the film are in many ways complementary to one another. The book helps to clarify some of the ideas that remain abstract in the film, particularly the ending, and the film offers a visual reference to the elaborate set-pieces that are described in the novel. 

It may very well be a result of Kubrick’s background as a drummer that the music in this film, as well as virtually any other of his films that are immediately identifiable as his own, are all driven by music to such a degree that the soundtrack becomes just as much of an integral part of the narrative as any other element of the misc-en-scene, and because it represents an aspect of the narrative that cannot be captured on the page, it effectively illustrates one of the many limitations of the written text. In each of these cases, the books present the reader with characters and ideas that are often scaled down or even drastically changed for the film, but the adaptations offer audiences an experience that engages the senses in ways that the original text cannot.  

Perfect fidelity in an adaptation is redundant. Hypothetically, if the exact same ideas can be conveyed in either format, then one would be just as well off either reading the book or watching the movie; and beyond comparative analysis, there would be little purpose in doing both. Literary purists seem to think that there is something inherently inferior to an adaptation, particularly if it does not closely adhere to the original text, but as I have suggested, perhaps one should consider the different forms in a lateral sense instead of focusing on the elements in which they overlap. Theme is the literary device that allows a narrative to connect to its audience on a humanistic level, and more than anything, it is the theme that maintains resonance well after the experience of having engaged with the narrative has passed. With this noted, it stands to reason that even if the characters and plot are essentially the same in an adaptation as in the source material upon which it is based, if each respective work provides a thematic statement that is more or less unique to itself, then a reader or viewer has something to gain from each. 

Perhaps it is best to think of the theme as the thesis that an author or filmmaker sets out to prove by using the tools present within the context of a particular narrative. In A Clockwork Orange, for example, Kubrick used Alex and his experiences in the penal system to prove that people should not be forced to change against their will, just like Anthony Burgess used these exact same elements to prove that people do in fact change, but only on their own terms. This also supports the commonly held belief that film is a director’s medium, just as novels are an author’s medium. In a movie, more often than not, one of the most important contributions that a director makes is this conveyance of theme, which in turn, drives all other decisions in the film’s execution. Most critics that support the auteur theory would agree that Kubrick aptly fits within this notion of director as author, particularly because he leaves such a distinctive mark on each of his films, and when viewed as a canon of collected works, the intertextual parallels from one film to the next are relatively self-evident. 

The Shining and Lolita have both been re-adapted since the Kubrick productions of these films, both with the intent of remaining truer to the original text than their antecedents, as if to supersede the Kubrick films that were thought to have subverted the source material. However, neither of the later versions of these movies achieved anything near the critical and/or financial success of their initial adaptations. In fact, this seems to support the notion that when a film tries to convey the exact same message as extrapolated upon in the original text, what the director actually seem to be saying to the audience is: read the book. Realistically, films that try to achieve near perfect fidelity to the source material, though limited to the time constraints imposed by audience expectations, are often the visual equivalent of Cliff’s Notes, whereas adaptations that present an audience with something different can, and in fact should exist independently of the novels upon which they are based. To put it another way, Bob Dylan may have written “All Along the Watchtower,” but to many of us, this is a quintessential song in the catalog of Jimi Hendrix, and it offers a receptive audience an entirely different experience than the original. In a similar respect, the films of Stanley Kubrick, though based on other works, are marked by the presence of a thematic undercurrent that renders each of these films distinctly his own.

Works Cited 

2001: a Space Odyssey. Dir. Stanley Kubrick. Perf. Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood. DVD. Warner Brothers, 1968.  

Barry Lyndon. Dir. Stanley Kubrick. Perf. Ryan O'Neal, Marisa Berenson. DVD. Warner Brothers, 1975.  

Baxter, John. Stanley Kubrick: a Biography. New York: Carroll & Graf, Inc., 1997.  

Bergstrom, Kian. “‘I am sorry to differ with you, sir: Thoughts on Reading Kubrick’s The Shining.The Kubrick Site. 2000. <>.

Burgess, Anthony. A Clockwork Orange. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1962.  

Clarke, Arthur C. 2001: a Space Odyssey. New York: Penguin, 1968.  

A Clockwork Orange. Dir. Stanley Kubrick. Perf. Malcolm McDowell, Patrick Magee. DVD. Warner Brothers, 1972.  

Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1974.  

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Dir. Stanley Kubrick. Perf. Peter Sellers, George C. Scott. DVD. Warner Brothers, 1964.  

Eyes Wide Shut. Dir. Stanley Kubrick. Perf. Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman. Warner Brothers, 1999.  

Full Metal Jacket. Dir. Stanley Kubrick. Perf. Matthew Modine, Vincent D'Onofrio. DVD. Warner Brothers, 1987.  

Hasford, Gustav. The Short Timers. New York: Bantam, 1980.  

"Judgment Night." The Twilight Zone. CBS. 4 Dec. 1959.  

King, Stephen. The Shining. New York: Pocket, Inc., 2002.  

LoBrutto, Vincent. Stanley Kubrick: A Biography. New York: Perseus Books, 1997.

Lolita. Dir. Stanley Kubrick. Perf. James Mason, Shelley Winters. DVD. MGM, 1962.  

Nabokov, Vladimir. Lolita. New York: Vintage Books, 1955.  

Paths of Glory. Dir. Stanley Kubrick. Perf. Kirk Douglas, Ralph Meeker. DVD. United Artists, 1957.  

The Shining. Dir. Stanley Kubrick. Perf. Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall. DVD. Warner Brothers, 1980.  

Spartacus. Dir. Stanley Kubrick. Perf. Kirk Douglas, Lawrence Olivier. DVD. Universal Pictures, 1960.  

Stam, Robert. Reflexivity in Film and Literature: From Don Quixote to Jean Luc Godard. New York: Columbia University Press, 1992.

Stephen King's the Shining. Dir. Mick Garris. Perf. Steven Weber, Rebecca De Mornay. DVD. Warner Bros. Television, 1997.