Based on some of his mid-career works such as Scanners, Videodrome, The Fly, Naked Lunch and Existenz (several of which are on my to do list for future film analysis) David Cronenberg has long been a permanent figure among my top twenty-or-so favourite film directors of all time. I’ve found many of his interviews about his better films, and the psychology behind them, incredibly informative and, in particular, his most surrealist works have provided partial inspiration to me as a film maker working outside of the lame dialogue / exposition form of storytelling commonly referred to as the “screenplay”.
So it came as a surprise and a disappointment to me today to read in the Guardian newspaper about Cronenberg’s recent dismissal of Stanley Kubrick as a primarily commercial film maker compared to himself and his assertion that The Shining is a poor horror film that supposedly reveals Kubrick’s lack of understanding of the genre. Despite my great respect for Cronenberg’s better works, I’m compelled to respond with a number of relevant observations of my own about the comparisons between the films of Cronenberg and Kubrick.
In 1983 Cronenberg released his film adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dead Zone, which was four years after Kubrick’s adaptation of King’s The Shining was released. Unlike Kubrick, Cronenberg’s effort was very faithful to the source novel. Compared to his preceding three films (The Brood, Scanners, Videodrome) Cronenberg seemed to suppress his own “body horror” aesthetics to make a simple, commercial supernatural horror film. The result was a competent film adaptation of a competent, but not particularly special, novel by the supposed “master of horror” Stephen King (I prefer Clive Barker personally). Cronenberg played down his own artistic leanings so much that if his name had been removed from all marketing materials for The Dead Zone, then we could just as easily assume it had been directed by, say, Brian DePalma.
It’s arguable that, in the light of preceding successful film and tv adaptations of Stephen King books (Salem’s Lot, Carrie, The Shining, Creepshow – a pattern that has since bred finance for dozens more, mostly pathetic, easy money film adaptations of King novels), Cronenberg saw in The Dead Zone an opportunity to make an easy commercial hit. Tobe Hooper, Brian DePalma, Stanley Kubrick and George A. Romero had laid the ground work with their successful adaptations of King novels and Cronenberg was next in line. Unlike Kubrick’s efforts with The Shining, Cronenberg appears to have made little effort to expand his version of The Dead Zone artistically beyond King’s source novel or technically in terms of film making craft. Let’s compare the two films in a little more detail.
Kubrick’s Shining involved pioneering use of the steadicam in combination with incredible set designs. Cronenberg’s Dead Zone is an assembly-line, by-the-numbers affair in terms of cinematography and set designs, perhaps with the exception a few images such as the long shot of a wet tunnel murder scene that looks, possibly by intention, somewhat like a spider web.
Kubrick’s Shining plays with concepts of the past and future throughout – Danny’s horror visions of the dead twins, ghostly hag in the bath tub and river of blood are striking and have etched themselves in cinematic history as great horror moments – and the cryptic moments of Jack Torrance talking to ghosts of the past and showing up in an end photo still stimulate interpretational debate today. By poor comparison, Cronenberg’s Dead Zone’s only significant non-dialogue feature is the occasional appearance of the central character within the past and future events he experiences telepathically, but it’s purely cinematic and has little effect on the story.
Christopher Walken’s central performance in Cronenberg’s Dead Zone is competent, but does not stretch the actor’s abilities in any sense, while Kubrick extracted one of Nicholson’s most intricate and renowned performances for The Shining, achieved through large numbers of takes and a great deal of on-set experimentation.
David Lynch and Martin Scorsese have referenced their admiration of Kubrick’s Shining by including music from The Shining score in their own movies (Inland Empire and Shutter Island, respectively) along with visual references/homages to Kubrick’s film. Scorsese has, in interviews, also voiced his admiration for Kubrick’s only horror film. The Shining also consistently appears high in critics’ choices of all time best horror films, while Cronenberg’s Dead Zone scarcely gets a look in.
In summary, Cronenberg’s Dead Zone is an efficient, and unimaginative, straight adaptation that reveals almost everything it has to offer in a single viewing, while Kubrick’s Shining virtually rewrites King’s novel for increased cinematic impact and rewatch value … and it succeeds. Anyone who thinks Kubrick was wrong to make so many alterations in his adaptation should check out the faithful, Stephen King endorsed, tv mini-series of The Shining released 17 years after Kubrick’s version – it isn’t a patch on Kubrick’s version. If it was, people would be raving about it.
Could it be that Cronenberg feels a little bias against Kubrick’s The Shining, being that his own film adaptation of a Stephen King book has not achieved comparable cult status? Despite Cronenberg’s claim that he is the more personal and less commercial film maker, the difference in stature between Kubrick’s Shining and Cronenberg’s Dead Zone suggest the opposite. Kubrick stamped his own personality on The Shining in a way that prompted initial, and misplaced, rejection from several critics and particularly angered hardcore Stephen King fans, while Cronenberg played it commercially safe and artistically restrained with the Dead Zone. Kubrick took risks. Cronenberg didn’t. Kubrick had statements of his own to make. Cronenberg didn’t.
Cronenberg has, admirably, made some very challenging films that break the standard rules of cinematic storytelling, such as Videodrome and Naked Lunch, but this is in stark contrast to movies like The Fly, The Dead Zone, and Eastern Promises, which are quite straight forward. With the exception of The Fly, Cronenberg has never really been able to successfully combine his trademark personal “body horror” films (his early background in biological sciences are frequently cited as the source of this) with his ability to direct by-the-numbers commercial genre films. Despite strong special effects and what some might perceive as exploitation gore, surrealist Cronenberg films like Videodrome and Naked Lunch were box office failures. Naked Lunch was, in fact, such a huge financial disaster that Cronenberg has only made one venture into “body horror” since (1996’s Crash, also a box office flop). Even his sci-fi film, Existenz, which included interesting “body horror” elements, was a commercial bomb.
By contrast, Kubrick’s The Shining is very light on gore and has just one “body horror” scene (the rotting hag in Room 237) and was a commercial hit. Kubrick didn’t fail to understand the horror genre at all. It’s quite the opposite. With his one attempt at the genre he made a movie that, artistically and commercially, was superior to virtually all of the eight or ten horror films Cronenberg has made, despite horror being Cronenberg’s speciality. If anything, I’d say Cronenberg has a limited understanding of most genres, demonstrated by his less impressive work outside his own “body horror” forte. Whereas Kubrick’s filmography is one of the most thematically diverse of any film maker in history … Dr Strangelove (comedy, nuclear politics), 2001: A Space Odyssey (sci-fi, technology), Lolita (drama, relationships), The Shining (horror), Full Metal Jacket (war), Eyes Wide Shut (conspiracies, relationships, sexuality), Barry Lyndon (historical drama), A Clockwork Orange (sociology, politics, violence, propaganda) and all of these films are still socially relevant.
A key element in Kubrick’s repertoire was what I call the “double narrative”, meaning that a film can have a commercially accessible surface story to satisfy broad audience tastes, while also containing subtle clues hinting at an alternative narrative of a more personal nature to the film maker. It’s a type of film making that requires a level of effort and imagination that, to date, I have not seen at work in Cronenberg’s films.
Rather than taking his own box office failures as awards for “personal” film making, Cronenberg ought to recognize that a great film maker doesn’t need to alternate between making unimaginative commercial films one year and alienating audiences with full on surrealism the next. It is perfectly feasible to be artistic and commercial at the same time. This is one yardstick where Kubrick surpasses Cronenberg. After getting his commercial flops out of the way early on, Kubrick had a run of nine commercially successful films from 1960 (Spartacus) through to 1999 (Eyes Wide Shut). Most of those films, such as Lolita, 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, The Shining and Eyes Wide Shut, have triggered intense public debate of social issues that Cronenberg’s personal films have never matched outside of the limited horror genre audiences they appeal to.