Category Archives: literature

Kubrick, Kafka, and The Shining

“I have a wife, three children, three dogs, seven cats. I’m not a Franz Kafka, sitting alone and suffering” – Stanley Kubrick (1972).

As we mark the 100th anniversary of the publication of Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, this blog contains a few preliminary thoughts on the influence that he had on Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film The Shining, which marks its thirty-fifth year.

Kubrick was an avid reader of Kafka’s fiction and named him among his favorite authors. This may well have been because of their shared central European and Jewish heritage for Kubrick’s ancestors, like Kafka, hailed from parts of the Austro-Hungarian empire.

Even before he made The Shining, Kafka’s influence is detectable in Kubrick’s films, including Lolita (1962), Dr. Strangelove (1964), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and Barry Lyndon (1975). But it is perhaps in The Shining that Kubrick really showcases his Kafkaesque influences.

Diane Johnson, who co-wrote the screenplay with Kubrick, explained how he was drawn to King’s novel because of its “psychological underpinnings.” “A father threatening his child is compelling, it’s an archetypal enactment of unconscious rages. Stephen King isn’t Kafka, but the material of this novel is the rage and fear within families,” she has said.

It is highly significant that Johnson cited Kafka as her example here for Kafka haunts The Shining like one of The Overlook Hotel’s spectral figures. He is a ghostly presence in a number of ways. In a 1980 interview, Kubrick identified Kafka’s work as the template for the film:

The hotel’s labyrinthine layout and huge rooms, I believed, would alone provide an eerie enough atmosphere. This realistic approach was also followed in the lighting, and in every aspect of the décor. It seemed to me that the perfect guide for this approach could be found in Kafka’s writing style. His stories are fantastic and allegorical, but his writing is simple and straightforward, almost journalistic.

A year later, he told Cahiers du Cinema, “I compare the mood of the film to the lucid style of Kafka’s writing … it is not overwrought, for the fantastic should be based on the ordinary.” Thus, as scholar Geoffrey Cocks notes, the resulting horrors in The Shining “are Kafkaesque since they take place not in the gloomy shadows of an old private home but in the bright public rooms of modern life and activity.”

In The Shining Kubrick draws upon Kafka’s own obsessions. Father/son relations featured prominently throughout Kafka’s oeuvre. Hostility, or fear, of the father, in particular, pervades Kafka’s work – he had, in his own words, “written myself almost into a hatred of my father” – which was immortalized in his letter to him. According to Rodger Kamenetz:

Franz Kafka is about Yom Kippur, the day of judgment: the last chance, the knifing in the quarry, the gate closing on the last gleam of light. He dates his real beginning in writing to the night after Yom Kippur, 1912, when he wrote “The Judgment” and discovered his great subject – guilt and punishment […] Kafka’s “The Judgment” carries the feeling tone of Yom Kippur into an entirely secular context. It’s an assimilated story, though: its connection to Yom Kippur can be felt by those who know the feeling, and completely missed by those who don’t. It can be read simply as an Oedipal story, or a story of generational conflict. Except the father in Kafka is more terrible than God is in the akeidah. The father goes for the kill, while God, after testing Abraham’s faith substitutes a ram for Isaac.

These preoccupations bleed into Kubrick’s films, but particularly The Shining which, as I have argued elsewhere, can be read as Kubrick’s contribution to the commentaries on Genesis 22, that is “The Binding of Isaac,” known in Hebrew as the Akedah.

The Shining bears superficial resemblance to The Metamorphosis, in which a traveling salesman named Gregor Samsa awakens one morning to find himself transformed into a giant insect-like creature, possibly a beetle. This transformation from human to beast ironically frees him from life in modern society and liberates his family to achieve happiness without him. Like Gregor, Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) awakens from troubled dreams. His family is horrified but somehow recognizes him as their own Jack, albeit transformed. Eventually, though, as in The Metamorphosis, they decide that he is no longer their Jack, and that it would be a blessing for him to disappear. Reinforcing this connection are the Volkswagen Beetle that Jack drives and Jack’s mimicry of the wolfish commercial traveler.

In another nod, Shelley Duvall’s previous role had been a cameo in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1977). As Pam, one of Alvy Singer’s lovers, she had tells him “Sex with you is really a Kafkaesque experience.” Three years later, a Duvall character would be suffering another Kafkaesque experience at the hands of another Jewish New York director.

Another connection to Kafka is provided through the use of a hotel or sanatorium as a metaphor for mittel Europe. The Hotel Occidental in Kafka’s Amerika (1927), published one year before Kubrick was born, is suspiciously Central European.

The Shining was also surely influenced by Alain Resnais’ L’annee derniere a Marienbad/Last Year at Marienbad (1961). Among the many similarities are the shared locations in labyrinthine hotels which disorient the viewer in their maze-like layouts. In fin-de-siècle Europe and continuing until the 1930s, spas such as Marienbad had become recognized as “Jewish” such that Sholem Aleichem wrote about Polish Jews swanning around the eponymous spa town in his Marienbad (1911). One such, real-life, visitor, in July 1916, was Kafka himself, who wrote: “There are ghosts that haunt one in company and those that haunt one in solitude.”

This diary entry from Kafka certainly provides a fitting coda to The Shining and could be a tagline for the film.