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Why Stephen King Is Utterly Wrong About ‘Room 237’

Why Stephen King Is Utterly Wrong About 'Room 237'

For a great writer, Stephen King can be kind of an idiot. One of the subjects on which he is most frequently an idiot is Stanley Kubrick’s "The Shining," whose lack of fidelity to King’s book still eats at him after nearly three and a half decades. But it’s surprising that blind spot extends to "Room 237," Rodney Ascher’s documentary about "Shining" obsessives and their wacked-out theories of what it’s "really" about. A Q&A from Rolling Stone featured this exchange:

Did you see that new documentary Room "237" about obsessive fans of Stanley Kubrick’s "The Shining"?

Yeah. Well, let me put it this way – I watched about half of it and got sort of impatient with it and turned it off.

Why?

These guys were reaching. I’ve never had much patience for academic bullshit. It’s like Dylan says, “You give people a lot of knives and forks, they’ve gotta cut something.” And that was what was going on in that movie.

King joins a distressingly long line of viewers who continue to miss the point of "Room 237," ranging from Leon Vitali, Kubrick’s former assistant and the current caretaker of his work, to Uproxx’s Heather Dockray, who wrote "It isn’t just that ‘Room 237’ is bad, it’s thoroughly insufferable, some NYU freshman’s five-page paper, magically transformed into ‘a movie.’" (Why the scare quotes around "movie"? Who "knows"?)

Considering that "Room 237" is about the perils of over-interpretation, there’s a fitting irony in the fact that so many people continue to under-interpret it, taking the movie as a flat representation of plausible theories, one of which posits "The Shining" as Kubrick’s coded confession for having helped fake the moon landing. Ascher could bolster his subjects’ credibility, informing us that Bill Blakemore, who surmises that the movie is secretly about the genocide of Native Americans, is a veteran ABC News correspondent and not some basement-dwelling black helicopter obsessive, but he deliberately withholds that information, letting the theories stand — and inevitably fall — on their own.

What’s frustrating about King’s remarks is that he walks right up to the edge of understanding before storming up in a huff. His Dylan paraphrase about knives and forks is on the money: "Room 237" is indeed about the indiscriminate application of analytical tools, which is what happens when film criticism is practiced without self-criticism. (Many initial reviews pegged "Room 237" as a movie about film critics, which I would agree with only with the stipulation that they are bad critics.) But to dismiss it as "academic bullshit" says much more about King than it does about "Room 237." In discussing what "Room 237" is really about, one runs the risk, of course, of sounding perilously like one of the movie’s subjects, but that’s just one more way in which it functions, brilliantly, as a kind of recursive Rorschach test.

Although some of "Room 237’s" subjects do have university backgrounds, their methods have less to do with academia than the Internet, and with a specific kind of close reading that would have been extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible, when Kubrick made "The Shining." In poring over still images, like the purported picture of a minotaur or the Dopey sticker on Danny’s door, they effectively thwart the film’s forward motion, ignoring its obsessively crafted text to construct their own, often unrelated meanings. (What does faking the moon landing have to do with a writer driven mad by his inability to create?) It’s strikingly similar to the way "Sopranos" fans pore over the supposedly hidden details of the series’ ending while breezing right past its actual form. In both cases, the creators — Stanley Kubrick and David Chase — are assumed to have infinite control over their work, so much so that any detail must have been put there on purpose, a bizarre and incoherent inversion of literary deconstruction. What makes "Room 237" so powerful is the way it implies that this apophenia (look it up; you’ll be glad you did) is a necessary form of madness, one that critics and viewers should employ as they might a powerful demon, exercising great caution lest they lose themselves in the process.

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Comments

EthicalBob

Enjoyed the article, but had to point out that this is a critique of an author (King), critiquing a film about multiple critiques of the theories of a film. It’s the inception of articles ;)

LC

Calling SK an idiot because he doesn’t happen to agree with your opinion (or a majority opinion or a minority opinion or ANYONE’s opinion) on this documentary (or any documentary) about a film (based on a directors interpretation of a story that came out of SK’s brain) immediately negates your reasoning as to why you feel he is in the wrong, sound arguments don’t need name calling….Now Good Day To You! I said Good Day! :)

AB

You’re not supposed to "miss the point" of a documentry. You could miss the point of a Kubrick film which is why I dislike him. I’ve seen Room 237 multiple times and while I do think it’s interesting, many of the ideas are farfetched. They point out symbols and how the relate to different things but fail to elaborate on what Kubrick is saying about each subject and how he expresses his views throughout the film. A lot of it seems like "academic bullshit" and many could not make a complete sentence without saying "ummm" and restarting what they were saying. The first time I watched Room 237 I turned it off halfway because some of the commentators seem incomprehensible of talking. Other than that, it was still interesting. (IMO) Kubrick was an innovator in film and made beautiful shots in his movies, but most of them are rubbish and I can barely make myself watch one of his films in a single sitting. Instead of telling us we "missed the point", how about explaining why.

Jack Rothko

I would say the comment about King being an idiot re: Kubrick/ The Shining is EASILY well validated by merely sitting thru the tv movie "Stephen King’s The Shining", not to mention how often he’s downgraded Kubrick’s work without objectively considering how mediocre the motion pictures are which were based on his OTHER novels.
That aside, I have to say this is fascinating, cutting edge documentary: it added chills to an already chilling picture; but most importantly for me, it argues that Kubrick SOMETHING RIGHT- no one has to agree at all on what, but there is an inexiplcable SOMETHING that inspired such obsessive scrutiny. After this doc, I started to appreciate all kinds of riveting cinema by presupposing much of what I watched was deliberate by the director, rather than by incident or neglect. For example, it’s easy for a modern viewer to poohpooh elements of Bergman, Antonioni or Ozu as needlessly artsy fartsy, but if one tunes in to how deliberate the mise-en-scene was designed, you get a careful glimpse how Kubrick understood cinema to be a supremely sublime artform.

Eduardo Hermann

I, ve watched Room 237 and as King, I foud very silly and boring. People are "hungry" to connect things. I think the only one thats might me true its about the red/yellow beetle.Ancient Aliens makes more sense rather room 237.

Windom Earle

Like 2001 Space Odyssey, Shining is too much for most people. Kubrick had 200 IQ and the best artistic freedom since then. His film sets had really few people and filming took lots and lots of time. One aspect of Shining is 99,999% sure, it was about apollo 11. And most of these details like the date July 21 ,69, are there literally hundred times in different scenes, but totally impossible to see without at least DVD. But did he really wanted everybody to find out this 35yrs ago and get killed because of that? If you find it too hard to imagine that guy with 200IQ could predict that there would be something like "DVD/Computers and great quality TV" in the somewhat near future with his films redistributed to masses?

To the Room 237, I really think Shining has many different but parallel linked themes. These themes are told by things like genocide of Indians. Most of the things in room 237 are in the Shining, but I dont agree all the conclusions. I have watched many other documents and have read articles on web and watched every Kubric films since Paths of Glory.

Those hundreds clues are there to make you watch the film over and over again and to think about the themes you think you saw. And to verify your findings, like the A11, A and number 11 in some other way. Those are in such imaginary way in the film that you only believe it really is what you think when you find it the fiftieth time and can say its statistically impossible to find those things so many times without it being deliberately put there. Those get your addicted and thinking, receiving the kubricks Shining.

I know many of you think Im crazy, thats OK.

Robert-Jan

Sam, I’d like you to consider that you posit your own interpretation of ‘Room 237’ as fact and therein lies the problem of your entire argument. You state ‘Room 237’ is about (bad) critics, even though any legitimate form of criticism is nonexistent throughout the film, even praise is sparse.
My own interpretation of ‘Room 237’ is that it is a film which explores the practice of movie analysis and it’s inherent ambiguity. The different and interpretations given by the analysts are valid due to their argumentation. While sometimes vague and far-fetched their analyses are meaningful and based upon their experience of the film.

Mackie

Calling Stephen King a "great writer" tells me oodles about Sam Adams’ writing.

geoffrey cocks

Sam, you should read my book on Kubrick before you dismiss my reading of his films. My arguments about The Shining are based on a great deal of careful research into Kubrick’s life, times, and cinema.

Felicia

FICTION by definition is?

Andrew Williams

I like how Stephen King being upset Stanley Kubrick took his book and completely changed it for screen makes him an idiot.

Jakob

Yeah, how can the dude be wrong for having an opinion about works derived from his own?

Neglify

"Room 237" was terrible. Sure, there was some interesting things said, but it was a 90 minute YouTube-poop analysis of "The Shining". I really don’t understand why people have praised this "documentary" so much. The editing was shite, the commentators were amateur, the end product was feeble. And it’s nothing revelatory; I’ve been reading better analyses of "The Shining" since 1998.

Kevin

Calling Stephen King an idiot is just poor taste, even in hyperbole. It reads as a distracting stain in an otherwise interesting article, and it is the mark of an immature writer or editor. Bummer, guys. Don’t sell your soul for a lead in.

BH

I too couldn’t stand the film. Had to turn it off half way through which is something I hate doing. I’d have to agree with some critics who found it insufferable, but I am not a critic. I’m just a lowly viewer who didn’t like the film. Does that mean I "missed the point?" Or could it be that film is actually subjective, and viewers and critics alike are free form their opinions?

Chris Weitz

Some things to keep in mind: 1) Films are made piecemeal and with detail in mind, not with the same momentum or coherence that way hint a film implies.
2) the auteur theory is gr ahoy to blame in convincing people that filmmakers are responsible for every last thing in their films. That said, Kubrick is one of the most auteurist filmmakers I can think of.
3) films can be about many things, containing primary and ancillary meanings of all sorts; their ways of saying what they are about are widely varied.

Awake

"Condemnation before investigation is the height of ignorance" I’m now in my forties, I stopped reading Stephen King in my early twenties, since that’s as far as his maturity level had reached.

robert

the problem with Room 237 is that is is not ABOUT "the indiscriminate application of analytical tools" it IS "the indiscriminate application of analytical tools." Instead of being a documentary ABOUT the weird theories or the theorists behind them, it simply presents the theories, which presupposes de facto support of said theories. a documentary about the theorists and their theories would have been amazing. instead, Room 237 is a rather flat offering of crazy instead of a LOOK AT crazy

BK93

Have you read James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake? There is some consensus on what it is "about". Go read it yourself and come up with your own version and then compare it it to the general consensus.

VR

For a writer to call one of the most successful writers in the world an ‘idiot’ merely shows that there is only one idiot in question.

Dennis Harvey

I can understand how King might have disliked Kubrick’s "The Shining," which is much better taken as a stand-alone work of art than as an adaptation of the book (which in some respects it completely bungles). But then King tried to right that apparent wrong by putting his full support behind the TV miniseries version…which was worse, and just as unfaithful to the letter of the book, particularly toward the end. And in any case, his criticisms about "Room 237" show he’s blinded by anything related to Kubrick’s film, since the documentary is (rather brilliantly) ABOUT people’s obsessive theories regarding that movie, NOT an endorsement of those frequently crackpot theories.

Dave (or Bill)

"For a great writer…" Wait, what? You ARE aware Stephen King peddles pulp horror to lowest common denominator, aren’t you? You indiewire eggheads are something else.

ryan

Funny that in railing against intellectuals, he quotes Dylan who is the King of unnecessary metaphors.

Joe

I didn’t like Room 237 for the same reasons. Does that make me an idiot? No. So why is Stephen King one?
He wrote the book the film is based on. He’s not just some schmuck sitting behind a computer calling Stephen King an idiot, he’s the damn author. No book, no movie. You see where I’m going? He can hate it all he wants, because it’s his story, and in his mind’s eye, Kubrick butchered it. I agree, Kubrick butchered the original story, and in turn made it his own unique thing. The book is a masterpiece. The movie is a nice interpretation, but it’s not perfection either.

John

Stephen King makes so much money he doesn’t need to worry about assholes like you that are simply jealous of his talent. So you don’t like it who cares? Who are you?

John

".S. The casting for this movie was also so completely off of the book descriptions. Jack Nicholson looked psychotic from the beginning of the movie"

The casting is off because Nicholson is so over the top that he comes of as funny instead of scary.I’m easily scared with horror movies and never for a moment I was scared of his character in The Shining

Joe A

Room 237 is not a particularly good doc tho IMHO. Some of the movie ‘theatre re-creation’ scenes are inept and perplexing. The room simply benefits from its subject matter.

ChristineL

P.S. The casting for this movie was also so completely off of the book descriptions. Jack Nicholson looked psychotic from the beginning of the movie, Shelley Duvall was absolutely awful as Wendy (a sniveling basket case for most of the film, obviously written that way by Kubrick, not from the original story), and the ax versus the croquet mallet? Come on! That was such an integral point of the film, as was the damn boiler blowing up! I could go on and on about that film… The TV miniseries, that King wrote the screenplay for was more true to the book than Kubrick’s twisted interpretation of it. The casting was better, the story was more true to the book, and I believe it blew the box office version away. Anything King gets involved with that he wrote turns out the way it should. True to the book.

    Mariano Paniello

    The TV version was about as scary as Disney World’s Haunted Mansion.

ChristineL

Talk about over-interpretation… Is that film really that worthy of it? Stephen King, however you may feel about him, had and has a right to be miffed about Kubrick’s major deviation from the original story. That is his right as the author of it. He never wanted Kubrick to take that story, and make the movie. He knew he would take poetic license to the nth degree with it, and the reason he is still put off by it, is it has become a film classic for its genre! King had room 217, Kubrick made it 237, so he changed the original story’s infamous room number, just like he did with the whole damn movie. I am a mild Kubrick fan, but a bigger King fan, and support his right as the author to feel the way he does about Kubrick’s interpretation, as well as this film.

MISS C MCCREA

This article is about as worthwhile as "Mick Jagger complains about Britneys cover of Satisfaction and he is so wrong." Stephen King is an adult making an informed decision, and you’re nothing more than an arrogant hipster for labelling his interpretation as "wrong"

John

Calling someone an idiot because that person disagrees about a movie.Real mature.

Max

The author sounds a bit butthurt that Kind didn’t like a documentary he likes. I didn’t care for it either. I found it simply boring and only got about three fourths of the way through it before turning it off.

Cassidy Robinson

Academic nonsense? I’m a film studies grad and we never go into subtextual criticism. It’s practically seen as ‘uncool’ now in the world of academia, in the same way that mainstream psychology programs have completely rejected Freudian Psychoanalysis. If anything, the movie is more like inline with docs like Trekkies; it’s about fandom. It’s also about the subjectivity of interpretation and mystique of Kubrick as cinematic Nostradamus type. I love the doc, and I don’t think all the theories are completley invalid, if anything, it made me appreciate The Shining even more, if that’s even possible.

    Karen

    That sucks. How can you get perspective on how narrative and cinematography affect our emotions and thinking without subtextual analysis? No one has to say “this is what the movie is saying”, in order to have a discussion of theme that goes deeper than surface. Why is it wrong to ask ourselves “what does this reaction I feel mean” and discuss that with others?

Daniella Isaacs

At the risk of being called "stupid," too, I have to say that there’s a real problem with the tone of ROOM 237. I went in expecting the film to be critical of–at least largely skeptical about–these obsessives, if that’s what you want to call them. But the film’s tone, and tone is a tricky thing, seems to constantly imply the strong possibility that these people, these obsessives, are on to something. Now, defenders of this film would say, "well, it’s trying to be ambiguous or ambivalent," but with a question like this you either side with the crazies or you call them crazy. There really shouldn’t be any middle ground. Can you imagine a film that claims to be criticizing the Obama "birthers," but also… you know… kind of hedges it’s bets and gets a lot of its tension from implying that "well… MAYBE there’s something there." I find ROOM 237 insufferable because it tries to have it both ways and frankly, seems to end up coming down more on the side of… "well…. MAYBE at least SOME of these theories are… well MAYBE correct." If Errol Morris had made the film we wouldn’t be having these discussions. And we’d probably have a great film to talk about.

    Karen

    Lumping in the crazy with the sane in this movie is a bit infuriating. I think showing us the commmentors with a credential caption might have gone a long way. They could have used some visual language of their own to present these people in some sort of context. Crazy people tend to look a little crazy with crazy offices and crazy trappings.

Andrea OL

RASHOMON and Room 237 suggest the same thing. Four people can see the exact same thing and see something entirely different. Reality isn’t just about what is seen but how it’s seen. The how makes one see more of certain things while nothing of other things.

Andrea OL

The main irony of ROOM 237 is that the obsessive interpreters of THE SHINING end up just like Jack Torrance. They become trapped in the mazes of their own making. The movie had the effect on them that the Overlook had on Torrance. It brings out their innate obsessive natures and lets them weave a web in which they themselves become entangled and cocooned. All interpretation and No life makes them dull boys and girls. To the extent that people can do this to themselves, ROOM 237 is sort of a horror film in its own right.

    Karen

    Spot on.

Eowyn Rohan

All due credit for Kubrick to take something such as The Shining, imbue it with creativity, and produce something extraordinary. Sadly, the same cannot be said for the formulaic output of a ham, such as Stephen King.

Andrea OL

"For a great writer, Stephen King can be kind of an idiot."

Calling him a great writer is sort of idiotic.

Danielkrone

Completely wrong about 237? If people continually ‘miss the point’ as you say perhaps it wasn’t well executed in the first place. I liked the film but I can see where people get annoyed with it. I don’t agree with the theories I just liked that they found some people with wild theories that all seem to differ and talked with them, the psychology of viewers overviewing cinema intrigued me but he could be calling ‘accademic bullshit’ based on the film’s style. He’s a smart man, he didn’t like something you appreciate, hell I appreciate it. No need to write a rebuttle argument calling him wrong. Lots of people don’t like this film.

RW

"For a great writer, Stephen King…" There’s your problem, right there in the opening words of the story.

Zach

He’s not an "kind of an idiot" for not appreciating a film you like. He wrote a book, Kubrick deviated from that book enough that King felt the horror aspects had been lost and essentially traded away for a high-end version of a nut with an axe film. This film is (as you so aptly put it) a rorschach test, the appreciation of which is unique to each viewer. He did not dig it. He gets it, he understands it, but feels it was not ‘fascinating’ but ‘boring’. Lots of films do this. I’m still having arguments with old friends over films I love that they hate. Just because they hate or don’t appreciate something I do does not make them "kind of an idiot".

NJ

Well, one can easily imagine that King’s famous dismissal of Kubrick’s (interpretation of) The Shining was along the same lines: ‘That Kubrick guy was reaching. I’ve never had much patience for academic bullshit. It’s like Dylan says, “You give people a lot of knives and forks, they’ve gotta cut something.” And that was what was going on in that movie.’

Joe

So Stephen King has to like the documentary because it was MEANT to be insufferable? You go on to state that the film was meant to be about over-analysing, and it’s pearls, King said he didn’t have time for that kind of film… it’s not that he “didn’t get it” you arrogant ass-hat, seems he described exactly what you described, even made an analogy that you say was on the money… he just didn’t have tome for it.

That is like me saying I didn’t like Transofmers cause it was just CGI and Explosions, then being accused of “Not getting it” because it was MEANT to be all CGI and Explosions. NO! I just didn’t like or have time for what it was about.

Was this article meant to sound like it was written by an idiot? DO I have to like it?

Karen

Don’t call out the Internet as a cauldron of unchecked theories and inanity, then resort to name calling. Degrades your good points. I like film analysis. I prefer a discussion of visual language used, theories on why it activates our emotions, or touches something in our subconscious to any overly subjective blabbering on a film’s merits. If a film is at all engaging, I like to understand why, not read how underwhelmed someone I care nothing for is. So, I enjoy “academic bullshit”. I’ve learned a lot about human brains and guts from discussion of literature and film.

    Karen

    BTW, Room 237 isn’t great and academic analysis throughout, but I did get some deeper understanding of my affinity for the movie from the more academically minded critics. I think people should really stop condemning academics in general. Some is naval gazing, sure, but anti-intellectual rhetoric leads to anti-intellectual policy and that is heinous.

Harold

Having finally forced myself to watch it i think you are being a little unfair to King. I looove The Shining, i knew “Room 237” was about people reading way too much into little details but i still find it a really difficult watch. IMO – after about 40 minutes it just becomes super-monotonous. And partly i think this is the fault of the documentarians who shoot everything with the use of footage from the Shining, other Kubrick films and a smattering of other things while having all the participants stick to voice over. It just wears you down and theres really nothing to be gained by watching past the 30 minute mark in terms of learning about apophenia or Kubrick obsessives.

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