Stanley Kubrick Kubrick, Stanley (Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism) - Essay


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Stanley Kubrick 1928–-1999

American director and screenwriter.

Kubrick's films are among the most ambitious and original of the late twentieth century. A controversial director of outlandish subjects and eccentric cinematic styles, Kubrick derived an artistic identity from his natural bent for novelty and inventiveness. He was an idiosyncratic artist, yet his work has wide appeal. Perhaps his greatest strength as a filmmaker was in his ability to make films that were readily accessible to the viewer while providing abundant matter for critical speculation.

Biographical Information

Kubrick was born on July 26, 1928, in Bronx, New York. The son of a prosperous doctor, he grew up interested in chess, photography, and movies. While in high school he sold some of his photographs to Look; after graduation, he became a staff photographer for that magazine. His first film short, Day of the Fight (1952), was originally a picture story in Look, and his increasing preoccupation with cinema led to a second short documentary entitled Flying Padre (1952). Kubrick sold these films to RKO at a slight profit and, after borrowing additional funds, made his first feature, Fear and Desire (1953). After the release of Lolita in 1962, Kubrick moved to England; where he lived and worked. His work in the 1960s and 1970s garnered much critical and commercial attention. In the last few decades of his life, he became an infamous recluse and was rarely seen in public. Right before the release of his final movie in 1999, Eyes Wide Shut, he died at his home in Hertfordshire, England.

Major Works

Kubrick's first feature, Fear and Desire, is identified by its stylishly imaginative camerawork and a somewhat erratic structure. It received critical approval but failed commercially. Killer's Kiss (1955) is also characterized by an interesting visual style and structure supporting a conventional storyline. Less conventional is The Killing (1956), a crime caper distinctive for relating its story with impersonal and efficient objectivity. Of the early films, the most highly regarded is Paths of Glory (1957), Its favorable critical reception promoted Kubrick to the stature of an important American director. After directing Spartacus (1959), a project on which he considered himself only hired talent, Kubrick chose to make a film from Vladimir Nabokov's controversial novel Lolita. The sometimes grotesque farce in Lolita is amplified in Kubrick's next film, Dr. Strangelove; or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964).

Kubrick's science-fiction film, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) was alternately viewed as a work of cosmic prophecy and an attempt at gratuitous mystification. A Clockwork Orange (1971), based on the novel by Anthony Burgess, is the third Kubrick film concerned with a hypothetical reality. Some critics perceive this story of ultra-violence in a decaying society as further evidence of the pessimistic undercurrents present in all of this director's films. After his three scenarios of the future, Kubrick recreated William Thackeray's novel of romance and adventure in the eighteenth century, Barry Lyndon (1975). In 1980 he adapted Stephen King's gothic novel, The Shining, which chronicles the degeneration of a struggling writer into violence and hallucinations. The 1987 film Full Metal Jacket focuses on the Vietnam War and the dehumanizing and terrifying aspects of armed conflict. His final film, Eyes Wide Shut, depicts the effects of sexual fantasy and betrayal on an upper-class Manhattan couple.

Critical Reception

Kubrick's films have received dramatically varied critical estimates and interpretations. Most reviewers have praised Kubrick's stunning visual style and camera technique, but have frequently derided the ambiguous endings of his movies and his puzzling narrative technique, which often results in audience alienation and dislocation. Thematically, critical discussion has focused on his treatment of apprehension, mortality, and the impact of social injustice. Controversy plagued his career, as much publicity concentrated on Kubrick's enigmatic personality and creative process as well as his depiction of sex and violence, misogyny, tyranny, and the sinister influence of technology in his films. Despite the mixed critical reaction to the body of his work, commentators concur that Kubrick's impact on filmmaking has been profound and far-reaching.

Principal Works

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Day of the Fight (screenplay) 1952

The Flying Padre (screenplay) 1952

Fear and Desire (film) 1953

Killer's Kiss (screenplay) 1955

The Killing (screenplay) 1956

Paths of Glory [with Calder Willingham; adapted from a novel by Humphrey Cobb] (screenplay) 1957

Spartacus (film) 1959

Lolita [with James Harris and Vladimir Nabokov; adapted from a novel by Nabokov] (screenplay) 1962

Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb [with Peter George and Terry Southern; adapted from a novel by Peter George] (screenplay) 1964

2001: A Space Odyssey [with Arthur C. Clarke] (screenplay) 1968

A Clockwork Orange [adapted from a novel by Anthony Burgess] (screenplay) 1971

Barry Lyndon [adapted from a novel by William Makepeace Thackeray] (screenplay) 1975

The Shining [with Diane Johnson; adapted from a novel by Stephen King] (screenplay) 1980

Full Metal Jacket [with Gustav Hasford and Michael Herr] (screenplay) 1987

Eyes Wide Shut [with Frederic Raphael; adapted from a novel by Arthur Schnitzler] (screenplay) 1999

Charles Maland (essay date 1979)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Dr. Strangelove (1964): Nightmare Comedy and the Ideology of Liberal Consensus,” in American Quarterly, Vol. XXXI, No. 5, Winter, 1979, pp. 697-717.

[In the following essay, Maland discusses how Dr. Strangelove functions as a response to the American nuclear policy of the early 1960s.]

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Stanley Kubrick, 1964) is one of the most fascinating and important American films of the 1960s. As a sensitive artistic response to its age, the film presents a moral protest of revulsion against the dominant cultural paradigm in America—what Geoffrey Hodgson has termed the Ideology of Liberal Consensus.1 Appearing at roughly the same time as other works critical of the dominant paradigm—Catch 22 is a good literary example of the stance—Dr. Strangelove presented an adversary view of society which was to become much more widely shared among some Americans in the late 1960s. This essay will examine the Ideology of Liberal Consensus, demonstrate how Dr. Strangelove serves as a response to it (especially to its approach to nuclear strategy and weapons), and look at how American culture responded to its radical reassessment of the American nuclear policy in the early 1960s.

The American consensus to which Dr. Strangelove responds was rooted in the late 1930s and in the war years. When Americans in the late 1930s began to feel more threatened by the rise of foreign totalitarianism than by the economic insecurities fostered by the stock market crash, a previously fragmented American culture began to unify. A common system of belief began to form, a paradigm solidified during World War II, when American effort was directed toward defeating the Axis powers. Fueled by the success of the war effort and the economic prosperity fostered by the war, this paradigm continued to dominate American social and political life through the early 1960s.

The 1950s are commonly remembered as an age of conformity typified by the man in the gray flannel suit, the move to suburbia, and the blandness of the Eisenhower administration. There were, of course, currents running counter to the American consensus in the 1950s—C. Wright Mills challenging the power elite and the era's “crackpot realism”; James Dean smouldering with sensitive, quiet rebellion; the Beats rejecting the propriety and complacency of the era—yet most people remained happy with America and its possibilities. Much more than a passing mood or a vague reaction to events, this paradigm—the Ideology of Liberal Consensus—took on an intellectual coherence of its own. According to Geoffrey Hodgson, the ideology contained two cornerstone assumptions: that the structure of American society was basically sound, and that Communism was a clear danger to the survival of the United States and its allies. From these two beliefs evolved a widely accepted view of America. That view argued its position in roughly this fashion: the American economic system has developed, softening the inequities and brutalities of an earlier capitalism, becoming more democratic, and offering abundance to a wider portion of the population than ever before. The key to both democracy and abundance is production and technological advance; economic growth provides the opportunity to meet social needs, to defuse class conflict, and to bring blue-collar workers into the middle class. Social problems are thus less explosive and can be solved rationally. It is necessary only to locate each problem, design a program to attack it, and provide the experts and technological know-how necessary to solve the problem.

The only threat to this domestic harmony, the argument continued, is the specter of Communism. The “Free World,” led by the United States, must brace itself for a long struggle against Communism and willingly support a strong defense system, for power is the only language that the Communists can understand. If America accepts this responsibility to fight Communism, while also proclaiming the virtues of American economic, social, and political democracy to the rest of the world, the country will remain strong and sound. Hodgson sums up the paradigm well when he writes: “Confident to the verge of complacency about the perfectability of American society, anxious to the point of paranoia about the threat of Communism—those were the two faces of the consensus mood.”2

These two assumptions guided our national leadership as it attempted to forge social policy in an era of nuclear weapons. After the Soviet Union announced in the fall of 1949 that it had successfully exploded an atomic bomb, President Truman on January 31, 1950 ordered the Atomic Energy Commission to go ahead with the development of a hydrogen bomb. By late 1952 the United States had detonated its first hydrogen bomb, 700 times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Less than a year later, on August 8, 1953, the Soviets announced that they, too, had a hydrogen bomb. The arms race was on.

About the time that Sputnik was successfully launched in 1957—leading to national fears about the quality of American science and education—some American intellectuals began to refine a new area of inquiry: nuclear strategy. Recognizing that nuclear weapons were a reality, the nuclear strategists felt it important to think systematically about their role in our defense policy. Henry Kissinger's Nuclear War and Foreign Policy (1957), one of the first such books, argued that the use of tactical nuclear weapons must be considered by decision makers. More widely known was the work of Herman Kahn, whose On Thermonuclear War (1960) and Thinking About the Unthinkable (1962) presented his speculations on nuclear war and strategy, most of which stemmed from his work for the RAND Corporation during the 1950s. Kahn was willing to indulge in any speculation about nuclear war, including such topics as the estimated genetic consequences of worldwide doses of radioactive fall-out, the desirable characteristics of a deterrent (it should be frightening, inexorable, persuasive, cheap, non-accident prone, and controllable), and the large likelihood of vomiting in postwar fallout shelters.3

Though the professed intent of the nuclear strategists was to encourage a rational approach to foreign policy in a nuclear age, the mass media seemed intent on making the public believe that thermonuclear war might be acceptable, even tolerable. A few examples illustrate that some mass magazines believed that nuclear war would not really be that bad. U.S. News and World Report carried a cover article, “If Bombs Do Fall,” which told readers that plans were underway to allow people to write checks on their bank accounts even if the bank were destroyed by nuclear attack. The same issue contained a side story about how well survivors of the Japanese bombings were doing. Life magazine placed a man in a reddish fallout costume on its cover along with the headline, “How You Can Survive Fallout. 97 out of 100 Can Be Saved.” Besides advising that the best cure for radiation sickness “is to take hot tea or a solution of baking soda,” Life ran an advertisement for a fully-stocked, prefabricated fallout shelter for only $700. The accompanying picture showed a happy family of five living comfortably in their shelter. I. F. Stone suggested in response to this kind of writing that the media seemed determined to convince the American public that thermonuclear warfare was “almost as safe as ivory soap is pure.” While all this was going on, a RAND corporation study released in August 1961 estimated that a 3000 megaton attack on American cities would kill 80 percent of the population.4

This paradoxical, bizarre treatment of the nuclear threat can be explained in part as an attempt by journalists to relieve anxiety during a time when the Cold War was intensifying. A number of events from 1960 to 1963 encouraged this freeze in the Cold War. Gary Powers, piloting a U-2 surveillance plane, was shot down over the Soviet Union in May 1960. In 1961, the Bay of Pigs fiasco occurred in May, President Kennedy announced a national fallout shelter campaign on television in July, and in August, the Berlin Wall was erected and the Soviet Union announced that they were resuming atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons. Worst of all, the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 carried the world to the brink of nuclear war, thrusting the dangers of nuclear confrontation to the forefront of the public imagination. Though the crisis seemed to be resolved in favor of the United States, for several days nuclear war seemed imminent.

One result of this intensification was to erode the confidence of some Americans in the wisdom of American nuclear policy. Though there had been a small tradition of dissent regarding American nuclear policy in the 1950s—led by people like J. Robert Oppenheimer, Linus Pauling, Bertrand Russell, and C. Wright Mills, and groups like SANE (the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy)—these people were clearly a minority, prophets crying in the wilderness. But Edmund Wilson's warning in 1963 that our spending on nuclear weapons may be one of mankind's final acts, and H. Stuart Hughes' impassioned challenge to deterrence strategy and his support of disarmament in the same year, were both symptomatic of a growing dissatisfaction of some Americans with the federal government's nuclear policy.5 Judged from another perspective, outside the assumptions of the Ideology of Liberal Consensus, the threat posed by the Soviet Union did not at all warrant the use of nuclear weapons. In the same vein, the realities of America itself—as the defenders of the Civil Rights movement were pointing out—did not live up to the rhetoric about the harmonious American democracy so prevalent in the 1950s. By 1962 and 1963, when Dr. Strangelove was being planned and produced, the Ideology of Liberal Consensus seemed increasingly vulnerable. In fact, it is not unfair to say that an adversary culture opposed to the hypocrisies and inconsistencies of the dominant paradigm was beginning to form.

Stanley Kubrick, director of Dr. Strangelove, played a part in extending that adversary culture. Born in 1928 to a middle-class Bronx family, Kubrick was from an early age interested in chess and photography. It is not hard to move from his fascination with chess, with the analytical abilities it requires and sharpens, to the fascination with technology and the difficulties men have in controlling it which Kubrick displays in Dr. Strangelove and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Photography became a pastime when Kubrick received a camera at age thirteen, and a profession when Look magazine hired him at age eighteen as a still photographer. From there Kubrick became interested in filmmaking and made a short documentary on middleweight boxer Walter Cartier called Day of the Fight (1950). He followed this with a second documentary for RKO, Flying Padre (1951), after which he made his first feature film, Fear and Desire (1953). From then on Kubrick was immersed in making feature films.6

In his mature work Kubrick has returned constantly to one of the gravest dilemmas of modern industrial society: the gap between man's scientific and technological skill and his social, political, and moral ineptitude. In Kubrick's world view, modern man has made scientific and technological advances inconceivable to previous generations but lacks the wisdom either to perceive how the new gadgetry might be used in constructive ways or, more fundamentally, to ask whether the “advance” might not cause more harm than good. Kubrick first faced this problem squarely in Dr. Strangelove.

Kubrick's films before 1963 do hint at interests which he was to develop more fully in Dr. Strangelove, The Killing shows a group of men working toward a common purpose under intense pressure and severe time limitations. Paths of Glory—one of a handful of classic anti-war films in the American cinema—vents its anger at the stupidity of military leaders, their callous disregard for other human lives, and their own lust for power. Released in 1957 in the midst of the Cold War, Paths was a courageous film made slightly more palatable for audiences because of its setting and situation: World War One and the evils of French military leaders.

It is not totally surprising, then, that Kubrick should make a film about military and civilian leaders trying to cope with accidental nuclear war. Actually, Kubrick had developed an interest in the Cold War and nuclear strategy as a concerned citizen in the late 1950s, even before he thought of doing a film on the subject. In an essay on Dr. Strangelove published in mid-1963, a half year before the release of the film, Kubrick wrote: “I was very interested in what was going to happen, and started reading a lot of books about four years ago. I have a library of about 70 or 80 books written by various technical people on the subject and I began to subscribe to the military magazines, the Air Force magazine, and to follow the U.S. naval proceedings.”7 One of the magazines he subscribed to was the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist, which regularly published articles by atomic scientists (Oppenheimer, Edward Teller, and Leo Szilard) and nuclear strategists (Kahn, Bernard Brodie, and Thomas Schelling). The more he read on the subject, the more he became engrossed in the complexities of nuclear strategy and the enormity of the nuclear threat:

I was struck by the paradoxes of every variation of the problem from one extreme to the other—from the paradoxes of unilateral disarmament to the first strike. And it seemed to me that, aside from the fact that I was terribly interested myself, it was very important to deal with this problem dramatically because it's the only social problem where there's absolutely no chance for people to learn anything from experience. So it seemed to me that this was eminently a problem, a topic to be dealt with dramatically.8

As his readings continued, Kubrick began to feel “a great desire to do something about the nuclear nightmare.” From this desire came a decision to make a film on the subject. In preparation, he talked with both Thomas Schelling and Herman Kahn, gradually coming to believe that a psychotic general could engage in what Kahn termed “unauthorized behavior” and send bombers to Russia.9

Kubrick found the literary work upon which his film was based almost by accident. When he requested some relevant readings from the Institute of Strategic Studies, the head of the Institute, Alastair Buchan, suggested Peter George's Red Alert, a serious suspense thriller about an accidental nuclear attack. The book contained such an interesting premise concerning accidental nuclear war that even a nuclear strategist like Schelling could write of it that “the sheer ingenuity of the scheme … exceeds in thoughtfulness any fiction available on how war might start.” Kubrick, likewise impressed with the involving story and convincing premise, purchased rights to the novel.10

However, when author and screenwriter started to construct the screenplay, they began to run into problems, which Kubrick describes in an interview with Joseph Gelmis:

I started work on the screenplay with every intention of making the film a serious treatment of the problem of accidental nuclear war. As I kept trying to imagine the way in which things would really happen, ideas kept coming to me which I would discard because they were so ludicrous. I kept saying to myself: “I can't do this. People will laugh.” But after a month or so I began to realize that all the things I was throwing out were the things which were most truthful.11

By trying to make the film a serious drama, Kubrick was accepting the framework of the dominant paradigm, accepting Cold War premises and creating the gripping story within these premises. This was the approach of Red Alert as well as of Fail Safe, a popular film of late 1964 adapted from the Burdick and Wheeler novel. But after studying closely the assumptions of the Cold War and the nuclear impasse, Kubrick was moving outside the dominant paradigm. Kubrick's fumbling attempts to construct a screenplay provide an example of what Gene Wise, expanding on Thomas Kuhn, has called a “paradigm revolution” in the making: a dramatic moment when accepted understandings of the world no longer make sense and new ones are needed.12

Kubrick describes in an interview how he resolved his difficulties with the screenplay: “It occurred to me I was approaching the project in the wrong way. The only way to tell the story was as a black comedy, or better, a nightmare comedy, where the things you laugh at most are really the heart of the paradoxical postures that make a nuclear war possible.”13 After deciding to use nightmare comedy in approaching his subject, Kubrick hired Terry Southern to help with the screenplay. This decision connects Kubrick to the black humor novelists of the early 1960s. Writers like Southern, Joseph Heller (Catch 22), Kurt Vonnegut (Mother Night), and Thomas Pyncheon (V and The Crying of Lot 49) shared with Kubrick the assumption of a culture gone mad, and responded to it with a similar mixture of horror and humor. Morris Dickstein's comment that “black humor is pitched at the breaking point where moral anguish explodes into a mixture of comedy and terror, where things are so bad you might as well laugh,” describes quite accurately the way Kubrick came to feel about the arms race and nuclear strategy.14

The premise and plot of the film are, paradoxically, quite realistic and suspenseful, which in part accounts for why the nightmare comedy succeeds. At the opening of the film a narrator tells us that the Russians have built a Doomsday device which will automatically detonate if a nuclear weapon is dropped on the Soviet Union, destroying all human life on the planet—a case of deterrence strategy carried to the absurd. A paranoid anti-Communist Air Force general, unaware of the Russian's ultimate weapon, orders a fleet of airborne SAC B-52s to their Russian targets. The President of the United States finds out, but soon learns that the jets cannot be recalled because only the general knows the recall code. Moving quickly into action, the President discusses the problem with his advisors, calls the Russian Premier, and assists the Russians in their attempts to shoot down the B-52s. Finally, all the planes are recalled but one, which drops its bombs on a secondary target, setting off the Russian retaliatory Doomsday device. Dr. Strangelove concludes in apocalypse.

After the narrator's initial mention of a Doomsday device, Kubrick subtly begins his nightmare comedy by suggesting that man's warlike tendencies and his sexual urges stem from similar aggressive instincts. He does this by showing an airborne B-52 coupling with a refueling plane in mid-air, while the sound track plays a popular love song, “Try a Little Tenderness.” The connection between sexual and military aggression continues throughout the film, as when an otherwise nude beauty in a Playboy centerfold has her buttocks covered with a copy of Foreign Affairs, but it is most evident in the names given the characters by the screenwriters. Jack D. Ripper, the deranged SAC general, recalls the sex murderer who terrorized London during the late 1880s. The name of Army strategist Buck Turgidson is also suggestive: his first name is slang for a virile male and his last name suggests both bombast and an adjective meaning “swollen.” Major King Kong, pilot of the B-52, reminds viewers of the simple-minded beast who fell in love with a beautiful blonde. Group Captain Lionel Mandrake's last name is also the word for a plant reputedly known for inducing conception in women, while both names of President Merkin...

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Richard Combs (review date 1980)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Reviews of Day of the Fight and Flying Padre, in Monthly Film Bulletin, Vol. 47, No. 563, December, 1980, pp. 248-49.

[In the following reviews, Combs offers positive assessments of Day of the Fight and Flying Padre.]

A commentator relates some facts and figures about the sport of boxing—nine million dollars are spent annually by fight fans in the U.S.; of the 6,000 professional boxers, only 600 make a living at it and only 60 a good living—and comments on the spectacle (“the primitive, vicarious, visceral thrill of seeing one animal overcome another”). One boxer, New York middleweight Walter Cartier, is then followed through a day...

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Paul Miers (essay date 1980)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Black Maria Rides Again: Being a Reflection on the Present State of American Film with Special Respect to Stanley Kubrick's The Shining,” in MLN, Vol. 95, No. 5, December, 1980, pp. 1360-366.

[In the following essay, Miers asserts that “to understand Kubrick's achievement one must attempt a reading of the mass-market book on which it is based.”]

This orbe of starres fixed infinitely up extendeth it self in altitude sphericallye, and therefore immovable the pallace of foelicitye garnished with perpetuall shininge glorious lightes innumerable, farr excellinge our sonne both in quantitye and qualitye, the very court of...

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Michael Klein (essay date 1981)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Narrative and Discourse in Kubrick's Modern Tragedy,” in The English Novel and the Movies, edited by Michael Klein and Gillian Parker, Frederick Ungar Publishing, pp. 95-107.

[In the following essay, Klein elucidates the unique nature of Kubrick's modernist perspective, as evinced through his film Barry Lyndon.]

Even inept films sometimes carry with them a certain mesmerizing authority. Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon, a flawed work based upon a rather uninspiring novel, can be enjoyed, for instance, for its visual effects: sheer photography. And the background music is superb.1


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F. Anthony Macklin (essay date 1981)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Understanding Kubrick: The Shining,” in Journal of Popular Film and Television, Vol. IX, No. 2, Summer, 1981, pp. 93-5.

[In the following essay, Macklin elucidates the reasons for the commercial failure of The Shining and offers perceptions that will allow viewers to enjoy Kubrick's films.]

The Shining met the fate of several other Stanley Kubrick films when it came out; most viewers did not like it, so they rejected it. Most importantly, they did not understand it in any way which allowed them to deal with it constructively. Also, the criticism it received did not clarify the film. It remained obscure and confusing to its viewers....

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Vivian C. Sobchack (essay date 1981)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Décor as Theme: Literature/Film Quarterly, Vol. IX, No. 2, 1981, pp. 92-102.

[In the following essay, Sobchack explores Kubrick's use of décor to emphasize the theme of violence in A Clockwork Orange.]

… The film … manages to make poetry out of doorknobs, breakfasts, furniture. Trivial details, of which everyone's universe is made, can once again be transmuted into metaphor, contributing to the imaginative act.

… Emphasized or not, invited or not, the physical world through the intensifications of photography never stops insisting on its presence and relevance.


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William Stephenson (essay date 1981)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Perception of ‘History’ in Kubrick's Barry Lyndon,” in Literature/Film Quarterly, Vol. IX, No. 4, 1981, pp. 251-60.

[In the following essay, Stephenson deems Barry Lyndon “an experiment in cinematic form” because of the realistic way Kubrick perceives and portrays history.]

Stanley Kubrick's film Barry Lyndon, spectacular as it is, flies in the face of an audience's usual expectations about “costume drama” as a cinematic form of historical fiction. One cannot even say that the film is translating into cinematic form the style of its source, The Luck of Barry Lyndon by W. M. Thackeray. Thackeray's novel is much...

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Stephen Snyder (essay date 1982)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Family Life and Leisure Culture in The Shining,” in Film Criticism, Vol. VII, No. 1, Fall, 1982, pp. 4-13.

[In the following essay, Snyder views The Shining as a satire of American middle-class values.]

The Essential American is hard, isolated, stoic and a killer.

—D. H. Lawrence1

A recent variation in the horror movie genre has been a series of films about middle class life in America in which the source of potential hazard is middle class life. Of course, middle class values have been impugned in every period of film (sometimes brutally, as in Alice...

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Robert G. Pielke (essay date 1983)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Star Wars vs. 2001: A Question of Identity,” in Extrapolation, Vol. 24, No. 2, Summer, 1983, pp. 143-55.

[In the following essay, Pielke surveys the defining characters of science fiction films by comparing the popular movies Star Wars and 2001.]

Those with even the barest knowledge about the “movies” (not as a business but as an art form, when the term “cinema” is used instead), know that science fiction films have only rarely achieved artistic respectability. More often than not, they're referred to as “flicks,” a term which does not exactly connote a quality product. This despite the most recent releases: Close...

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Dan E. Burns (essay date 1984)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Pistols and Cherry Pies: Lolita from Page to Screen,” in Literature/Film Quarterly, Vol. 12, No. 4, 1984, pp. 245-50.

[In the following essay, Burns accounts for the positive critical reassessment of Kubrick's Lolita.]

It is a commonplace of criticism that good novels often make bad movies, and that cheap “action” books make good ones. The paradox derives from the contrast between pictures and words. “With the abandonment of language as its sole and primary element,” says George Bluestone, whose well-known study Novels Into Film is a springboard for this essay, “the film necessarily leaves behind those characteristic contents of...

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Christopher Hoile (essay date 1984)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Uncanny and the Fairy Tale in Kubrick's The Shining,” in Literature/Film Quarterly, Vol. XII, No. 1, 1984, pp. 5-12.

[In the following essay, Hoile assesses the influence of the supernatural and fairy tales on The Shining.]

Most critics of Stanley Kubrick's latest film, The Shining, seem to feel that he has provided so much psychological motivation for the events in the movie that he has rendered unnecessary the presence of the supernatural and extrasensory perception, thereby draining the horror from what was heralded as “the ultimate horror film.” Jack Kroll says that “The sight of Torrance's endlessly repeated sentence chills you...

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Philip Strick (essay date 1985)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Ring Round the Moons,” in Monthly Film Bulletin, Vol. 52, No. 614, March, 1985, p. 96.

[In the following essay, Strick traces the origins and development of Kubrick's 2001.]

In March 1964, Arthur C. Clarke was contacted at his home in Sri Lanka by Stanley Kubrick, who wanted to make “the proverbial good science fiction movie” and was looking for stories. Kubrick already had his own idea of what such a project would have to contain: “(1) The reasons for believing in the existence of intelligent extra-terrestrial life. (2) The impact (perhaps even the lack of impact in some quarters) such a discovery would have on Earth in the near future”.


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C. T. Walters (essay date 1985)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Stanley Kubrick's The Shining,” in Forum, Vol. XXVI, No. 3, Summer, 1985, pp. 21-38.

[In the following essay, Walters considers The Shining an “artistic fable” that explores the impotence of the modern artist.]


The more fearful the world becomes, the more art becomes abstract.

—Paul Klee

As carefully crafted as Edgar Allan Poe's “The Masque of The Red Death,” Stanley Kubrick's version of The Shining is a clever exercise in deception. On the most superficial level, The Shining functions as an epic film of modern terror...

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Larry W. Caldwell (essay date 1986)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘Come and Play with Us’: The Play Metaphor in Kubrick's Shining,” in Literature/Film Quarterly, Vol. 14, No. 2, 1986, pp. 106-11.

[In the following essay, Caldwell explores the way the metaphor of play undercuts form and content in Kubrick's The Shining.]

Critical interpretations of Stanley Kubrick The Shining (Warner Bros., 1980) have depended upon two putative assumptions: 1) that Kubrick “is the cinema's anthropologist: a hunter in the atavistic jungle of human nature …,” that Kubrick “is looking for human essentials” which reveal themselves “when the shell of society and manners … is broken,1 and 2) that the...

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David Rabe (essay date 1987)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Admiring the Unpredictable Mr. Kubrick,” in NYT, June 21, 1987, pp. 34, 36.

[In the following essay, Babe reflects on Kubrick's career and anticipates the release of Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket.]

It was about eight months ago when I first heard that Stanley Kubrick was making a film dealing with Vietnam, called Full Metal Jacket. Holding Mr. Kubrick's work in the high esteem that I do—and having attempted to write about the war in a number of ways and from a number of angles—I was immediately intrigued. The fact that Michael Herr, who had written Dispatches, an amazing book about the war, was involved only increased my interest. The...

(The entire section is 2150 words.)

Robert Shelton (essay date 1987)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Rendezvous with HAL: 2001/2010,” in Extrapolation, Vol. 28, No. 3, Fall, 1987, pp. 255-68.

[In the following essay, Shelton maintains that Arthur C. Clarke's sequel to 20012010: Odyssey Two—is integral to understanding Kubrick's film as well as Peter Hyams's film 2010: The Year We Make Contact.]

Although some of 2001: A Space Odyssey's cinematic mysteries were addressed in Arthur C. Clarke's novel of the same title and year (1968), the more enigmatic ones—HAL's breakdown, Bowman's trip through the Star Gate, and the appearance of the Star Child—were not solved until the 1982 issuing of Clarke's 2010: Odyssey Two...

(The entire section is 6184 words.)

Gerri Reaves (essay date 1988)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “From Hasford's The Short-Timers to Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket: The Fracturing of Identification,” in Literature/Film Quarterly, Vol. 16, No. 4, 1988, pp. 232-37.

[In the following essay, Reaves contrasts Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket with the novel from which it is adapted, Gustav Hasford's The Short-Timers.]

Stanley Kubrick's film, Full Metal Jacket, unlike Gustav Hasford's The Short-Timers, the novel on which it is based, denies the spectator identification with a consistent point-of-view; rather, it establishes a serial, roaming identification that results in our panoramic point-of-view. Contrasting with the coherent...

(The entire section is 3267 words.)

James Stevenson (essay date 1988)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Kubrick and Crane in Full Metal Jacket,” in The Humanist, Vol. 48, No. 2, 1988, pp. 43-4.

[In the following essay, Stevenson perceives Full Metal Jacket as based on Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage.]

There is one characteristic of Full Metal Jacket which virtually all film critics have overlooked. And, although they have touched on the realism beneath Stanley Kubrick's satire, they have not emphasized how completely realistic the boot camp scenes are. But, most importantly, what really eluded the critics was Kubrick's grand sense of the ironic. Kubrick did not just create a film with ironic scenes and flashes of the sardonic....

(The entire section is 1046 words.)

Thomas Doherty (essay date 1988-1989)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Full Metal Genre: Stanley Kubrick's Vietnam Combat Movie,” in Film Quarterly, Vol. XLII, No. 2, Winter, 1988-1989, pp. 24-30.

[In the following essay, Doherty places Full Metal Jacket within the context of the Vietnam War film, contending that it “exemplifies the Vietnam War film in its mature stage, a stage whose distinguishing quality is its reliance on cinematic, not historical, experience.”]

For over a decade now, Hollywood has been succeeding where Washington consistently failed: namely, in selling Vietnam to the American public. To be fair, the motion picture industry enjoys a crucial edge. If the military's classic mistake is to fight...

(The entire section is 4396 words.)

Floyd Collins (essay date 1989)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Implied Metaphor in the Films of Stanley Kubrick,” in New Orleans Review, Vol. 16, No. 3, Fall, 1989, pp. 96-100.

[In the following essay, Collins investigates Kubrick's use of image and metaphor in his films.]

More than the average director of the current movie era, Stanley Kubrick relies on image and metaphor to underscore both the tone and overall significance of crucial scenes within his films. For Kubrick, the visual effects in film compose at least seventy-five percent of the narrative process. While camera angles, voice-over narration and musical accompaniment serve their traditional uses in his productions, Kubrick often strikes resonances by...

(The entire section is 4149 words.)

Rich Schweitzer (essay date 1990)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Born to Kill: S. Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket as Historical Representation of America's Experience in Vietnam,” in Film & History, Vol. XX, No. 3, September, 1990, pp. 62-70.

[In the following essay, Schweitzer asserts that Full Metal Jacket's “ability to convey a nuanced historical argument through an artistic medium—in effect, to address simultaneously the audience's hearts and minds—is unique and deserves attention.”]

The scholarly debate over the Vietnam War is, of course, political. “The Left” and “The Right” argue over the “lessons” of Vietnam in the belief that past is prologue. The stakes of the debate are high....

(The entire section is 3178 words.)

Geoffrey Cocks (essay date 1991)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Bringing the Holocaust Home: The Freudian Dynamics of Kubrick's The Shining,” in The Psychoanalytic Review, Vol. 78, No. 1, Spring, 1991, pp. 103-25.

[In the following essay, Cocks contends that Kubrick's aim in The Shining is to personalize the Holocaust for the viewer.]

World War II has relatively recently begun to take on a dark mythopoeic aspect for the artists of the postmodern age. Unlike World War I, whose horrors preoccupied European society and art right from the armistic of 1918, for a generation afterward the second “Great War” of the twentieth century was generally celebrated as a “good war” by the victorious Allied...

(The entire section is 8425 words.)

Henry Sheehan (essay date 1991)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Fall & Rise of Spartacus,” in Film Comment, Vol. 27, No. 2, March-April, 1991, pp. 57-63.

[In the following essay, Sheehan relates some of the controversial stories surrounding the filming and release of Kubrick's Spartacus.]

Over the years, the stories surrounding the making of Spartacus have sometimes threatened to eclipse the movie itself. To be sure, this production exceeded the quota for behind-the-scenes complications and contrarieties: initial director Anthony Mann dismissed early in the filming by producer-star Kirk Douglas; ego-bruising battles between Douglas and replacement director Stanley Kubrick; maneuvering by...

(The entire section is 2780 words.)

Henry Sheehan (essay date 1991)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Roman Games,” in Sight and Sound, Vol. 1, No. 4, August, 1991, pp. 22-5.

[In the following essay, Sheehan determines Kubrick's role in the creation of the film Spartacus.]

“In Spartacus I tried with only limited success to make the film as real as possible but I was up against a pretty dumb script which was rarely faithful to what is known about Spartacus. History tells us he twice led his victorious slave army to the northern borders of Italy, and could quite easily have gotten out of the country. But he didn't, and instead he led his army back to pillage Roman cities. What the reasons were for this would have been the most...

(The entire section is 2195 words.)

Jack DeBellis (essay date 1993)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘The Awful Power’: John Updike's Use of Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey in Rabbit Redux,” in Literature/Film Quarterly, Vol. 21, No. 3, 1993, pp. 209-17.

[In the following essay, DeBellis asserts that John Updike's references to 2001 in Rabbit Redux underlines the major thematic concerns in the novel.]

“The power of the cinema, the awful power of it.”

—John Updike1

John Updike's dozens of references to films and allusions to screen actors and actresses reveal not just a passing knowledge of an important aspect of American popular culture...

(The entire section is 5667 words.)

Mark Crispin Miller (essay date 1994)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “A Cold Descent,” in Sight and Sound, Vol. 4, No. 1, January, 1994, pp. 18-25.

[In the following essay, Miller surveys the major themes of 2001.]


The prehistoric past. A small tribe of apemen lives on a rocky hillside, in constant terror of neighbouring carnivores and quarrelling with a rival tribe for the possession of a water hole. One morning they wake to find before them a mysterious black monolith. When their initial terror has subsided, one of them, inspired by the slab, learns how to use bone clubs to hunt for food. Four million years later, space scientist Doctor Heywood R. Floyd arrives...

(The entire section is 8042 words.)

Frank Manchel (essay date 1995)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “What about Jack? Another Perspective on Family Relationships in Stanley Kubrick's The Shining,1 in Literature/Film Quarterly Vol. 23, No. 1, 1995, pp. 68-78.

[In the following essay, Manchel examines the protagonist of The Shining, Jack Torrance, contending that “there are mitigating circumstances for his diabolical role in the disintegration of his family.”]

In the end we all come to be cured of our sentiments. Those whom life does not cure death will. The world is quite ruthless in selecting between dream and reality, even where we will not. Between the wish and the thing the world lies waiting.


(The entire section is 7115 words.)

Greg Smith (essay date 1997)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘Real Horrorshow’: The Juxtaposition of Subtext, Satire, and Audience Implication in Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, in Literature and Film Quarterly, Vol. 25, No. 4, 1997, pp. 300-06.

[In the following essay, Smith views The Shining as an indictment of American values and culture.]

It may not be too much of a stretch to claim that Stanley Kubrick's The Shining (1980) is the most underappreciated film of his career. This neglect is undoubtedly attributable to the fact that as the cinematic adaptation of a Stephen King novel which is equally under-rated, The Shining may be categorized as a horror film—and it is, but it...

(The entire section is 4493 words.)

Carl Freedman (essay date 1998)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Kubrick's 2001 and the Possibility of a Science-Fiction Cinema,” in Science-Fiction Studies, Vol. 25, No. 2, July, 1998, pp. 300-18.

[In the following essay, Freedman situates The Shining within the tradition of science-fiction films and addresses the ways Kubrick challenges the genre of science fiction.]

If Stanley Kubrick enjoys an artistic authority unmatched, perhaps, by any other English-language filmmaker, not the least reason is his unique generic mastery of film as an aesthetic form. What is crucial here is not merely Kubrick's versatility, though his capacity to craft major films across a wide range of different genres is...

(The entire section is 10164 words.)

Midge Decter (review date September 1999)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Kubrick Mystique,” in Commentary, Vol. 108, No. 2, September, 1999, pp. 52-5.

[In the following review, Decter derides Eyes Wide Shut as callow, insensible, and pretentious.]

In response to an unbearably stuffy declaration by her husband, a woman, high on pot, details for him her sexual fantasy concerning a certain naval officer she once had a fleeting glance of. A little later, she tells him about a dream she has had of being handed from man to man in one big bath of sex. This sends the husband on a long night's journey in search of sexual adventure, including an unconsummated encounter with a hooker and an elaborately ceremonial orgy from...

(The entire section is 2909 words.)

Larry Gross (review date September 1999)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Too Late the Hero,” in Sight and Sound, Vol. 9, No. 9, September, 1999, pp. 20-5.

[In the following essay, Gross discusses the major motifs of Eyes Wide Shut and places the film in context with several classic movies from the 1960s.]

“Art treats appearance as appearance, its aim is precisely not to deceive. It is therefore true.”

(Friedrich Nietzsche)

Stanley Kubrick's final film Eyes Wide Shut is a surprisingly faithful adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler's turn-of-the-century short novel Dream Story. Kubrick, as we've lately been learning, was always seriously...

(The entire section is 3815 words.)

Stanley Kauffmann (review date August 1999)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Kubrick: A Sadness,” in The New Republic, Vol. 413, No. 4, August 16, 1999, pp. 30-1.

[In the following negative assessment, Kauffmann deems Eyes Wide Shut “a catastrophe—in both the popular sense and the classical sense of the end of a tragedy.”]

In the spring, of 1967, Robert Brustein, then dean of the Yale School of Drama, asked me to do a film course in the following academic year. I was to co-teach: I would meet the class one afternoon a week to deal with history and style, and on another day they would meet a filmmaker who would explore techniques. Brustein and I, both keen on the relatively recent Dr. Strangelove, decided to aim...

(The entire section is 2478 words.)

Anthony Lake (essay date 1999)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Last Emperor,” in The New Yorker, Vol. LXXV, No. 4, March 22, 1999, pp. 120-23.

[In the following essay, Lake reflects on Kubrick's life and career.]

It read like Agatha Christie: “The police were summoned to Mr. Kubrick's rural home in Hertfordshire, north of London, yesterday afternoon, when he was pronounced dead.” Thus ran the Times report on Monday, March 8th, confirming that the foremost man of mystery in modern cinema—the Howard Hughes of Hertfordshire—had retained the patent on his secrecy to the end. The myth of Stanley Kubrick is now intact, unlikely to be broken, and it can only add to the agonies of expectation that will...

(The entire section is 2023 words.)

Peter Rainer (review date July 1999)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Strangelove,” in New York, Vol. 32, No. 28, July 26, 1999, pp. 49-50.

[In the following review of Eyes Wide Shut, Rainer offers a mixed assessment of Kubrick's movie.]

Eyes Wide Shut is being billed as more than a movie, more than even a Tom Cruise-and-Nicole Kidman movie: It's a Stanley Kubrick movie, which means, if his rep holds, that it's supposed to somehow intuit what's going on in our innermost lives and divine a millennial mood we may not yet even be aware of. The film is poised to be an epochal pop-cultural event, an art block-buster. And since it's Kubrick's last, the genius-visionary mystique machine has been turned on by the media...

(The entire section is 1376 words.)

Jonathan Romney (essay date 1999)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Resident Phantoms,” in Sight and Sound, Vol. 9, No. 9, September, 1999, pp. 8-11.

[In the following essay, Romney examines the defining themes of The Shining.]

The best place to enter a labyrinth is through its exit. So let's start with the famous final shot of Stanley Kubrick's The Shining (1980). Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson), the ill-fated winter caretaker of the Overlook Hotel-Sits statuefied in the snow, having met his frozen fate at the heart of the Overlook's maze, while his wife Wendy and son Danny (Shelley Duvall and Danny Lloyd) are long gone in the snow-mobile. The Overlook is quite empty now, apart from its resident phantoms and, in...

(The entire section is 3518 words.)

Lee Siegel (review date October 1999)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Eyes Wide Shut: What the Critics Failed to See in Kubrick's Last Film,” in Harper's Magazine, Vol. 299, October, 1999, pp. 76-82.

[In the following positive assessment of Eyes Wide Shut, Siegel denounces the overwhelming negative reaction to Kubrick's final film, maintaining that “our official arbiters of culture have lost the gift of being able to comprehend a work of art that does not reflect their immediate experience; they have become afraid of genuine art.”]

Eyes Wide Shut is one of the most moving, playful, and complex movies I have ever seen. I love the way Stanley Kubrick expresses the film's theme of social and...

(The entire section is 5106 words.)

Amy Taubin (review date September-October 1999)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Imperfect Love: Stanley Kubrick's Last Film,” in Film Comment, Vol. 35, No. 5, September-October, 1999, pp. 25-33.

[In the following review, Taubin addresses the flaws of Eyes Wide Shut, maintaining that the movie was unfinished, but compelling on several levels.]

To be blunt about it, it's impossible at this moment to separate thoughts and feelings about Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut from the fact of his death. Or to put it another way, Kubrick's death is the closure that his final film, for better or worse, resists to the last. The ultimate Kubrick irony is that the director died while making a film that sides with Eros in the eternal...

(The entire section is 3820 words.)

Charles Whitehouse (review date September 1999)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Eyes without a Face,” in Sight and Sound, Vol. 9, No. 9, September, 1999, pp. 38-9.

[In the following negative review, Whitehouse considers Eyes Wide Shut staid and dated.]

The dream interpreter is a kind of detective, and given the orgy of opinion about Eyes Wide Shut currently being enjoyed, let's use the detective's dictum and stick to the facts. The most shocking aspect of Eyes Wide Shut is not its long-anticipated sex scenes, but its fidelity to literature. No one expected such a faithful plot adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler's Dream Story (Schnitzler was a friend of Freud's)

Kubrick and screenwriter...

(The entire section is 1234 words.)

Further Reading

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


Coyle, Wallace. Stanley Kubrick: A Guide to References and Resources. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1980, 155 p.

Provides a bibliography of Kubrick's career before 1980.


Allen, Thomas. Kubrick: Inside a Film Artist's Maze. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982, 268 p.

Offers critical interpretations of Kubrick's films.

Clines, Francis X. “Stanley Kubrick's Vietnam.” NYT (21 June 1987): 1, 34.

Profile of Kubrick on the eve of the release of Full Metal Jacket.

Combs, Richard. “Kubrick Talks!”...

(The entire section is 451 words.)