The Book is Better: Jack & Kevin

Words by Ryan Sim

Published on October 14, 2013

Thoughts and memories of film adaptations and the novels that inspired them.

“The effect of a truly execrable adaptation is worse than neutral. The stink rubs off,” said Lionel Shriver, in an effort to quantify her relief after seeing the film adaptation of We Need To Talk About Kevin. The sentiment echoes Stephen King’s well-publicised reaction to Kubrick’s ‘reimagining’ of The Shining. King originally hated the film, as if Kubrick had made it with the intent to insult him.

I began and finished both these novels within a couple of weeks of each other, and perhaps that’s why I associate these two stories – otherwise separated distinctly by time, style, and subject matter.

I read the books at a quicker-than-normal rate, then immediately watched the film adaptations (yes, I’d managed to go twenty-six years without seeing The Shining). If you haven’t seen or read it (or watched The Simpsons), The Shining is about a family who takes up residency at an isolated hotel, snowed in and unreachable over the off season. The hotel is haunted and the kid can read minds. The father is driven insane, prodded on by evil spirits, and tries to murder his wife and son. Kevin is an epistolary, a recount from a mother (played in the movie by Tilda Swinton) trying to determine whether or not her son, the perpetrator of a school massacre, who also murders his father and younger sister, was evil from birth, or if there was an event, some influence to catalyse his behaviour.

What I remember now about these films is how alone I felt while watching them. I was able to put the books down, walk away and think, talk about them with others while still digesting them. When I watched the films, I was hit all at once with the full weight of each story.

At face value, the novels share very little, beyond their visceral approach to storytelling. But, the sadness and rage in both books, however disparate their respective voices, is palpable. And the cultural capital is not to be discounted – I read them both because I felt I ‘should’. I look at their spines on my bookshelf, and I’m glad I read them. I’m glad they were written.

When it comes to comparing each book to its respective adaptation, however, things get a bit weird in my head. The novel and film versions of The Shining  remain unrelated in my mind, whereas the two versions of Kevin  are inherently linked. This has to do with how loyal the onscreen portrayals are to the original characters. In Kevin, Ezra Miller’s performance seems lifted right out of Shriver’s pages. His cool sleaziness made me feel as uncomfortable as his mother described in those letters she originally wrote. Jack Nicholson and Kubrick did away with King’s sympathetic Jack Torrance – a man tortured internally, but contrite, striving to forgive himself, a composite version of King
himself at that time. Nicholson’s portrayal of Jack Torrance is a powder keg, an opportunist who is borderline sociopathic. The film blurs the line between metaphor and reality with its supernatural themes, adding more weight to the idea that the onscreen Torrance was destined for violence and cruelty from the outset. Incidentally, giving him a lot more in common with Kevin. The movie strayed from the book just enough to throw us readers off. The
events are so similar to what happens in the novel, with a few omissions, but the characters are slightly askew from what I came to know so intimately through King’s laboured writing. This, however unintentional, only added to the creepiness of the film.

In reading Kevin, the biggest shock for me was not the deaths at the high school. The book was perversely (and inaccurately) marketed as a high school massacre story, and it was difficult not to be aware of that aspect. What shook  me most was Kevin’s mother’s discovery of her husband and daughter when she returned home – a complete surprise to me. The scene played out on screen in exquisite horror, with Swinton’s hesitant steps perfectly mirroring Shriver’s build-up to the discovery. It was the striking blow of the novel, like each of those four-hundred and-something pages weighed a kilo, weighing down on me. So when I began to watch the film, I felt toyed with. The opening, dreamlike scenes between Swinton and John C. Reilly (who plays Kevin’s father) are so beautiful, and I felt like my knowledge of his death, the loss of this great love, was being used to exaggerate the heartbreak. Watching it, it was like the film knew that I knew exactly what was coming.

It’s strange that in this association I have with The Shining  and Kevin, King’s novel is the thing that doesn’t belong. Kubrick turned the story into something else – something less complex, but still important. It becomes a domestic horror, like Kevin is. The home I read these books and watched these films in eventually fell apart. Thankfully the only child caught in that storm was a small cockatiel, which belongs to my now ex-partner. But I stayed there for a while, by myself, after the break up, and it’s true – the place felt constrictive, even with one less person there. Like the walls had soaked up the bad words and the hard feelings. When I think of that apartment, I think of The Shining  and We Need To Talk About Kevin – sitting up alone reading them, then watching them, long before anything went wrong.