I grew up knowing The Shining as a Stanley Kubrick film that scared the hell out of me, even in “Edited For Television” form. The desolation of the Overlook Hotel, the jittery but optimistic mother, the alcoholic father slowly losing his mind to the ghosts that resided there, and the strange little boy named Danny that rode his Big Wheel around the empty hallways and occasionally talked to his finger(which he referred to as Tony.) There was something about the slow pace, long shots, the claustrophobic snow-covered mountains, and the feeling of isolation that got to me. Of course I was probably 7 years old when I first watched it, so that helped with the fear factor.
But then in my early 20s I finally picked up Stephen King’s 1977 book and read it. Man, did Kubrick take a few liberties. He extrapolated from King’s story of ghosts, alcoholism, family in turmoil, and severe isolation and condensed it to a story of a narcissistic, alcoholic writer losing his marbles to whispers in his ears. He drops the backstory of the Overlook and gives us a waterboarding done with melted snow and Shelly Duvall’s tears of terror. Now, I still love The Shining film, but after reading and loving King’s novel I saw just why King hated it so much. The true darkness and heart of the story was gone, and in its place was a weird and disturbing movie and one hell of a performance by Jack Nicholson.
Fast forward to 2013 and King revisiting the characters left alive at the end of The Shining. Doctor Sleep takes place 40 years after the horrors at the Overlook Hotel. Danny Torrance is middle-aged and in a bad state. He’s a raging alcoholic like his father, though his drinking is used to tamper down his shining so he doesn’t hear the voices(or so he tells himself.) Danny early on in the book finds sobriety and a new life in a small town in New Hampshire, but his past still haunts him. He connects with a young girl telepathically named Abra who has the shining and shines brighter than anyone he’s ever come across. There’s also a group called the True Knot, led by the enigmatic Rose the Hat. They’re an ancient group of beings that live for centuries by feeding on children with abilities much like Danny’s and Abra’s. Dan and Abra must work together in order to stop the centuries-long terror that Rose the Hat and the True Knot have inflicted on the innocent.
The book was excellent. I felt like it was a fitting final chapter in the story of Danny Torrance, and a book filled with a lot of heart. It was also quite disturbing, as the True Knot is truly one of the most twisted villains Stephen King has come up with. When I’d heard that Mike Flanagan(Hush, Oculus, Gerald’s Game, The Haunting of Hill House) was writing and directing a film adaptation of Doctor Sleep I felt genuine excitement. Flanagan, I feel, is one of the most exciting filmmakers working in the horror genre today. He connects on both a visceral and emotional level in his work, knowing that in order to pull an audience in they have to feel for the characters. With family and redemption at the heart of Doctor Sleep, this seemed like a perfect match.
Mike Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep is one of those book-to-film adaptations that satisfies both the hard line book fans as well as those that aren’t familiar with Stephen King’s 2013 sequel to his classic 1977 novel The Shining. But there’s something else quite amazing that Flanagan does, he bridges the gap between King’s story and the Kubrick adaptation of The Shining that King very famously hated(and in turn so did a lot of the novel’s fans.) That’s no small feat, given the iconic stature of Kubrick’s film.
Regardless of where you’re at on the love it/hate it scale in terms of Stanley Kubrick’s film, there’s no denying the look of the Overlook. From its magnificent Gold Room to the endless halls to the lawn maze and the Big Wheel excursions. Jack sitting alone in the grand room typing away as his family bides their time in the small utility apartment watching Looney Toons. That film, for better or worse, created a visual foundation for many of us to go by in terms of King’s story. Sure, the film itself lacked the in-depth history of the Overlook, the heart and soul of King’s story, and never gave Jack Torrance his moment of salvation at the end, but those visuals burned in our psyches and lasted a lifetime.
What Mike Flanagan has done is take the visuals and certain story liberties of Kubrick’s film and mesh them in perfectly into Doctor Sleep. He makes it known that Stanley Kubrick’s film very much existed, while still staying true to the heart of Stephen King’s stories. Heart is one thing that Flanagan brings to all of his work. At the center of the horror and madness there’s a beating heart. There’ also a sense of family, regardless of how dysfunctional that family may be. It’s obvious that Mike Flanagan was a fan of Stanley Kubrick’s movie, but it’s also equally obvious that Flanagan is giving King’s novels the respect and attention to detail that they deserve.
There are some story line changes, both with characters and how the story concludes, but all of the changes work here. At the heart of King’s book is Danny, Abra, and the True Knot. That remains intact in Flanagan’s adaptation. Are there things I wish could’ve remained from King’s book? Absolutely. But part of a filmmaker’s job when adapting a novel is to find the heart of it and keep that at the center.
Ewan McGregor, Rebecca Ferguson, and Kyliegh Curran all have amazing performances, with Ferguson nearly stealing every scene she was in. Her turn as Rose the Hat is both hypnotic and terrifying. Newcomer Curran does a great job as the young and powerful Abra. She never plays Abra Stone as a victim, and she falls into her blossoming powers with ease. McGregor gives us a Dan Torrance that’s broken and running from himself, but we see him rebuilding his life after nearly 40 years of trauma, both inflicted and self-inflicted.
Cliff Curtis as Dan’s friend Billy Freeman does a fine job, though I would’ve liked to see more of him. Same goes for the great Bruce Greenwood as Dr. John. The True Knot was filled with some great character actors, including Zahn McClarnon as Crow Daddy, Robert Longstreet as Barry the Chunk, and Emily Alyn Lind as Snakebite Andi.
Another instrumental piece of Doctor Sleep was the score by the Newton Brothers. It’s an anxiety-inducing score that pumps and breathes with devilish delight. It almost feels like a beating heart throughout the film, a constant pulse just under the surface. Truly inspired music.
Doctor Sleep is a truly unique film, and one that stands completely on its own thanks to the direction of Mike Flanagan. He stays true to King’s words and story, while adding his own touch. Flanagan also seamlessly threads in the cinematic world that Stanley Kubrick created 40 years ago without letting it take over the narrative or color our experience. Basically, if you loved Kubrick’s adaptation, you’re in for a treat. If you didn’t, well don’t worry because Doctor Sleep is very much a Stephen King adaptation. Not a Kubrick tribute.
And even more importantly, this is a masterful cinematic turn from Mike Flanagan.