The movie version of Doctor Sleep, Stephen King’s decades-later sequel to The Shining, arrived with a ton of hype and mostly positive reviews. Writer-director Mike Flanagan is probably the best adapter of King stories. He’s a massive King fan and meticulous, serious and thoughtful filmmaker.
King reportedly disliked the Stanley Kubrick adaptation of The Shining but fully endorses this adaptation of Doctor Sleep. Kubrick pared the story down to a cold, abstract, clinical, utterly unsentimental look at a man’s disintegration into murderous rage. The supernatural elements of the Overlook Hotel served as a metaphorical prism.
Doctor Sleep features a grown Dan Torrance, still traumatized by his father’s attempts to kill him and his mother, suppressing his psychic powers with drugs and alcohol. When he hits rock bottom, he goes to AA and takes a job as an orderly in a hospice where he uses his powers to comfort dying patients. Meanwhile, a gang of energy vampires who prey on children with psychic powers set their sights on a girl named Abra, who has become Dan’s psychic pen-pal. Dan and Abra lay a plan to fight Rose the Hat and her gang and come to terms with his past once and for all.
Correcting the Shining
The movie squeezes enough plot for a six-part TV miniseries into a slightly meandering two-and-a-half hour movie. Flanagan is a filmmaker not given to cheap gimmicks or jump-scares. He’s invested in the themes and story that began in The Shining and wants to do it all justice. He understands Dan Torrance’s struggles with alcohol and addiction as part of King’s own personal journey. Rose the Hat and her gang’s deeds are painted as an analogy to child predators with a supernatural layer. Flanagan also sets up very early on the prospect of Chekov’s Overlook Hotel – we know Dan will head back there and come full circle in the climax.
The cast is fine. Ewan McGregor is hugely sympathetic as the grown-up Dan Torrance. Grappling with trauma and addiction, desperate for redemption. Rebecca Ferguson imbues a lot of unexpected nuance into a creature as evil as Rose the Hat. Kyliegh Curran, in her debut, plays Abra as a kid with a core of steel that makes her feel like a superhero in training. Flanagan casts actors who look like the original cast from The Shining, which creates a weird sense of dissonance.
That’s the problem I had. Doctor Sleep the movie sets out to argue with or “correct” Kubrick’s movie. Kubrick looked at his characters like specimens under a microscope. His gaze remained detached as they suffer and squirm under a universe that’s out to get them. It’s that detachment in Kubrick’s vision that makes it frightening. It’s notable that Kubrick’s movie is considered a classic and one of the few King adaptations to be considered a great film.
A Sequel We Didn’t Ask For
And the thing is, The Shining never needed a sequel. It told a complete story. That King felt the urge to write a sequel is entirely his prerogative. He clearly wanted some kind of redemption for Dan Torrance and his father Jack. The movie of Doctor Sleep, filtered through even a filmmaker as diligent as Mike Flanagan, just feels like fanfic. Like the book, it sets out to reclaim power from the horrors that seemed vast and undefeatable in The Shining. That’s often what fanfic does.
Doctor Sleep the movie is a different animal from the book. It keeps the main plot but condenses and streamlines the story into a more concise structure. The movie also has a different ending to the book. It feels like a sequel by a cover band, visiting the greatest hits along the way. It’s all about getting closure we don’t need but King and Flanagan clearly feel Dan Torrance does. Kubrick’s movie was about a hapless family caught in the shadow of a vast, unfathomable horror, Flanagan’s movie is about conquering and defeating that horror. It’s an unnecessary sequel the same way 2010 was to 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Where The Shining was about helplessness in the face of unspeakable horror, Doctor Sleep is all about empowerment and heroism. It alters the unfathomable horrors into enemies that can be fought like levels in a videogame. At the end of the day, Doctor Sleep is a superheroine origin story.
I don’t think we’ll remember Doctor Sleep in a few years the way we still remember The Shining.