Film Review: Doctor Sleep Reintroduces Stephen King to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining

on November 07, 2019, 5:30pm

This review originally ran on October 31st following its limited engagement.

The Pitch: Decades after surviving the ghostly grasp of The Overlook Hotel, a now-adult Danny Torrance (Ewan McGregor) wrestles with his own demons. Like his troubled father before him, he’s a struggling alcoholic, drifting from one bottle to the next in a dark downward spiral. He eventually finds light in a small New Hampshire town, where he comes to use his “shine” for good at a hospice. That serenity begins to crack, however, after he’s contacted by Abra Stone (Kyliegh Curran), a young child whose budding psychic abilities are drawing interest from a menacing force called the True Knot. Led by Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson), this ancient cadre of quasi-immortals feeds on the psychic essence of people like Danny and Abra, and they’ll do anything in their power to get it.

Based on Stephen King: When it was first announced that Gerald’s Game director Mike Flanagan would be tackling Stephen King’s 2013 sequel novel to The Shining, the first question on everyone’s mind was, “Would it also be a sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation?” Of course, those familiar with Hollywood and its True Knot-esque hunger for intellectual property always knew that Warner Bros. would never miss an opportunity to capitalize on the original film. Almost immediately, you could see the iconic orange flooring or hear Wendy Carlos’ score over its marketing materials. Even so, there was a great debate among Constant Readers, mostly because Kubrick’s vision strays so far away from King’s, and in ways that would make Doctor Sleep incredibly difficult to adapt.

Without going too far down a rabbit hole, King’s original 1977 novel charts the maddening descent of Jack Torrance, the alcoholic patriarch who accepts the ill-fated caretaker job at The Overlook and succumbs to its influence. What has always bothered King about Kubrick’s adaptation is the lack of a descent, and he’s never wavered from that argument. “Jack Torrance has no arc in that movie,” he told Deadline as recently as 2016. “When we first see Jack Nicholson … he’s crazy as a shit house rat. All he does is get crazier. In the book, he’s a guy who’s struggling with his sanity and finally loses it. To me, that’s a tragedy. In the movie, there’s no tragedy because there’s no real change.” Look, he’s not wrong: By the end of the film, Jack is an angry and frozen accoutrement of the Overlook, a drastic departure from his fiery sacrifice that winds up saving his family at the end of the book.

The Shining, Warner Bros. Pictures

The Shining, Warner Bros. Pictures

But, who are we kidding? Kubrick wasn’t interested in King’s narrative — hell, some claim he literally tossed aside the book after reading it in his office — he was more intrigued by its setup. That notion is all over his film, which parses down King’s work to its bare essentials, all of which are used to paint this great surrealistic nightmare. It’s a film that conveys its themes through atmosphere and aesthetic, and to a writer like King, who lives and dies by story and characterization, you can see why that would be infuriating to him. Yet you can also see why drawing from Kubrick would be an issue for Flanagan when looking to adapt Doctor Sleep. So much of that book’s narrative threads and themes tie back to those very pages that Kubrick left crumpled on the writing room floor back in the late ’70s. In other words, revisiting that world wouldn’t necessarily be revisiting King’s.

If anyone understands that, though, it’s Flanagan. As he told Den of Geek earlier this summer, “We were really careful from the beginning not to represent it as a straight sequel to either, to the Kubrick movie – although it absolutely honors and celebrates his vision of that world – but also to the King side of things. We always approached it as, this is an adaptation of the novel Doctor Sleep that takes place within the cinematic universe that Kubrick established.” On paper, that sounds like one hell of a delicate dance, but on screen, it’s a good marriage, to borrow from King. To Flanagan’s credit as both a storyteller and a filmmaker — a pair of muscles he flexes big time on this adaptation — Doctor Sleep is a peace flag between the two iconic properties, a bridge between two disparate articles of pop culture, and it’s affecting, riveting, and downright awe-inspiring.

Ready Player Torrance: With Doctor Sleep, Flanagan acts as a mediator between King and Kubrick — and really, he’s always been up for the task. As he proved with 2017’s Gerald’s Game — and even last year’s brilliant series adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, a pseudo-exercise for this project, in hindsight — he’s almost a historian when it comes to source material. He treats it as scripture, clutching on to all the minutiae in translation. Granted, that also worked against his favor for Gerald’s Game, namely for its jarring coda that’s ripped straight from King’s novel, but his filtration system has only improved. In fact, it’s on fire. He takes everything we cherish about Kubrick’s vision — the stoic horror, the lingering dread, the iconic aesthetics — and uses it to fuel King’s narrative. But he improves upon that narrative by trimming the fat to make it his own.

Again, that dance is paramount to the success of Doctor Sleep, and also why it’s such a remarkable feat. Because let’s be real, it’s already a challenge adapting King, but to followup Kubrick? There’s really only been one name to follow his footsteps and it’s director Peter Hyams, who was similarly tasked to pick up where Kubrick left off on 2001: a space odyssey with its 1984 sequel, 2010: The Year We Make Contact. The difference with this sequel, however, is that Flanagan actually has the finesse and wherewithal to rekindle Kubrick’s aesthetics. That’s not to say it’s a direct continuation, but it’s not far off. Where the two sequels do align is on their insistence on narrative, and Flanagan’s grip on King only adds to its effectiveness. Unlike so many of his peers, he not only recognizes what beats count, but why they count, and that inference is key.

Without it, this whole thing could have simply boiled down to a nostalgic rollercoaster, or an activation at Halloween Horror Nights, but it doesn’t. Think back to last year’s first return to The Overlook Hotel in Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One. Like Flanagan, Spielberg pulled from the original blueprints and even culled original footage for precision. It was a masterful feat — and arguably the most talked about facet of the entire film — but it was pure spectacle. There’s something more here. Sure, those nostalgic feelings are tugged, but there’s a depth to it all that comes from feeling like you’re actually in this world again. So, when you hear The Newton Brothers revisit Béla Bartók, or see Carl Lumbly resurrect Dick Hallorann, or follow Danny down the withered hallways, it’s all in service to the story, and these motifs only help to embellish it.

What’s more, they connect the dots. By lacing Kubrick’s aesthetics into King’s new story, Flanagan also offers a splendid deconstruction of the original 1980 film. From beginning to end, he highlights the late auteur’s creative decisions as he continues to add page after page of King’s tale, and he goes to great lengths to make amends with all that was torn out years ago. It’s all in the way he highlights Danny’s trauma and his lost relationship to his father. By seeing the character contend with his past, so too are we seeing Flanagan contend with Kubrick and King’s fractured relationship. What we didn’t see in The Shining, we see in Doctor Sleep, and that symmetry between narrative and context is compelling. It’s also somewhat unprecedented, at least to this level, and how Flanagan manages to wield that bridge speaks volumes about his abilities as a creator.

Doctor Sleep (Warner Bros.)

Doctor Sleep (Warner Bros.)

One Shining Performance: Stepping into the adult-sized shoes of Danny Torrance likely wasn’t an easy task for McGregor, but it also couldn’t have been too difficult. The disparity in age afforded the veteran star all the opportunity to create his own character, and he mostly does with certain trivialities. Back in September, he explained to Nerdist how he drew inspiration from Nicholson’s performance, attempting to visualize Danny as his child, and while that may be the case, the parallels are rarely noticeable. If anything, McGregor does what he always does best — carve out a like-able, albeit nuanced, protagonist — and it works to the film’s advantage, especially when paired with Curran. The two have a palpable chemistry that would make Spielberg envious, and the way they bond over their mutual powers adds a punchy cadence that’s assuredly Kingian.

The true star of the film, however, goes to Ferguson as Rose the Hat. Look, not to disparage King’s work or anything, but the entire True Knot arc is one of the more distracting facets of the novel. It’s often cheesy, it’s a little flimsy, and tends to get a tad unwieldy. What Ferguson does is bring a healthy mix of self-awareness and spunk, while also never forgetting how terrifying she’s supposed to be, and it’s a magnetic thing to watch. Her interactions with Curran, particularly one sequence involving some psychic sparring at a grocery store, should be included in a sizzle reel for how to do YA right. But what also makes her compelling is that she’s not this all-knowing specter of evil, but kind of a fuckup, too. She’s conceited, she’s unreliable even, and these wrinkles add to a character that could have easily derailed this entire story. Instead, she shines, no pun intended.

Doctor Sleep (Warner Bros.)

Doctor Sleep (Warner Bros.)

Midnight The Newtons and You: You don’t need to be a film scholar to know that without Kubrick’s scrapbook of sounds, The Shining would hardly be as effective. This was probably the first thing Flanagan prioritized coming into this production, and like so many other hallmarks he lifted from Kubrick’s original, he nailed this one with aplomb. Or rather, The Newton Brothers did. Rather than cover everything that came before, the two composers reworked all of the sounds into a rich tapestry of ambiance. Those familiar with the original soundtrack will no doubt hear teases of Bartók, Carlos, György Ligeti, and everything else that filled up the Overlook’s halls aside from blood. Of note is their use of the heartbeat, which petered in and out of Kubrick’s film, and takes center stage here. It’s the lifeline of the film, and truly entrenches you into the madness at hand. At a time when horror scores are so often relegated as forgettable filler, the Newtons really do make a case for placing a precedence on sound again.

The Verdict: Doctor Sleep shouldn’t work. Even now, the idea of making a big-budget sequel to arguably the greatest horror film of all time reads like a disaster on paper. Yet, to our surprise, Flanagan’s execution warrants its existence. This is sharp blockbuster filmmaking, coming at a time when IP is seemingly the only thing that gets any door open in Hollywood these days. Rather than churn out something cynical or pandering, though, Flanagan has instead taken that IP and instilled it with heart. Not just the chummy heart he’s hallmarked in past efforts, but the kind that comes from a creator who’s offered a chance to truly honor his influences and run with them.

Rest assured, Flanagan makes good on his intentions with Doctor Sleep, but his loudest statement may be the accomplishment itself. The fact that any of this happened, that any of it is this damn good, and that any of it actually works — especially, when you consider how batshit crazy the novel tends to get, if we’re being quite honest — is a marvel unto itself. Flanagan has solidified his status as a skilled dancer in the art of the adaptation, and these successes point to a creator whose greatest feats lie ahead. Where he goes from here should demand our interest going forward, but here’s hoping he sticks around King’s Dominion a little longer. The stories are better for it.

Where’s It Playing? Doctor Sleep takes us back to The Overlook on November 8th.