I think that Doctor Sleep had been out well over two months before I actually got a copy of it. Still, it didn’t take long for me to bang through this book. The better part of the week perhaps? In the years since, I’ve read it probably more times than I’ve actually read The Shining. It’s one Kings best works in a decade at least. Something about it compels me, and it’s not just the connection to The Shining, in a lot of ways, I’m far more fascinated by the AA components of the book. There is a marvelous story here, built on the smoldering ruins of a world King created, ready to accept a new chapter. That’s one of the interesting things to note about the film in the book versions of the shining. The film attempts to build atmosphere. But the book really is creating an entire world around the hotel, it’s history, and the Torrance family. It’s just great in-depth stuff. And absolutely the sort of fertile house soil that will grow some thing when you very least suspect it.
Stephen King’s never been happy with the Kubrick Shining. This is no secret. Indeed, he went as far as to authorize the TV miniseries back in the 90s… And what disaster that was. Steven Weber and Rebecca De Mornay do a good enough job, although the Monet films land. But the miscasting of young Danny is an absolute crime. It’s not just The total lack of charisma, but even the look is just wrong. The perpetual upturn lip, exposing buck teeth that would embarrass a beaver. The toneless whine of this child’s voice, it just ruins the film for me every single time. But then again, we also have the terrible make up on the ghosts and the genuinely small, cramped feeling of what should be an expensive grand hotel. It just doesn’t work.
In a real way, King’s best chance at rewriting, and reinventing the shining to put emphasis back on the book, was to do a sequel. Dan grown-up, and what really is the aftermath of the horrors he experienced in the overlook hotel. Maybe I’m just talking for myself. But that’s exactly how it felt for me. Like legitimize in the book as the “real“ version.
It’s hard to describe my trepidation when I heard they were adapting it for the screen (and that may have something to do with why it’s taken a few years for me to actually watch the film!).
Look, this is a task I absolutely do not envy director Mike Flanagan. Because he’s faced with a unique problem. How to adapt a book that is a sequel to another book that was made into one of the most beloved horror movies of all time… but done so in a way that it still adapts the normal book that’s a sequel to the different book that you’re adapting into a film… Oh, my head hurts.
I never felt like I needed elements of The Shining in Doctor Sleep while I was reading the book. But it’s a fair argument that more people have seen the film than have read the book… It might be a more even split among baby boomers and Gen Xers of a certain age who saw the book sitting on their parents shelves, but overall the Kubrick film is far more visually iconic.
Flanagan himself wasn’t new to King’s work. He’s a lifelong fan, but more importantly he had some credibility to his name. This is the person who did the adoption of Geralds Game, a book that was largely considered unfilmable. He found the right balance, what things to alter to be able to make the movie without compromising The story or key elements. He kept true to the core story and knew where the cosmetics mattered and where they didn’t. It was this sort of credential that was enough to get him in front of King to ask about adapting Doctor Sleep for film. It’s a tricky proposition. King’s attitude towards the Kubrick film had not softened at all over the years, but it’s an unparalleled understanding of the core story and all of the material that allowed Flanagan the inside to present his idea. A scene at the bar, something that would truly examine, explore and progress the Torrance family story arc… something that King felt never happened before… And an intriguing enough idea that it moved King from a firm quote “No.“, To “Keep talking, I’m listening.“
Doctor Sleep is the story of Daniel Torrance (played perfectly by Ewan McGregor – seriously, his performance can not be underplayed here), in the years after his experiences at the Overlook hotel. We find him, a washed up alcoholic pretty well hitting rock-bottom. On the other side is Abra, a teenage girl who is coming into her full power in The Shining. And in the darkness, The True Knot. A group of psychic vampires led by Rose the Hat (played by Rebecca Ferguson – who manages to feel immediately familiar – even though I’ve never seen her before in ANYTHING. Hmmmm. Perhaps she really IS a vampire!), all intent on drinking Abra‘s Shining right out of her, and purifying it through pain.
The film follows the book fairly closely for the first two acts actually, although it does nod its head towards the film here and there. A flash once in a while, rare and scattered. We discover early on that Dick Halloran is in fact dead in the story. That immediately signals to this being more of a sequel to the film than the book, though you could probably wrap your head around a rationalization if you need it to. The actor is a brilliant re-creation of Scatman Crothers though. It’s an almost dead on impersonation and really well realized. Carl Lumbly has been made up to be the spitting image and a perfect Dick. They re-create Danny as a young child as well, but it’s again, used sparingly so the fact that he looks just attach off in the face… You’re not given enough time to really think about it. Shelley Duvall‘s doppelgänger Alex Essoe fares a little worse. Duvall is a much more recognizable actress, but one might argue that the events of the shining changed her… Aged her. Jack Torrance however, is shocking when we see him. He’s perhaps the epitomie of watching Flanagan is done with this movie. That face is not Jack Nicholson‘s, but everything about him is Jack Torrance. The hair and the mannerisms, the color and the movement. Henry Thomas (yes, THAT Henry Thomas) absolutely nails it and I buy it immediately, never questioning the entire time he’s on screen… And he’s on screen for a while.
Why? Because it’s that third act where things really start to diverge from the book. In the book, the final showdown between Danny, Abra, and rose the hat… It takes place at the site of the overlook… But of course in the book, the Overlook was reduced to a burning, smoldering rubble when the furnace exploded. Today it’s just an overlook point, a scant campsite with a few picnic benches and a plaque that might mention the grand old hotel. Rose meets her end in those outbuildings.
The problem is, for this film to really appeal broadly, we need more than that. We need the hotel itself, we need… The Overlook.
We’re never given a proper explanation as to how the building is still standing, why the electric still works or why it’s so pristine inside. Who knows, perhaps it doesn’t even exist anymore… But it’s held together by the sheer force of will stemming from Dan’s imagination? Or perhaps it’s just a cursed old haunted house, the sort of place that can’t ever really die. Whatever it is, 30 years later, it looks exactly the same… And I mean exactly the same. Kubrick’s estate handed over photos and documents, even the original plans for the Overlook so it could be built and replicated down to the last detail. And when I say the last detail, I mean last detail. Photos, props, even sheets of paper with the inscription “All work and no play, makes Jack a dull boy.“ typed immaculately dozens of times across the crisp white sheets. The directors sets his third act there, with Rose the Hat meeting much the same end and she does in the book, perhaps in a more visual way, perhaps more ghosts eating at her life force than what the book might describe (along with some that a visually more recognizable), but the essence is still there. However, Flanagan then pushes the climax even further enveloping us in the terror that is a return to the Overlook. It’s ending is ultimately a satisfying climax, especially in this format… where you’re limited by the 2 1/2 hours to tell a story and tie the strings together. In a lot of ways he’s done the impossible. He’s merged the book and the film together, and created something that reconciles both. Just as importantly, he’s created a film adaptation that I once again enjoy just as much as the book.
Doctor Sleep is derivative. It is an adaption. It is a piece of art with a foot in both the literary and cinematic world. But it’s not The Shining. It’s not necessarily it’s own entity the way that the book and film versions of The Shining are. here. No, this is definitely the Earth 2 version of the book, and as such will never be quite as satisfying. But as far as party tricks go, pulling this off is a pretty spectacular one. It’s available on streaming now, it’s on DVD now, go find it.