DOCTOR SLEEP: a Kubrickian xerox with soul and dark beauty

If it’s accepted fact that Stephen King hated Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining, one suspects Kubrick would have hated Mike Flanagan’s adaptation of Doctor Sleep.

Primarily because Flanagan (celebrated in the horror community in recent years for projects such as Hush, Oculus & The Haunting of Hill House) doesn’t just put King’s 2013 sequel on the big screen, he actively works to continue the story from Kubrick’s cinematic version, which King has always attested is less faithful to his 1977 novel than the Mick Garris-directed TV mini-series from the 1990’s.

It does feel like King is wishful thinking about a lot of this, though, if you’ve read The Shining. Kubrick added a few of his own touches and flourishes but he sticks close to the plot, and often lifts dialogue from the book. Flanagan does the same here but the singular difference is that Kubrick wasn’t actively aping a director before him. Kubrick was innovating with The Shining. Flanagan is xeroxing. Intentionally, without a doubt, but he’s xeroxing nonetheless as he works to thematically and visually connect Doctor Sleep to the iconic 1980 horror film.

This ultimately works both to the advantage and the detriment of Doctor Sleep as a movie in its own right.

Doctor Sleep, of course, answers a question on the minds of many King and The Shining fans for decades – what happened to little Danny Torrance? The boy menaced in The Shining by his alcoholic father in the sinister, wintery Overlook Hotel.

Danny didn’t do so well. Played here with a quiet, haunted sense of lingering tragedy by Ewan McGregor, he lost his mother Wendy when he was barely an adult. He became a drifter, a bum, and crucially an alcoholic like his father. As Danny says at one point to his friend and champion Billy Freeman, “I’m running away from myself, I guess” and this forms the core of Danny’s fairly recognisable and familiar character arc if we look at dramatic archetypes. Danny must face the metaphorical and literal ghosts of his past in order to move forward, and in doing so he finds himself locked in a cyclical narrative pattern. As friendly old cook Dick Halloran (seen here by Carl Lumbly doing a superb Scatman Crothers impression) introduced Danny to the ‘shining’ and helped him when he was in need, Danny ends up aiding a young girl, Abra Stone, with similar abilities being targeted by a different form of the same evil Danny faced at the Overlook. The student becomes the mentor. The tortured soul finds peace.

In re-telling this familiar myth, Stephen King provides the evil at the heart of The Shining mythology with a different face, that of seductive Rose the Hat (here played by a beguiling, twisted hippy-ish Rebecca Ferguson) and the True Knot, an ancient group of vampiric drifters who remain eternally young and revitalised by ‘steam’, given off by people who ‘shine’ when they die. Through Rose and her group, King is able with Doctor Sleep to explain conceptually more of the mythology that remained abstract in The Shining, particularly in Kubrick’s film. “These empty devils, they’ll eat what shines” Dick warns as to their motivation.

They felt like riddles Danny and his family were in the middle of, with Jack Torrance corrupted by more of a primal darkness, a rejection of family norms, an embracing of pure masculine freedom and chaos. Doctor Sleep removes the abstraction. The ‘shine’ has a literal product and purpose. People who ‘shine’ now have incredible psychic abilities. It feels like a mash up of multiple King tropes and stories without much of the creeping, open uncertainty of The Shining.

Doctor Sleep, therefore, struggles when it works hard to both recollect and revisit The Shining, which it does particularly in its final act. While seeing the Overlook again forty years on is on an iconic level a thrill, Flanagan specifically gives it a sense of character that Kubrick left eerily unspoken. Forces were at work but we were never quite sure what they were, or their true motivations. Danny here literally faces the sins of his father, who provides the face of the evil at the heart of the Overlook.

While this works on a thematic level, with Danny resolute and desperate to avoid the fate of his father, on another level it takes something away from The Shining itself. It contextualises and explains too much in seeking to recreate the same kind of tension and horror that Kubrick did, which it never comes close to. Flanagan is too busy directly copying shots or sequences or actively ensuring the score weaves in many of the motifs from the classical pieces of Bartok or Penderecki etc… that Kubrick used in The Shining. By the end of the final act, we might as well be visiting a Shining amusement park.

Were Doctor Sleep a poorer production, this would be a significant problem, but Flanagan’s film just about gets away with this overt connections and similarities because he manages to keep a grasp on the narrative through line and thematic ideas driving Danny and Abra’s story – not to mention the fact his direction is genuinely artful and cinematography often gorgeous, lending the picture a frequently dreamlike, haunting quality. Allusion and illusion combine, particularly as Rose presents herself as a kind of dark magician, and Abra considers the ‘shine’ to be a form of magic. This childlike wonder and exuberance cuts into the heart and soul that lies amidst the horror Flanagan commits to screen.

One sequence in particular involving a kidnapped young boy is particularly vicious and memorable, but the horror swirls around a concept filled with both pathos and hope – the idea that Danny considered his ability to be something to ignore, to keep secret, to hide from and reject, whereas Abra is actively encouraged to embrace her difference and “shine on”. That becomes the message, and it’s particularly potent given the strident wave of youthful positivity and moral fortitude in our current area, from people like Greta Thunberg all the way down to young people taking a stand for what they believe in.

King’s creeping, horrific examinations of America, and the darkness we hold within, often ends up coming back to children – you can find an evil they need to confront in almost all of his more successful works. He is particularly fascinated with the idea that adults can never quite escape their childhoods, and what they seek to run away from will always come back to get them. Danny Torrance is no exception to this. He was always destined, you sense, to return to the Overlook just as much as Doctor Sleep, as a movie, feels like an inevitability. Everything we love gets revisited or reheated. 

Like the souls in King’s world, The Shining was “never really gone”. Doctor Sleep, mostly for better and occasionally for worse, reminds us just how powerful an experience it was, both on the page and screen, even if it rarely comes close to equaling either.

Author of books: Myth-Building in Modern Media / Star Trek, History and Us | Writer of words on film/TV/culture | Rotten Tomatoes approved critic: Twitter: @ajblackwriter | Podcast chief: @wmadethis | Occasionally go outside.

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