Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
As a film, <i>Doctor Sleep</i> could only exist at the intersection of Stephen King and Stanley Kubrick

As a film, Doctor Sleep could only exist at the intersection of Stephen King and Stanley Kubrick

Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures, Graphic: Jimmy Hasse
Page To ScreenIn Page To Screen, we compare a movie to the book that spawned it. The analysis goes into deep detail about specific plot points—in other words, you’ve been warned.

Page To Screen

In Page To Screen, we compare a movie to the book that spawned it. The analysis goes into deep detail about specific plot points—in other words, you’ve been warned.

Mike Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep deviates wildly from the 2013 Stephen King novel that serves as its source material, which, for some, might come as something of a surprise. While promoting his excellent 2017 adaptation of King’s Gerald’s Game, Flanagan described himself as a “rabid fan” of the author, adding that his cinematic reverence to that novel stemmed from his own confidence in King’s storytelling. “It’s not my goal to change it or make it more or less palatable for certain people,” he said. He’s not unlike famed King adapter Frank Darabont in that way. “If you’re not being true to the absolute letter of how the story was told on the page, you should be as true as possible to the spirit and the intention of the story on the page,” Darabont recently told us about adapting King’s work. When you consider that Darabont and Flanagan are, along with superfan Rob Reiner, the most successful adapters of King, it’s clear that this approach is the right one. But Doctor Sleep is not like other King books. An irreverent approach to adaptation, it turns out, was necessary.

That’s because Doctor Sleep is a sequel to King’s The Shining, his fiercely beloved 1977 novel about a haunted hotel and the family it tears apart. And The Shining wasn’t just adapted into a film in 1980; it was adapted by Stanley Kubrick into a horror staple as fiercely beloved as the book. The problem? They are different stories. King’s is a story of family, trauma, and history. Kubrick’s is a story of madness and isolation. One ends with the Overlook Hotel exploding, the other does not. One ends with an act of fatherly sacrifice, the other does not. One ends with kindly cook (and spiritual guide) Dick Hallorann dead, the other does not.

Had Kubrick’s film faded from the cultural consciousness, Doctor Sleep wouldn’t have as much work cut out for it. But the obsession over his dazzling hotel of horrors has only intensified over the years, crystallizing in Room 237, a smart documentary about the abundance of theories, conspiratorial and otherwise, that spawned from Kubrick’s enigmatic eye. King’s vocal displeasure with the film has further distinguished them as singular entities: “I think The Shining is a beautiful film and it looks terrific and as I’ve said before, it’s like a big, beautiful Cadillac with no engine inside it,” he told Deadline. “[T]he character of Jack Torrance has no arc in that movie. Absolutely no arc at all. When we first see Jack Nicholson, he’s in the office of Mr. Ullman, the manager of the hotel, and you know, then, 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.” In the afterward of Doctor Sleep, he asserts that his novel is where you’ll find “the True History of the Torrance Family.”

Doctor Sleep contains no references to Kubrick’s movie: The Overlook is gone, Dick Hallorann lives, and Danny still remembers the flash of humanity in his father that allowed him to escape. None of this is true in Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep, and what’s so astounding is how little it matters… until, of course, it matters a lot. But Flanagan’s adaptation still hits all the necessary beats. Now an adult, Danny (Ewan McGregor) hits rock bottom as an alcoholic, then cleans himself up in a tiny New Hampshire town where he uses his shine to help hospice patients die peacefully. Soon, he begins telepathically communicating with a young girl, Abra (Kyliegh Curran), who packs even more shine than he does. Abra falls on the radar of the True Knot, a roving band of psychic vampires led by an ageless monster named Rose The Hat (Rebecca Ferguson). Dan helps Abra fight them off with the help of his sober pals. In the end, the good guys square off against the bad ones at the site where the Overlook once stood. And this is where everything really changes. Where it needed to change. Because while King can get away with writing a sequel divorced from Kubrick’s vision, a filmmaker most assuredly can not. Flanagan knew that going in.

The Shining is so ubiquitous and has burned itself into the collective imagination of people who love cinema in a way that so few movies have. There’s no other language to tell that story in,” Flanagan told Entertainment Weekly this week. “If you say ‘Overlook Hotel,’ I see something. It lives right up in my brain because of Stanley Kubrick. You can’t pretend that isn’t the case.”

But Flanagan’s greatest trick isn’t in fastidiously recreating the Overlook as it looked in Kubrick’s film, nor is it weaving that film’s most iconic spirits—the twins, the “Great party!” guy—into the climax. (Honestly, recreating them here does a disservice to their iconography as it exists in Kubrick’s universe; the plotlessness of his classic clashes uncomfortably with this lore-stuffed story.) When Danny confronts the hotel’s roiling boiler, using it to sacrifice himself, save Abra, and raze its spirit-stuffed halls, he’s conjuring the end of King’s 1977 book, the one Kubrick so flagrantly cast aside. Danny becomes the same beast his father became and, though he succumbs to the Overlook like his dad did, his humanity still triumphs. Just as King intended for Jack Torrance.

Here, both versions of The Shining collide with the themes of Doctor Sleep in a deceptively simple way. It works for Kubrick fans. It works for King fans. And, for those hyper-aware of King’s book and the tension between it and the film, it’s the ultimate act of reconciliation.

It’s not the only one, though. In what’s bound to be the movie’s most divisive sequence, Danny retraces Jack’s steps to sit down with the Overlook’s Gold Room bartender. But it’s not Lloyd tending bar, it’s his dad. This is another major departure from the novel—in the book, it’s implied that the spirit of Jack Torrance assisted Danny and Abra in defeating Rose the Hat. Before leaving the site of the Overlook’s remains, the book’s Danny sees his father’s shape and they share a wave. It’s simple, peaceful, and more moving than it sounds. Flanagan still allows for this reunion, but he darkens it by filtering it through Jack Nicholson’s portrayal. The Haunting Of Hill House (and E.T.)’s Henry Thomas, sporting familiar duds and Nicholson’s wispy hair, isn’t a contented, doting Jack, but rather the manic one the Overlook turned him into. Flanagan would’ve been better off eschewing Thomas entirely by keeping Jack in profile—recasting Wendy and Hallorann is one thing, but nobody’s buying a bargain bin Jack Torrance—but the scene remains vital, presenting a meeting between the two that’s more pained than it is pleasant. As it should be.

Flanagan’s other changes are less integral to this reconciliation, but they’re still welcome. He cuts an unnecessary subplot that makes Danny and Abra blood relatives, as well as a laborious one involving Abra’s sick, elderly aunt. He also declutters the action by compositing some characters and scenes, and, thank god, cuts the bit where a newborn Abra predicts 9/11 in a dream. As a book, Doctor Sleep is better than its reputation suggests—unlike the movie, it packs some truly scary moments—but it’s overstuffed and frequently repetitive. The movie isn’t without its issues—see our C+ review—but, at over two-and-a-half hours, it still flies by.

What the book does offer that the movie doesn’t, though, is a sequel that’s wholly unencumbered by Kubrick’s film. And you’ll never see that onscreen.

Start with: The film. For those who desire a sequel to The Shining—no shade if you don’t—you won’t a find a more definitive telling. If you’re a King diehard, however, you might prefer the, let’s say, purity of King’s version.

Randall Colburn is The A.V. Club's Internet Culture Editor. He lives in Chicago, occasionally writes plays, and was a talking head in Best Worst Movie, the documentary about Troll 2.

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