The following contains spoilers for book and film versions of The Shining and Doctor Sleep.
Turning a Stephen King novel into a movie is a tricky thing to pull off, even considering the great run of King adaptations we’ve had in recent years. Making a sequel to one of the greatest horror movies ever made is arguably even harder. Doing both at once should be impossible. But that is the challenge Mike Flanagan has set himself with Doctor Sleep, which sets out to continue the story of The Shining – both the book and the markedly different film by Stanley Kubrick, which King himself famously hated upon its release. It is a difficult balancing act, but Flanagan pulls it off with aplomb; his movie reconciles the two different versions of the original story, being a direct sequel to Kubrick while pulling in previously disregarded themes from King.
Much has been made of Flanagan’s Herculean efforts to faithfully recreate every facet of the Overlook Hotel, hunting down Kubrick’s original blueprints to ensure that everything from the iconic geometric carpet to the books on the shelves is as accurate as possible. The results are staggering. When the now-adult Dan Torrance returns to the decrepit hotel in the third act of Doctor Sleep, it’s just as we remember it, the strains of Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind’s score dragging us into the past like Proust’s Madeleine gone mouldy.
But as cool as it is to see the elevator filled with blood, or the bathroom door with its home-made ventilation, it’s the ways in which Flanagan flips these images on their heads that makes the film truly shine. Some of these are small; in a fun inversion of the original, it’s Rebecca Ferguson’s villainous Rose the Hat who stalks up the central staircase while Dan backs away, axe in hand. Others feel much more significant; as if Flanagan is trying to reintroduce aspects of King’s novel that Kubrick jettisoned from the original film.
As Dan walks the corridors of the Overlook he finds himself in the grand ballroom. He crosses the cavernous space and sits down that the bar, where a spectral figure attempts to serve him a drink. Only it’s not Lloyd the bartender – it’s Dan’s father, Jack, whose spirit has been consumed by the Overlook. And it’s here that Flanagan really starts to delve into the way King wrote these characters (and ended The Shining).
In Kubrick’s film, Jack Torrance is a much more sinister figure. There’s something… off about him, and his gradual descent into madness feels like a revelation of his true character rather than a perversion of it. In the novel, it’s a lot more complicated than that. He’s a damaged figure, brought to the brink by a struggle with alcoholism and haunted by his own abusive (and also alcoholic) father. By bringing Jack back in Doctor Sleep, Flanagan brings that cycle to the fore, reminding us that Dan has become trapped by it too, and gives an even greater sense of pathos to the ending of the movie.
Dan defeats Rose the Hat by turning the ghosts of the Overlook against her, but they possess his body and send him after Abra, the young girl who can ‘shine’ even brighter than him. He regains power just long enough to tell her to run, and overloads the hotel’s ageing boiler to set the building alight – sacrificing himself in the process. Not only is it a noble act from a man who starts the film by stealing money from a single mother – it’s also exactly what Jack does at the end of King’s version of The Shining. Like father, like son.
Doctor Sleep works so well because Mike Flanagan understands the optimism that’s fundamental to Stephen King’s best work – that no matter how hopeless the situation or how scary the monsters may seem, most people are inherently good and can change for the better. But his film wouldn’t feel nearly as powerful if not for the radical changes made by Stanley Kubrick three decades ago. Although, given Kubrick’s notorious obsession for detail, it wouldn’t be surprising to learn that was his plan all along…