‘Doctor Sleep’ Was Always An Impossible Sequel
How do you adapt the sequel to a novel that inspired one of the most iconic horror films of all time?
Stanley Kubrick’s take on Stephen King’s novel ‘The Shining’ is a masterpiece. This is undeniable. What Kubrick did with King’s original text was to morph the story of Jack, Wendy and Danny Torrance’s stay at the Overlook hotel into his own -- departing from the source material slightly.
And while Kubrick’s ‘Shining’ is still held up as one of the greatest horror films of all time, someone who went on record (several times) to criticise it was King himself. Over the years since the film was released, King has walked back and contradicted times when he was less than pleased with the take on the novel. Ultimately, there was a divide between King’s novel and Kubrick’s creation.
Obviously, when adapting a novel there will be changes and omissions -- but for King, he felt like Kubrick left out vital themes and boiled down Wendy to a misogynistic “screaming dishrag”.
Where King’s version of the story ended with the Overlook on fire, Kubrick’s ends instead in the freezing snow.
Unfortunately for director Mike Flanagan, the rift between the two texts is exactly where he found himself in, when he attempted to make ‘Doctor Sleep’, the film based on King’s sequel to ‘The Shining’.
King wrote that he was often asked by fans of ‘The Shining’ what had happened to Danny following the events of the first book, so in 2010 he was inspired to pen ‘Doctor Sleep’.
The novel follows Danny as he grows up having to deal with the demons both he encountered at the Overlook and inherited from his parents. Struggling with alcoholism and the occasional other-worldly visitor thanks to his psychic abilities (aka the shining) he tries to distance himself from his violent, drunken father.
Yet Danny is the very embodiment of his axe-wielding father.
As he attempts to get his life on track, Danny runs into young Abra Stone -- another gifted child just brimming with the shining -- as well as a mysterious group called the True Knot, who are also circling the powerful child.
In a featurette for the film, Flanagan spoke about his intentions in the film, saying his strategy was to “honour what Kubrick did and to approach [‘Doctor Sleep’] like it is an authentic sequel to the film that he made, while also trying to honour themes from the novel of ‘The Shining’ that didn’t make it into the film”.
In attempting to honour both the source texts, ‘Doctor Sleep’ doesn’t seem to live up to either but rather exists in perfect mediocrity that borders on imitation. Several of ‘The Shining’s most iconic shots are re-created in the sequel, as an homage of sorts but it feels more like a cheap call-back to, unfortunately, remind audiences of a far superior film.
Flanagan described making the film “a very schizophrenic kind of experience”, adding that he and his team “approached this as fans first, and ran it through this filter of: what is the movie that we want to see? If someone else was making it, what are the choices where we would say, 'I wish they'd done this' or 'I wish they hadn't done this'”.
There are some moments where the director subtly calls upon visual cues and references to Kubrick’s film early on, but -- especially in the third act -- Flanagan seems to gets lost on a quest that feels desperate to return to the Overlook.
Flanagan also had the difficult task of attempting to adapt a hefty story that spans decades, to toy with the ideas of inherited trauma, addiction and a roving gang of age-less caravan people who feed on the screams of gifted children.
It’s a solid attempt, one bolstered by his reunion with ‘Haunting of Hill House’ cinematographer Michael Fimognari, and the disorienting way they capture Danny during certain episodes.
But in focusing on bringing Kubrick’s ‘Shining’ into the mix, the film had to shy away from certain elements of King’s novel that may have made it feel more menacing. For one, the most terrifying thing about the True Knot is how normal they appear.
For example, an army of RVs and camper vans, is packed with the kinds of people you expect to see wearing novelty T-shirts and shopping for souvenirs at truck stops. A constantly moving army of middle-aged folk making small-talk about traffic was boiled down to a handful of creepy eccentrics living in the woods.
That’s not to say that ‘Doctor Sleep’ is a failure because it doesn’t perfectly adapt the events of the book, far from it. Flanagan seems to have created something that feels too unsure of what it ever wanted to be.
The film stars Ewan McGregor, Rebecca Ferguson, Kyliegh Curran and Carl Lumbly and Jacob Tremblay.
‘Doctor Sleep’ opens in cinemas across Australia on November 7.
Featured image: Warner Bros. Pictures.