Doctor Sleep (2019)
Director: Mike Flanagan
Screenwriter: Mike Flanagan
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Rebecca Ferguson, Kyliegh Curran, Cliff Curtis, Zahn McClarnon, Emily Alyn Lind
Stephen King famously disliked how Stanley Kubrick chose to adapt “The Shining”. Director Mike Flanagan famously loves Stephen King and Stanley Kubrick. Thirty-nine years later, with his film adaptation of King’s “Shining” sequel “Doctor Sleep”, Flanagan gets to prove it.
Many years after witnessing a tide of supernatural and familial horrors while overwintering at the Overlook Hotel, Danny Torrance (Ewan McGregor) has grown into a barely-functioning alcoholic drifting around the USA. Meanwhile, an even more powerful child with “the shining” Abra Stone (Kyliegh Curran) is being hunted by the True Knot, a commune of essence-sapping vampires led by the sadistic Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson).
Whatever you feel about King vs Kubrick, there’s no getting around the fact that no matter the medium, Doctor Sleep is an inferior followup to The Shining – it might build on what came before in some unexpected ways, but it’s also nowhere near as vivid, engrossing or terrifying a story. The book has some choice lines about alcoholism (“Why am I an alcoholic? Because I’m a drunk”) and repressed trauma (“We’re only as sick as our secrets”) and to its credit the film tries to be just as reflective. The quieter, more human moments, when we witness Danny is at his lowest ebb or when he is using his extraordinary gifts to ease the passing of the terminally ill, are far stronger than any scene that is trying to scare us.
The casting is near-perfect. You completely buy that Ewan McGregor is the same weird and wonderful boy all grown up, haunted and gone to seed. McGregor also has great chemistry with Kyliegh Curran who embodies Abra’s stubbornness, sense of mischief and also her darker side. But it is Rebecca Ferguson, having the time of her life as Rose the Hat, who steals the show. She’s in nearly as many scenes as McGregor and the evil, calculating glee she brings to every scene where she is pursuing her young quarry “steaming” with psychic power is creepily beguiling. Rose’s chief henchmen Crow Daddy (Zahn McClarnon) and and Snakebite Andi (Emily Alyn Lind) are colourful but aren’t given enough screentime to make any lasting impact, likewise Cliff Curtis as Danny’s confidant Billy Freeman gets more initial character development than his book counterpart but also less of a payoff.
The film is absolutely fascinating from an adaptation point of view, having to follow up both the “Shining” book and film without contradicting the continuities of either too egregiously. Generally speaking Flanagan sticks to King’s page but jettisons the book’s final stretch entirely in favour of a nostalgia-heavy riff on how “The Shining” ended, not to mention cramming it full of crowd-pleasing references to the Kubrick adaptation.
The wider plot is inevitably streamlined, characters are combined or omitted entirely and for the most part it is to the film’s benefit. The screen version of this story also has a much higher body count than in the book, which at times seemed unnecessary. Perhaps the most important death that was in the book isn’t included (because the character concerned is only briefly name-checked) and two additional fatalities seemed only in there to wrong-foot anyone who’s recently read the novel and thinks they know exactly where it’s going.
Of course this was always going to refer back to the imagery of The Shining, but did it need to go as far as recreating the most memorable sequences from it, up to and including finding lookalikes for the key players? Elsewhere the film’s visuals, like how surreally the “world turns” when individuals with the shining find each other over hundreds of miles, or when a member of the True Knot phases in and out of their physical form before exploding in a cloud of steam essence upon their death, are really original and strong enough to stand on their own. I did still think it was a missed opportunity that they didn’t realise a few more of the book’s scarier images, like how Rose the Hat’s glamour wavers and she becomes something other than human when in a feeding frenzy.
This is second time in as many years the Overlook from Kubrick’s The Shining has been rebuilt by a team of ridiculously talented production designers (I really hope they didn’t have to do it from scratch twice, considering this is another Warner Bros production) but I honestly think what they did with it in Ready Player One was more impactful, connecting on an emotional level and progressing key character arcs rather than just getting points from a captive audience for recognition.
Doctor Sleep is technically accomplished and nicely performed but fails on a basic level as a horror film by never being all that scary. It’s like riding the most extravagant ghost train imaginable – thrilling in the moment but fleeting. Despite his admirable ambition, by trying to honour the visions of two distinct authors, Mike Flanagan can’t do justice to either.