Horror master Stephen King continues to have a banner year in Hollywood. We’ve had the release of a (disappointing) Pet Sematary remake earlier this year, IT: Chapter 2 in September, the Netflix adaptation of In the Tall Grass last month, and a new season of Castle Rock currently airing on Hulu. Closing out this annus mirabilis is Doctor Sleep, adapted from King’s novel of the same name, a sequel to The Shining. Along with 2017’s spectacular IT, Doctor Sleep is one of the best film adaptations of a King novel yet.
(Major spoilers for The Shining—film and book—below; mild spoilers for Doctor Sleep.)
King published The Shining in 1977. It became his first hardback bestseller and was adapted into a film by Stanley Kubrick in 1980, starring Jack Nicholson as struggling alcoholic and aspiring writer Jack Torrance. Initial reviews weren’t particularly favorable—King himself was not a fan of the film, going so far as to produce his own adaptation in a 1997 miniseries—but it’s now considered a horror classic.
For those not familiar with the story, Jack Torrance takes a position as the winter caretaker of the remote Overlook Hotel in the Colorado Rockies, bringing his wife, Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and young son Danny (Danny Lloyd). Danny has a psychic gift, called “the shining,” which lets him communicate telepathically with the hotel cook, Dick Halloran (Scatman Crothers). The hotel is haunted, and the previous caretaker went mad and murdered his family. As a snowstorm hits and the isolation takes its toll, Jack ultimately succumbs to the same madness, chasing Wendy and Danny through the empty hotel with an axe (“Heeere’s Johnny!”) as the Overlook’s ghosts look on approvingly. Mother and son barely manage to escape with their lives.
In the follow-up novel, Doctor Sleep, King sought to continue Danny’s story as the boy grows up and struggles to recover from the psychological trauma he experienced at the Overlook Hotel. The ghosts have followed him from the hotel, but he has learned to contain them in a mental “lockbox.” He still spends years as an alcoholic—the drinking suppresses the shining—wandering from town to town. Now in his 40s, Dan finally gets sober and settles in a New Hampshire town called Frazier. He gets a job at a hospice, where he uses his newly re-emerged psychic gift to comfort patients who are terminal, earning him the moniker Doctor Sleep. He’s aided in this by a cat, inspired by a real-life therapy cat named Oscar who some claimed could predict the deaths of the terminally ill.
Dan also forms a psychic connection with a young girl, Abra Stone, whose powers are even stronger than his own. When she witnesses the murder of a boy by members of a local cult called the True Knot, she turns to Dan for help. The True Knot members feed off “steam,” a psychic essence that comes from people with the shining who die in pain—although they can also contract illnesses from their victims. After feeding off the boy, clan members contract the measles and begin dying (the steam lengthens their life spans but does not make them immortal). The True Knot targets Abra, believing they can torture her indefinitely to give them a steady supply of “steam” before the entire clan succumbs to disease. It falls to Dan to protect her, culminating in a showdown at—where else?—the Overlook Hotel.
Back to the Overlook
Mike Flanagan, who wrote and directed last year’s stunning adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House, also wrote and directed Doctor Sleep. In so many ways, he is the perfect choice. Flanagan has proven he can handle the psychological complexities of classic horror with Hill House, and he is no stranger to the Stephen King ouevre. His 2017 adaptation of King’s psychological horror thriller, Gerald’s Game—long considered unfilmable—earned the approval of King himself, who called it “hypnotic, horrifying and terrific.” So naturally Flanagan was drawn to the challenge of adapting Doctor Sleep. “It touches on themes that are the most attractive to me, which are childhood trauma leading into adulthood, addiction, the breakdown of a family, and the after effects, decades later,” he told Collider last year.
Flanagan has also said his version of Doctor Sleep would be a direct adaptation of the novel, and the film definitely hews closely to the source material for the most part. There are changes, some rather significant—the fates of certain characters, for instance, or condensing Dan’s descent into alcoholism and hitting rock bottom, which takes up the entire first third of the book. That’s as it should be when adapting a sprawling novel to the big screen. Most of the omissions, like trimming the cast or making the more internal psychological aspects more concrete, work very well.
There are only two aspects of the book I truly missed in the film. One was the True Knot contracting measles from one of their victims. It’s what adds an extra frisson of desperation to their hunt for Abra; capturing her is literally an urgent matter of life and death, and not just because of how difficult it has become to find quality steam these days. The other—well, let’s just say that it bears on how Jack Torrance’s fate differs in the book and film versions of The Shining, and how that factors into adult Danny finally making peace with his past trauma at the Overlook. But only book readers are likely to notice.
“These empty devils, they’ll eat what shines. And they’ve noticed that little girl.”
Flanagan has managed to thread a tricky needle, since King wrote Doctor Sleep as a sequel to the novel, not the film version, of The Shining, and there are some small but significant differences between the two. Yet his adaptation still takes place in the same cinematic universe as Kubrick’s film. For instance, the hotel cook, Dick Halloran (played by Scatman Crothers in the first film), who shares Danny’s gift, survives in the book and is killed by Jack in the film. And the Overlook burns down in the book and remains intact in the film.
In Doctor Sleep, the True Knot owns a campsite where the Overlook once stood; in Flanagan’s film, it’s still standing, in keeping with the film. Halloran makes an appearance (now played by Carl Lumbly) via supernatural vision. He warns Dan about the True Knot and the danger they pose to children like Abra: “These empty devils, they’ll eat what shines. And they’ve noticed that little girl.” Of course, there are plenty of callbacks to famous scenes: a young Danny riding his tricycle through the Overlook Hotel’s maze-like hallways, the creepy twins (“Come play with us”), the ghost in the bathtub, and the torrents of blood pouring out of the hotel elevators.
Perhaps most controversially, there is a pivotal scene between Dan and the ghost of his dead father, tending bar as “Lloyd” in the Overlook lounge, played by Hill House alum Henry Thomas. Nicholson’s performance has defined the character for decades, and Thomas wisely avoids attempting a straight Nicholson impression, relying on just a few telltale mannerisms to convey the character. It was a risky choice on Flanagan’s part, but that scene is key to Dan’s psychological journey; after all, the ghost of his father has haunted him his entire life. Now Dan faces the same choice Jack Torrance did all those years ago: to resist or succumb to the Overlook’s sinister power. And Abra’s life depends on him making the right choice.
It’s Ewan McGregor’s nuanced performance as Dan that anchors the film, along with that of his young co-star Kyliegh Curran, who plays Abra in a way that brings out both her innocence and her inner ferocity. She is stronger and more daring—and more ruthless—than young Danny ever was. That makes her a formidable threat to the True Knot. Every horror film needs a good villain, and Rebecca Ferguson is mesmerizing as Rose the Hat, equal parts seductive and sinister. It makes for a very tense and satisfying finale when all three finally face off at the Overlook for the final showdown.
Doctor Sleep opens this weekend in theaters.
Listing image by Warner Bros.