Updated: Dec 20, 2021
There is a scene in Steven Spielberg's Ready Player One (2018) that playfully pays tribute to Stanley Kubrick's The Shining (1980), by transporting the characters directly into the horrors of the Overlook Hotel. It is a wonderfully bizarre, unexpected and, admittedly, divisive sequence – albeit with a necessary lightness of touch in what is essentially a family film. It acted as a reminder (if one were ever needed) of just how much 1980's The Shining has become a benchmark for modern horror cinema and how its unsettling imagery remains ingrained in pop culture. (For now, let's just forget about the rather pathetic ending).
Now we have Mike Flanagan's Doctor Sleep (2019), which is both an adaptation of Stephen King's novel (a follow-up to 'The Shining') and a direct sequel to Kubrick's film. In lesser hands, it could have been a crumbling mess, torn between pleasing its two masters. However, under Flanagan's guidance, it is not only a far more faithful adaptation of the source material than Kubrick's The Shining ended up being, but also assumes the audience's familiarity with its predecessor's aesthetic without being overly beholden to it. Reams have been written about how King was dissatisfied with Kubrick's 1980 adaptation. Despite the film's undeniable 'classic' status, it is certainly true that a lot of Kubrick’s creative decisions substantially altered the story. Some of Kubrick’s choices directly impact the narrative of Doctor Sleep, and so Flanagan’s film is less concerned with straying as far from its source material, but instead aims to reconcile the discrepancies between King’s original story and Kubrick’s distinct interpretation. It is a fine balancing act, and one which Flanagan navigates deftly, and largely successfully.
Doctor Sleep is full of fine performances. Ewan McGregor is excellent as the adult Dan Torrance, haunted by the events of the Overlook. We re-join him as he aims to shut away his past, with the bottle for company. Life as a drifter leads him to a small town in New Hampshire (where else? It’s a King story, after all), where the kindness of a stranger, Billy Freeman (played sensitively by Cliff Curtis) helps him start to get back on his feet. Elsewhere, the sinister and deadly cult of the True Knot (led by the conflictingly beguiling Rebecca Ferguson as Rose ‘The Hat’) scour the land for the life source found in children who ‘shine’. This connects Danny to a young girl named Abra Stone, played brilliantly and maturely by Kyliegh Curran in only her second film performance. Pursued by the unrelentingly cruel and murderous True Knot, Dan and Abra must form an unlikely alliance with many casualties along the way.
The differences between this film and its predecessor are stark from the outset. Whereas The Shining plays out as a psychological horror within the confines of one, solitary and eerie setting, Doctor Sleep takes the form of a slow-burning cat-and-mouse road movie with intersecting characters, and an interweaving narrative heading inevitably towards its fateful conclusion. The film takes time to explore its characters, directly referencing The Shining, but also forging its own path through telling a very different type of story. I would suggest it is a far more effective sequel than the recent It: Chapter Two (2019), another King adaptation which explores how now-adult characters deal with returning to their childhood nightmares. Doctor Sleep takes an intriguing premise – that young Danny Torrance is not the only one with the ability to 'shine' – and expands on it, broadening the scope of the danger and significantly increasing the death count.
At the risk of being threatened by a deranged person brandishing a baseball bat, I have always felt The Shining is largely a lot of style and very little substance. Whilst I would never claim it to be as instantly iconic as its predecessor, Doctor Sleep is a far more accessible film and, arguably, a more satisfying story as a whole. There is an engaging warmth to the lead characters, it maintains the tone of its unsettling premise with aplomb and doesn't pull its punches with regard to some of the more disturbing elements of the story. It is not perfect – there is one appearance of a particular character that seems a bit gimmicky – but Flanagan has translated one of King's more enjoyable and thematically challenging recent novels into near enough of a triumph as to be a worthy conclusion to ‘The Shining’ saga.
I agree with Tom that Mike Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep (2019) is a more accessible and less abstract film than Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), but I do not accept that this results in a more satisfying experience overall. Despite the deliberate and undeniable synergy that exists between The Shining and Doctor Sleep, the two films represent the central differences in philosophy that divided the greatest filmmaker in history - Kubrick - and a genre novelist with a very good idea (I refer of course, to Stephen King). King believed that the strength of his story lay in its detail, and its commitment to both exploring and articulating the motives of the beyond. Kubrick saw the story from a more primal and inherently visual perspective; considering the potential existence of the otherworldly to be its own reward, and preferring to allow the audience to have the final say on the truth (or madness) of the Overlook Hotel. Doctor Sleep is at its best when functioning as a pseudo-psychological thriller, with overt elements of the supernatural. Its use of a chase element within the narrative provides purpose and intensity, but cannot prevent the film from becoming bogged down in its own fumes. Doctor Sleep is a long movie - and it feels as such - but fortunately this is not a fatal flaw, as the film itself is very well written, and blessed with some strong performances (Rebecca Ferguson’s darkly alluring Rose the Hat is a particularly fiendish highlight). The film remains compelling throughout its long runtime, and though it is prone to bouts of pronounced sentimentality, such moments mostly pass by without undermining the plot. There is genuine warmth and intrigue here, and the film makes adept use of its lurches into (frankly vicious) full-on horror. It is never less than entertaining. Doctor Sleep is a film that has been marketed as ‘The Shining 2’, but owing to its emotional and narrative fidelity to King as opposed to Kubrick, the moniker of ‘sequel’ stands as an ill-fitting summation. It is at its best when divorced from the legacy of its illustrious predecessor. It is a different film; albeit one that has ultimately elected to follow the neat and tidy dogma of its author, whilst milking the Kubrick aesthetic for all it’s worth. Though such a choice was arguably necessary for the story to exist in the filmic form, it is my conviction that the mystery and power of Kubrick’s Overlook remains more memorable than the clarity and absolution we forcibly discover in Doctor Sleep. I genuinely enjoyed the film though. The depth of its commitment to solving an unsolvable equation is undeniably admirable, and oftentimes beguiling. It is a worthy motion picture; one that in no way disgraces the legacy of Stanley Kubrick, whilst intermittently finding a voice of its own.