[Review] 'Doctor Sleep': A Stephen King-Stanley Kubrick Equilibrium
Following in the footsteps of one of cinema’s greatest ever filmmakers is one thing, but adapting a Stephen King followup novel to arguably the most iconic horror novel/movie of all time is a whole other challenge in itself.
A challenge, it seems, director Mike Flanagan has successfully taken on, with both the Kubrick estate and Stephen King himself giving their blessings over Doctor Sleep. Considering King has notoriously always despised Kubrick’s film version of The Shining, that is no small feat.
Viewers expecting a sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s version of The Shining will be disappointed. This is very much a Stephen King film in keeping with the recent trend. It has its nods to Kubrick and we revisit The Overlook Hotel and its occupants, but Flanagan has been far more loyal to his source text than Kubrick ever was.
This balancing act between the respect for Kubrick and loyalty to King is epitomized by the spectral presence of Dick Hallorann (Carl Lumbly), the head chef of the Overlook who first helps Danny to realise his ‘shining’. In Kubrick’s film, he is axed to death by Jack Torrance as he tries to help Danny and Wendy escape. In the novel, he does this successfully and survives. Flanagan therefore allows Hallorann to carry out his role of paternal mentor, which is central to the Doctor Sleep novel, without flipping off Kubrick’s iconic film.
Enter modern day, Danny, now going by Dan, and played by Ewan McGregor: A bearded alcoholic drifter still traumatized by his childhood (a familiar theme of King’s work, especially in the two recent It movies), Dan lands himself in Alcoholics Anonymous and a job in a hospice, where he helps residents on deaths door ‘go to sleep’ in their final moments.
Elsewhere, a cult of parasitic, vampire-like ‘shiners’ feed on children with the shining, inhaling their life-force ‘steam’ as they slowly and painfully slaughter them, thus extending their own lives. The stronger the shining in the child and the more pain they experience, the more years they add on. Led by Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson), a sort of hippie vampire with funny headwear, they soon pick up on the powerful shining of Abra (newcomer Kyliegh Curran), who they decide to hunt due to her extraordinary power.
There’s unavoidably a bit of a jumping around between characters and stories, and even to flashbacks of Dan’s childhood. It therefore takes a while for the narrative arcs to meet, and at two and a half hours long, it certainly would have benefitted from being cut down in the editing room. Generally though the film is well-paced, and audiences wont find themselves bored or checking their watches.
Although, like most Stephen King films, Doctor Sleep is formulaic and quite predictable. It fails to buck the trend of the recent onslaught of Stephen King movies. However, its themes of returning to childhood trauma and mentorship hit home much more convincingly, and the characters are much stronger and feel more fleshed out.
Perhaps some of the most satisfying moments of Doctor Sleep are its homages to Kubrick’s The Shining. This is done both explicitly with the return of The Overlook Hotel, including the sweeping birds eye view through the Rocky Mountains coupled with the iconic, ominous orchestral score; and more subtly with certain stylistic tropes such as Kubrick’s signature one-point perspective shots.
Ultimately, Doctor Sleep strikes a perfect equilibrium between King’s source text and Kubrick’s iconic movie. It certainly doesn’t measure up to the cinematic masterpiece that is The Shining, but with Flanagan already in talks with Stephen King about a follow up, it seems this wont be the last time we see people ‘shining’ on the big screen.