Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 adaptation of the 1977 Stephen King horror novel The Shining has become, for many, an all-time great of the horror genre and for some, one of the finest films ever made. This wasn’t an opinion shared by King, who has famously gone public to say that he’s not a fan of what Kubrick did with his book.
39 years on, and undeterred by the weight of expectation for anything that even thinks about following on from The Shining, director Mike Flanagan has turned his attention to Doctor Sleep: King’s 2013 sequel to his iconic work of horror fiction. When approaching an adaptation such as this, there are two relatively straightforward paths which a filmmaker can tread: either commit to the previous cinematic portrayal of these characters and locations, or follow the original author’s vision and give a straight adaptation of the Doctor Sleep novel.
Instead of committing to one or the other though, Flanagan’s take on the further adventures of Danny Torrance goes down the tricky third route: doing both at the same time. It’s a delicate balancing act which absolutely deserves to be praised for its ambition, but maybe not for its execution.
Doctor Sleep picks up almost exactly where Kubrick’s film left off, with Danny and Wendy Torrance getting about as far away from the Overlook Hotel as they can and starting a new life without Jack around to provide for them. More importantly, Danny learns how to cope with the ghosts from the hotel which torment him even after they got off the mountain, and finds a way to shut them away forever.
Fast-forward to the modern day, and Danny has grown up to be played by Ewan McGregor. Now preferring Dan, he finds himself adopting his late father’s worst habits: namely the alcoholism. Before long, Dan makes a journey to New Hampshire (in a Stephen King story? Where else?!) and gets clean while working in a hospice where his Shining ability is used to help others. During his time in the American north-east, he telepathically befriends a young girl called Abra, played by newcomer Kyliegh Curran, whose own “Shine” is so powerful that it attracts the attention of a band of Shining vampires led by Rebecca Ferguson’s Rose The Hat, who consume the essence of such talented individuals by inhaling their “steam”: a product of pain and fear inflicted on those who shine.
So far so dense, but the film’s 151 minute running time allows for all of this to develop in a way which just about makes sense. Like other King adaptations released this year though, Doctor Sleep‘s second act feels like it goes on forever, and by the time the film reaches its climactic moments it becomes a race to the finish, and while all the component parts are there for the ending to come together, it hardly feels like the third act does enough to satisfactorily conclude either Kubrick’s or King’s stories.
That’s not to say that there aren’t areas to admire in Flanagan’s screenplay and direction: one scene in particular involving Rose The Hat and her clan was profoundly upsetting to watch, and Ferguson’s performance as the dangerously alluring villain is one of the most accomplished to be seen in the genre for years. Unlike some of King’s villains to make the jump from page to screen, Rose’s inhumanity is never tapped into in a way which feels overcooked, and her menace is wholly captured all the way down to Ferguson’s wicked smile.
The horror of Doctor Sleep can sometimes feel threatened to be overwhelmed by the mythology carried over from Kubrick’s version of The Shining, but although Danny’s journey to overcome the ghosts of his past – both literal and metaphorical – the sequel almost pushes that entirely to the background until Doctor Sleep‘s final act brings it front and centre.
The end result feels somewhat disjointed, and despite the best efforts of Ferguson, McGregor, and an impressive cinematic debut from Curran, plus some stunning visuals to boot, Doctor Sleep never felt substantial enough to justify its hefty running time. Nobody is to blame here for this: the intention to have the film as both a sequel to the film The Shining and an adaptation of a book on its own terms means that it was an impossible balancing act from the start. If anything, writer and director Flanagan should be commended for taking on the challenge, and an impressive failure is always more worth watching than a film which succeeds without taking risks.
More than anything else, what Doctor Sleep offers is further proof that horror needn’t be a genre dominated by poorly executed jump-scares and focus-group-tested set pieces. Time will no doubt be kind to this film, and for its lack of substantial narrative, it’s easily the best adaptation of King’s work this year.