Like a lot of people, I had a Stephen King phase when I was probably much too young to be able to process such a thing. I knew how to read early, so I was probably only 10 or 11 by the time I powered through The Stand and It. I can only imagine that a lot of it went over my head, but what I perhaps remember most of all was that I seemed to be drawn to the complex, fantasy-adjacent stories over his more streamlined works. I couldn’t really get into The Shining as a kid, and so my exposure to it came, like so many other people, from Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 adaptation.
The silly mythologies and other cast-off D&D elements are usually the first things to go from any King adaptation, but they’ve never really left his written work, which is how director Mike Flanagan winds up with the patchy behemoth that is Doctor Sleep. Half a supernatural, prestige-television-adjacent drama and half a sequel so reverent that it goes as far as splicing in actual footage from the original film, Doctor Sleep fulfils its true destiny as a Stephen King adaptation by being a film that neither honours or dishonours its legacy – just steps away from it altogether.
It has been nearly 40 years since Danny Torrance (played as an adult by Ewan McGregor) and his mother escaped the Overlook Hotel; Danny has lived a more or less transient lifestyle since the death of his mother, working odd jobs and trying to stamp down his shining with alcohol. He winds up working as a hospice orderly in New Jersey, where his shining comes in handy with dying patients now that he’s eight years sober. Sobriety also brings in telepathic communications with teenager Abra Stone (Kyliegh Curran), who also has the shining.
Abra has telepathically witnessed the death of another teen (Jacob Tremblay, fulfilling the stipulation that all King adaptations must include a cameo by someone from a Xavier Dolan movie) at the hands of the True Knot, a cabal of bad guys who suck out the souls of people with the Shining in order to obtain eternal life. The True Knot is ruled by the iron fist of Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson), an evil hippie in a top hat who will stop at nothing to continue her eternal life — putting her directly in the path of Danny and Abra.
We’re already pretty far off from the idea of a man losing his mind in a snowed-in hotel; that’s fine, in theory, since I fully subscribe to the idea that The Shining already did everything it could with that specific premise. It would be completely insane to assume that a sequel to The Shining would just be the exact same thing happening to the protagonist’s son, and so the first two thirds of the film settle into a more rote, less horror-centric zone. It’s a little silly and heavy on the lore, giving it an explanation-heavy vibe that suggests King was probably predicting it would be picked up for a TV show rather than a film.
Still, it’s relatively engrossing if a little-by-the-book. Placing so much emphasis on the shining, its nature and its presence in the lives of so many people takes a little bit of the shine off (pun intended) the mystery of the first film. Nevertheless, Mike Flanagan is a confident enough director that the film keeps us reasonably enthralled — where it’s going always seems more interesting than where it is at any given moment.
As Townes van Zandt would say, however, “where you been is good and gone, what you keep is the getting there.” Having not read the King novel, I did not know the film essentially keeps the two first acts and writes an entirely new third one, which is where things start to get dicey. Most of Doctor Sleep’s connections to The Shining are tenuous or textural; it’s the same character, he’s undeniably shaped by the events of his past, but there’s a real desire to step away from both the book and the film. The third act is the opposite: it is designed for the pavlovian response of nostalgic audiences who recognize, finally, the images from the film that brought them to the movie in the first place. Flanagan shuffles through the greatest hits of the original’s indelible images, at one point straight up cutting in footage from the original and bringing in Henry Thomas to reprise the role of hallucination-based Jack Torrance.
I suppose there aren’t a million ways to do a Shining sequel from any perspective. The most obvious take would definitely be to have a different family move into the Overlook and place the onus on the “haunted house” aspect of the film (which Doctor Sleep sort of does, albeit in a way that places tremendous weight on familiar images); that Doctor Sleep tries to move away from that represents its biggest strength but also sets up its biggest disappointments. The result is an uneven, stapled-together beast that’s more intriguing than good — which is already a step above what I expected. ■
Doctor Sleep opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, Nov. 6. Watch the trailer here: