Stephen King once wrote “Films, even the best of them, freeze fiction — anyone who has ever seen One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and then reads Ken Kesey’s novel will find it hard or impossible not to see Jack Nicholson’s face on Randle Patrick McMurphy.” Ironically, it’s Jack Nicholson’s face on the character of Jack Torrance that rankled King so greatly that upon writing the novel of Doctor Sleep, a nearly-four-decades later sequel to his third published book, The Shining, it felt as though he went out of his way to ensure that the manuscript was seen as a sequel to his book, and most certainly not that of the 1980 Stanley Kubrick film adaptation.
King has long (and vocally) hated the Kubrick film, feeling as though it missed the emotional core of King’s original novel. The Shining is a ghost story, on its surface about an evil hotel whose cadre of ghouls drives its winter caretaker mad with rage that threatens the lives of his wife and young psychic son. But its writing is clear in its metatextual intent, as a reconciliation of King’s own animosity toward the father that abandoned him, as well as King’s own struggles to be a good father to his burgeoning family despite the specter of addiction.
When adapting the film, Stanley Kubrick opted for a different angle, positioning the hotel as a more abstract catalyst for the demons that dwelt within Jack already, and the casting of Jack Nicholson, who King felt was crazy from his first frame, ignored the slow and tragic decline of the book’s Jack Torrance. Unfortunately for King, Kubrick’s film entered the public consciousness in a way that surpassed the novel, and certain images, like two dead sisters in a hallway, an elevator that opens its doors with an ocean of blood, and of course “Here’s Johnny” are indelibly etched in the public consciousness. If you’re wondering how that can happen, well…ask yourself what color Dorothy’s slippers are in The Wizard of Oz.
It’s a worthwhile question to ask, then: how much of King’s legacy is cinematic? This isn’t to belittle the author, mind…King is a writer of astonishing skill, whose brush with death thankfully shook literary critics out of their casual ignorance and who is finally getting the critical plaudits he always richly deserved. But so much of the dark imagination that fueled King’s most marquee novels are cultural touchstones that have been filtered through a cinematic lens. Clowns have always been creepy, and it’s King who truly codified the horror they inspire with It, but most will point to the image of Tim Curry in greasepaint and a red wig as the ur-example of a terrifying clown. Mention that cock-a-doodie Annie Wilkes and you’ll see Kathy Bates and her trusty sledgehammer in your mind’s eye. The Shawshank Redemption will get you Tim Robbins standing shirtless in the rain, hands held high in triumph, and Carrie conjures the indelible visage of Sissy Spacek, stunned with horror and anger and painted in pig’s blood.
King’s work has a reputation for being difficult to adapt, and to be sure, dozens of movies based on his writing are utter crap. But more than a handful of films have managed to graft striking visuals onto his dark imagination, resulting in works strong enough to have been absorbed through cultural osmosis, the way that someone who’s never seen The Godfather can still piece it together from Simpsons references.
That’s a lot of words, and I haven’t actually gotten to director Mike Flanagan’s film of Doctor Sleep yet. But I think it’s appropriate, particularly with this film’s relevance to The Shining, to take stock of the place of cinema in King’s mythos. The Shining represents possibly the most divergent an adapted work of King’s has been from the spirit of its source material. Those other films I mentioned above hew closely to their novels in the important ways, if not in details. The cinematic Shining, however, is a different beast altogether. And that presented a major problem for director Mike Flanagan. Flanagan’s King bona fides are secure: just check out his astonishing Netflix adaptation of Gerald’s Game, long considered King’s most unfilmable novel. Similarly, he knows how to handle a great, moving ghost story: a viewing of his radical reinterpretation of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House is enough to establish that.
I am happy to report that he succeeded wildly. It takes courage to follow Stanley Kubrick (to date, he’s only the second filmmaker to do so). Flanagan had his work cut out for him: how do you reconcile the novel Doctor Sleep, which follows Jack Torrance’s psychic son Danny as his trauma has left him a shattered alcoholic desperate to flee from his past but doomed to repeat his father’s failings, with Kubrick’s film? Flanagan’s solution is to marry the iconography of the 1980 film with the sequel’s more character-based study of Daniel Torrance and his attempts to save a young girl who also shines from a group of psychic vampires who prolong their lives by feasting on the energy these psychics possess. It’s a quiet film that feels smaller in scale than its predecessor, but it manages to enrich and deepen the previous film by restoring the heart that Kubrick cut out. Upon the credits rolling, I realized it made me feel as though the 1980 film ended on a cliffhanger I hadn’t even realized was there.
Ewan McGregor is heartbreaking as the adult Danny, whose pain has left him a shell of a man just trying to survive. And Rebecca Ferguson simply owns the screen as Rose the Hat, the leader of that group of psychic vampires mentioned earlier, making her a fiercely charismatic and menacing presence and in the process fixing the biggest problem I had with the novel; namely, that the villains never felt powerful enough to be a threat. The film’s gorgeous cinematography and canny editing score points as well. There are essentially three separate plot lines running for a long while, as Flanagan moves his pieces around on the board to put them on course to collide, and the editing (also by Flanagan) keeps things humming along. The film is apparently two-and-a-half-hours long, a fact I didn’t know before I watched it (and the even-better Director’s Cut available on home video adds another half-hour), but I never felt it for a second. Doctor Sleep clearly loves its source materials, both the film and the books, and through Flanagan’s talent, is savvy enough to reconcile the dueling creative forces of Stephen King and Stanley Kubrick.
In the end, Doctor Sleep wisely isn’t trying to ape or reject Kubrick. It’s concerned with completing the story of Danny Torrance, and Mike Flanagan didn’t make a “Kubrick movie” or a “Stephen King movie”, he made a Mike Flanagan movie, which means equal doses of horror and heart. It’s a son that avoids the failings of its fathers, and comes out the other end stronger for it.