Review: Doctor Sleep Does Not Shine

  • Axl Rosenberg

Back in 2013, when I first heard that Stephen King was writing a sequel to The Shining, I thought, “Well, that’s a terrible idea!” Why fuck with a classic, right? Still, after people I trust told me the book was actually good, my curiosity got the best of me, and… well… it is good! For those not aware: the story follows a now-grown-up Dan Torrance as he attempts to protect a young girl who can shine, Abra Stone, from The True Knot, a group that kidnaps, tortures, and murders children with these gifts in order to feed on their psychic energy and extend their own lives indefinitely.

Then, when I heard that writer/director Mike Flanagan was handling the inevitable movie adaption, I thought, “Well, that’s a terrific idea!” Flanagan has been on a role the past few years: Hush, Gerald’s Game, The Haunting of Hill House, and even that friggin’ Ouija movie were all really good. So he seemed well-equipped to nail Doctor Sleep.

But that didn’t really work out so well.

Okay, so here’s the thing. King’s The Shining is VERY different from Stanley Kubrick’s film in ways that the world seems to appreciate, but King did not. So King’s Doctor Sleep, understandably, picks up where his book leaves off, and ignores Kubrick’s changes changes completely. But the studio behind these movies, Warner Bros., obviously wanted a sequel to Kubrick’s movie, because we live in the age of rebootquels, and an advertising campaign based around all these now-famous cultural touchstones from that film probably seemed like a surefire winner. But also, this is a time in history when fans get really pissy if you make significant changes from source material. And King’s success has only grown since The Shining, and it’s a fair assumption that he wasn’t gonna let someone shut him out the way Kubrick did ever again.

Point being, Mike Flanagan was tasked with faithfully adapting a 600 page novel into a 2 ½ hour movie that capitalized on audience recognition of Kubrick’s The Shining to the greatest degree possible. That’s a borderline impossible task. So it’s hard to blame Flanagan for not pulling it off.

Flanagan’s script is ostensibly a Cliffs Note version of the Doctor Sleep novel in which the filmmaker has been forced to skim over relationship building in favor of fitting as many events from the book into the movie as possible… which means none of the emotional beats spawned by those events really land. At least not for the heroes: we spend so much time with The True Knot’s lover/leader couple, Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson, handily stealing the whole movie) and Crow Daddy (Zahn McClarnon), that despite being evil pricks, we feel their relationship far more deeply than we do the one between Dan (Ewan McGregor) and Abra (Kyliegh Curran) and any other set of characters. Shit, Snakebit Andi, an adolescent girl who is “turned” and becomes a member of The True Knot, gets more screen time than Abra’s parents, who are presented as being central to the story. Even the story’s central metaphor about addiction (The True Knot will hurt anyone to get their fix, and Dan is a recovering alcoholic who was once the same way) is ultimately shunted aside.

On top of that, Flanagan takes many of his visual and aural cues from Kubrick, ranging from a constant use of the late director’s signature dissolves to lifting from Wendy Carlos’ original score to wholesale recreations of moments from Kubrick’s Shining with different actors playing the lead roles, complete with the original cast’s affectations and line deliveries. It’s jarring, and often feels more like expensive cosplay or a living wax museum than an actual movie.

I believe there’s a good film to be made of Doctor Sleep. I believe Flanagan was capable of making that film. But the movie with which we ended up is too beholden to two different forms of source material. Flanagan would have been best served by learning from Kubrick’s example in a less literal fashion: make as many changes to the book as you need to and create something that inarguably the singular work of the person who made it. Better to have gone Full Flanagan than King & Kubrick Lite.

Mike Flanagan’s Stanley Kubrick’s Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep opens Friday, November 8.

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