Doctor Sleep: Another Look. Stephen King adaptations have been very hit or miss over the past few decades. Well, mostly misses, let’s be honest. It feels like for every Shawshank Redemption, Misery and It, there are at least five Cell, Maximum Overdrive and It Chapter 2 equivalents. For me, one that always stood out was The Shining. Made by Stanley Kubrick, the film is an exercise in dread. These days it’s simultaneously too boring for some, and too silly for some others. But it still works as a satisfyingly chilly ghost story, with some fantastic imagery, tight direction and wonderful performances. Although, Stephen King would disagree with me there.
When it was announced that Doctor Sleep, a sequel novel to The Shining novel, I was very skeptical. Director Mike Flanagan had a very unenviable task ahead of him. He had to adapt a book by King and follow on from Kubrick. Not only that but some of the books fans, including King himself, hated Kubrick’s treatment of the source material – particularly how it ignores many of the stories themes of abuse and alcoholism. While at the same time fans of the film (myself included) hated King’s book and thought that Kubrick brought some life to a dull story with decent ideas. All of these people, Flanagan had to please. He has a strong filmography behind him – Oculus, The Haunting of Hill House and Stephen King’s Gerald’s Game to name a few – but could this be the one to finally stump him?
The film follows Danny Torrence, the little kid from the original, all grown up and mentally scarred by what had happened with his father and the Overlook Hotel. He now works at a hospice, where he uses his ‘shining’ to comfort the patients – particularly the ones about to die, earning him the name Doctor Sleep. Abra is a young girl with similar powers, and the two share a psychic bond. Unfortunately, her powers attract the attention of a group of vampiric beings, led by Rose the Hat, who feed off of the lifeforce of people with the ability to ‘shine’. A reluctant Danny must help Abra, keep her safe and protect her from Rose the Hat. And I don’t think that it’s a spoiler to say that it will all bring them back to the dreaded Overlook Hotel.
So, speaking as someone who has seen The Shining and loved it, read the book and hated it, and not read the book for Doctor Sleep…I loved this film!
The performances are pretty spectacular – the best of the year outside of Joker. Ewan McGregor, who I have always enjoyed (Star Wars prequels not withstanding), gives us one of his best performances in years. The first half of this film, he reminded me of his role in Trainspotting. He’s a chameleon, able to hide in whatever performance he delivers. The exact same can be said for the impeccably cast Rebecca Ferguson as Rose the Hat. It has been a while since I saw a villain this compelling and terrifying. And, not to undermine the excellent writing, but I don’t think these two could be played by anyone else. They are that suited to their roles in this story. Not to mention, this film has one of the best child performances I’m inclined to say I have ever seen. I look forward to seeing Kyliegh Curran in more.
Flanagan’s grip is tight on Doctor Sleep. It is slow and it is meandering at times, but only in the same way that Shawshank was. Scenes may feel like they don’t much matter, but they don’t have to – we are seeing our character’s act like people when that is all that was required of them. There is this perception that every scene has to advance the story – that isn’t true, not if it makes us understand and relate to the characters more than if the plot was moving along. I have heard that he sticks to the book this time, but his direction is still Kubrickian in nature.
If you are here for references to The Shining, then you won’t find many until the end. Admittedly we do go a bit overboard with the visual ques and references to the original classic – but at that point the film has more than earned it. We are invested in the story. We love the characters and are hooked on them. We have already sat through two hours of original storytelling. We have earned little ‘remember this’ moments. It isn’t unnecessary either or is just smartly played. Not to spoil, but there is a scene with a hero and a villain talking while going up a certain flight of stairs – and it is shot, and the actors move the same way as the classic ‘give me the bat’ scene.
As for issues, I have only a handful. There’s a subplot with a cat that doesn’t really go anywhere. I don’t know if that’s the same in the book. It was nice, in a morbid way, and maybe it didn’t require closure, but it did feel odd. We also have many look-alikes for the returning characters from the original. I prefer this far more than that CGI de-aging that’s been going on a lot lately. But I would have liked it a bit more if these look-alikes, well, looked like the original actors. It was more than a bit distracting. Particularly one towards the end.
Doctor Sleep is everything I want from a King adaptation. It is dark, at times cruel, but has a lot of heart and is just fun. You can find many themes to latch onto, including abuse and alcoholism, and the film is far deeper than first impressions will tell. It’s never outright scary, but its dread rarely ceases. Nobody jumps out of a cupboard with a scary mask and shouts boo. But you do feel that every step a character takes might well be landing them in a trap – a very different kind of terror. Horrific but never gruesome. Funny but never taking from the tension.
Doctor Sleep might be the best film that Flanagan has ever done. It is certainly one of the best King adaptations ever made.
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