Doctor Sleep damn near put me to sleep


It’s almost hard to believe that The Shining was only Stephen King’s third book. He wrote it in the throes of alcoholism, in part as a way to purge his darkest demons. A horror story about an alcoholic writer who is trapped with his family in a snowed-in hotel, and slowly overtaken by the malicious forces within its halls, King has described the novel as a “confession” of sorts, a way to come to terms with the real anger he occasionally felt towards his children. You can imagine his frustration, then, when Stanley Kubrick chose to jettison most of the alcoholic undertones – as well as damn near all the relatability of the alcoholic writer – in favor of making a more general parable about abuse.

King fucking HATES the Kubrick Shining, to an almost legendary extent. He’s made clear that he resents the fact that Kubrick took the main character, Jack Torrance – a twisted self-insert if ever there was one – and turned him from a flawed, but ultimately well-meaning family man into a psychotic murderer who seems perfectly willing and able to kill his whole family without any ghostly influence. Famously, he went so far as to commission an entire made-for-TV miniseries, just so that he could get the “true” version of his story onto a screen. This wasn’t enough, though, and in 2013 he wrote a whole-ass sequel to his book, one which went out of its way to ignore all the changes Kubrick made to the story in favor of following up on the book’s story threads.

I read Doctor Sleep pretty soon after it came out. It’s…not great, and I say this as a fan. King’s prose is evocative as always, and there are moments of real power here and there (the segment at the beginning where we see grown-up Danny Torrance hitting rock-bottom is powerful for how personal it is). But the thing is dramatically structureless, a victim of King’s late-career inability to plan his stories out properly. Sometimes, this never-plan-ahead strategy results in free-flowing brilliance. This was not one of those times. Doctor Sleep was a book full of things that just kind of happened, one after the other, until the end, at which point instead of climaxing they just sort of petered out. 

So I was dubious about the efficacy of a film adaptation of the novel, even before director Mike Flannigan revealed that he would be marrying his vision to Kubrick’s; in effect, that he’d be making a sequel to the book AND the film of The Shining. This was a dubious prospect at best, considering how many differences exist between the two. Even putting aside the more fundamental issue of Jack Torrance, there are a number of surface-level plot discrepancies that differentiate the adaptations; the book has hedge animals that come to life and try to kill you, the movie has a massive hedge maze. Kindly old cook Dick Halloran dies in the film adaptation, whereas he makes it in the book. And – and this is a pretty big one – the Overlook Hotel completely burns down in the climax of the novel, whereas the end of the movie sees it standing tall.

The fact is, The Shining is not the type of film you make a sequel to. It’s completely self-contained, as closed off from the outside world as the poor, doomed Torrance family. As directed by Kubrick, it’s a largely plot-free nightmare of a film, concerned mainly with the frighteningly unique experience and atmosphere of the thing. Doctor Sleep takes the bare-bones iconography of the film – the twins, the tricycle, the elevator of blood – and staples it onto a plot. The results are about what you’d expect.

What is the plot? Well, I’m sorry you asked. So, there’s this group of Shining Vampires, see? They call themselves the True Knot, and they have the ability to sense if someone has the Shining within them or not. So what they do is, they kidnap that person, eat them, and suck the Shining out of them while moaning orgastically with glowing eyes. It is, somehow, even more ridiculous than I just made it sound. The True Knot were pathetic villains in the book, and they’ve somehow been made even more cartoonish here.

See, as I always saw it, the Shining was kind of an allegorical thing. The beauty of the Kubrick movie was that it existed between the precipice of madness and supernatural; you were never sure of where you were, or what was really happening. It operated on pure nightmare logic. Here, not only is the Shining a tangible thing, but it’s represented via CGI smoke that comes out of people’s mouths. I’m serious. 

It’s not just that this film doesn’t capture the elusive, intangible fear of the film, or the more overtly allegorical and emotional – but no less effective – fear of the book. Doctor Sleep doesn’t capture any fear, ever. This isn’t a scary movie. The one time it comes close is this extended, gratuitious murder scene involving a small child. It goes on for too long, and feels genuinely exploitative. The fact is, the Kubrick film was too classy to sink to this. 

Even in its attempts to be a more conventional film, I thought it failed. I’ve already mentioned that the True Knot are a gaggle of absolute laughingstocks, but Abra Stone doesn’t fare much better. I remember liking this character back when I read the book; being able to see a character’s internal dialogue really does wonders for making them interesting. Here, she’s a nothing of a character, the latest in a long, long, long line of stock “kid with psychic powers” that King loves to write. Maybe Kyliegh Curran has it in her to be a great actress – in fairness to her, no one other than Ewan McGreggor really fares well in this – but as it stands, there are a ton of scenes where her character could be replaced by a cardboard cutout for all the difference it would make.

What sucks especially is that there are a handful of moments that hint at a really good idea at the heart of this film. Like I said, McGreggor is great in this; it’s through his acting that we come the closest to understanding what it would actually be like to live in the aftermath of a very specific trauma. And while so much of this film’s finale consists of, “Hey, remember this?” there is one scene – a conversation at a bar – that raises a number of fascinating possibilities. But it’s not enough. As a film that tries to exist at the intersection between two versions of The Shining, Doctor Sleep ends up honoring neither.

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