SPOILER WARNING: This article contains major spoilers for Doctor Sleep. Proceed at your own risk.
“What happened with me when I read Doctor Sleep was – and I read it the weekend it was published – here I am, taking in this quintessentially Stephen King story, and I’m so in love with what he’s telling about Dan Torrance and Abra,” remembers Mike Flanagan. “But all of the images in my head as I read the book were Kubrick’s… it was such a strange contradiction. So I felt at the time that whenever somebody would be lucky or unlucky enough to have to make it into a movie, what a daunting task that was. I never imagined it would be me.”
I Am the Doorway…
Writer-director Flanagan is on stage in a London cinema decked out in Shining garb (a huge, cracked ‘Redrum’ is scrawled across one wall), speaking with a fascinating combination of trepidation and confidence. The watching audience is about to join the fortunate few to see his new, highly anticipated film ahead of its release.
Doctor Sleep is based on King’s 2013 novel, a follow-up to 1977’s massively successful The Shining. Yet as big a hit as The Shining was as a novel, there’s a strong likelihood that most people who know the story are either much more, or exclusively familiar with it because of Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film – and book and film are very different beasts indeed.
So how on earth do you go about reconciling two equally beloved, yet sometimes diametrically opposed versions of the same story? Particularly if you intend to make a movie that uses a source sequel novel that totally ignores the previous movie version? Thankfully, Flanagan and his film give fascinating and frank explanations to these questions, which, naturally can only be answered with huge spoilers… so, if you want to go into the film version of Doctor Sleep oblivious to all its twists and turns, proceed with caution from here on in…
Sometimes They Come Back…
It took more than forty years, but in 2009, author Stephen King finally decided to write a sequel to The Shining. Numerous readers, not to mention King himself, had speculated on the fate of young Danny Torrance who, along with his mother Wendy, escaped the malevolent spirits of the Overlook Hotel that possessed his father Jack.
King’s novel is still regarded as one of his greatest books. Fellow horror literary titan Peter Straub described it as “probably the best supernatural novel in a hundred years.” And its tale of an alcoholic who becomes a danger to his family chimed uncomfortably close to King’s own addiction, which was starting to spiral out of control. A powerful, resonant tale, then. And with its hint of climactic redemption for poor Jack Torrance – he helps his son and wife escape before he and the Overlook are blown to smithereens – a deeply personal one for its author.
As with almost all of King’s hugely successful body of work, it was picked up for a movie adaptation; and by one of the all-time great filmmakers, no less — Stanley Kubrick. Kubrick’s 1980 version of The Shining has likewise become a classic. Jack Nicholson’s unhinged lead performance (“Heeeere’s Johnny!”), the hypnotic Steadicam shots around the Overlook’s halls, iconic images – the elevator gushing blood, the blood-spattered Grady twins – and its mounting mood of dread regularly see it at, or near, the top of Greatest Horror Film lists. Win-win, then; a beloved book birthing a canon work of cinema?
Except that Stephen King – vocally, and repeatedly – has talked of his intense dislike for Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.
“The book is hot and the movie is cold,” King has said of the differences from page to screen. Kubrick, to say the very least, put his own stamp on the story. Some changes are relatively minor: the infamous hotel room switched from 217 to 237 (“We got 217 in another part of the movie,” Flanagan tells Fandom, when we sit down with him. “It’s now actually the room Dan goes into in the hospice, the first time he follows the cat!”); or Jack attacking Wendy with an axe, not a croquet mallet.
Some alterations were more major. Instead of King’s topiary animals that come to life (a scene which could, admittedly, look unintentionally comical onscreen), Kubrick’s designed a looming maze in the Overlook’s grounds. Fellow ‘shiner’, Overlook chef Dick Hallorann’s ride to rescue comes to an abrupt and final end in the film, whereas he’s only injured in the novel.
Most dramatic of all, perhaps, is a character switch rather than a purely narrative one. Nicholson’s Jack Torrance seems crazy from the get-go; there’s no redemption possible here, no warm, intimate story about a fraying family (Wendy too, comes off much worse in the film; King has branded her screen portrayal “misogynist”). King saw Jack as a victim beneath the monster; Kubrick delivers an icy bogeyman.
Arguably even worse criticism, from such a specialist, is King’ withering opinion on the film as a horror classic per se.
“The Shining is one of those novels people always mention (along with ‘Salem’s Lot, Pet Sematary and It) when they talk about which of my books really scared the bejeezus out of them,” he wrote in Doctor Sleep’s afterword. He then, again, dismisses Kubrick’s adaptation, “which many seem to remember – for reasons I have never quite understood – as one of the scariest films they have ever seen.” Take that, Stanley. Heeeere’s Stevie!
The Doctor’s Case
So to Doctor Sleep, the novel. It continues the story of Dan Torrance, now a middle-aged alcoholic drifter still struggling with the emotional fallout of his childhood. When he quits drinking and attempts to rehabilitate himself, Dan’s psychic powers return and he connects with a young teenage girl and fellow (though much more powerful) ‘shiner’, Abra Stone.
Together they must join forces to combat Rose the Hat and her True Knot disciples, a group of quasi-vampires who track down, torture and eventually kill psychic shiners to feed off the “steam” produced by their pain. Dan gets the titular nickname through his job as a hospice carer, his abilities providing solace to those at death’s door. Alongside the white-knuckle psychic pursuit and showdowns, then, there’s a deeply melancholic, thoughtful meditation on surviving trauma, and soothing those in torment.
The novel also, perhaps obviously, follows on directly from King’s own version of events in The Shining and completely swerves the Kubrick adaptation. King calls Doctor Sleep “the True History of the Torrance Family.” Which is clearly the original author’s absolute prerogative, but, when figuring out how to develop a movie version, throws up certain challenges…
Mike Flanagan may not yet be as household a name as King or Kubrick, but as an filmmaker who writes, directs and edits, he worked his way up from small indie projects to move into the horror features that made his reputation, such as Oculus (2013) (based in part on his 2005 short), Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016) and even an unusually smart King adaptation, Gerald’s Game in 2017.
That film, in conjunction with creating hit Netflix show The Haunting of Hill House, based on Shirley Jackson’s renowned novel, was the ideal calling card to show he could handle the follow-up to King’s ultimate haunted house movie. Yet as Flanagan previously noted, his visual references when reading King’s book, were Kubrick’s. Presumably many fans would see and feel the same way. So, what to do?
“We had the benefit of both being huge fans of Kubrick and King,” Flanagan points out, as he sits alongside producer Trevor Macy for an exclusive interview with Fandom. “So we would say, ‘Okay, if someone else was making the movie, what would we want? What would we want them to do? And what would we complain about?’”
“There was a lot of discussion about that early in the process: is this a sequel to [the movie] The Shining? Or is it an adaptation of Doctor Sleep?” agrees Macy. “And the answer had to be yes to both. We weren’t trying to choose sides in a custody battle, it was more a question of how do we honour these storytelling legends, Stephen King and Stanley Kubrick? And, most importantly, what makes sense for Dan Torrance’s story? Which is really the story we’re telling here.”
“The basic idea that kind of infected both of us was, there has to be a way to try to take these two disparate versions of the story and start to at least kind of drive them back toward each other,” adds Flanagan. “And the dream was, could we make a film that ultimately would satisfy fans of Stanley Kubrick and the Stephen King fanatics, like myself? That would be kind of the best-case scenario.”
The Dead Zone
Given the marked differences between both versions of The Shining, and how King ignored Kubrick when writing Doctor Sleep, driving these two cultural juggernauts back together sometimes involved a head-on collision. King’s Sleep features Dick Halloran early on, advising and aiding a fragile young Danny who’s still pursued by Overlook spectres.
Flanagan actually handles this easily and deftly in his adaptation, eventually revealing that Hallorann himself communicates with Danny as a spirit, much as the Overlook ghosts do. As the character later tells an adult Dan, “This world is a dream of a dream to me now.” And since this concept fits neatly with the other supernatural elements of the story, it’s a surprisingly smooth transition.
Other Doctor Sleep characters are shuffled around to best serve the streamlined movie narrative. In the book, Abra’s father Dave plays a major role in helping tackle the True Knot. In the movie, his role is… cut short, let’s say. Dan’s friend and AA cohort Billy Freeman (nicely played by Cliff Curtis) also doesn’t appear in the latter stages; in fact, his fate will be a real shock to Doctor Sleep readers. And the True Knot gang, even the way they’re ultimately defeated in the novel, have far less prominence and resonance on screen, as Flanagan focuses in instead on Abra and Dan versus Rose.
“In the book, there’s a lot going on with the True Knot that makes more sense for a literary piece than something in cinema,” Flanagan admits. “We thought we were telling three distinct stories for most of the movie – Dan, Abra and Rose. So it became about how to kind of come up with the most satisfying confrontation between those three characters, and how to do so in a way that incorporated some of the elements of the original Shining ending.”
I Know What You Need
If you’ve seen the final trailer for Doctor Sleep, you’ll see that the abandoned Overlook Hotel is front and centre, the adult Dan Torrance (Ewan McGregor) clearly returning to the site of his nightmares. Yet King obliterated the hotel in his novel; and even if much of Doctor Sleep the novel’s climax takes place in a campsite on the former Overlook’s grounds, this is clearly a massive divergence from King’s sequel. So how easy was it to convince the author of this rewrite to a story he’s already seen – and disliked – being reworked before?
“It was nerve-wracking, to go to him and say, look, I really think the only way to make this movie right is to make it within the cinematic universe that Kubrick designed. And,” laughs Flanagan, “his initial reaction was no!”
Clearly King changed his mind. And, as Flanagan explains, what shifted his position “hinged on one scene. Towards the end of the film, there’s a scene at a bar. And that was the pitch we made that turned it.”
The bar in question is legendary – it’s the Overlook Hotel bar, where Jack Torrance was once served by Lloyd the charmingly accommodating, bad-conscience bartender. Jack’s acceptance of a drink is part of the slippery slope that allows the Overlook’s spirits to possess him.
When Dan finally goes back in the film, he’s served… by his own father. Yet he’s able to resist the pull of his addiction. So effectively we’re back in Kubrick’s still-standing hotel, but with a shot of redemption familiar from both King books.
The Things They Left Behind
“The argument was, what I’d like to do is treat Kubrick’s film as canon,” elucidates Flanagan. “We couldn’t go back and undo something that he’d done, and say Dick Hallorann is alive, or Jack Torrance redeemed himself before he died. But within that, I wanted to give [King] a chance to see some of the elements from the novel The Shining that Kubrick had jettisoned.”
In this case, King’s copious, detailed criticisms of Kubrick were a real advantage.
“That’s one of the things with his complaints about The Shining [movie],” notes Flanagan. “They’re very specific! So I was able to say, ‘Look, I think we should celebrate the contribution that Stanley Kubrick made to genre cinema forever; but why don’t you also get some of these elements that were taken away from your story? And I really believed that those two things could coexist. But yeah, it was a nerve-wracking proposal. And if Stephen King hadn’t given us his blessing, and without his blueprint, we would have respectfully declined to make the movie.”
There are other King touches in the film that Flanagan is keen to highlight: “One of my favourite moments in The Shining novel happens when Jack Torrance is chasing little Danny and has him cornered. And before he could bring the croquet mallet down on his son, Danny touches his father’s hand, and Jack has a moment of lucidity. And they talk just a few lines about the mask that the hotel is wearing. And in that last moment, Jack tells Danny to run.”
Flanagan continues excitedly, “I love this part of the book. Of course, it’s not in Kubrick’s film. But we were able to take that exchange and give it to Dan and Abra in the Overlook and it’s almost verbatim from The Shining. Because it’s such a generational story, and the question of whether Dan will follow in Jack’s footsteps is omnipresent, it was so easy to just lift that moment directly out of The Shining and put it right into Doctor Sleep.”
Ultimately, though, there’s no doubt that this is very much a follow-up to Kubrick’s film. Doctor Sleep opens with the familiar, ominous brass stabs of music from The Shining, plus the vintage Warner Bros. logo. The iconic orange and red hexagonal Overlook carpet motif appears over the movie’s title. Then there’s the meticulous recreation of Kubrick’s Overlook in Flanagan’s film, from hotel layout, to the snowbound maze, to the infamous “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” typewriter.
“I like to describe it as a forensic film school that we all got to go through,” enthuses Flanagan. “If you can imagine what it’s like to wonder why Stanley Kubrick put his lens in this specific place in the Overlook’s Colorado Lounge, we got to do that. We would find out why his decision was the best one – why the symmetry of the shot was better certainly from right here, or why it was okay to cheat an actor off of their mark. I can’t imagine having another chance like that.”
Yet for all the painstaking replication Flanagan and his team achieved, eventually they found that they had to reuse a little Shining footage too.
“There are three shots in the film that are actually Stanley Kubrick’s footage,” he says. “One is an island in a canyon. One does have a car driving up the canyon, the other is also in the car driving up and that’s it.”
He continues, “All of them were absolutely impossible to recreate. We had very much wanted the sense that Dan has to follow his father’s footsteps – and that to be literally true in the case of those three shots. And we’re really grateful to the Kubrick Estate for giving us permission to use them in the film.”
That these shots fit so seamlessly alongside the new versions of previous visions is testament to the film’s determination to honour its creators. And yet, Doctor Sleep the movie couldn’t just be haunted by these old ghosts…
At the end of the day, Stephen King wrote a new book. Yes, it references older characters and events, and continues Dan Torrance’s story. But the last thing Doctor Sleep is is a simple rehash of The Shining – either King’s or Kubrick’s.
“The story that Stephen King wrote is heavily dependent on events that happened in The Shining, in the same way that all of our adult lives are dependent on what happened to us when we were children,” agrees Flanagan. “But we’re not who we are when we were children. And while the Overlook looms very much over the lens of the story, and over Dan, the majority of this story is Dan Torrance.”
“I like to think of Doctor Sleep and The Shining as two sides of the same coin. When Stephen King wrote The Shining, he was writing it from the point of view of an alcoholic who was terrified of what his addiction could do to his family if he didn’t get enough control, and he hadn’t at that point. That book, to me, is about addiction. Doctor Sleep is written by the same author. with decades of sobriety behind him; it’s about recovery. The two absolutely are co-dependent on each other, they’re two sides of the same story – but they’re very different. And it was important to us that this movie stand on its own two feet, and not just be the regurgitation of a movie that was done perfectly the first time.”
Flanagan clearly worships both Shining talismans, King and Kubrick: “They’re these monolithic creators,” he says simply. “They’re heroes, larger than life.”
But his response when asked if he too would have been as radical as Kubrick was with his version of The Shining, had he been the one to adapt King’s original book is both fascinating, and instructive as to his approach on Doctor Sleep.
“I wouldn’t have taken as many liberties,” he admits, “because to me, Jack Torrance’s arc in The Shining is one of sacrifice and redemption. And I would have protected that; that was the heart of that story for me. It was important to me to try to bring that into [Doctor Sleep]. But I think some of the clear improvements [are] some of the most unforgettable moments of The Shining [movie], including the Grady twins chopped up with the axe in the hallway — that’s an entirely Kubrick invention — down to the conversations with Jack Torrance and Delbert Grady in the bathroom, and with Lloyd the bartender.
“The way Kubrick approached those are gifts to the genre and in their way, way more interesting thank similar elements from the book. The choices Kubrick made are fascinating to me; whether I would have made the same ones or not, I respect and admire them. And I adore the film he made, which I think changed horror cinema forever.”
As such, anyone expecting a film in Doctor Sleep that attempts to echo Kubrick’s grand, cold vision, will be surprised, perhaps even disappointed that Flanagan has embraced a more intimate, personal style that feels more akin to the book’s author (the film’s advertising clearly bills it as ‘Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep’).
“I will never be Stanley Kubrick,” Flanagan shrugs. “No one will ever be Stanley Kubrick. I wanted to do my best to honour him and to celebrate the film that he made, but I was not trying to channel him.”
Given this challenge of merging both versions of The Shining – a “Kingbrick” production? – presumably getting both King and the Kubrick Estate’s verdicts on Doctor Sleep was as terrifying for Flanagan as anything in the books or the film?
“We actually got to bring the finished film to Bangor, Maine and sit in an empty theater with Stephen King to watch it with him,” remembers Flanagan. “You know, I’m a fanboy first and that was paralyzing. I think I stared at my foot trying to look directly at him during the screening but I was mostly just acutely aware of every kind of shift or sigh. Anything he did I was reading, you know, way too much into.”
Paralyzing or not, King “loves” the finished film, a response Flanagan calls “surreal”. The author has even taken to social media to voice his approval, telling his followers that “The movie is a good thing”, and branding Flanagan “a talented director… an excellent storyteller.” Not only that, but the film was screened – without Flanagan having to sit through the agonies of watching them watch his movie – for the Kubrick Estate too, with similar results.
“They love it too,” says Flanagan with a relieved smile. “You know, it almost kind of feels like it doesn’t matter what happens [now]… We made this movie because we are lifelong fans and disciples of two monolithic creators in Stanley Kubrick and Stephen King. We never wanted to presume to do anything, but to celebrate both. And it’s been a humbling and terrifying experience to be standing in their shadows for the last couple of years. If nothing else, I wish [audiences] can have a fraction of the experience we had when we got to walk through the halls of the Overlook Hotel. This movie was designed in no small part to try to give as close an experience to that, so I hope you enjoy it.”
Doctor Sleep is out in the UK now, and hits US screens on November 8.