The Shining is one of Kubrick’s masterpieces. Inspiring many academic papers that grapple with the inherent meaning behind his grand horror at the Overlook hotel, it’s a work that has lasted, regarded as one of the scariest films of all-time. While its had an everlasting effect on pop culture, not everyone was truly happy with the film. Most notably, author Stephen King, who took exception to Kubrick’s reworking of his novel. The master horror fantasy storyteller has built an empire of his own, having had many novels adapted to film. While he must have been pleased to have someone of Stanley Kubrick’s calibre working on his film, he didn’t appreciate the new direction.
Kubrick wanted the film to be colder, ending in snow, whereas King’s vision for the piece was warmer in terms of both emotional temperament and resolution. The characters were meant to be more relatable and the Overlook was meant to be set on fire as depicted in the novel. While his intentions weren’t honoured, Kubrick truly made the film his own with the number 42 echoing in a maddening way as documented in the video below.
Doctor Sleep seemed like King’s revenge. A sequel that picks up with an adult Dan Torrance, who fights an alcohol dependency, finding meaning in a new town and connection with a girl who can also shine. Correcting some of the misdirection of the original, King made sure his novel would get a more faithful adaptation in the hands of writer, director and editor Mike Flanagan. A dependable horror director whose credits include Oculus and Ouija: Evil, he’s proven himself with some middling to solid horror thrillers over the years.
Getting the reins to Doctor Sleep must have terrified the man, who was suddenly charged with the legacy of The Shining, Stanley Kubrick and Stephen King. The sequel needed to serve as a part tribute to the original to keep the connection between the worlds and appease die-hard fans. He had to honour Kubrick’s grand vision, recreating scenes from the original in order to establish a strong link. He also had to bend to King’s objectives for Doctor Sleep, casting Ewan McGregor to give Danny a much more soulful and likable disposition decades later. As if that wasn’t enough of a balancing act, Flanagan obviously wanted to leave his own signature on the film.
To his credit, he’s managed to do it all to a varying degree. The tribute to The Shining is there with some pretty accurate depictions and likenesses, opting to film these scenes over rather than simply trying to remaster the original footage. Whether to bypass license issues or to keep a sense of continuity, the result if quite spectacular, bringing the Overlook hotel into 2019. The iconic hotel was recently re-envisioned by Ready Player One in a strange pop culture frenzy and this resurrection is equally impressive. While leaning heavily into Kubrick’s world and leveraging some of the suspense from that dynasty, it’s still an achievement.
Tipping the hat to Kubrick, Flanagan also had to fulfill King’s wishes with a dedicated adaptation to correct some of his misgivings with the original. Undertaking a more grounded realisation of King’s universe, which has a similar ebb-and-flow to his other adaptations, he manages to concoct something faithful yet somewhat uninspired. Most filmmakers will look average next to Kubrick, who was known for being a perfectionist with countless takes to get little things right, but Flanagan has to channel his passion into realising the work of others. This offhanded approach may check the boxes in keeping everyone happy, but loses some of its edge in the process.
An adaptation should be a a standalone effort, not necessarily being a direct dramatisation, making something of artisitic merit that fulfills the impetus and essence but not necessarily a slave to its origins. While it’s often the case that novels are simply mirrored in their adaptation, this leads to films that often lack inspiration, not giving the filmmaker enough power and passion to excavate something of equal majesty. Unfortunately, while a noble balancing act, this does appear to be the case with Doctor Sleep. The sequel is a serviceable and respectable effort, but pales in contrast with Kubrick’s The Shining. There’s a safer and more flat-footed professionalism at play here, whether by contract or fear of failure. While it’s almost impossible to please everyone, Flanagan was probably chosen to take the film on this level and while it is bolstered by some strong elements, it does feel a bit forced, especially when you take the powerful soundtrack and sound design out of the equation.
Was trying to compete with one of the master filmmakers of our time going to be a long shot? Sure, but the legacy of The Shining is one of going against the grain, taking calculated risks and creating something monumental. While Doctor Sleep is competent, it’s more of a ghost film, entertaining in all its shimmer. Yet somewhat underwhelming under the weight of it all.