The screen history of Stephen King adaptations has for decades couched a peculiar irony: Namely, that of the dozens and dozens of films that have been produced from his work — many of them not-so-great — the author famously detested the most revered, Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 version of The Shining.
King didn’t like the cold, cavalier treatment of his novel, and he cared neither for Jack Nicholson’s lead performance as Jack Torrance, which he thought signaled insanity too early, nor Shelley Duvall’s Wendy Torrance, which he called “one of the most misogynistic characters ever put on film.” King even went so far as to write the teleplay for a three-part miniseries in 1997, restoring many of the excised elements of the book and casting Steven Weber and Rebecca De Mornay as the Torrances. It was, to put the brightest spin on it, a ratings hit.
Over time, images from Kubrick’s The Shining have so dominated the culture that King’s efforts to redirect the public to the source, including the sequel novel Doctor Sleep, have fallen under its shadow. Director Mike Flanagan’s new adaptation represents near-total capitulation, lifting many of Kubrick’s familiar visual and aural cues to continue the story of Danny Torrance, the child whose psychic sensitivities are referred to as “the shining.” Flanagan proved a gifted steward of King’s Gerald’s Game, a seemingly unadaptable book he pulled off for Netflix, and he has borrowed from Kubrick’s film with the author’s blessing. By King’s apparent calculation, it’s the finer points that count.
To that end, King and Flanagan have restored the legacy of alcoholism in the Torrance family, which ignited Jack’s madness like gasoline to flame, and has been passed along to a now-middle-aged Dan. In Dan’s case, however, alcohol muffles the traumas of the past and the voices that still echo in his head through his extrasensory perception. Played by a sad-eyed Ewan McGregor, Dan is a loner who has bused his way to small-town New Hampshire on the modest hope of a steady job, a small apartment and a path to recovery. And he finds it, too, going a full eight years as a sober contributor to society. He even discovers the perfect application of his unique talent, sitting bedside at a hospice center and gently guiding patients into the hereafter.
But from there, Doctor Sleep gets complicated. Around the time the Torrances were battling ghosts in the Overlook Hotel, a hippieish death cult called the True Knot, led by Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson), were traveling across the country, recruiting new members and feasting on the psychic energy (called “the steam”) of people like Danny. “The steam,” passed around and inhaled like pot smoke, gives Rose and company immense power and eternal life, and those with the shining radiate to them like a beacon of light. It’s only a matter of time before they catch up with Dan, but he finds an ally in Abra (Kyliegh Curran), a teenager who shines just as brightly.
The nonhorror aspects of Doctor Sleep prove more persuasive than the shocks, which are few and far between over the course of a meandering 152 minutes. Dan’s efforts at rehabilitation, helped along by a local (an excellent Cliff Curtis) who becomes his friend and benefactor, are touchingly sincere. And when he makes contact with Abra, their bond draws them both out of their natural state of isolation. Flanagan elegantly implies that Dan and Abra have to live in a space not unlike the Overlook’s Room 237 every day, surrounded by malevolent ghosts and psychic burdens.
When Kubrick’s film starts to assert itself, particularly in the inevitable journey to the Overlook, Doctor Sleep starts to feel like secondhand cinema, drafting off the inimitable genius of another director. The True Knot rituals are mostly a bore — the usually excellent Ferguson tries way too hard to project sinewy menace — but the direct evocation of The Shining only serves as a reminder that these things that used to terrify us don’t seem so threatening anymore. Those ghastly twins, REDRUM, Lloyd the bartender, the dreaded ax — all uncanny echoes in the audience’s mind, just as they are in Dan’s. They’re no longer scary in their new context.
Compared with the visual dictation of the recent, two-chapter It, Doctor Sleep does have some ambition and personality, and it seems like the right idea to answer the self-contained horror of The Shining with a messy sprawl of supernatural beings. Yet the whole project seems as haunted by Kubrick as King himself has been all these years, as if the late director were present in every scene, grinning malevolently like Rose the Hat. Like poor Danny, the film cannot escape its ghosts.