Believe it or not, when The Shining was first released in May of 1980, the film wasn’t well received by critics. The late Gene Siskel initially described it as “a crashing disappointment. The biggest surprise is that it contains virtually no thrills.” The film, despite more than doubling its budget at the box office, was nominated at Golden Raspberry Awards in its first year (Stanley Kubrick for Worst Director and Shelley Duvall for Worst Actress). Much like Kubrick’s other films, the film was received more favorably over time.
But one person has been persistent about his dislike for the movie—Stephen King. King has gone on record numerous times saying that it was a poor adaptation of his novel, despite some memorable visuals. He was also critical over the casting of Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall. He disliked it so much that he executive produced a miniseries that follows the book more closely. Though he has lightened up since its release, he still expressed his dislike for the movie in the afterword of his 2013 sequel novel Doctor Sleep. He said:
“…of course there was Stanley Kubrick’s movie which many seem to remember—for reasons I have never quite understood—as one of the scariest films they have ever seen. If you have seen the movie but not read the novel, you should note that Doctor Sleep follows the latter which is, in my opinion, the True History of the Torrance Family.”
So when a film adaptation of Doctor Sleep was announced, I was a bit skeptical because of these clashing visions. It’s no secret that Kubrick’s ending is much different than King’s, so I was curious how this would effect the film’s ending. In short, the ending works for fans of both the novel and the film.
Doctor Sleep takes place almost 40 years after the events of The Shining, and follows a now adult Danny Torrance (now going by Dan) still haunted by the ghosts of The Overlook Hotel. He relocates himself to a small town, joins Alcoholics Anonymous, and gets a job at a local hospice. At the same time, he meets a young girl named Abra Stone, who has a Shining stronger than his own. Dan and Abra find themselves being hunted by a cult of quasi-immortals known as the True Knot—led by Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson). The cult feeds off of dying people with The Shining by taking in their steam in order to slow down the aging process. Only Dan and Abra have the power to stop the True Knot and quickly find themselves in a showdown with the cult.
The film was directed by Mike Flanagan, who previously directed another Stephen King adaptation, Netflix’s Gerald’s Game. In Doctor Sleep, Flanagan uses callbacks to Kubrick’s film simply because it is the more well known version. The result isn’t nearly as scary as Kubrick’s version, but it’s more chilling and contemplative. Some early scenes show Dan using alcohol to self medicate his trauma, showing that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Little things in the film also added to the story, such as the True Knot recognizing that parents are more protective of their kids now than they were in 1980.
The acting in the film I found to be very good—Ewan McGregor plays Dan as an adult, perfectly capturing the torment he’s going through and how he represses his demons from when he was a kid. He’s one of my favorite actors working today and doesn’t disappoint, and Rebecca Ferguson is also pretty menacing as Rose the Hat. The surprise to me, however, was newcomer Kyliegh Curran as Abra. A role like this would’ve been very easy to miscast or come off as wooden, but Curran makes the most of her part. She has a way of being equal parts scared and determined to stop the True Knot. I hope that she gets more roles to sink her teeth into.
Doctor Sleep doesn’t come without its faults, though. At two and a half hours, the pacing can be a bit off. There’s a scene early on where Rose the Hat is recruiting a young woman to be part of the cult that I think could’ve been cut down a bit. Some viewers may also find the fan service to Kubrick a bit much, especially in the third act which is radically different from the book. The ending didn’t bother me that much, and ended up growing on me the more I thought about it.
In the end, Doctor Sleep ranks fairly high among King’s best adaptations. It’s less of a horror movie and more of a supernatural thriller, but it works thanks to Flanagan’s direction and the performances from its main cast. The third act may make or break the film for some people, but I found it staying with me days after watching it. I’m glad that Stephen King adaptations are getting a resurgence, and I’ll be in line for more.
Doctor Sleep is now in theaters worldwide