2019 has proven an interesting year for adaptations. Creators have recently felt emboldened to impose their unique vision on preexisting stories and characters. Todd Phillips’s Joker was only loosely informed by the Batman comics, and Damon Lindelof is in the midst of an audacious take on Alan Moore’s Watchmen which, unlike the source material, focuses on America’s history of racial injustice. With Doctor Sleep, both an adaptation of Steven King’s novel of the same name, and a direct sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (a film that King notoriously hates), writer/director Mike Flanagan takes on a uniquely difficult task. Unlike with Joker and Watchmen, Flanagan finds himself with the challenge of reconciling the printed source material with the film that drastically departed from it. And since Flanagan’s film so clearly defines itself as a canonical sequel to the original — does reintroducing King’s vision to the world Kubrick built compromise what made the original so beloved?
Kubrick is well known for taking artistic liberties with the source material he adapts. Arthur Schnitzler’s early 20th century novella Traumnovelle was modernized in Eyes Wide Shut to take place at the dawn of the millennium, and the novel Red Alert, the inspiration for Kubrick’s comedic masterpiece Dr. Strangelove, isn’t even a comedy. With The Shining, Kubrick’s additions to the book are some of the film’s most iconic moments: The hedge maze, blood-filled elevator, and twins were all Kubrick’s own invention. Notably, King disapproved of Kubrick’s depiction of Wendy (Shelley Duvall) as meek, rather than assertive.
What complicates Flanagan’s task is that Kubrick’s movie is considered by some to be one of the scariest and most celebrated horror films of all time. Flanagan wanted the film to pass muster with even the most diehard cinephiles, while still maintaining the spirit of King’s original text. He even worked closely with the Kubrick estate.
Despite imparting on a nightmare juggling act that’s inevitably going to piss off diehard Kubrick or King fans, Flanagan does some impressive work. He acknowledges Kubrick’s cinematic language by implementing famous Kubrickisms like one-point perspective shots, and even departs from the novel by making the characters go back to the Overlook Hotel in the last act (it was burned down in King’s The Shining). This culminates in the best scene of the film, in which a grown up Danny is served by an apparition of his father at the Overlook bar. But despite the laudable tightrope act that Flanagan pulled off, there’s still one painful piece of fallout from this exercise: Doctor Sleep makes Kubrick’s film more intelligible.
One of the key elements of The Shining that makes it so lastingly scary is that there’s no discernible logic to the Overlook Hotel’s creepiness. By the film’s conclusion, we don’t know if the hotel is haunted by ghosts, or demons, or contagious madness, or something else entirely, because the movie constantly contradicts itself. Sometimes, the camera language suggests that the spooky visions are only present through a particular character’s perspective. Other times, these “spirits” affect physical reality, proving they can’t just be a product of any one character’s warped subjectivity. At one point, Jack Nicholson’s character Jack Torrance invokes the Faust legend saying “[he’d] give his goddamn soul for just a glass of beer.” Seconds later, a bartender appears and pours him a bourbon. While we may be tempted to say this is proof of demonic forces, such evidence is constantly undercut by contradictory visions. The film’s ambiguity is one of its greatest strengths — the unknown is terrifying. Kubrick wasn’t interested in explaining the precise logic behind the hotel’s otherworldliness. He was more concerned with suspending you in a state of uncertainty. Of course, further context could be inferred from referring back to King’s novel or it’s sequel, but for cinema purists, the movie exists separately from the books, and one ought not inform the other.
As a result, Doctor Sleep can be an awkward watch for die-hard fans of Kubrick’s film. We learn that the visions in the Overlook, were, in fact, ghosts that possessed Jack in an attempt to extract “steam”, or the life-force of those who Shine, from Danny. We now know that Danny’s imaginary friend “Tony” is just what he called his ability to Shine before he understood it. This would be easier to swallow if the film was, like many other adaptations, specific to maintaining fidelity to the book and not the movie. Instead it tries to maintain fidelity to both. Imagine if Damon Lindelof tried to do justice to both Alan Moore’s graphic novel Watchmen, and Zack Snyder’s movie. It would be an awkward, unnecessary balancing act. But, feeling the weight of Kubrick’s legacy, Flanagan believed ignoring the original film would be impossible, and decided to pepper his sequel with references that would solidify the continuity. It starts at the movie’s opening, when we hear a subtle variation on the haunting score that opens Kubrick’s film. Later, when Danny and Abra drive up to the Overlook in the film’s final act, Flanagan recreates the famous helicopter shots that lead through the lake and up the mountain. We see entire scenes from Kubrick’s movie re-enacted with impressive precision, and the now-famous carpet pattern of the Overlook hotel is incorporated into the title card. But perhaps Flanagan’s most controversial decision was in casting. The characters played by Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Danny Lloyd, and Scatman Crothers are all recast with actors that evoke the same mannerisms and speech patterns, often feeling like a series of impressions.
Aside from compromising the mystery at the heart of Kubrick’s movie, clarifying the lore may also dampen the enthusiasm of the bizarre subculture of cinema critics who analyze every frame of this film, as illustrated in the documentary Room 237. It depicts how The Shining has become the object of intense intellectual scrutiny, leading critics to interpretations that, for any other film, might seem ridiculous (ie: interpreting the Overlook’s haunting as a reckoning for the genocide of Native Americans). Dispelling the mystery of the Overlook hotel weakens the original film’s unique place in cultural criticism.
Ultimately, the way you feel about Doctor Sleep may be equal and opposite to however you feel about The Shining. If you find the horror classic to be a chilling puzzle, more profound for its lack of easy answers, Doctor Sleep might feel like an unnecessary antidote to a problem that never existed. If, however, you find Kubrick’s classic to be vaguely maddening in its opaqueness, or too unfaithful to King’s vision, you might just adore the clarity and increased fidelity to the horror master’s work. King himself certainly did.