“The World Will Shine Again”
I know, I’m seriously late in reviewing the latest big screen adaptation of a Stephen King novel. Hopefully better late than never! I finally got a chance to see Mike Flanagan’s tour-de-force film this week and I am so glad I got to see it on the big screen. And I can’t wait to see it again, although that may have to wait, because I don’t think it’s going to be in theaters much longer.
It’s difficult to say why a movie under-performs at the box office, but there’s no denying that Doctor Sleep had a poor showing on its opening weekend. It can’t have been the movie’s runtime (151 minutes), because it’s shorter than It Chapter Two. The promotional campaign for the movie started in earnest in June, and the trailers were (to me at least), tempting and promising. The advanced reviews were strongly positive, for the most part, and the comments I’ve read from people who saw the film tended to agree. The Shining has a long cinematic history, so you’d think there’d at least be a curiosity effect tempting people to the theaters. There were advanced screenings to generate buzz, anticipation seemed high, and it wasn’t up against another powerhouse film (only Midway).
Doctor Sleep is fairly faithful to King’s novel up to a point. Flanagan had to come to terms with a few things arising from Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining. Dick Halloran died in that movie, but he’s still alive in King’s novel. On the other hand, the Overlook Hotel survives at the end of Kubrick’s film, but not in the novel.
Flanagan could have done a straight adaptation of the book, but the movie is such a cultural phenomenon that he would have risked confusing people by ignoring it. Instead, he embraced Kubrick’s vision of the hotel and came up with an ending that is both true to King’s story but also to arguably the most famous adaptation of one of King’s books.
He starts, though, with a scene that lets viewers know that the True Knot, despite outward appearances, is not a gang of happy-go-lucky caravaners who like to hang out in their RVs at campgrounds. Rose the Hat chats up a little girl and then invites her gang of psychic vampires to feed on her. No holds barred. No punches pulled. This is some serious shit.
Flanagan cast credible dopplegangers to recreate young Danny, Wendy and Dick. The resemblances are more than acceptable and are, in some cases, uncanny. We see Danny shortly after their snowbound adventure, learning how to deal with the ghosts of the Overlook, and then many decades later after he’s followed a similar trajectory to his father’s: alcoholism and violence, all in the cause of deadening his psychic powers.
Ewan McGregor is congenial enough that audiences are predisposed to root for him even at his worst, which is where we meet him. McGregor is the “big name” is this feature, and he earns top billing throughout with a solid and sympathetic performance of a tormented man who finds his way out of a deep, deep hole. As Flanagan has said, The Shining is about addiction and Doctor Sleep is about recovery. Plus McGregor gets some nice, poignant scenes as he earns his moniker, Doctor Sleep.
Still, for me the standout in Doctor Sleep is Rebecca Ferguson, who plays Rose the Hat with a sense of wicked delight. She is drop-dead gorgeous and as lethal as a rattlesnake. She has not an iota of sympathy for her victims, but she could sweet-talk anyone into anything. Ferguson seems both confident and comfortable in the role, which makes Rose one of the most diabolical villains in King’s works.
One of Flanagan’s strengths in past films (and I’ve seen them all!) is the way he elicits naturalistic performances from his younger actors. Here, he succeeds again with Kyliegh Curran as Abra, the youngster with a massive dollop of the shining who reaches out to Dan telepathically and also has the guts to confront Rose the Hat time and time again. She’s very, very good and as at-ease in front of the camera as Ferguson. Watch her scratch her ear absent-mindedly while talking to Dan for the first time.
Even with nearly three hours to play around with, Flanagan has to sacrifice certain things from the novel, but on the whole I found myself thinking: yes, I remember that scene. In many cases, things came to life in front of me in almost exactly the same way I visualized them while reading the novel.
And, yes, there are horrors aplenty. The scene with the baseball boy is tough but, again, unflinching. What happens to a True Knot member who cycles or otherwise meets his or her demise is shockingly credible. Flanagan’s visual metaphors for some of the psychic encounters from the novel are effective and creative. I especially appreciated the battles of wills between Abra and Rose. Rifling through memories in a way that will be familiar to any long-time King fan.
Then, at a certain point, the movie begins to diverge from the novel more significantly, as the action returns to the Overlook Hotel, faithfully recreated using Kubrick’s original plans. One shot is all it takes to alert viewers that you’re heading back to Kubrick-land: the recreation of the shot over the lake in Glacier National Park (but, hey, where’s the helicopter shadow? Or would that be a drone shadow in 2019?) and the rest of the famous opening shots from The Shining. And, of course, the score.
Flagan embraces visuals from The Shining, but they’re different, too. When we see little Danny on his Big Wheel riding pell-mell down the corridors of the haunted hotel, it looks similar but it feels different. It’s not a frame-by-frame recreation, and definitely not a copy of Kubrick’s style. You’re in the same place, looking at things you’ve seen before, but someone else is showing them to you.
And when adult Dan returns to the hotel, we see it from an adult perspective. In an odd way, the hotel feels smaller, the corridors narrower. We’re not looking at things from a child’s perspective, where the world seems vast. Also, Kubrick had a way of playing with the hotel’s layout that was probably deliberately disorienting. Parts of the hotel didn’t seem connected in a logical sense. However, Flanagan prefers to orient viewers, and I feel like I have a better sense of the layout of the Overlook than I ever did before, even after watching The Shining many times over many years.
Because I avoided reading reviews beyond getting a sense for whether they were positive or negative, I was able to avoid spoilers for the end of the movie—and have no fears, I won’t be spilling any secrets here, either. However, Flanagan was able to surprise me several times in the final half hour or so. He did things and went places I never expected him to go. I like it when that happens—especially when it’s done by someone with a keen sense of how to tell a story and plumb its depths.
A note about Easter Eggs: This movie has ’em! A bunch. Look at the name of the bus company that delivers Danny to Frazier, or the factory where the baseball boy meets the True Knot. In fact, pay attention to the baseball boy’s number. And, yes, ka is a wheel. I’m starting to be less enamored of Easter Eggs in movies in general because they pull me out of the story. Subtle ones like LaMerk Industries only cause a glancing blow, but when someone emphasizes the number 19 not once, but at least twice, I feel like I’m being bludgeoned a little. I noticed it myself—not sure I needed to have it underscored that strongly.
On the other hand, I loved the fact that Danny Lloyd had a cameo in Doctor Sleep!
And I truly loved the way Flanagan recreated things from The Shining. I know his decision to meld Kubrick and King to come up with something new was controversial, but I’m on board with everything he did here. I really hope this movie finds a lasting audience the way The Shawshank Redemption did.
Note: If you’re interested in reading more about the backstory behind the film version of Doctor Sleep, see my article in Screem #38.