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Josh Reviews the Film Adaptation of Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep

November 27th, 2019
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After revisiting The Shining and then reading Mr. King’s sequel novel, Doctor Sleep, I was eager to see the film adaptation, written and directed by Mike Flanagan.  The film, like the novel, picks up the story of Dan Torrance, decades after the tragic events at the Overlook Hotel.  Dan has spent years struggling with the trauma he suffered as a child, and he has often viewed his supernatural abilities (his “Shine”) as more of a curse than a gift.  But at last he has found peace, living a quiet life in a quiet New Hampshire town, working at the local nursing home/hospice.  But his peaceful life is threatened when he befriends a young local girl, Abra, with a Shine more powerful than his ever was.  Abra’s shine has made her the target of the True Knot, a group of immortal vampire-types who consume the Shine of young children as a way to extend their own lives.  Dan must now embrace and use his Shine as he never has before, if he is going to be able to help Abra and try to defeat this evil which has marked the two of them as their next victims.

I really enjoyed Mr. King’s novel, and I was extremely pleased and satisfied by this film adaptation!  The film has apparently been a box office disappointment, which is a shame, because it’s a terrific film, a satisfying adaptation of Mr. King’s novel and also a satisfying sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film.

Mr. Flanagan’s film takes the difficult path of attempting to be both a faithful adaptation of Mr. King’s novel Doctor Sleep, as well as a sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film The Shining, which diverged from Mr. King’s novel The Shining in a number of ways.  I was continually pleased and delighted by the ways in which the film slightly tweaked the Doctor Sleep novel’s story so as to maintain continuity with Kubrick’s film.  Here’s a great example: the novel contains a scene, early on, set very soon after the events of The Shining, in which Dick Halorann teaches young Danny how to create a locked box in his mind, in which he can trap the ghosts and other horrors that are drawn to him because of his Shine.  This is a critical scene, because Dan will use this ability throughout the story.  But the film is faced with a challenge: how to have that scene, when Dick was killed off in Stanley Kubrick’s film!  (He survived in the original novel.)  Cleverly, the film presents this scene with a twist at the end: only Danny can see and hear Dick.  The implication is that Dick in this scene is a ghost.  I love this solution!

Sitting down in the theater to watch this film, I wasn’t at all thinking about the Kubrick film of The Shining — I was just excited to see an adaptation of the Doctor Sleep novel that I had so much enjoyed.  But right from the opening scenes, Mr. Flanagan announced his intentions to honor the Kubrick film as well as Mr. King’s novels.  As the film began, I was so happy to hear that iconic theme music from Mr. Kubrick’s film — and then to see that oh-so memorable pattern of the rug from the Overlook Hotel!  This was a great opening and a wonderful way to announce that we were back in the world established by Mr. Kubrick’s film.

At the same time, I was pleased by how faithful an adaptation the film was of Mr. King’s Doctor Sleep novel.  In fact, in many ways, it was far more faithful than I had expected!  For instance, the novel spends quite a while with Danny Torrence in the days and years following the events of The Shining, before gradually transitioning into the adult Dan who will be the main protagonist of the story.  I’d assumed the film would jump over most of that stuff, and start with adult Dan.  But I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the film included quite a number of those scenes, going to the trouble of casting new actors to play young Danny and his mom Wendy (so memorably played by Danny Lloyd and Shelley Duvall in the original film).  Roger Dale Floyd and Alex Essoe are great (and both look perfect) as Danny and Wendy, respectively.  (The film so perfectly recreates the moment from The Shining in which Wendy screams as Jack’s axe smashes through her bathroom door that I wasn’t sure whether it was Ms. Essoe in that scene, or an actual clip of Ms. Duvall from The Shining.  I’m pretty certain it was a newly-shot scene with Ms. Essoe as Wendy, but it looked that good to me.)

The film’s most major change from the novel is its entirely different ending.  I don’t mind the change, because it takes advantage of one of the most major discontinuities between the book and the film of The Shining.  At the end of the novel, the Overlook Hotel burns to the ground — but at the end of the film, it was still standing.  I can understand why the filmmakers were unable to resist the idea of bringing Dan back to the Overlook.  This gave us a number of fantastic moments in the film’s climax that we didn’t have in the book.  It was amazing to hear the famous score play while we watch the slow tracking shots, from overhead, as Dan and Abra drive to the hotel, in a beautiful recreation of the famous opening shots of Mr. Kubrick’s film.  It was thrilling to see Dan standing on Overlook the steps with an axe, just as his mom did, and to see Rose and Abra in the Hedge Maze.  But most of all, I was thrilled to see the scene in which Dan was tempted to drink by a ghost at the Overlook’s bar, just as his father was.  (I was extremely impressed with how perfectly the film was able to recreate these famous locations from Mr. Kubrick’s 1980 film!!  Bravo to all of the artists involved in this work.)

Ewan McGreggor is very solid as Dan Torrance.  The only weakness in his performance was that I thought his New Hampshire accent was a bit unsteady.  But Mr. McGreggor is able to be a heroic lead while still giving Dan the hangdog, everyman quality he needs.  He’s great.

I was delighted by the work of Kyliegh Curran, who plays Abra.  She’s terrific.  She feels like a real kid while also effortlessly playing the many tough, emotional scenes that Abra has to go through in the story.

(Also: I love the color-blind casting.  On the cover of my copy of the novel, Abra was a blonde white girl.  I was pleased they felt free to cast a young woman of color for the role.  In fact, I was delighted to see that so many of the film’s cast were made up of non-white actors.  One might have assumed that Billy, the local New Hampshire fellow who befriends Dan when he arrives in town and takes him under his wing, would be played by a white man — but instead, the film cast the Maori actor Cliff Curtis in the role.  We also got the British-Nigerian Zackary Momoh as Abra’s father, Dave Stone.  Both Mr. Curtis and Mr. Stone were terrific, bringing depth and humanity to their important supporting characters.)

Rebecca Ferguson (so memorable as Ilsa in the last two Mission: Impossible films) is terrific as the villain Rose the Hat.  I love that the film’s main villain is such a powerful and threatening female character.  It gives the film a different feel than so many other horror films.  Ms. Ferguson is great; the film gives her a lot of opportunity to sink her teeth into this nasty, evil creature.

Carl Lumbly (Alias, and he was the voice of the Martian Manhunter on Bruce Timm’s animated Justice League series) is fantastic as Dick Hallorann, who was so memorably played by Scatman Crothers in The Shining.  Mr. Lumbly was perfectly cast.  He brought great dignity and emotion to the role.

Wow, that was Henry Jackson Thomas Jr. — who played Elliot in E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial — all grown up as Jack Torrance!  It’s hard to step into Jack Nicholson’s shoes, and I must admit that I was somewhat underwhelmed by Mr. Thomas Jr.’s first scene, with Dan at the bar.  He just didn’t quite have that special Jack Nicholson something that made Mr. Nicholson’s performance in The Shining so iconic.  But Mr. Thomas Jr. grew on me as things went, and I loved the idea that Jack Torrance was now in the role of the bartender at the Overlook.

Other thoughts (and please beware SPOILERS ahead):

* While I was happy with how faithful an adaptation I felt the film was, events from the novel were still, quite understandably, condensed.  For the most part, I understood these choices, but there were some aspects of the novel that I was disappointed didn’t make it into the film.  The film sort of glosses over why the title is “Doctor Sleep” — that important aspect of the novel is basically reduced to two scenes in the film (though they’re GREAT, very emotional scenes!).  I’d have liked to have seen more of Dan’s life and work at Rivington House.  I’d also liked to have seen more of Dan’s experiences in A.A. — this was a very important aspect of the novel, and I found those passages in the book to be extremely interesting and moving.  Of the supporting characters, I really missed Momo and Casey.  I wish those two great characters from the book had made it into the film.  On that note, what happened with Dr. John?  He’s a critical character in the book, but after his first appearance in the film (in which Dan uses his Shine to help him find something important that he’d lost), he vanishes, and everything he did in the book was given to Billy.  But if John wasn’t going to be in the film, why cast such a great actor as Bruce Greenwood to play him in that one scene?  I was so excited when Mr. Greenwood appeared in the film as John — and then surprised and bummed that he wound up having just a cameo role.  I wonder what the story is there?

* A highlight of the film for me was the very potent moment when Dan sees “Redrum” reflected.  That scene was very well-staged; I found it to have far much more of an impact than that moment did in the book.

* I was so happy when they gave Dick Hallorann a line from The Dark Tower: “Ka is a Wheel” — that was amazing!  It’s a wonderful moment of connection with Stephen King’s wider literary universe.

* A less-successful change was the choice to make it Dan’s idea to use Abra as bait for the True Knot.  In the book it’s her idea, and she convinces the adults.  Here in the film, because the idea comes from Dan, it feels like Dan is responsible for the deaths that follow in a way that I don’t think the film intends.

* Speaking of changes from the novel — wow, I was surprised that the film was far more merciless with its characters than the book was!  Mr. King’s novel gave a happier ending to many of the story’s characters.

* Most surprisingly, Dan himself does not survive the film!  At first, this upset me.  Initially, walking out of the theater, I thought: wow, this was such a great adaptation until they messed up the ending!  But the more I thought about it, the more I felt that there was a poetry in how Dan’s mentor in The Shining film, Dick Halorann, died at the Overlook to save Danny’s life… and now in the Doctor Sleep film, Dan himself has to sacrifice his life in order to save the child he has been looking after, Abra.  That works.  But it gives the film a far more downbeat ending than the novel.

I really enjoyed this film!  It’s a terrific adaptation of Mr. King’s great book, and a solid successor to The Shining.  Is it as memorable and iconic as Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining?  No, of course not.  But that doesn’t mean it’s not a very entertaining, extremely well-made film.  I’m impressed by the great work done by Mike Flanagan and his team.

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