Movies

Doctor Sleep Is an Awkward Hybrid of Stanley Kubrick and Stephen King

Director Mike Flanagan has made a Shining sequel that struggles to combine its two major influences.

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Doctor Sleep is the third attempt at adapting a Stephen King novel this year, and the third to show the difficulties of the task. The first two—Pet Semetary and the second part of It—were more conventional scary movies, culling surface-level thrills and chills from King books that worked at a deeper level of psychological terror. King's best work is interior, driven by mounting paranoia and obsession, a sense of inexplicable and inescapable dread. He's not trying just to make you jump out of your seat or recoil with disgust; he's trying to make you unsettled and afraid.

Writer-director Mike Flanagan's adaptation of Doctor Sleep works somewhat better on this front, staging several showy sequences of psychic warfare and managing a relatively consistent tonal strangeness, in which the timing of everything is just little bit distorted, like a 33 rpm record played at 45 rpm.

But Flanagan's flawed, frustrating adaptation faces another challenge as well: It's not just an adaptation of a King novel. It's also a follow-up to The Shining, director Stanley Kubrick's icy, gothic 1980 adaptation of King's 1977 novel of the same name. Kubrick's film has a devoted cult following—I count myself as a fan—but it has also endured its share of criticism over the years for the narrative and thematic liberties it takes with King's novel, with King himself the most prominent foe. How, then, do you make a faithful adaptation of a Stephen King novel that also manages to be a big-screen sequel to a movie that King himself hated? 

Flanagan's approach is to combine the two, picking and choosing plot elements and thematic concepts from both the movie and the book, concocting a sort of King-Kubrick hybrid that works better than you might think but not quite as well as it needs to. Doctor Sleep often feels torn between its influences, unable to fully integrate its source material into a satisfying, synthetic whole.

Like King's book, the movie follows a grown-up Dan Torrance (Ewan McGregor, looking a little too Hollywood handsome to be completely convincing), an alcoholic drifter who finds community in a recovery group for addicts and work as an orderly in a nursing home. Over time, he becomes caught up in a plot to stop a group of quasi-immortals with various mental powers, led by Rose the Hat (a radiant, vampy Rebecca Ferguson), who brutally murder gifted children and consume their "steam," or psychic essence, in order to prolong their own lives. But their supply is running low, and they're on the hunt for a big score—which leads them to Dan and a young woman, Abra Stone (Kyliegh Curran), with more powerful psychic abilities than they've ever encountered before. It's a classic King setup, pitting distraught but moral individuals against the evil forces of supernatural selfishness.

But as several early scenes replicating famous moments from Kubrick's The Shining make clear, this Dan Torrance is not just the character from King's book. He's also the same one who rode the halls of the Overlook Hotel in Stanley Kubrick's movie. These replica scenes, which are staged with new actors playing parts once played by Shelley Duvall, Scatman Crothers, and, eventually and most disastrously, Jack Nicholson, are distracting oddities that at best serve as reminders of how marvelously distinctive the performances in Kubrick's film were. Indeed, I found myself wishing for digital recreations, however imperfect, rather than contemporary mimics who vaguely resemble their 1980 counterparts. It's a reminder that flesh and blood performers can be as stilted and lifeless as computerized simulacra.

The result is a movie haunted by both King and Kubrick, who linger over the proceedings like rival ghosts battling for influence over a sprawling, overlong film that wants to channel both.

In the end, however, Flanagan chooses neither. And this is where spoilers become necessary. You've been warned.

The final 40 minutes or so of the movie see Dan return to the Overlook, which he hopes to use as a weapon to defeat Rose. This sequence, which departs from King's novel, borrows heavily from Kubrick's staging, repeating and remixing several key moments, including a climatic staircase fight, a visit to the creepy old lady haunting room 237, and a run through a snowy hedge-maze.

In one way this plays like a gauche and ill-advised tribute to Kubrick, a sort of earnest and awkward reworking of the way Steven Spielberg revisited The Shining in Ready Player One.

But it also feels like Flanagan returning to home turf. Before Doctor Sleep, he produced a 10-hour adaptation of Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House for Netflix. Like Doctor Sleep, it was a slow-moving and occasionally saccharine tale of family fracture and therapy culture centered on a piece of grandly haunted real estate. Yet it mostly worked because the long-play format let Flanagan explore the emotional nuances of domestic disturbance, supernatural and otherwise. It was a supernatural story of familial dysfunction attached to a particular piece of property—which is what Doctor Sleep ultimately becomes.

The difference between the two Flanagan projects may inadvertently suggest why filmmakers so frequently struggle with King's material: His sprawling and psychological style simply isn't suited to the feature format, with its strict structural demands and prioritization of premise and pyrotechnics. Indeed, King's fiction, which prizes clear characters and moment-to-moment engagement over narrative concision, has been a key influence on the serial television boom. Why wasn't Doctor Sleep a TV series? I can't say for sure, but as a big-screen feature it is somehow both too long and too short, too uncertain about what it wants to be to be anything at all. Like Rose and her band of immortals, it eventually runs out of steam.

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  1. can’t put a King book into a movie time frame you’d need ten hours. Christine barely pulled it off.

  2. Over time, he becomes caught up in a plot to stop a group of quasi-immortals with various mental powers, led by Rose the Hat (a radiant, vampy Rebecca Ferguson), who brutally murder gifted children and consume their “steam,” or psychic essence, in order to prolong their own lives.

    Sounds like a typical Hollywood Thursday.

  3. Didn’t read past the spoilers, but Kubrick’s The Shining is about child molestation. I think people intuitively understand this however subconsciously, which is what makes the film so unsettling, even if they can’t make clear sense of what they’re seeing happening before their eyes–which is what’s happening to the audience, as well. When the boy experiences an evil force on upstairs, the mother going through the hall walks in on a teddy bear performing fellatio on some man, and the father experiences a sexually attractive woman suddenly turning into something awful and unthinkable, they’re all experiencing the same event at the same time from their own perspectives–it’s just that we seem the perspective in sequence from each of their perspectives rather than in real time from a third person perspective.

    It’s no wonder if Stephen King hates Kubrick’s film. Kubrick’s film may owe as much to Ingmar Bergman as it does to King, especially the psychological projections of each of the characters’ psyches. Kubrick’s film doesn’t exactly negate all the supernatural elements of the story, but sans those psychological projections, there aren’t as many supernatural elements as the audience supposes.

    When the murdered twins point the little boy to an exit in the hallway, which we see doesn’t exist in the hall later in the film, the hallway and its phantom exit mimic the hedge maze that the boy and his mother use to evade the rampaging father–and save their lives. Is this a legitimate nod to a supernatural element by Kubrick? It would seem to be so. After all, if this is another one of those times that we’re seeing events in sequence from various perspectives, that wouldn’t explain how the little boy knew to go a different direction. On the other hand, does intuition really need a supernatural explanation?

    1. I’ve said before that King clearly saw Jack as his avatar, and has long maintained that the story of The Shining is a fundamentally decent guy who is targeted and corrupted by the evil in the hotel. Kubrick turned that on its head, portraying Jack as an abusive, alcoholic asshole whose inherent wickedness is merely brought out into the open when they move into the Overlook (amusingly, he gets in another dig by showing Jack thumbing through a Playgirl prior to his interview; what respectable mountain hotel in the 1970s would have a magazine targeted at gay men just laying out in the lobby?)

      Psychological/supernatural questions aside (and in a Kubrick film, there’s always these questions), it’s understandable why King didn’t appreciate this portrayal, considering that he was deep into his own drug and alcohol addictions by the time the movie came out.

      1. “amusingly, he gets in another dig by showing Jack thumbing through a Playgirl prior to his interview; what respectable mountain hotel in the 1970s would have a magazine targeted at gay men just laying out in the lobby?”

        You gotta remember that this movie was made before it became unwoke to suggest that gay men were more likely to be child molesters. Nowadays, that’s like the most hateful thing you could possibly say. This movie was made before the Aids epidemic. The gay rights movement wasn’t hardly anything outside of San Francisco and the feminists. Stonewall may have been a touchstone for them, but it wasn’t until the Aids epidemic that pubic depictions of gay people as psychologically troubled or child molesters in waiting became socially unacceptable.

        It’s like the gay version of The Birth of a Nation in terms of its political correctness. Audiences of today might not associate him reading Playgirl with being a latent child molester, but for audiences in 1979, that association was clear–even if it later became politically incorrect to make such associations. But, yeah, he’s turning Stephen King’s story on its head. There’s nothing supernatural about the evil in Jack.

        1. The line that Jack gets from the bartender ghost is another tell–“You’ve always been the caretaker.” He’s basically confirming that Jack has always been a bad guy, even though he tries to convince himself otherwise.

  4. eventually and most disastrously, Jack Nicholson,

    THANK YOU.

    There’s a scene early in the movie where Jack is talking earnestly to his son and reassures him that “you know Daddy would never do anything to hurt you” and the whole theater burst out laughing because of course we all know Nicholson is insane from about 3 seconds into the movie. The Shining was supposed to be about the evil that inhabited The Overlook, how it took a perfectly normal person and twisted his mind into madness, and it just doesn’t work if you have to suspend disbelief to the point where you accept that Jack Nicholson is a normal person. Tom Hanks would have been better cast in the part. If you’ve ever seen The Road To Perdition you know that’s true, and if you’ve never seen The Road To Perdition you need to watch it right now.

    1. “The Shining was supposed to be about the evil that inhabited The Overlook, how it took a perfectly normal person and twisted his mind into madness, and it just doesn’t work if you have to suspend disbelief to the point where you accept that Jack Nicholson is a normal person.”

      See my comment above. That wasn’t the point at all.

      If Kubrick had been more explicit in what the film was about–hadn’t portrayed the kid in the act as a bear, for instance–he might have been brought up on charges.

      P.S. Did you miss the scene identifying his son as a bear early in the movie?

      Did you notice that Nicholson’s character reads Playgirl magazine or that (after the incident with the lady in the bathtub) he winces every time he passes a mirror because he can’t stand to look at himself because of what he’s done?

      P.P.S. The Crucible wasn’t really about the Salem witch trials either.

      1. >>The Crucible wasn’t really about the Salem witch trials either.

        rats. but I got an A on the test.

      2. also all the above stuff you wrote is a fascinating take

        1. Early in the movie, when the boy is laying on his bed listening to his mother and the doctor, he’s in a split scene with a bear on his bed. The bear is there with his mouth wide open

          After “the incident”, the boy’s shirt magically transforms into one with a NASA rocket flying straight into his mouth. If the story weren’t about someone doing that to his bear/kid, they’d have to concede that there were an awful lot of coincidences suggesting that’s what happened.

          As the coincidences keep piling up, I become increasingly persuaded that they aren’t mere coincidences.

    2. “Kubrick’s films typically involve expressions of an inner struggle, examined from different perspectives.[207] He was very careful not to present his own views of the meaning of his films and to leave them open to interpretation.

      . . . .

      Kubrick likened the understanding of his films to popular music, in that whatever the background or intellect of the individual, a Beatles record, for instance, can be appreciated both by the Alabama truck driver and the young Cambridge intellectual, because their “emotions and subconscious are far more similar than their intellects”. He believed that the subconscious emotional reaction experienced by audiences was far more powerful in the film medium than in any other traditional verbal form . . . . “The essence of a dramatic form is to let an idea come over people without it being plainly stated. When you say something directly, it is simply not as potent as it is when you allow people to discover it for themselves.”[40]”

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stanley_Kubrick#Directing_techniques

      Even if The Shining weren’t about a child molester, it sure as hell didn’t wear its meaning on its sleeve–and people experienced it as more than a straight up story even if they didn’t understand why. That’s a big part of what made the film so riveting. People reacted to a subject no one can really make a movie about explicitly, and I’m not sure there’s anything more horrifying than a film about that subject from the bad guy’s perspective.

      1. I think that’s something common to a lot of good art, especially film and music. If the creator really gets it right it will mean something to all kinds of different people on all kinds of levels.
        Now I want to watch The Shining again.

        1. If you can bypass people’s biases, perspectives, etc., and communicate your ideas to them–whether or not they realize it–you’ve really done something.

          When you write a story in 1953 about the Red Scare, you set it during the Salem witch trials because it lets you reach people who are still invested in the Red Scare and may support McCarthy.

          When you’re making a movie about how people deal with a traumatic event from the perspective of the victim, someone who would try to protect the victim, and the villain, you want to reach all of the people in the audience who might fall into those roles.

          The victim doesn’t understand what’s happened to him or why, and he invents all sorts of supernatural explanations–visually hallucinates them even. It’s like a defense mechanism. The audience experiences that without it being made explicit what’s happened because it puts them in the same state as the little boy who’s been victimized. He can’t explain what’s happened to him accurately.

          His mother, likewise, experiences denialism. She’s like Jocasta in Oedipus Rex in that she it must have been obvious what was going on. There were signs everywhere, but she didn’t see them because she didn’t want to see them. The audience, likewise, experiences that, too–although in reverse order from the character. The mother can’t process what her son is doing, so she seems him as a bear. We can’t process what her son is doing because it’s so horrifying, so we don’t process that the bear is her little boy.

          Some people leave their art ambiguous so as to allow all sorts of interpretations because that’s what’s expected of Modernist art. Kubrick paints in our expectations and forces our perspectives like a master painter. It isn’t left open to interpretation so much as uses our expectations and perspectives to get his own point across. And point seems to be about the stories we tell ourselves and the images and thoughts we create from within ourselves to justify our reality.

          For instance, you may not have been sympathetic towards a woman who should have known her son was being victimized but didn’t do anything to protect him until she had no choice–but there’s a tendency to act like she did within all of us. Kubrick’s use of not telling everybody everything that’s going on lets the audience experience that kind of denialism first hand–as if we understood what was happening and why.

  5. Whoever decided that Suderman should be allowed to write on entertainment/arts/media, please find the nearest sharp object and your life. Remember, down the road, not across the street.

  6. If you go in expecting it to be equal or even better than the Shining then obviously you’re going to be disappointed. The Shining is in the top 5 horror movies of all time, if not at the top depending on who you ask. If you go in looking for a good scary movie, you’ll enjoy it, although I wish they would have looked closer at The Knot instead of just making them “the bad guys”. I like complicated villains (Like Jack in the Shining).

  7. Rebecca Ferguson is absolutely DELICIOUS in this movie.

    1. Rebecca Ferguson is absolutely delicious

  8. A two and a half hour movie needs an intermission.

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