Any time there is an attempt to expand upon a film that is held in high regard, whether by making a sequel or a remake, there is a high potential for failure. There are thousands of movies made every year, but few ever manage to cement themselves as classics and prompt discussion for decades to come, so how can someone ever expect they can replicate that power? This is especially true of a film like The Shining, that is widely considered to be one of the greatest horror films ever made and was directed by Stanley Kubrick, who is likewise held in almost universal high regard for his artistry. However, Doctor Sleep, the 2019 sequel to The Shining directed by Mike Flanagan, manages to pull it off. It doesn’t reach the heights of the original (what could?) but by paying respect to it while crafting a narrative and a world that stand entirely apart from The Shining, it feels like its own beast entirely, and delivers a horror story that would be thrilling with or without prior knowledge of the Overlook Hotel.
Before I get too far into discussing Doctor Sleep, I want to mention that the version I watched most recently is the Director’s Cut, which is fairly similar to the theatrical version but with a few added and extended scenes. I don’t exactly recall every difference between the two so if I mention something that you don’t remember, that’s probably why. Similarly, there are two cuts of The Shining and, though I’ve seen both, I watched the longer one most recently.
The plot of Doctor Sleep is quite dense and fills up all three hours of the Director’s Cut without ever feeling like there’s excess. It follows Danny Torrance (Ewan McGregor) years after his childhood trauma at the Overlook Hotel, as he struggles to come to terms with the world and falls into alcoholism and drug addiction before eventually moving to a small town in the Northeast. Trying to maintain sobriety, Danny works at a hospital where he eases the minds of dying patients with his gift of the “shine”, earning him the nickname Doctor Sleep. This goes on for a number of years and provides a compelling narrative on its own, but it really kicks off a full hour in when Abra (Kyliegh Curran), a young girl who has an ability to shine much stronger than Danny’s, begins communicating with Danny and starts being tracked by a group of near immortals who feed off steam, the energy released when they kill children with their supernatural abilities. There’s a lot more going on than there was in The Shining, and it doesn’t have the eerie feeling throughout that made that film so unsettling, but it still manages to be quite terrifying, especially in a scene where Jacob Tremblay is killed for his steam. It also has a more satisfying narrative than its predecessor. Where before the appeal came from being entirely creeped out by how little sense everything made, here we get a dose of action and explanations for what we’ve seen that give a greater appreciation for The Shining on a revisit, and make it easier to care about the characters and become engaged in their stories.
Stephen King, author of both The Shining and Doctor Sleep, along with dozens of other novels that have been adapted to film, famously said that he hated Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of his writing, which was actually a common sentiment at the time of the film’s lukewarm release. There are also a number of differences between the book and film, notably the destruction of the Overlook Hotel at the end of the book and Dick Halloran being killed in the film but surviving in the novel. As a result, decades later, when King decided to return to the world of The Shining with a story about an adult Danny Torrance, despite the public perception of the film becoming much more favorable in the meantime, he wrote a sequel to his own book that didn’t account for the differences in the film.
So when it came time to adapt Doctor Sleep into a film, it had a difficult path to walk in being an adaptation of a novel that differed from the film version of its predecessor and being a sequel to the film that more people would be expecting. Incredibly, it manages to pull this off and become its own thing. Characters from The Shining appear here but with no attempt made to convince the viewer that it’s the same actor we saw forty years ago, giving a fresh face and a new way to view them while still allowing the baggage of the old characters to be transposed onto these new faces. Further, Halloran died in the movie, but we still get to see him here as a ghost, something that happened later in the novel after he died there as well, and these gaps get bridged early on. The other major change, the presence of the Overlook Hotel, leads to the best scenes of the film, as the final act takes place in the actual hotel rather than the space where it once stood. The iconic carpet is there, along with the maze, the flooding elevators of blood, and the creepy antiquated music. We see the bar and characters walking up the stairs, fearing for their lives, carrying an axe, and the reappearance of all the spirits that haunted the hotel. It feels like a real return. It doesn’t just cash in on nostalgia though. Duvall and Nicholson have been replaced by McGregor and Ferguson, and the context is entirely different, as are the sensibilities behind the camera. Like Danny, we are unsettled by the Overlook because we know its power, but now it can be understood and greeted as a friend rather than the stuff of nightmares.