– By James Powers –
Writer-director Mike Flanagan made a big name for himself earlier this year with his Netflix series The Haunting of Hill House – an ornate, disturbing and poignant ghost story that, while not without its issues, tapped part of the horror genre’s potential in a way I’ve not really seen before. What set that show apart, in my opinion, was its skillful juxtaposition of horror tropes with complex and deeply sympathetic characters, even if it bungled that juggling act in the eleventh hour. Regardless of its flaws, Haunting demonstrated that Flanagan has a rare gift among horror storytellers: the ability to not only scare us, but move us as well.
So I find myself both excited and anxious at the news that his next project is an adaptation of Stephen King’s novel Doctor Sleep, the trailer for which dropped last week. For those who don’t know, this is something far more than just another big-screen treatment of just another Stephen King book.
This is because Doctor Sleep is not a stand-alone novel – it is the sequel to The Shining, one of King’s earliest, scariest, and most beloved stories. But it’s also, in a way, one of his most polarizing. The novel was published in 1977, and became an instant classic. Then Stanley Kubrick adapted it to film in 1980, and that too eventually became a classic, but for entirely different reasons. In the history of movie adaptations, the relationship between the film The Shining and its literary namesake is probably one of the most contentious. But the trailer for Doctor Sleep makes it clear that Flanagan is attempting what is perhaps his most ambitious balancing act yet: to build a bridge between the visions of Stephen King and Stanley Kubrick, by creating a sequel that speaks to both.
King’s book is considered one of the greatest horror novels of recent history, and Kubrick’s film one of the greatest horror films, but they’re really not the same story. Superficially, they both center on a young family – Jack, Wendy, and Danny Torrance – who spend the winter alone at the palatial Overlook Hotel in the Rockies, taking care of it during the off-season, and while doing so fall victim to some kind of dark presence residing there. Whether said darkness is ultimately supernatural or psychological depends, perhaps, on your interpretation.
But that about sums up the similarities. Obviously, film adaptations of books always take big liberties with their source material, and something is often lost in translation, but Kubrick did more than simply alter King’s novel to make it suitable for cinema. He turned it inside-out and told a completely different story, replacing King’s messily personal exploration of addiction and violence with a surreal and detached portrait of madness. The novel invites readers into the minds of its characters, while the film holds viewers at a clinical distance from them, looking at them more as zoo animals than people. It’s no accident that you usually see the film billed as “Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining,” and not Stephen King’s.
You can probably guess from my descriptions which of the two I prefer. Kubrick’s film is a masterpiece in many ways, and like everyone else I consider it a classic of horror cinema, but its formal perfection has the cold, impersonal polish of a mansion that no one actually lives in. It’s all about ideas, technique, aesthetics, and has little to do with real people. King has always been famously unhappy with the film (not that Kubrick ever gave much evidence of caring about his opinion), calling it “a big, beautiful Cadillac with no engine inside it.”
And in writing the sequel to his novel over 30 years later, King very deliberately ignored the sort of alternate universe that Kubrick had created. Although King is, in many ways, a much messier and less disciplined storyteller than Kubrick, he also cares deeply for his characters in a way Kubrick does not. That care, to me, has always been the beating heart of The Shining, and if The Haunting of Hill House is any indication, Flanagan shares this trait with King.
In view of this, it’s surprising and a little perplexing to see Kubrick’s visual footprint all over the Doctor Sleep trailer, which recreates some of his iconic imagery almost frame for frame. When I first saw the trailer, I was kind of incredulous and wanted to demand an either/or – is this supposed to be a sequel to King’s book, or to Kubrick’s film? Because, I assumed, it can’t be both. But perhaps for Flanagan it has to be, somehow. As he puts it, “I am a Stephen King fanatic going back to my childhood, so any opportunity to play in his sandbox has always been a dream and an honor for me. But as a student of cinema, I idolized Stanley Kubrick.”
When I step back and think about it, I have to admit that Flanagan is onto something, even if it means giving himself a herculean task. It’s been almost 40 years since Kubrick’s film, and in that time the only major addition to The Shining’s legacy has been an ill-fated miniseries produced in the mid-90s. And as Kubrick’s film has become a huge cultural force in its own right, the story of The Shining has become just as much his as King’s.
However much they may not like this arrangement, the author and the auteur now have dual custody of this story. So it’s inevitable that any filmmaker who wishes to add to it will have to obtain the blessing of both parents – which, miraculously, Flanagan has done, gaining full support from Kubrick’s estate as well as King himself.
Now the question is whether he can actually pull off the stunt – not simply in balancing both King’s and Kubrick’s interpretations of the classic, but also in doing justice to this new story. Because, for all the ink being spilled about its predecessor (guilty), Doctor Sleep is still its own thing. Set in more or less real time relative to The Shining, the sequel follows Dan Torrance, now middle-aged and psychologically crippled by the trauma of his childhood. When he meets a young girl named Abra who, like him, is gifted/cursed with a “shine,” the two of them draw the attention of a new malevolent entity; one that is distinct from that of The Shining and yet closely connected to it. As a result, Dan is forced to face the nightmare of his past more directly than ever before, and in many ways he must retrace the steps of his father Jack. Hopefully with a happier outcome at the end.
It’s worth noting that, in the novel, the demonic Overlook Hotel has been largely razed to the ground. But in Flanagan’s film, it looks like we get a version of the Overlook that is closer to Kubrick’s – very much still standing, and presumably still dangerous. However, Flanagan also seems to be hewing closer to King’s thematic interests than Kubrick’s, saying at a recent Q&A that, “in the way The Shining is about addiction, Doctor Sleep is about recovery.”
Confirming my suspicions and hopes, this suggests that Flanagan is looking to preserve the trait of King’s storytelling that is so lacking in Kubrick’s: complex, sympathetic characterization, focusing on an individual’s struggles rather than on cerebral aesthetics. But at the same time, the trailer’s iconic images – a kid blithely cruising through menacing hallways, evil-looking twin girls in blouses, a sepulchral figure emerging from a bathtub – make it very clear that Flanagan also wants to capture the purity of Kubrick’s singular vision.
Accomplishing both is of course, a tall order, and I would be lying if I said I’m 100% confident that Doctor Sleep will deliver the goods. But my hopes are high, because it appears that Flanagan has his priorities in the right place. Though the look of Doctor Sleep will undeniably come from Kubrick, its heart, hopefully, will come from King.
About the Author
James Powers is a staff writer for the Impacting Culture Blog, currently earning his MBA in Film Producing at JPCatholic as a member of the class of 2019.
For all articles by James, click here.