First, let’s set aside that old movie fan trope about the novel being better than the book, or vice versa, that gets dusted off every time the “Based on a Novel by Stephen King” card gets flashed in the opening credits. It may be a fun way to pass the time waiting for the next adaptation, but it really is comparing apples to potatoes when talking about Doctor Sleep, because although the King novel provides the bones of the story, this particular transformation owes more to the 1980 Stanley Kubrick movie The Shining than any of the author’s original source material.
The last time audiences saw Danny Torrence on the big screen, he had just narrowly escaped being chopped to pieces by his deranged/possessed dad in a snow-covered maze behind the ominous Overlook Hotel. The next chapter in the story, which takes place decades after that famous final scene, picks up with Danny (Ewan McGregor) as a grown-up drifter/drunk using distance and drink to run from his past. Thanks to a visit from the spirit of an old friend, Dick Halloran (Carl Lumbly), Danny learns a coping mechanism to help him lock up the demons of his past in ornate boxes he forms in his mind. And if that sounds a bit hokey now, it won’t during the pay off at the end of the film.
Danny’s new peace of mind lasts for a few years until the combined shining energies of a gang of RV riding hippies called The True Knot, led by the captivating Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson), and a young girl named Abra (Kyleigh Curran) with a powerful shine level force him to face his past and its demons once and for all.
The first section of Doctor Sleep is, to be honest, pretty dull. The story seems little more than a cliche vampire movie with shining steam, a vapor that comes out of the gifted when they die, substituted for blood. Watching The True Knot feed is a lot like watching a horde of nosferatu descend on a body in an old Hammer horror movie and they implode when they die like the blood horde in Blaze, but with ash and dust instead of fire and gore. At least they don’t glitter like a Twilight vamping the sun.
But there are enough hints at something better yet to come sprinkled throughout those early moments, most of them surrounding Rose the Hat, Danny and Abra searching out each other in the otherworld where the shining lives. Director Mike Flanagan (Gerald’s Game) employs a unique style to the testing ground the characters work through that is visually arresting without becoming overpowering. The ‘wow’ factor of seeing the cathedral where Rose the Hat stores her memories doesn’t overshadow the image of seeing Abra pulling out shelves and rummaging through them to find a secret to use against her.
Even when the movie has trouble finding its legs, the actors have no trouble standing up on their own. Curran is good in the role of Abra, especially once she starts to understand and embrace the power of her unique ability. McEwan is equally good showing us a man who has never been comfortable with the ‘gift’ he’s been given. He understands all too well the power he has but only gives in to it — and never really embraces it — when he is left with no other choice.
It’s Ferguson, though, that steals the show as the leader of The True Knot. It’s been a while since such a seriously seductive and evil character has shown up in a horror movie, especially one who scares the crap out of you without depending on makeup or special effects. And she does it despite being saddled with a very silly moniker.
And so it goes, the script seemingly stumbling along looking for the hook that will lift the story and then, suddenly the screen is filled with a sweeping aerial shot that sends shivers down your spine: the same style shot that Kubrick used to open his classic movie. From that moment on, it’s time to strap in and let the roller coaster Doctor Sleep ride begin.
Or is it? There will be some who feel that way, while some will feel a visceral anger at the thought of someone like Flanagan having the gall to copy a master filmmaker like Kubrick. It’s a slightly different discussion than the Book vs Movie debate since the same artistic medium is being considered, but the passions will be just as strong because people have been studying, not simply watching, Kubrick’s The Shining for close to 40 years. From that opening shot to just about every scene that follows to the ends, the see-saw will continue as the grown-up Jack goes back to The Overlook for a fight that will leave only him, or the hotel, standing. The Kubrick-inspired images flood the screen, from the simple, like the adult Jack walking across the hotel bar exactly as his father did in 1980, to the jaw-dropping shot that reveals who is now the bartender at The Overlook Hotel.
You are either going to love it or hate it, and there is no right answer to what Doctor Sleep does with/to Kubrick’s classic, just as there is never a ‘right’ answer to which is better, King’s Doctor Sleep book or Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep movie. Both may have their strengths and weaknesses, but both are enormously entertaining in their own way. So see the movie and read the book; the order you do it in only adds to the adventure.
And for those who haven’t seen Stanley Kubrick’s movie, then what are you waiting for?
- John Black, Doctor Sleep