‘When I was a kid, I didn’t understand the shining,’ says Danny Torrance (Ewan McGregor) in Mike Flanagan’s adaptation of the novel by Stephen King. It’s a fair point; I saw The Shining when I was 12, and was chilled, filled with dread, hugely impressed, but also genuinely didn’t quite understand what I’d just seen, right down to the mysterious final photograph of Jack Torrance back in the 1920’s. Stanley Kubrick’s film has since been much discussed and dissected, with many fanboy and conspiracy theories about the possible meanings, and that elusiveness is a key part of the haunting appeal. The biggest problem Doctor Sleep has is that, by positioning The Shining as part of a larger story, the meanings are nailed down and by the final scenes, the sense of mystery is palpably reduced to a thematic ghost-train ride.
That said, Doctor Sleep is probably one of the better adaptations of King’s work, and generally a lot more faithful to his writing. Young Danny is seen getting advice from Dick Halloran (Carl Lumbly) about how to put his demons to rest, imagining a series of boxes into which his fears are captured and forgotten. But Danny has demons of his own, and his battle with alcohol mirrors that of his father Jack. Danny starts life in a new town, but his ‘shining’ creates a connection to Abra, a young girl with a similar gift. Meanwhile, a new plotline details the antics of Four Non Blondes-influenced vampire Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson) whose crew require the ‘steam’ of innocent young victims to survive. Rose has designs on Abra, and Danny is torn between his fears of his past and his desire to help the young girl.
Flanagan is something of a whizz with post-modern horror; his Ouija: Origins of Evil showed he could take rote characters and plot elements and fashion something fresh and memorable from them. And his Haunting of Hill House tv show ably used the original Shirley Jackson novel as a base for a much more expansive but spiritually connected story. Flanagan was the perfect choice for this film, and does well to create a work that’s faithful both to King and Kubrick; fans of The Shining in all its incarnations will know that Halloran’s fate differs in the film to the original book, but Flanagan cleverly fudges whether the character is alive or dead as the story starts. He clearly enjoys working in the Stephen King meta-verse, and Doctor Sleep also links ingeniously with many of King’s preoccupations.
Kubrick famously cut many of the supernatural elements from King’s novel, and created something suggestive, grim and foreboding. Flanagan and King have repurposed many of the familiar elements as part of a new and very different story, one that riffs neatly on the original property while going off in a fresh direction. McGregor gives one of his best performances as Danny, wrestling with his demons in some depth, while Ferguson is a slippery foe in Rose. Although the ending spells things out far too clearly, and Doctor Sleep can’t aspire to be the game-changer that Kubrick’s The Shining was, it’s a stylish, entertaining sequel that thrills and chills on route.