Adapting a book for the big screen is never easy, but director Mike Flanagan faced more challenges than most in making Doctor Sleep, based on Stephen King’s work of the same name. King wrote Doctor Sleep in 2013 as a sequel to his 1977 novel The Shining, following a grown-up Danny Torrance as he struggles through trauma and alcoholism to protect a child that shares his gifts, and any adaptation of that story is forced to contend with the legacy of 1980 film version by director Stanley Kubrick — which puts Flanagan in a difficult position. Though Kubrick’s The Shining is widely heralded as a masterpiece of horror cinema, King was famously unhappy with its many alterations to his original work, and Doctor Sleep must bridge the worlds of King and Kubrick if it was going to be at all successful.
Flanagan, himself an established horror director, responded valiantly. Taking inspiration from his protagonist, who is haunted by the (often literal) specters of his past, The Shining is treated like a traumatic memory, and the approach works because it’s rooted in character development. Some of its more famous elements — Room 237, the tricycle, the ax-splintered door — are occasionally referenced for their symbolic power, and the fear and reverence they inspire in fans align them with Dan’s own experience.
But Flanagan is not content to rest his film on its association with a classic. The oppressive, cryptic terror of the Overlook Hotel is gone, replaced with a grey world that clearly communicates its dangers, placing emphasis on character over atmosphere and relying on a more nihilistic dread for its scares. Flanagan goes for a completely different tone than The Shining, making Doctor Sleep a sequel more in story than in spirit and giving it a chance to stand on its own legs.
With this character-focused approach, the talented cast often takes center stage, and they respond with quality performances. Ewan McGregor is excellent in the lead role, giving Dan an enduring kindness that shines in this dark world, and Kyliegh Curran confidently embodies the young powerhouse that is Abra Stone. But the film’s true standout is Rebecca Ferguson, who steals every scene she’s in as Rose the Hat, a playful villain that feeds on the screams of children that ‘shine.’
Many of the film’s supporting characters are unfortunately relegated to one-dimensional status, rendering Zahn McClarnon (of Fargo and Westworld fame) criminally underused, and though Dan and Rose are allowed moral complexity for most of the runtime, they ultimately fall back on a more clearly black-and-white dynamic that’s a bit of a letdown. Doctor Sleep also features actors reinterpreting some of The Shining’s classic roles, and while Carl Lumbly is a standout as Dan’s mentor Dick Hallorann (first played by the late Scatman Crothers), the lookalikes mostly end up reminding the audience what this film is not.
One scene in particular illustrates this perfectly: Dan makes his way through the Overlook, its state of disrepair counterintuitively indicative of the filmmaker’s respect for its haunted halls. The tension skyrockets, everyone’s eyes focused intently to the action, waiting to see how the hotel will receive him. When they actually do, however, the spell breaks; it is soon clear that Kubrick’s ghost deserves more credit for the sudden spike in intensity than Flanagan’s film does. Doctor Sleep is very good, and Flanagan deserves credit for the work he did to bring his sequel out of the original’s shadow — but when that shadow is as big as The Shining’s, whatever unfolds can only suffer by comparison.