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Confronting the Past
The Overlook Hotel closes for the season on October 30th. You should pay it a visit before the caretaker arrives for the winter.
Doctor Sleep (2019) is a miracle. Making a sequel to The Shining (1980), an iconic Stanley Kubrick film featuring an iconic Jack Nicholson performance is no easy task. What’s more, it is also a sequel to one of Stephen King’s best books (also named The Shining if you weren’t familiar), beloved by serious fans of the author for its intense and personal allegory of alcoholism and the tolls it can take on a person and their family. Kubrick took King’s story in directions that King famously criticized after the movie was released. Regarding Kubrick’s film, King had this to say:
I think ‘The Shining’ is a beautiful film and it looks terrific and as I’ve said before, it’s like a big, beautiful Cadillac with no engine inside it. In that sense, when it opened, a lot of the reviews weren’t very favorable and I was one of those reviewers. I kept my mouth shut at the time, but I didn’t care for it much…
Despite this, Kubrick’s The Shining holds a special place in the hearts of fans. How could someone make a film that satisfies fans of the film and the book or fans of one and not the other? Enter Mike Flanagan.
Stephen King writes with a careful abandon (not to be confused with reckless abandon) that serves as a reminder that nothing is precious, stories are meant to change; what matters is the present, and our imagination can take us anywhere. It would be easy to confuse King’s prodigiousness with a lack of planning or thoughtfulness, but his writing feels like a sort of jazz, bound by a throughline even at its wildest. A throughline that allows him prodigious output without losing focus of the characters and story he wants to tell. In writing Doctor Sleep, the novel, King manages to build on the themes of his original book without rehashing similar arcs and plot points. The story is set in the same universe, and yes, Danny Torrance is a main character, but he isn’t the main character. King introduces someone entirely new, Abra, and gives her center stage in this story. It perfectly demonstrates his imagination, careful abandon, and intense character focus. We’re also introduced to an entirely new evil force, showing us that the universe in which The Shining is set is so much bigger than what we see on the page or screen.
The critical takeaway: Kubrick changed the story to suit his vision for the original film. King wrote a sequel to suit his vision as it continues from his original book. How will Mike Flanagan make a film that continues two disparate stories? Do you do King’s parable of alcoholism and inner demons and pretend the original movie doesn’t exist? Do you carry forward Kubrick’s haunting vision of the past’s evils and their ability to control? Flanagan splits the difference, and the result is somehow spectacular: a film that is faithful to the story in the original Kubrick film and faithful to the beating heart of King’s original novels.
Doctor Sleep begins shortly after The Shining ends, in 1980. Young Danny Torrance lives with his mother in a condo in Florida. The demons of the Overlook Hotel are still following him. It doesn’t matter where he goes; they find him. Thankfully, an old friend of Danny’s visits him to help him get the demons under control. Is the method of containment healthy? Maybe not, but it works. Danny finally finds some peace. Elsewhere in 1980, we’re introduced to a new set of players in this universe; The True Knot. A group of nomadic soul vampires looking to feed off of those that shine. Jump to 2019, and we meet Abra in New Hampshire, a young girl who shines.
In the present, we see that Danny has grown up struggling with the same addiction that troubled his father; alcoholism. He wakes up in places to which he doesn’t remember going. Dan makes terrible choices. He gets into fights. He skips town and moves to a small town in New Hampshire, where he starts AA and takes a job at a local hospice and comforts dying patients using his shine. He becomes Doctor Sleep.
You do not want to know more than this going into Doctor Sleep. The shining will bring all of these new and old characters together for a generational story of trauma, greed, redemption, and healing. It’s a story that doesn’t pander to our wish to hide in familiar territory. There is no familiar territory when a person is doing the hard work of recovery and healing.
The film (by extension of the novel) understands that the only ‘sequel’ worth pursuing has something new to say. It will surprise you in its resistance to horror tropes but its embrace of these tropes in the service of good. (A specific scene in which the True Knot infiltrates Abra’s mind stands out as a perfect twist.) If The Shining is about a generational loss of control, Doctor Sleep is about a generational reclaiming of it. This is not only true of the story itself but in a meta-textual sense; Flanagan deftly threads it around Stephen King’s loss of his own narrative. The story diverges from the book but in ways that serve King’s original intentions and pays the debt incurred by Kubrick’s trespasses.
Over the past decade, there’s been a recent flux of high-concept horror films, and if the current discourse is any indication, some people are starting to feel a bit burnt out with high-concept allegories of trauma. Fair enough. While Doctor Sleep is a story about generational trauma, it feels like much more than that. It’s a story of the work it takes to undo that trauma; A tale of fighting those demons for a better life, if not for yourself, for future generations. You could put all your demons into a box and lock it away deep inside, which may work for a while. Maybe it would work for all of your life. But those demons will always be there, waiting to be confronted by someone in this generation or the next.
Written and directed by Mike Flanagan
152 minutes (185 minutes for the director’s cut)
Stray Thoughts from the Editor
For me, It all started with Doctor Sleep. When I sat in the Alamo Drafthouse in San Francisco on November 15th, 2019, watching the film, I had just finished reading the novels of The Shining and Doctor Sleep. I was on a severe Stephen King bender (that continues today) and was excited to see how the story would play out on screen. The effect of Flanagan’s mastery was so strong that I felt strongly compelled to write about it. Here’s the first page of what became the first of many film journals:
It was challenging to rewatch Doctor Sleep and stop myself from praising every scene that came and went. For this rewatch, I tried the Director’s Cut for the first time, and I loved it more, but if you’re new to this universe, you can watch the theatrical cut, and it’s still great.
You're in for a treat if you choose to have a Halloween double feature of The Shining and Doctor Sleep. If you decide to go further and read both books, you’re in for a feast.
Doctor Sleep was a movie that connected masterful filmmaking with thoughtful intention and love for the source material in all of its forms. It all comes ‘round. Ka is a wheel.
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