Tuesday, 5 November 2019

How do you solve a problem like ... Doctor Sleep?

Disclaimer: I'm a Constant Reader and a Kubrick obsessive.

Heeeere's... Danny!
Earlier this week, I went to see Doctor Sleep at the cinema. I don't know how it is doing, box-office-wise, but there were only six other people at the screening I went to, on a rainy Sunday evening. Maybe people aren't liking it; certainly The Guardian doesn't. I admit, I had reservations - after all, how do you follow The Shining? Regular readers of this blog will know that Kubrick's liberal interpretation of King's original story is one of my favourite films, of any genre, of any time. There was scope here, I thought, for cinematic blasphemy.

And then there's the problem of making a sequel that is both true to King's Doctor Sleep and yet also a successor to Kubrick's Shining, given that the latter was famously so very different to King's Shining. I mean, forget the thematic differences between the original book and the original film, what about the practical differences? In King's book, The Overlook Hotel is basically blown up by an exploding boiler and Dick Hallorann walks away; in Kubrick's film, The Overlook is abandoned and poor old Dick... well (spoiler alert), he gets an axe in the chest. So where do you even begin to draw those threads together? Well, I guess the answer is to do what Kubrick did, first time around, and reinterpret the book on which the film is based. And that's basically what director Mike Flanagan has done, except he's stayed closer to the theme and tone of King's novel than Stanley did. King likes this new film, as a result.

I had other reservations too; one is that the Doctor Sleep novel, whilst perfectly serviceable, is not, in my view, King's best. Like many of his more recent works, it starts well, develops an interesting premise, builds tension and then seems to tail off, with a somewhat unsatisfactory denouement. Don't get me wrong, I bought, read and enjoyed it as soon as it came out... but it's not his finest work. Then there's the casting of this new film - could I see Ewan McGregor as Danny Torrance? I wasn't sure that I could. But then I didn't know who I would cast in that role instead.

But enough of the pre-amble. What of the film? Well, Flanagan's Doctor Sleep is not so much a sequel to Kubrick's - at times, it feels more like a paean, such are the nods to, and acknowledgements of, what has gone before. Some are about as subtle as a...well, a baseball bat to the head, perhaps: the most obvious, and consistent, is the soundtrack, from the Berlioz-evoking opening theme right through to closing with Midnight, The Stars and You, and everything in-between. At some point, Flanagan has realised the importance of Kubrick's soundtrack in evoking a certain mood, and has stuck with it to great effect. Equally blatant is the number of overhead shots of cars in transit through desolate landscapes, again evoking Kubrick's opening scene. Slightly more subtle, and wonderfully realised, is a scene in which Danny meets Dr John in the latter's office - on the face of it, this vignette serves no purpose and could easily have ended up on the cutting room floor. But everything about it, from the pacing and conversational back and forth, the office decor, even the weather outside, perfectly echoes Jack's interview for the caretaker's job with Mr Ullman in Kubrick's film. Seen in that context, it becomes a more important scene, a Jonbar point from which Dan's path is changed, just as his father's had been on landing the Overlook job. Such was my delight at this tiny sequence, and its dialogue, if I hadn't been in the cinema I probably would have exclaimed something along the lines of, "Clever, very clever." As it was, it put a smile on my face.

Other nods are genuinely more subtle, and if you're a fan you'll have fun spotting them. Example? Abra's house number is 1980; surely no coincidence, given the year Kubrick's film was released. No doubt there's a list online somewhere detailing all the references, actual and imagined, but don't seek it out - why spoil your fun?

As for the whole "one story as two sequels" dilemma, well, Flanagan handles it well, even if he has to deviate from King's story to do so. He finds a neat way of including the cinematically-dead Dick Hallorann. He finds a neat way of revisiting the Overlook, and manages to give it the ending King had always envisaged. Oh, and the approach to the Overlook is a shot-by-shot recreation of Kubrick's opening but at night, in bad weather. I think my response to that was more Pavlovian than Proustian, but it certainly triggered something. It's not really a spoiler to say that Wendy appears in flashbacks (props to Alex Essoe's vocal coach too, as she gets the voice spot on). Jack also appears, in a way, as do certain other hotel regulars. It's certainly not a spoiler to say the scenes in which Dan walks the hotel corridors filled me with genuine unease. But it may be something of a spoiler to add that, if King ever writes another instalment in the life of Dan Torrance, well, Flanagan has made filming that even trickier.

Rose the Hat
I've noticed that, in this review (if that's what this is), I've basically assumed you know enough about King's and Kubrick's work to render any kind of synopsis unnecessary. If you're wondering what actually happens in the film, IMDB has that covered. In their review, The Grauniad criticised Doctor Sleep for being too long, slow and boring. Stephen King, on the other hand, has been quoted as saying he thinks the film will appeal to fans of Kubrick's film and of Frank Darabont's Shawshank Redemption, because of the unhurried storytelling of the latter. I'm inclined to agree. It's a long film - 152 minutes - but at no point did I look at my watch or wish things were moving along faster. Oh and that same review also laid into Rebecca Ferguson for her portrayal of Rose the Hat, but I thought she was pretty good.

The bottom line, then? If you have any interest whatsoever in King's books or Kubrick's film, you are going to get something out of Flanagan's Doctor Sleep. Is it a great movie? One that will still be shown and discussed at the cinema in nearly 40 years time, like Kubrick's? Well, no. But with all the expectation and baggage it carries with it, is it a good film? Yes, it is. Just about as good as it could be, I think.

EDIT: despite what I said a couple of paragraphs back, it seems a sequel to Doctor Sleep might be on the cards after all...


  1. Good to get your take on this, and your trepidations are exactly as mine are. One of a long list of films I'm toying with the idea of seeing, and you might have just swung it.

    1. Good!

      Of course, your mileage may vary... :)

  2. I wanted to see it, but after 1 week its performances appear to have been cut to late shows only, so I'm guessing it's not doing too well. I didn't really like the book, but I was intrigued by the idea of revisiting The Overlook, arguably the most interesting "character" in the original. Obviously King couldn't do that, and that's why the novel didn't really feel like a sequel at all to me.

    1. No, it doesn't seem to be setting the box-office alight, sadly. But that's s shame because somehow this film manages to be an adaptation of King's novel and a sequel to Kubrick's film...