How do you make a sequel to a classic? It’s a difficult thing, the balance between paying homage to what came before and forging something new is a difficult one. An inch too far in either direction and you risk the ire of someone, either the fan who wants something new or the fan who really just wants the same thing all over again.
Doctor Sleep makes the question even more difficult. The film The Shining is, to reuse the word, a stone-cold classic. Adapted from Stephen Kings novel of the same name it takes many liberties with the story, so much so that King himself famously did not like it. King wrote the novel Doctor Sleep 36 years later as a sequel to his own work. So the question is how do you adapt a novel that serves as a sequel to a classic book and film which each has distinctly different arcs and in particular endings?
The answer is, of course, with great care, which is exactly what director Mike Flanagan has done.
The story picks up in 2011 and Danny Torrence (Ewan McGregor) is a mess. In an effort to dull the trauma of his experiences at The Overlook Hotel he has turned to alcohol and a lot of it. After a night out he wakes up in a filthy bed with a hangover, bruises on his face, an empty wallet, and only the haziest of memories. This is rock bottom, and it’s a bleak one at that.
The drinking serves a second purpose though: it dulls his shine. Danny and his mother may have escaped The Overlook, but the hotel hasn’t forgotten him and the ghosts that live there have been hunting him to feed on his shine.
After a rude awakening, Danny finally accepts some help and settles into a new life in a small town where he works in a hospice and attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. 8 years later, as he is accepting his 8-year chip from AA, he reminisces about his father, about how he had once stood in the same place seeking redemption and had failed.
Dealing with the legacy of The Shining is what the film is primarily concerned with. Danny recognizes the darkness inside him, the same darkness that was inside his father, and struggles to reconcile with it.
It’s not until he makes contact with Abra (Kyliegh Curran, in her screen debut) that he actually is actually forced to deal with it. Abra shines and shines brighter than maybe anyone else has since Danny, and she’s attracted the attention of the True Knot, a wandering pack of psychic vampires led by Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson) that feed on kids that shine.
The entire cast is great, but it’s Ferguson who steals the show. She runs away with every scene she is in. She looks like the leader of a commune of hippies, but she’s a child-eating monster. Her smile is altogether charming and evil, the way she moves and inhabits the character is natural, graceful, and devilish. If you didn’t already love her you will after this movie.
Similarly, Curran is so good that it’s hard to believe that it is her screen debut. She has a natural charm and chemistry with McGregor, the kind you don’t always get from seasoned actors. And then there’s McGregor himself, who plays the broken man Danny with such low key energy. The reluctant hero is a hard one to play with sincerity but McGregor really pulls out all the stops.
Flanagan also makes some excellent choices. First, he sticks to his own style and voice for the story right up until the moment the characters re-enter The Overlook Hotel, and even when it switches it doesn’t switch to Kubricks so much as an homage to him. Second, as vital parts of the story are told in flashback, he simply recast the roles of Dick Hallorann and Wendy Torrence rather than trying to work in old footage or doing any CGI shenanigans.
Third, and most importantly, he makes the film a sequel to both the original film and novel. Dick Hallorann is an important character in Doctor Sleep the novel but died at the end of The Shining the movie, so he shows up as a ghost to Danny in this version. I don’t want to spoil the fun but there are a number of these moments in the film, and it’s a masterclass in adaptation.
Is it as good as The Shining? This is a difficult question to answer because it’s not even really the same kind of movie as The Shining was, but what I can tell you is that Doctor Sleep is a well-directed and acted film, and intense and satisfying story, and a worthy follow up to the legacy of what came before it.