Dr. Sleep (R)

Dr. Sleep Theatrical Poster
Warner Bros. Pictures

Dr. Sleep is a haunted movie about haunted people in a haunted house.

Dr. Sleep is also a sequel and thus must be understood in light of its forebear, The Shining. The film must also be appreciated in light of the originating novels that the film’s narrative is drawn from. To complicate the matter even further, understanding the relationship between the films and their source material requires a familiarity with how the movies differed from the novels in specific ways. And all of this analysis arrives before you get to the central motif of the film: how the sins of the father visit the son.

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There is no end of lists ranking Stephen King’s novels by quality available on the internet. Try to find a list ranking his books by sales, and you find the total opposite problem – the numbers just aren’t available. Anecdotally, the general consensus among fans is that Carrie, IT, and The Shining are the top three bestsellers in some order. All three of those books are connected to popular and, in some cases, acclaimed film adaptations, a pattern which creates a bit of a chicken-or-egg dilemma. Two of these novels – IT and The Shining – also tend to show up high on lists that rank King novels by quality. The cinematic versions of both films also tend to be beloved among fans of both King novels and King movies.  There is one important distinction between the two, however: Stephen King hates the film adaptation of The Shining.

In 2006, King told The Paris Review that he “hated what Kubrick did” with the story, adding that he was left “really disappointed” by the film and doubted Kubrick ever read the book before making it. In 2016, Deadline published an interview with King where the author is direct about his criticism of the film adaptation:

…the character of Jack Torrance has no arc in that movie. Absolutely no arc at all. When we first see Jack Nicholson, he’s in the office of Mr. Ullman, the manager of the hotel, and you know, then, he’s crazy as a [expletive] house rat. All he does is get crazier. In the book, he’s a guy who’s struggling with his sanity and finally loses it. To me, that’s a tragedy. In the movie, there’s no tragedy because there’s no real change.

Readers of the novel who have also seen the film know that, whether or not one sees any effect on the quality of the movie, King’s analysis of the Jack Torrance character is correct. In the novel, Jack is a good man fighting his demons but ultimately sliding into the worst version of himself under the influence of The Overlook Hotel while, in sharp contrast, the film’s version is a man barely holding himself together, inevitably exploding under the hotel’s pressure.[1]

Dr. Sleep, in novel form, is King’s opportunity to continue the story he wanted told, stripped of Kubrick’s deviations. This novel is the basis for the film that bears its name, which left director Mike Flanagan in a real dilemma: How does one bring a sequel to theaters that faithfully reflects the novel it was based on but also the movie which preceded it, considering the two sources contradicted each other? To again complicate the matter further, how does one do this when the still-living author hates the film and the director of the movie has died?

In an excellent interview with SlashFilm, Flanagan admits (but also relishes) the challenge these opposing elements represent.  In response to the question, “Is [Dr. Sleep] a Sequel to King’s Novel or Kubrick’s Film?” Flanagan answers:

It’s the most common question we’ve had since the project was announced, and the question we couldn’t really answer until we had material to present, because the answer’s really complicated. The answer to all of those questions for us has always been “yes.” It is an adaptation of the novel Doctor Sleep, which is Stephen King’s sequel to his novel, The Shining. But this also exists very much in the same cinematic universe that Kubrick established in his adaptation of The Shining, and reconciling those three at times very different sources has been the most challenging and thrilling part of this, creatively, for us.

As is becoming customary for Flanagan, the director met this challenge head on and delivered a film that manages to reconcile the warring King and Kubrick factions.

The central character of Dr. Sleep is Dan Torrance, played by Ewan McGregor with the actor’s usual excellence. Dan, like his father, is a man with pronounced and powerful demons. When we first meet the adult Dan (the character having been last seen as a child in The Shining), those demons are in control and Torrance’s life is the resulting debacle. We see bar fights, sexual hookups in seedy trailers, cocaine binges, and a sinister hint of a scene more developed in the novel where Torrance leaves the infant child of his latest one-night stand with the unconscious mother just after taking the cash from her purse. Alongside the viewer being introduced to the very adult mess of Dan Torrance, the other central elements of the film’s narrative appear – a strong sense of the past looming over current events (more on that a bit), a young girl with pronounced telekinetic powers, and a sinister clan of predators led by Rebecca Ferguson’s Rose the Hat.  The young girl, Abra, is gifted in the same way Dan Torrance is (what Dan calls The Shining, Abra calls her Magic) and Rose the Hat’s band of ghouls, The True Knot, who travel the land feeding psychically – and murderously – on those who Shine.[2] The story of the film amounts to the threads of Dan, Abra, and Rose converging into a knot of their own with the shuttered structure of The Overlook Hotel.

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Ferguson’s character requires an overweening arrogance that ultimately serves to demonstrate how powerful Abra’s Shining is. Ferguson delivers just what is called for, sensually slinking here and condescendingly clucking there. Mike Flanagan’s resume is littered with films that depend on strong performances from very young actors which the director is able to draw out from his cast. Dr. Sleep makes clear Flanagan is in no danger of losing this particular skill. Kyliegh Curran’s Abra is lovely, a young woman whose adolescence is made more difficult by her strange gift. The actress gives us an Abra who knows enough to keep her abilities under wraps but who is in no way ashamed or frightened by what she can do. More than anyone else in the cast, Curran is asked to portray the full range of human emotional expression and she shows herself quite up to the task. Continuing the theme of young actresses handling important roles well, Emily Alyn Lind plays a young accomplice of Rose’s named Snakebite Andi. Lind delivers a serpentine performance, subtly matching her character’s physical mannerisms to the role’s requirements.

Really, the only problem with any of the acting in Dr. Sleep is found in McGregor’s portrayal of Dan Torrance – a problem that is the direct inverse of King’s criticism of Jack Nicholson’s performance in The Shining. Nicholson’s Jack Torrance was a man waiting to explode, making the idea he was ever stable enough to win the affections of his wife and son a stretch for the viewer. McGregor’s native competence and stability shines through the early depiction of dissolute Dan, leaving the viewer suspicious that Dan’s hard times are much less a product of life-long failures to cope with childhood trauma (a narrative set up required to make Dan’s later eight years of sobriety feel weighty) and more like a weekend warrior’s self-conscious choice to live on the wild side for a few days before returning to a more fundamental even keel.

Flanagan’s abilities as a filmmaker really shine in Dr. Sleep. Flashbacks to events portrayed in The Shining are fundamental to the Dr. Sleep story and thus show up early in the film. The first version of this reflective element is a scene, iconically portrayed in Kubrick’s film, where young Danny rides his Big Wheel on the distinctive carpet of The Overlook.  For a while the viewer sees only the back of the child’s head, and until the camera moves to show the actor in profile, the impression is that Flanagan has incorporated footage from The Shining. However, Flanagan has wisely chosen neither to copy-and-paste from the predecessor nor digitally render the cast from Kubrick’s film into his new footage. Rather, the director recast the roles and the actors he chose show both a fidelity to Kubrick’s work and Flanagan’s capable carrying on of the story’s tradition. Flanagan has developed a retinue of regular collaborators and he draws on Henry Thomas (previously appearing in Flanagan’s Gerald’s Game and The Haunting of Hill House) to portray the ghost of Jack Torrance. The task of capturing Jack Nicholson’s arrow-point eyebrows, manic energy, and staccato vocal cadence is probably beyond any actor, at least any who doesn’t wish to give into a Nicholson impression. Thomas, doled out in light doses, does as well at replicating the cinematic Jack (Torrance) as could be expected.  While it is cliché to describe an actress channeling a previous performer, there is no better term to describe Alex Essoe’s portrayal of Shelley Duvall’s Wendy Torrance. Essoe looks the part well enough but it is her wispy line delivery that marvelously connects her portrayal to what Shelley did in The Shining. In a movie rich with strong performances it is Essoe’s recreation not only of Wendy Torrance but, more fundamentally, Shelley Duvall that leaves the viewer struck by wonder.

As mentioned earlier, Dr. Sleep is about the sins of the father visiting the son. This is reflected in numerous elements – Dan, in his drunken rage, embraces violence like his father embraced violence – right down to using the phrases he inherited from his father. Dan’s drug of choice is alcohol, like his father. Like Jack, Dan’s choices are framed (initially) for the viewer through the damage his choices bring to a young mother and her child.

Dan makes his way aimlessly north, drifting up on the Bus Stop shore of a quintessential American small town. There he meets Billy Freeman (played by Cliff Curtis), an ex-alcoholic who has made a solid life for himself in this community. Billy vouches for Dan on a place to stay and starts taking Dan with him to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. In a thin but nonetheless real reproduction of Les Misérables’ Valjean’s arc, this act of kindness toward Dan by Billy transforms Dan. A sobriety chip and a job as an orderly in a hospice where his gifts can help the dying follow and Dan’s life is remade.

Ensconced in his new Main Street town, surrounded by the AA community, and receiving the dignity of working in an upright vocation, Dan obtains the resources he needs to address the trauma left behind by his father. In a scene that stands at the heart of Dan’s journey, we see the younger Torrance, eight years sober, choosing to show Jack the kind of grace Billy had offered Dan on the day Dan slouched off the bus. Dan reflects on his father’s own early efforts in AA and realizes his father had, before Jack’s demons aligned with the demons of The Overlook Hotel, tried to make a better life for Dan and his mother. Dan dedicates his eight year sobriety chip to his father and, in doing so, cuts a path for himself that grows from his father’s line but reflects a distinctly new and healthy course for the son. In Dan’s forgiveness, Jack receives a kind of absolution of empathy and grace, the kind that works to set Dan free – or reveal that Dan has found freedom, perhaps.

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It is from this position of liberty that Dan comes to be a counselor and protector for Abra (after a little help from a dearly departed friend; this is still Stephen King’s world after all) as The True Knot stalks after her. The viewer watches as the love he received – from Billy as his AA sponsor and then best friend, supplemented by the broader community of AA, the hospice, and his new hometown – steels Dan against the allure of an open whiskey bottle found in a time of despair. It is his choice to understand and forgive his father that braces Dan for a confrontation with the ghost of Jack Torrance played out at the very Overlook bar where Jack’s own descent into Hell began in earnest. Finally, when the ghosts of the Overlook are loosed on Dan again and he submerges under their influence, it is his choice to love and care for Abra that allows him to break the hold of the Overlook spirits and bring their world to an end altogether.

Flanagan was right to see adapting Dr. Sleep for cinema as a considerable challenge. What the director has accomplished is a film that is largely faithful to both versions of its progenitor. Readers of the novel will feel the confluence of the streams a bit more jarringly; the film follows the book quite strictly for the first two-thirds of the film, the last third is an entirely new creation – save for Flanagan’s choice to have Dan meet his father’s earthly fate from the novel. Still, the movie works well considered in and of itself, becoming not simply a continuation of King’s The Shining nor Kubrick’s. Indeed, considering the modifications Flanagan made to the story of the Dr. Sleep novel, this film is not even merely a faithful reproduction of its source novel. Flanagan has given the world a fourth thing, a film that takes the threads of The Shining as novel, The Shining as film, and Dr. Sleep as novel and reconciles them all within the cinematic medium.

The reconciliation represented by the film makes sense on a spiritual (or meta, if you prefer) level.  Dr. Sleep is indeed a haunted film about haunted people in haunted houses. It is also a film of reconciliation that evidences reconciliation and tells a story of reconciliation. The Shining is about dissolution and destruction; Dr. Sleep is about reconstitution and renewal. Flanagan’s film never shies away from the dark reality that the sins of the father reach into the future with tendrils of destruction. Thankfully, however, Flanagan’s film doesn’t stop there. Dr. Sleep also tells us that the forgiveness of sons is powerful too, even more powerful than that of the father’s wrongdoing, able to reach not only into the future with compassion but also reaching backward to break the power of sins from the past.

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[1] If the reader wants to see a visual adaptation of King’s novel that more faithfully reflects the book they should track down the made-for-television adaptation from 1997 starting Rebecca De Mornay and Steven Weber.

[2] Jacob Tremblay cameos as a character known as The Baseball Boy, a role whose only purpose is to make the view disgusted with the subhuman savagery of The True Knot. Tremblay writhes in agony and screams in terror in a way that pushes the viewer’s eyes from the screen. It is a small but vital role and Tremblay’s performance delivers with powerful effect.

Jeff Wright is a husband, father, pastor, educator, and podcaster. He lives in very rural Middle Tennessee and watches a lot of movies. You can hear more from him on The Pop Culture Coram Deo Podcast.

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