Inside ‘The Shining’ Sequel ‘Doctor Sleep’: A Spooky-as-Hell Tribute to Stanley Kubrick and Stephen King
Filmmaker Mike Flanagan (“The Haunting of Hill House”) dishes on his sequel to the classic 1980 film “The Shining” and why it should satisfy fans of both Kubrick *and* King.
Yeah, Mike Flanagan knows he’s taken a big risk with Doctor Sleep.
“I’ve felt like I wanted to throw up for the last two years, every day,” he chuckles, shortly before his latest debuted in theaters on Oct. 30 (via sneak peeks; it opens wide on Nov. 8). “I’ve lost so much sleep trying to navigate through this. It’s the most intimidating and daunting project I’ve ever worked on.”
Nonetheless, no amount of pressure could dissuade the 41-year-old filmmaker from tackling King’s 2013 novel Doctor Sleep—and the key to overcoming it, he says, was the right frame of mind. “Any time I said ‘sequel to The Shining’ in my own head, I panicked a little bit. So I preferred very much to look at it as a descendent to The Shining rather than a sequel,” he explains. “It’s like the kid in The Shining, in that it has the DNA of its parents—King and Kubrick—but this descendent still had to find its own identity in the world. That’s what made it so exciting. I was like, look, what a gift this could be as a fan, for me, to experience a film that honored and celebrated the novel Doctor Sleep, Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, and the novel The Shining. As a fan of all three, it was irresistible.”
And, he’s quick to add, “It was also fucking terrifying!”
Doctor Sleep picks up with Danny Torrance as a grown man (Ewan McGregor) struggling to stay clean after years spent in a memory-erasing, dad-inspired drunken stupor. Finding solace (and sobriety) in a small town, he’s compelled to help a young girl named Abra (newcomer Kyliegh Curran)—who also has the power of the shining—combat a group of vampiric RV-driving nomads known as the True Knot, who feast on the shining and are led by the malevolent Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson). It’s an odyssey underscored by the childhood nightmare Danny suffered at the Overlook Hotel. And it’s one that posed uniquely formidable challenges for Flanagan, given that King’s Doctor Sleep follows directly from his 1977 novel, and not Kubrick’s film, which made significant revisions to King’s story—meaning that paying homage to both required a tricky tightrope act.
Asked why he wanted to take on a project fraught with such problems, the prolific Flanagan—who’s established himself as horror cinema’s brightest talent thanks to Oculus, Hush, Before I Wake, Gerald’s Game, and 2018’s Netflix series The Haunting of Hill House—admits it’s simply because, “I loved The Shining. Kubrick’s film entered my life when I was very young—way too young to see The Shining, but I did it anyway. It traumatized me and it changed how I looked at horror cinema, and cinema in general, as I began to study it more as the work of art that it is. But as a lifelong Stephen King fan, I also adored the book. And I always had this ache, just from the perspective of a fan, that King didn’t like the movie, and that they were so different. It was always this thing that hurt my heart a little bit.
“I had this bizarre experience when I read Doctor Sleep. I was so excited when it was published, I grabbed it the first day it hit the shelves, and I powered down this story about sobriety and recovery and responsibility, and I loved it, and it was so quintessentially Stephen King. But all the images in my head as I read this book were Kubrick’s. That was such a strange feeling.” Despite that fractured lineage, Flanagan was convinced there was a unified path forward: “I really believed that, look, there’s a way this could all actually work together. There doesn’t have to be this disagreement, or an either/or approach, to The Shining.”
Central to his strategy was reviving the Overlook Hotel, which burned to the ground in King’s book (and thus doesn’t exist in the novel Doctor Sleep), but survived at the end of Kubrick’s movie. “That was the first major decision, and the crux of my pitch on it,” he elucidates. “I loved the story of Dan and Abra and the True Knot, but I had this hunger, at the end, when they had their final confrontation on the grounds which used to be The Overlook in the book—I was like, but what if it was in the Overlook? Oh my God, that would be cool.” Moreover, Flanagan was sure his Overlook had to be Kubrick’s. “I knew the visual language of the Overlook Hotel, at least for me, was definitively Kubrick’s. So I said, if we’re going back there, if we want to bring the Overlook back into the story—and I desperately did—the only way to do it was through the canon of Kubrick’s film.”
That, however, raised a not-insignificant question: Would King allow an adaptation of his novel to include a Kubrickian version of the Overlook, considering how distasteful he found the auteur’s classic? “I needed his blessing to do that before I would start the script. If he hadn’t given me his blessing, I wouldn’t have taken the job, or even written it, much less made the film,” Flanagan concedes. “My initial pitch to him was that I’d like to do as faithful an adaptation of Doctor Sleep as I can, but I’d like to bring back the Overlook—and specifically, I’d like to bring back the Overlook as Kubrick imagined it. And his initial reaction was, ‘No.’ He was not interested in that.”
Even so, the director’s perseverance paid off—thanks to a cleverly devised new ending that brings things back, full-circle, to both Kubrick’s movie and, ultimately, King’s 1977 novel. “[King] kept an open mind. And in particular, I pitched one very specific scene that takes place in the hotel toward the end of the film, and when I mentioned that as the reason I wanted to go back, he thought it over and came back and said, ‘OK, do that.’” For Flanagan, that moment was part and parcel of the endeavor’s overarching spirit. “I saw it as this gift, to me as a fan, and from me to him as well—that yes, we’re going to bring back this Kubrickian Overlook world, and I wanted to celebrate that film. But what if, in doing so, at the same time, you get elements of that ending of that novel, The Shining, that Kubrick jettisoned? Then you start to get the ending you never did, and that King was denied.”
Having received King’s blessing, Flanagan then faced the equally imposing challenge of recreating some of Kubrick’s signature imagery—shot for painstaking shot. Though that undertaking was, he confesses, somewhat overwhelming, “What an amazing chance for a lover of cinema, and student of film. I got to have this forensic film school. I got to not only walk into the Overlook Hotel as Kubrick designed it, which is like walking into your own memory and being a kid again, but I got to set up a lens, the same lens he used, and put it in the same place he put it, and then I got to forensically interrogate his creative process.”
Making matters easier, at least to an extent, was Flanagan’s understanding that, no matter how frequently he shouted-out to Kubrick’s movie, he couldn’t truly emulate the late, illustrious filmmaker—and was thus free to put his own stamp on the material. “I just always knew, from the beginning, that I’m not Stanley Kubrick. I never will be, and I don’t think anyone ever will be,” he laughs. “That took some pressure off, because I didn’t have to try to be. In those moments, I wasn’t trying to approach scenes the way he would unless we were recreating an exact angle that I wanted to be a direct quote of his. The rest of the time, I just wanted to live in the world of tribute. And that meant it had to be mine.”
Not to mention, Flanagan was well aware that, if Doctor Sleep fails to connect with viewers, it won’t be Kubrick who takes the blame. “The only way I could ever look myself in the eye after this is if, at the end of the day, I either succeeded or failed on my own terms. Which meant there was no upside in trying to do my best Kubrick impression in the same way that there was no upside for any of the actors who were stepping into these iconic roles to do an impression. It was just inappropriate.”
Speaking of which, Doctor Sleep may be led by the subtly-taut McGregor and malevolently seductive Ferguson, but it also features new actors taking on The Shining roles made famous by Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Danny Lloyd and Scatman Crothers. While that creates a bit of memory-refracted dissonance, Flanagan thought it was a far preferable tack to take than going the CGI route—which, he grants, was considered early on in the process.
“We explored everything, and there were only really two options as I saw it: It was either going to be something that was performed, or something that was digital. And even if we had Nicholson come back, based on the rules of the hotel and how the ghosts appear with respect to their age, he’d be performing the part through a digital avatar.”
That struck Flanagan as an avenue best left avoided. “Just speaking for me, the de-aging technology and the digital-recreated performance technology, at least at the time we were in pre-production on this film—I did not feel that it was there. It’s improving rapidly all the time, but at that time, I thought, whenever I see it in a movie, it takes me out of the experience and it makes me scrutinize the tech instead of living in the moment. And I knew that, whatever we did, we had to do for everyone. The idea of having a digital Danny Torrance riding a trike five minutes into the movie, that just seemed like we were making a videogame at that point. It felt disrespectful.”
Still, Flanagan realized he was caught in a damned-if-you-do predicament regarding recasting. “I always knew that was going to be fraught with controversy no matter what we did, so I felt like, okay, if we’re not going to please everyone in this case, we might as well approach it in the way I think is most appropriate,” he says. “Like everything else we’re doing with our recreations of the hotel, the best and most honest and respectful way to approach it was not to do impressions; it was to find actors who would remind us of those iconic performances, without ever tipping into parody. That was really, really hard to do—to say, I just want to be able to tilt people’s memories toward those original actors, but then let the characters be their own. I want to cast someone to play Dick Hallorann; I don’t want to cast someone to play Scatman Crothers.”
Of all the alterations Flanagan makes to Doctor Sleep, the most crucial—from a narrative standpoint—is his removal of a subplot involving the measles, which in King’s book function as a plague destroying the True Knot, thanks to their consumption of an unvaccinated young boy. It’s a storyline that certainly would have thrust the film into a heated real-world conversation, although when pressed about its exclusion, the director says it had less to do with avoiding controversy than with providing a bigger climactic payoff.
“I wanted the visceral dopamine rush of seeing the True Knot get what was coming to them in a much more active way,” he maintains. “Giving that agency to Dan. While I loved the revenge from beyond the grave that the measles gave Bradley Trevor in the book, I thought in this case, the amount of time it would take to set that up might be difficult. Visually, it might be really hard to understand it. And man, I just wanted to see them punished. I really wanted to see someone take actual action against them. I thought that would be more satisfying.”
Even more than the reverential opportunities it afforded him, Doctor Sleep spoke to Flanagan because, at heart, it tells a tale directly in line with the rest of his own oeuvre – to the point that he admits he would have helmed an adaptation on the basis of its themes alone. “If you take The Shining out of it, this story is just right in my wheelhouse!” he exclaims. “It’s all the things I love: it’s childhood trauma and how it affects us as adults; it’s grief; it’s loss; it’s addiction and recovery; it’s responsibility and this sad but ultimately optimistic look at the darkness of the world and the tug-of-war between light and dark. Doctor Sleep is right in my sweet spot. Loving The Shining only added another gear to it. If Stephen King had just named this character something else and talked about a backstory that had nothing to do with the Overlook, I would have been all over this material anyway.”
As for whether his Doctor Sleep will satisfy fans of its various ancestors, Flanagan is taking a wait-and-see approach—but at least two early reactions have convinced him that, if nothing else, he hasn’t disappointed the giants that came before him. “I won’t know if it [reconciled everything], I think, for a few more weeks, and the film is really out there with its audience,” he acknowledges. “But Stephen King loved the movie, and the Stanley Kubrick estate loved the movie. To me, those are the two most important reviews this movie would ever get. The fact that they could both feel satisfied with the tribute that it is, I think I can finally relax a little bit.”