By David Dent
I confess that I haven’t read Stephen King’s sequel to ‘The Shining’, but as often with screen adaptations of the author’s work, advance knowledge of the text may be a disadvantage.
King is arguably the most unfilmable popular novelist out there, but it doesn’t stop people from having a go at bringing his tentacular plots and myriad characters to the screen. And I was excited by the decision to have Mike Flanagan direct, as his previous projects have breathed new – and welcome – life into the horror genre.
Doctor Sleep focuses on Danny Torrance, the young boy from ‘The Shining’, now all grown up: an ex-alcoholic whose power to shine has been his undoing in adult life. When we meet him he’s rolled into yet another town, secured a job, rented a room in a house and started to attend AA meetings.
But he starts receiving communications, initially mysteriously scrawled on the wall of his room and eventually telepathically, from another who is of equal power in the ‘shine’ department. But she’s a little girl called Abra (Kyleigh Curran) and her power is strong enough to get picked up by a group of disparate immortals, led by Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson), who call themselves The True Knot and maintain their existence by drinking the life force from the dying.
Danny and Abra eventually join forces to do battle with the soul stealers, a battle which involves Danny’s return to the infamous Overlook Hotel.
I’m going to stick my neck out and offer that Doctor Sleep may be one of the finest film adaptations of King’s works. It’s a double challenge for Flanagan, firstly because of the essential problems of bringing the author’s work to the screen, and secondly that of reintegrating events from The Shining, particularly returning the audience to The Overlook hotel, which has to be one of the most iconic interiors in movie history.
Second point first: The Overlook is fantastically rendered. Viewing its maze-like corridors once again, mirroring the exterior conundrum of hedges that fatally trapped Jack Torrance in the original film, made me physically gasp. It was like finding myself in a familiar dream space, and the integration of events from the original story into Doctor Sleep was both capably and boldly handled.
Secondly, Flanagan’s handling of the perhaps not complex but certainly expansive story was note-perfect: my criticism of previous adaptations of King’s work has tended to be either that they were too literal or too hesitant in bringing his texts to life. Doctor Sleep has the winning combination of great characters and a huge topographical canvass which works perfectly.
Ewan McGregor, as the grown-up Danny, is a revelation as the broken, troubled but humane presence whose initial encounter with the child Abra demonstrates his awe at the confidence with which she handles the gift they share, and the strength it gives him to face his past and the threat to his young accomplice. Kyleigh Curran is also magnificent as is Rebecca Ferguson, who treads a thin line between pantomime villainess and creature of evil: within the overall fantastic concept of the film all this works stunningly.
Doctor Sleep may not be a major King work – it has its fair share of critics – but Flanagan has turned it into a fine King adaptation. See it not as a comparison to The Shining (although connected they’re different beasts) but as an extension of that film’s universe, without the need to sacrifice a conclusion in favor of a franchise.