Doctor Sleep and Stephen King’s Greatest Weakness

There’s a lot to recommend Doctor Sleep, Mike Flannigan’s adaptation of Stephen King’s belated sequel to The Shining. Flannigan’s character work is always great, it’s performance driven and there is a languid pacing emphasised by the use of slow fades between shots. Visually it’s a marvellous film that manages to evoke a morose atmosphere that bridges the gap between Kubrick’s directing style and Flannigan’s. But there’s a big difference between Doctor Sleep and Kubrick’s The Shining: The Shining is scary.

In fact it’s one of the most frightening films ever made and Doctor Sleep for all it’s visual nuance and ghostly characters just isn’t. I think this is because Kubrick deviated from the source material far more than Flannigan did. I do believe it is best to be creative when adapting a Stephen King novel because I have never found King himself frightening. He’s good at premises but his writing is too adolescent and sentimental to be properly chilling. His ultimate horror aesthetic is the carnival fun house.

Kubrick made The Shining scary by stripping away the sap, cutting the goofy sequences (beware killer topiary and fire hoses!) and injecting his narrative with his own brand of wonder and awe. King, for his part, has always hated Kubrick’s film. Principally this was because of the way he handled Jack Torrence. No longer was he the decent man led astray by alcohol (an avatar for King himself) but a man who hates his family and the responsibilities he has to them. But there’s another big difference between King and Kubrick and it’s very evident in Doctor Sleep (the book and film).

“Never Explain Anything” Lovecraft famously wrote. He understood that the oldest of mankind’s fears was of the unknown and the more shadow you leave in your work, the scarier it will be. King’s greatest weakness is that he explains everything. Every single ghost in the overlook has a backstory. There’s a lot of complicated rules around Shining which works less like a horrifying metaphor for the past repeating itself or a shared understanding of the darkness of the world and more like a cell phone network. The more you explain the supernatural elements the more you move away from horror and into fantasy. King can add all the grinning ghouls and gory child deaths he wants, but without the shadows, without the unknown, it just feels like Twilight.

There’s a moment in Doctor Sleep where Danny meets a manifestation of his psychotic father. It’s a classic Flannigan scene in which the life-death void is thinned but not broken. There’s no catharsis to be found in this interaction. The scene is all too quickly interrupted by the arrival of the quasi-immortal vampire attack the films heart. Kubrick’s ghosts served as unpleasant manifestations of our main characters angst, whilst King’s are actual vampires who have to suck actual suffering out of people to survive. And of course they are codified as Romani Travellers. You can see how this becomes difficult to relate to.

It must be frustrating to have an adaptation of your work outshine (so to speak) your original. King for his part seems to have stubbornly refused to understand what so many appreciated about Kubrick’s chilling masterpiece. Doctor Sleep feels, rather unpleasantly, like a ‘correction’ of Kubrick’s masterpiece. It is indebted to the success and iconography of Kubrick’s film but definitely has a bone to pick. It even sticks King’s original ending involving the hotels boiler at the end, laying the ghosts of the overlook to rest permanently. Nothing says scary like happily ever after. Doctor Sleep is a very entertaining fantasy film with touches of Mike Flannigan’s superb melancholy brand of horror. But if you want to adapt Stephen King into a genuinely frightening film, you have to find the part that truly scares you and throw the rest away.

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