Doctor(s) Sleep

Over the weekend I finished reading Stephen King’s 2013 novel Doctor Sleep, and then caught up with the film adaptation from 2019. Here are some (relatively spoiler free) thoughts in bullet form.

It’s brave to return to material this well regarded. The Shining (1977) remains one of the top-tier novels of King’s long career, which makes Doctor Sleep a huge gamble. The stakes are far higher here than for any one of the (very few) other direct sequels he’s written, such as continuations of the Bill Hodges story, or Black House (2001, alongside Peter Straub).

It’s a very different novel to its precursor. I haven’t looked too deep into it, but I gather the backlash to Doctor Sleep on publication was that it wasn’t The Shining. And it sure isn’t. King’s not interested in retreading old ground, and he flips the claustrophobia, the isolation, and even the power dynamics of his decades-old classic on their heads for the sequel. There are familiar thematic elements – such as addiction as metaphor for possession – but those too are inverted: Danny isn’t his father, and the novel’s villains have as much to lose as its protagonists do.

You can’t ride two horses at the same time. I don’t envy Mike Flanagan the task of adapting this book for film. Readers of The Shining who have also seen Kubrick’s 1980 film will know that there are significant plot differences; in particular the two versions have very different endings. Flanagan takes on the task of both bringing the new book to screen, and producing a sequel to Kubrick’s film – and you simply can’t do both. He sure tries, but the last act of the movie indulges in exactly the sort of heavy-handed nostalgia that King avoids in the novel. Flanagan is aware that a majority of his audience will know the cinematic version of The Shining better than they know the source work, and he plays to it with mixed results.

The medium shapes the story in interesting ways. As a huge fan of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch (another 2013 novel), I had high hopes for what turned out to be a serviceable but uninspired film adaptation of that book. Watching the movie version was a lesson in all the many things that can be done on the page that just can’t be translated to film. I found the same thing at play with Doctor Sleep. At 150+ minutes it’s not short, and yet it’s far too short to get to know its cast of characters anything like as well as one does when reading the novel. I suppose that’s par for the course; a book will always be better than the film of it, at least in most respects. I was struck in particular by one effect that the streamlining for screen had on the story here. The result is a work that’s strangely cruel to some of its characters: there are no fewer than three protagonists that make it the end of the novel just fine, but who meet (sometimes gruesome) ends on screen. These are characters who certainly don’t need to die, except that it would complicate the film to have them hanging around.

King’s ending is better. As might be clear by now, I much preferred the novel to the film. (The latter isn’t bad, and I can see myself watching and enjoying it again in a few years’ time; perhaps when the novel is less fresh to me, I’ll be able to come to Flanagan’s movie on its own terms.) But the starkest contrast of all, as with the two versions of The Shining, is between the two endings. As noted above, Flanagan’s seems needlessly cruel, where King allows his characters more grace. Strangely, and perhaps purposefully, there’s a way to read the ending of Doctor Sleep the film as an attempt to restore the ending of The Shining the novel. To my mind, at least at the moment, it doesn’t work as well as King’s more hopeful ending, and particularly his perfectly pitched final chapter.

Adam Wood @adam