Having presided over a popular Netflix series based on Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of House Hill and a much-loved adaptation of Stephen King’s Gerald’s Game, writer-director Mike Flanagan has form when it comes to translating lauded American horror literature for the screen.
The Salem-born film-maker is currently adapting Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw as a stand-alone second season, titled The Haunting of Bly Manor, to the House Hill sequence.
These projects may be audacious, but they have nothing on Flanagan’s latest venture. Doctor Sleep is based on the 2013 novel of the same name by Stephen King, which is a sequel to King’s 1977 novel The Shining.
More impressively, the new film is simultaneously an adaptation of the King book and a sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, replete with meticulous recreations of blood-drenched elevators.
Maine’s most famous author has a long-standing beef with the Kubrick film, so much so that he wrote and produced his own Shining teleseries in 1997. His position on the film has not wavered over the years.
Speaking to The Paris Review in 2006, King complained that the film was “too cold” with “no sense of emotional investment in the family whatsoever”.
He characterised Shelley Duvall’s Wendy as “a scream machine”; he doubled down on that notion in a 2013 interview with the BBC, in which King described Wendy as “. . . one of the most misogynistic characters ever put on film . . . She’s basically just there to scream and be stupid and that’s not the woman that I wrote about.”
I didn't look at the movie at all. I was literally staring at my own feet, trying with my peripheral vision to figure out how he was reacting
“It’s still very much a live issue,” says Flanagan. “I am a lifelong Stephen King fan. I’ve been aware of his relationship with The Shining for a very long time. That was the most daunting part of this project. It was a daily source of pressure and anxiety for me. And it’s only recently that sense has kind of abated.
“I saw The Shining when I was very, very young – way too young to see The Shining – and it’s a masterpiece. It changed the way I thought about cinema and it changed our understanding of the genre forever.
“So internally, as a fan of Stephen King and as a fan of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, there’s a difference between the two that I wish didn’t exist. One of the big goals I had for this movie was to try and bridge that gap. That was something we’re up against from the very beginning.”
The reputation of The Shining has an uncertain history. King certainly wasn’t alone in his early dismissal of the 1980 film which was released to largely scathing reviews and two Razzie nominations (for Worst Director and Worst Actress). Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune gave the film two stars and called it “a crashing disappointment”.
Writing in the New Yorker, Pauline Kael slated Kubrick’s revolutionary use of Steadicam for the now iconic shots of troubled Danny as he rides his tricycle around the Overlook Hotel; in her review she compared them to “watching a skater do figure eights all night, or at least for two hours and twenty-six minutes”.
More than three decades on and the same film has been re-evaluated as one of the greatest films ever made. It's many riddles, doppelgängers and buried references currently attract more intellectual traffic than any other film. Shining conspiracy theorists and Kubrick scholars have, in recent years, flocked to internet shrines such as theoverlookhotel.com, Rodney Ascher's hit documentary Room 237, and Rob Ager's brilliant video essays on the film's psychology and spatial awareness.
“We started from a pretty great place because we had all Kubrick’s designs,” says Flanagan. “Warner Brothers had the blueprints for the set and anything they didn’t have was provided by the Kubrick estate. As we were building those, all of us on the crew were immersed in The Shining itself. I’m sure we watched it 100 times, plus everything related to The Shining – conspiracy theory documentaries like Room 237 – and we stayed immersed like that until we had to start shooting.”
In the years since its initial lukewarm bow, Room 237, those creepy twin girls, Redrum, and “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” have all entered the cultural lexicon. Despite the assistance from various and important quarters, that reputation that weighed heavily on Flanagan.
“It didn’t just occupy part of my brain: it was my entire brain,” says the director. “It’s incredibly daunting and it was a little paralysing in the beginning. But once I accepted the fact that no matter what I did, it was going to be impossible to please everyone, given the legacies of both the Kubrick film and the novel, that it was actually very freeing.
“I know there are people who were going to hate this movie just because it exists. So I might as well go ahead and make the film I want to make. Once I accepted that, it took a little of the pressure off.”
Flanagan managed to cross the lines between Stephen King and the Kubrick estate in a way that pleased all parties
Doctor Sleep catches up with Dan Torrance, the little boy in The Shining who sees dead people, some decades after he and his mother have escaped his rampaging father and the various ghouls who inhabit the Overlook Hotel.
The adult Dan – essayed with no little emotional heft by Ewan McGregor – is a drunken drifter who finally finds peace in smalltown New Hampshire, where he settles into a quiet life of AA meetings and where, with the assistance of a psychic cat and his “shine”, he helps hospice patients to die peacefully.
Meanwhile, Dan also starts to receive telepathic messages from a little girl, with remarkable psychic abilities. As the girl, Abra (Kyliegh Curran), grows up, she comes to the attention of a travelling group of long-lived evil-doers, led by – stand back for memes – a semi-immortal steampunk Irish witch called Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson). These monsters subsist on the shine – or “steam”, as they call it – of psychic children.
Mob of critics
Interestingly, it’s almost impossible in the current climate to watch Flanagan’s creepy depictions of older ghouls rounding on a teenage girl without thinking Greta Thunberg’s mob of critics.
“Right,” says the film-maker. “And even outside of the very tragic example you’ve just given, the world has become more and more hostile to the young. We’re living in a world where we’re asking the new generation not only to shoulder the very real consequences of our decisions, but we seem to be doing so without much by way of apology. And that’s a very unique and modern apathy.
“This is a story about creatures that will literally feed and feast on what makes a child special. And my God, there are so many real-world expressions of that horrible idea. There’s a generational cruelty that has been amplified simply because people are not afraid to express themselves on social media. So they have an anonymous outlet with which to pour their vitriol for children into the web. And I think that’s completely monstrous.”
In Doctor Sleep, The Shining’s famously crazed patriarch Jack (Jack Nicholson) is neatly counterpointed by his son, Danny. One is a portrait of toxic masculinity and alcoholism; the latter is a depiction of vulnerable masculinity and recovery.
“That was fascinating for me,” says Flanagan. “The Shining is clearly a story about addiction and comes from Stephen King’s own anxiety for what his alcoholism could do to his family at the time that he wrote the novel. He wrote this novel – Doctor Sleep – with decades of sobriety behind him.
“So I looked at those two stories as two sides of the same coin: about addiction and recovery. And that really helped me navigate my way through it because in a lot of ways this film was a response to The Shining. It moves away from toxic masculinity and addiction towards recovery. And that was a really attractive theme to me.”
Most impressively, Flanagan managed to cross the lines between Stephen King and the Kubrick estate in a way that pleased all parties. Having already gone through the hairy experience of delivering Stephen King a rough-cut of Gerald’s Game – King loved it, by the way – Flanagan’s experiences with Doctor Sleep could make a thriller in their own right.
“I never interacted with him until after Gerald’s Game was finished,” says Flanagan. “Then we began communicating by email. The first time I met him in person was when I brought the finished film of Doctor Sleep to Maine to watch with him. That was a completely surreal experience. I sat right next to him in the theatre and I pretty much held my breath for the whole length of the movie.
“I didn’t look at the movie at all. I was literally staring at my own feet, trying with my peripheral vision to figure out how he was reacting. As we know he’s not shy about letting people know if he doesn’t like adaptations of this work; something that Stanley Kubrick found out.
“If you had told me a year ago that he would love the movie and the Kubrick estate would love the movie, I don’t think I would have believed it. It seems to me that those are going to be the two most important reviews I’m ever going to get.”
Doctor Sleep is released October 31st