Horror whiz Mike Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep attempts the challenging task of reconciling two novels and a movie based on one of them. Doctor Sleep is adapted from Stephen King’s 2013 novel as well as Stanley Kubrick’s movie The Shining (1980), which in turn is based on King’s 1977 novel of the same name. The task is especially hard because King’s The Shining and Kubrick’s The Shining venture into different directions.
Starring Ewan McGregor and Rebecca Ferguson, Doctor Sleep will be out on October 30.
Though Kubrick’s masterpiece is easily the most celebrated cinematic adaptation of a King novel, the best-selling author publicly expressed his dislike for Kubrick’s creative departures. King later supervised a faithful and literal television adaptation of The Shining in 1997. The results were pedestrian, once again proving that what’s right in a book isn’t always right for a film.
Kubrick’s bare-bones version follows writer Jack Torrance’s descent into madness. Jack (Jack Nicholson) accepts a job as the caretaker of the haunted Overlook Hotel, and soon turns on his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and son Danny (Danny Lloyd). Blessed with “the shining” – psychic powers to see visions of the past and future and read people’s minds – Danny manages to thwart the hotel’s evil intentions and his father’s murderous designs. Ewan McGregor plays the adult Danny in Doctor Sleep.
King’s novel gives extensive backstories to Jack, Wendy and Dan, making them humane and believable. King based Jack’s alcoholism and family-related troubles on himself. Kubrick and co-writer Diane Johnson, however, strip the film of the novel’s emotional subtext. The screenplay also eschews the book’s fantastical elements, such as a hosepipe that comes alive and moving hedges cut into the shape of animals.
While the book concludes with the destruction of Overlook Hotel, Kubrick sticks to the detour from the novel’s supernatural themes and opts for an ambiguous ending.
Kubrick’s version is oblique, creating doubt about whether Overlook Hotel is haunted or whether Jack is actually a victim of cabin fever. The only incident in the film that cannot be explained rationally is when Jack is released from a locked room by a malevolent spirit on the outside – but this happens off-camera.
When the novel had a supernatural element that Kubrick could not get rid of, he adapted it in a way to make it appear like nothing out of the ordinary. For instance, the novel’s Danny actually sees an imaginary friend named Tony, who shows him visions. In the film, Danny assumes the croaked voice of a make-believe friend called Tony and talks to him.
The roughly 2,00,000-word novel is a slow read, particularly because King spends numerous pages on describing the internal monologues of Jack, Wendy and Danny as they are cooped up at the Overlook. Besides, the more fantastical sections describing supernatural activity had the potential of appearing comical on screen, as was evinced by Mick Garris’s 1997 television miniseries. Prowling grass animals does not add to the menace of the hotel in any way.
In the novel, Jack has problems with anger management and alcoholism. He gets fired from a school-teaching job, which is why he accepts the position of the Overlook’s caretaker for the duration of a chilly winter. Jack loves his family deeply, especially Danny. Only about one-third into the novel does Jack reveal the slightest of contempt for his wife and son.
In Kubrick’s film, Jack’s problems with alcohol are barely hinted at, and he appears indifferent to his son and contemptuous of his uncomplicated wife from the get go. Meanwhile, Wendy is attractive and resolute in the novel, but unassuming and meek in the film.
In an interview with Michel Ciment, Kubrick explained his screenwriting decisions: “The problem was to extract the essential plot and to re-invent the sections of the story that were weak. The characters needed to be developed a bit differently than they were in the novel.”
Thus, Kubrick’s film rapidly moves from one event to the next. The motivations of the characters remain unexplored, and there is very little background to the supernatural visions experienced by Jack, Wendy and Danny.
Towards the end of the film, Wendy sees a man in a bear suit seemingly performing fellatio on a suited man. As the novel makes clear, these could well be the ghosts of the hotel’s former owner, Horace Derwent, and his lover Roger, who would pleasure him wearing a dog suit. Derwent and Roger are never introduced in the film.
In King’s novel, Overlook Hotel is haunted because of its chequered past. The hotel changed ownership from time to time, but largely remained with Derwent or holding companies secretly owned by him. Derwent’s involvement introduced criminal elements into the hotel, such as gambling barons and members of the mob, which led to unpleasant incidents, such as a bloody shootout. The rotting old lady in Room 237 in the film is a suicide victim.
Only Delbert Grady, the hotel’s previous caretaker who killed himself, his wife and his two daughters, finds mention in the film. Danny frequently sees visions of Delbert’s daughters. Kubrick hints at this tragic history by using unexplained visions, music and sound design.
For example, when Overlook Hotel is buzzing with ghosts, Kubrick uses composer Krzysztof Penderecki’s otherworldly piece Utrenja Ewangelia. The choral sections, which combine chanting and hissing, play over scenes of a terrified Wendy seeing one vision after another.
Among the many visions, the iconic shot of blood flowing out of the elevator sums up the history of Overlook Hotel. In the novel, the elevator is one of the most supernaturally potent spots in the establishment.
Kubrick’s highly particular aesthetic choices, along with the oneiric quality of the narrative, have led to numerous interpretations of the movie’s hidden messages. Chief among these is the theory that Overlook Hotel represents the genocide of native Americans by European settlers.
This theory’s proponents point to the elevator scene as representative of the horrors of American history, in addition to carefully placed Native American artwork and props. (Some theorists also see the scene as a reference to the slaughter of Jews by the Nazis).
A more literal clue in the film is the hotel’s manager, Stuart Ullman (Barry Nelson), explaining to the Torrances that Overlook was built on “an old Indian burial ground” and the builders “had to repel a few Indian attacks as they were building it” – a detail invented by Kubrick and Johnson.
Of the theories surrounding the film’s true message, all of which are documented in Rodney Ascher’s documentary Room 237 (2012), the idea that Kubrick’s Overlook Hotel is a symbol for the historical mistreatment of Native Americans has its roots in the novel itself.
King hints that Overlook is a reservoir of America’s dark histories. In one chapter, Danny wonders about pictures with hidden “Indians” in them. In another section, upon discovering the hotel’s “incestuous ownership deals”, criminal past, suicides and murders, Jack describes the place as forming “an index of the whole post-World War II American character”.
Not all the departures in the screenplay were planned. Room 217 became Room 237 in Kubrick’s production because the management of the hotel that served as the location was concerned that guests might not want to stay in Room 217 after watching the movie.
Kubrick’s distillation of a crawler of a novel comes from his desire to achieve what he called “economy of statement”.
“The scope and flexibility of movie stories would be greatly enhanced by borrowing something from the structure of silent movies where points that didn’t require dialogue could be presented by a shot and a title card,” Kubrick said about his version. The film’s ambiguity comes from this approach and lends power to its images, such as the iconic last shot.
The novel ends with Overlook Hotel blown to smithereens along with Jack inside it. Wendy and Danny survive. In the film, Jack dies and Wendy and Danny survive, but the hotel remains unharmed, as does the evil it houses. The last shot zeroes in on a black-and-white photograph that shows a party from 1921, with a man right in the front looking like Jack.
Both in the novel and the film, Jack is told by an apparition that he was always the caretaker. Does the closing image imply that Jack Torrance is a reincarnation? The strength of Kubrick’s film lies in how it has stayed enigmatic for years. Most adaptations of King’s novels are either poor-to-mediocre attempts to cash in or workmanlike productions by fanboys. All reverence and no play makes a dull film.