Mike Flanagan has already tackled King with his very strong take on Gerald’s Game and iconic haunted houses with his excellent spin on Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting Of Hill House, but with Doctor Sleep he had an amazing and rare opportunity, to faithfully adapt King’s version of what happened to the Torrances next and to take the audience back to Kubrick’s Overlook. He also had the opportunity to build a giant hedge maze and get completely lost in it, and it’s really quite impressive to discover that he managed to find his way back out.
Inevitably, it’s far more King-sweet than Kubrick-sharp, a faithful adaptation of the 2013 novel which finds the adult Dan Torrance (Ewan McGregor) trying to put his demons behind him by working at a care home in a small New Hampshire town. While he’s using his Shine to help the dying residents shuffle off the mortal coil peacefully, somewhere out there is Rose The Hat (Rebecca Ferguson) and the True Knot, a band of monsters who murder children and feed on their psychic powers. When they set their sights on young Abra (the absolutely wonderful Kyleigh Curran), Rose’s long-dreamed of “white whale”, our hero will have to find the courage to fight to protect her and head back to where all his old nightmares were born.
The two and a half hour running time may seem a bit much given that it’s one of King’s shorter recent efforts (a mere 531 pages!), but there is a lot of ground to cover and Flanagan is determined to get to all of it. Each of the three lead characters is given time and space to grow, to show their strengths, weaknesses and humanity. There’s definitely a touch of Darabont in the filmmaker’s willingness to embrace the big old heart lurking in King’s novels and his ability to temper it with real, brutal fear. We even get to see how the True Knot is a kind of twisted family who depend on each other to survive (a great ensemble group including Westworld’s Zahn McClarnon, Lights Out’s Emily Alyn Lind, Hill House‘s Robert Longstreet and Twin Peaks’ Carel Struycken), but we see just how deadly they are in a savagely violent and genuinely shocking sequence.
Speaking of the True Knot, Rebecca Ferguson steals best in show as Rose; alluring but unsettling, charming but iron-willed, and absolutely terrifying. The film’s most unnerving sequence actually has nothing to do with the Overlook at all, as the camera tracks her on a remote viewing mission floating through clouds, over city lights, slowly but surely locking on Abra’s street, then her house, then her bedroom window… It’s a childhood nightmare that won’t stop until someone gets hurt, and when the essential King idea that bad dreams have real teeth is foregrounded it works beautifully.
As for The Shining stuff, well, to go into too much detail would be telling. The meticulously reconstructed set is stunning and while there are some slightly misjudged big swings, Flanagan successfully locks into the trauma at the heart of Dan’s story and it’s really quite moving. With that being said, Dan is frequently the film’s biggest weakness. It’s no fault of McGregor’s, who does good-hearted but trauma-twitchy very well, but he suffers the most from that sense of King-placating treacle. We do see him at his worst and it’s great when we see him at his best, but there are a few too many cheesy lines and clunky moments in the film’s mid-section that make us miss the far more thrilling Rose or Abra.
However, the occasional lapse in dialogue and unnecessary lull aside, this is a strong adaptation. It’s scary and affecting and it brings one of King’s best modern villains to life beautifully. There were many ways in which Doctor Sleep could have turned out a disaster, so to have a return to the Overlook send a shiver down the spine instead of a critical shudder, or worse, a disinterested shrug, is a thrill indeed.