"We don't end. I don't know much else, but I know that we don't end."
In an increasingly uncertain and rocky present, my twenties have almost been entirely defined by reflecting on my own self, childhood, traumas, relationships, and self-worth. It's been a struggle to even put this piece together for months. When I find my life is spiraling out of my own control, I often look to media for answers. Last November, I saw Doctor Sleep at a time I needed it—and it struck me as one of the most empathetic horror films I've had the pleasure of seeing. In his film adaptation of Doctor Sleep, director Mike Flanagan seeks to find closure in the story of The Shining, marrying the voices of Stephen King's optimism and Stanley Kubrick's cynicism, while finding catharsis in healing from childhood trauma and freedom from the fear of death.
The initial reception to the 1980 adaptation of The Shining was mixed from audiences and critics alike—despite the eventual cultural acceptance of Kubrick's film as an icon and essential moment of the horror genre canon. While the film profited, it was initially deemed too long and too vague to be a masterpiece; sentiments that time would eventually forget. Stephen King, on the other hand, infamously trashed the film, calling it a "big beautiful Cadillac with no engine," where "there's no tragedy because there's no real change." It might feel a bit preposterous to criticize Kubrick's masterpiece that way. However, when you carefully examine the changes that were made to fit Kubrick's cinematic vision of the story, it makes a lot of sense why King reacted the way he did. While Stephen King is a writer who revels in darkness and acts of pure evil, at the heart of all of his stories is an optimistic perspective towards trauma and healing. Meanwhile, Kubrick's viewpoints of violence are rooted in determinism.
While the basic plot of both The Shining novel and films are roughly the same, it is in the little narrative choices that define what these two artists of their respective mediums believe about human nature. In the more well-known and accepted ending of The Shining film, Wendy (Shelley Duval) and Danny Torrance (Danny Lloyd) narrowly escape their abusive matriarch, Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson), by leaving him in the Overlook Hotel's mysterious labyrinth. Driven to the crux of mental instabilities exacerbated by alcohol and isolation, Jack freezes to death— the wicked smile on his lifeless, frosted face, fading into a dolly shot towards the ballroom, where a photo of Jack in 1921 is hung on the wall. In these final moments, there is an implication that what happened in the Overlook that night was a self-fulfilling prophecy, that Jack's violence as the "caretaker" was in the heritage of the hotel, that his spiral into abuse just needed one final push. Determinism.
In The Shining novel, Jack's name is John Torrance, and the father of the fractured family's acts of violence was influenced by the evil of the hotel and its ghosts. Possession is the central conflict of King's story; John's forcible destruction of his own family is rationalized and explained through the supernatural elements of King's novel. Instead of a story of humans being driven to their true natures, King's The Shining is a tale of evil as a human sickness instead of a uniquely human trait. Deep down, apart from the influence of the ghosts, there is still something hopeful about King's view of people, and that is especially realized in John's remaining shreds of humanity. His death is one of redemption and cleansing—resisting the ghosts of the Overlook, John heads to the boiler room and burns the hotel down. It's one final sacrifice John makes for his family.
These changes are not only in favor of making Kubrick's film more cinematic, but also to fit his own view of the world. Kubrick's Jack Torrance is a deeply troubled man with pre-existing instabilities, one who lashes out at his family in the hotel because he was simply a few drinks and a convenient location away from doing so. King's John Torrance was a purer man before the hauntings of the Overlook, but King purposely mythologizes the ghosts and lore of the hotel to explain and influence the behaviors of his characters. While to Kubrick, the ghosts are merely set dressing to the horrifying family drama at The Shining's core. King wishes to understand these ghosts. Kubrick wishes to use them as symbols.
As a writer who has been open about his struggles and recovery from addiction, Stephen King has poured a lot of himself into his characters. King's response to the shifted messages of Kubrick's movie has taken a toll on him, and he has continually sought ways to re-establish his own voice back onto the iconography of The Shining. In 1997, King produced a mini-series on The Shining in an attempt to "fix" Kubrick's interpretation of his story. While initially praised, even securing two Emmys for makeup and sound editing, the 1997 mini-series has not stood the test of time in the way the original film did—often criticized for faithfulness in exchange for less imaginative and drab directorial decisions. While it presents the story as it is on the page, it lacks the same punch and drama Kubrick gave it in 1980. In 2013, King released Doctor Sleep, a sequel novel to The Shining, so that he could regain control of his own narrative, and find solace and peace for the stories of Wendy and adult Danny Torrance.
Being a sequel to the original novel, of course, the last act of the book takes place in the empty remains of the Overlook Hotel. Dick Halloraan, the Overlook's head chef preternaturally gifted with the ability to "shine," died in Kubrick's version in the film, but here, he makes a return as Danny's mentor figure. Danny's journey includes a big cast of supporting characters and an ally in Abra Stone and her family, who are crucial in defeating a cult of psychic vampires called the True Knot, run by Rose the Hat. It is a compelling but ultimately uneven work that guides Danny towards a peaceful resolution of healing.
These departures from the cultural understanding of The Shining make the bridge between the text and Doctor Sleep tonally uneven and inconsistent—a battle between two narrative voices. In the grand scheme of pop culture, Kubrick's images—the haunted room 237, the creepy twins, the bloody elevator, are the ones that ring true in the cultural zeitgeist. Not King's rays of hope and healing.
If storytelling is a way in which we, as writers, can try to make sense of our own experiences, to cope—it's easy to tell why King was so hell-bent on taking back his own characters and their agencies. He felt it was important that his stories explored evil but didn't feel hopeless. Kubrick's The Shining is an inarguable masterpiece and an essential piece of the horror canon, but it is also a bleak, depressing view of humans at their worst devices. While it certainly has its own merits, it stands as a more cynical departure to the story King wanted to tell. It achieves its goal of reflecting the visceral ugliness of domestic violence and childhood trauma, where a ray of hope is never in sight.
Enter the success of 2017's It, which put Warner Brothers in a position to bring other Stephen King stories to the screen—and Mike Flanagan took on the challenge to try to "reconcile the differences" between The Shining novel and film. An ambitious mission, one that would end the cycle of terror for Dan Torrance (Ewan McGregor) with equal parts desperation and catharsis. As a director with a student-like relationship with Kubrick's work and an admirer of King's stories who previously adapted other stories such as Gerald's Game, Flanagan was tasked with not only bringing King's novel to life but also paying respect to the cinematic legacy of The Shining, which is anything but a small order.
Often accused of being a nostalgic cash grab, Flanagan's adaptation of Doctor Sleep is an elegant, meta-textual piece that proves to be anything but. Using its freedom to explore The Shining film's continuity as a bridge between Kubrick and King's ideologies, Flanagan was able to tell the story of healing in Doctor Sleep with love and care, while exploring these topics with more darkness, color, and drama than the original novel.
The final act gets to take place in the abandoned but waking foundational halls of the Overlook Hotel—meaning we are faced one to one into the setting that started the violence and horror Danny is still trying to process himself. There are more powerful visual storytelling opportunities, Danny looking through the cracks that his father axed on the bathroom door, or Danny walking through the bar where his father indulged in his dark fantasies, sitting in his place. In one of the film's most poignant scenes, Jack Torrance (Henry Thomas) materializes in front of Danny as he sits at the bar, and Danny unpacks all the pain and suffering he and his mother experienced in the aftermath of the incident that shaped his life. The haunting ambiance of the storm juxtaposed with the moody swell of the score enunciates Ewan McGregor's empathetic quality, creating a captivating performance in a scene that acts almost as a meta-textual conversation between Flanagan, King, and Kubrick.
Released 39 years after Kubrick's film, Flanagan was met with the dilemma of how to return to the cinematic legacies of Jack and Wendy Torrance (Alex Essoe) respectfully. Flanagan ultimately decided to recast these roles to new actors who could spiritually portray these characters, rather than play imitations of the original performances or digitally reconstruct the faces of Nicholson and Duvall. Where Doctor Sleep the novel often felt disconnected from The Shining, Doctor Sleep the movie excels at representing the core values of the book while allowing itself to be a sequel, and all the rich storytelling opportunities that come with that. We can't unpack or discuss our childhood traumas without going mentally back to the moments that define us, and finally, Danny is allowed to do precisely that, onscreen.
King's elements have room to breathe in the hopefulness of Doctor Sleep's runtime, and the lasting sentiments the film wishes to pass on. Dick (Carl Lumbly) still manages to make a return to the story and help Danny as a ghost, guiding him and teaching him how to repress and control the ghosts that continue to haunt him in his new home. Wendy Torrance is allowed some more dimension, sharing nurturing moments with Danny, even quietly becoming the emotional crux of the film. Her sacrifices and pain she felt in the aftermath of The Shining are unpacked by Danny with Jack's ghost; Danny describes his last moments with his mother, her face slowly rotting and covered with flies the closer she got to death, and how he could no longer look at her eyes. In a pivotal moment of Danny's childhood, Dick tells him that one day, he will be teaching someone else how to harness their shine—and Abra's (Kyliegh Curran) journey as a young psychic is cleverly weaved into play.
Written initially as Danny's half-niece but changed to found surrogate family by the film, Abra Stone's persistence, and strength are the ones that help lure the death-fearing True Knot to their ends. In a pivotal change from the book's ending, Abra is taken to the Overlook Hotel and is chased after by Danny, possessed by the ghosts he freed to defeat Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson). It is Abra that reminds Danny who he is, and in a tribute to the original ending of The Shining novel, Danny sacrifices himself to dismantle the hotel and save Abra. Similar to John Torrance's death, it's symbolizing a release of violence and evil, but in this case, death is freedom from pain and suffering. Danny looks into his mother's eyes as a boy (Roger Dale Floyd) once again and finds peace, as the flames from the boiler room purify the hotel.
Danny's death in the Doctor Sleep film is one stamp Flanagan made to make the story his own. In the ending of one cycle of violence, a new cycle begins one of nurturement and hope. Dick sacrifices himself for Danny, and Danny sacrifices himself for a future as Abra's ghostly mentor. Death, grief, and moving on as a form of catharsis were elements in the original novel, in Danny helping patients at the hospital move on to the afterlife—but here, Danny is allowed to feel that catharsis for himself. Death is not a permanent wipe from existence. Death can be fulfilling. Death can have a more significant impact. Family can be found, and the people who guide you to your "shine" can come from anywhere. We go on.
Through his character work and original writing in the last act of the film, through the visions of Young Danny and Wendy finding peace, through the cycles of violence ending and cycles of nurture thriving, Mike Flanagan discovered his own unique emotional catharsis in the Overlook Hotel. One that Stephen King would approve of, and one that takes the imagery and pain of Kubrick's film, assesses it and pays respect to their full impact. Doctor Sleep is more than just a sequel; it is a conclusion to a story that was never previously thought of as one with loose threads. It's a meta-textual marriage of opposing visions of the human condition and the horror of emotional trauma. What is found is peace of mind for the Torrance family, and the war between voices found in the mixed-media of The Overlook laid to rest.
Stanley Kubrick passed away in 1999, but in 2020, his directorial voice and stamp he's left on The Shining still remain, even after a direct sequel. His images will continue to haunt future generations of fans and filmmakers alike. Stephen King is still with us, but now his soul has been restored to his writing, leaving him at peace with Danny Torrance's story, and Mike Flanagan's ray of hope and healing in adapting was what made this reconciliation possible. We may be mortal, but our connections, our ability to inspire one another, our legacies— are forever. We don't end. I don't know much else, but I know that we don't end.