“Doctor Sleep”: How Kubrick Outshines the King

Does Mike Flanagan's adaptation of "Doctor Sleep" balance the visions of Stanley Kubrick and Stephen King?

By Vaneesa CookJanuary 16, 2020

IN DOCTOR SLEEP, the recent film adaptation of Stephen King’s 2013 sequel to The Shining (1977), it’s Stanley Kubrick more than King himself who continues to haunt us. Back in 1980, notorious perfectionist filmmaker Kubrick brought King’s classic to life, but he courted controversy when he amped up the monstrosity of Jack Nicholson’s performance as father Jack Torrance and changed major elements of the story, including the ending. King famously panned Kubrick’s adaptation and unveiled his own small-screen version as a 1997 TV miniseries. Yet Doctor Sleep’s director Mike Flanagan pays clear homage to Kubrick’s imagery and themes, foregrounding the evils of alcoholism while highlighting the power unleashed by a patriarch who can — this time — overcome his own demons.

Jack Torrance, in the original novel and film, never achieves that state of grace. Frustrated with his career and his family, he succumbs to the bottle and the horrors of the Overlook Hotel, launching a rampage of epic proportions. Doctor Sleep, however, is more about his adult son Danny (Ewan McGregor), struggling against alcoholism and the memories emblazoned by his father’s poor choices. Living in New Hampshire, far from the mountains of Colorado, Torrance ultimately finds sobriety and a few new friends, including Abra, a young girl whose ability to shine captures the unwanted attention of a band of vampire-like, gypsy pedophiles feeding off the fear of telepathic children. Torrance must embrace his supernatural gifts to save Abra from her pursuers, a journey that eventually takes him back to the Overlook Hotel, awakened for one last fight.

References to Kubrick’s 1980 horror classic are apparent from the opening credits. The doomsaying, beating-heart score of The Shining, the musical equivalent of a cold sweat, resounds in the first notes of the film and continues as a motif throughout the narrative. In the first scene, viewers are transported back to the Overlook Hotel, where young Danny Torrance roams the iconic orange and brown hallways on his three-wheeler. The images of the Overlook are modeled after Kubrick’s set in such meticulous detail that McGregor, who portrays Danny with measured empathy, admits geeking out while working on the film. Even the hotel’s hedge maze, an invention of Kubrick’s and part of his contested departure from King’s book, plays a prominent role in Doctor Sleep.

Flanagan keeps the crux of Doctor Sleep hinged upon the swing between good and evil that alcoholism causes; a pointed metaphor that King wrote into both books, suggesting that any home with an alcoholic is a haunted house. But there’s another pivot at play here — the choice of perspective or point-of-view that can persuade an audience to sympathize with either the father or the son. Writer Stephen King was writing semi-autobiographically when he created the character of Jack Torrance. In his younger years, King had been a frustrated writer, husband, and father, struggling with alcohol dependency and the pressures of a demanding career. It’s no surprise, then, that King longed for Jack’s redemption. In King’s 1997 TV miniseries production, he gave his main character just that. Jack, played by Steven Weber, receives soft treatment, presented essentially as a good guy victimized by the hotel’s tricks. Kubrick, however, never blames the hotel for Jack’s choices, never asks the audience to empathize with the abusive father. Instead, he tells the story from the point-of-view of Danny, the mistreated son.

In Kubrick’s The Shining, Danny’s perspective is shot from the angle of a Big Wheel trike. He rambles along the hotel’s endless hallways, where every turn threatens to bring him face to face with some new fright: creepy twin girls, a mysterious rolling ball, or an ominous door to the forbidden room 237. But, at face value, Kubrick is delving into a domestic problem, revealing the brutal horror of alcohol abuse and its outcomes. The Overlook Hotel, in his film, is not an environment haunted by supernatural ghosts and goblins but an atmosphere charged with the anxiety of living with a (very real) raging monster.

King evidently hated Kubrick’s portrayal of the father. As King put it: “In the movie, there’s no tragedy because there’s no real change,” and “[t]he character of Jack Torrance has no arc in that movie.” He has a point. The father “Jack,” famously played by Jack Nicholson, is never seen in a state of mental stability. Instead, Nicholson plays Jack as a man on the verge of derangement from the start, during his initial interview for the caretaker’s job and on the car ride up to the Overlook Hotel with his family. At one point, he tells his son about the cannibalism of the Donner Party with morbid glee. That image appalled King, who believed Kubrick undermined his main character’s humanity. And, purist fans of the book resented Kubrick for assuming creative license.

Some critics, though, appreciated Kubrick’s vision. Roger Ebert, for one, explained that “[t]he movie is not about ghosts but about madness and the energies it sets loose in an isolated situation primed to magnify them.” Ebert agreed with comments about Kubrick’s unwieldy plot: “[T]here is no way, within the film, to be sure with any confidence exactly what happens, or precisely how, or really why.” Instead of faulting Kubrick for such seeming chaos, however, Ebert understood it as a function of the narrative itself. “Jack,” he wrote, “is an alcoholic and child abuser who has reportedly not had a drink for five months but is anything but a ‘recovering alcoholic.’” Kubrick, it is clear, was not trying to tell a typical horror story of supernatural proportions. He was showing audiences that living with a raging alcoholic is a horror story, and he wasn't willing to sugarcoat it in Gothic gloss to make the father figure feel any better about his behavior.

Kubrick’s behavior as director on set is remembered by some as monstrous, an indication that the filmmaker may have channeled his meticulous, dark, even sadistic, approach to his craft into the story line, as did King. Actress Shelley Duvall, who played Wendy in the 1980 film, described Kubrick’s brutal demands as a director as borderline abusive. She endured a 13-month shoot that ran over schedule and was worked into a terrified frenzy during the iconic baseball bat scene that reportedly took over 120 takes to get just right. If the novel’s Jack reflects King as an alcoholic writer, the film’s version of Jack resembles Kubrick, a frustrated creative genius who is willing to make everyone suffer, especially Wendy and Danny, for the sake of his art.

Doctor Sleep, in both its print and film form, puts Danny’s perspective front and center, revealing how his father, Jack, continues to exert a negative impact upon him into adulthood. Danny remains haunted in the first third of the film, struggling with a drinking habit of his own, and constantly searching for coping mechanisms to help him function and contain his demons. He may have checked out of the Overlook decades ago, but he can never really leave.

That remains true even when he gets clean. In the film, Flanagan stokes the audience’s sympathy as they follow Danny’s journey toward sobriety, witnessing his transformation into the supportive and potent patriarch his father never was. It is only as a sober and stable father figure that Danny’s full, positive power is let loose. He comes to the aid of Abra, a teenage girl with the gift of “shining” like his own, who feels out of touch with her calm, conventional parents. She needs someone who understands the brute evil of addiction in the world and those who feed off of it. Danny, of course, does. And, it is this familiarity with evil that leads him back to fulfill his fate at the Overlook Hotel.

Perhaps, it is this sweet, redemptive relationship between Danny and Abra that makes Doctor Sleep come across as much less chilling than its classic predecessor. Instead of The Shining’s dismal, gravestone palette, for instance, Doctor Sleep’s cinematography is awash in soft colors. It’s difficult to achieve a level of terror when the viewers feel cozy or trust their heroes to ultimately prevail. The character Abra never seems to doubt that she and Danny will overcome their foes. But that’s the difference between a child raised in a safe, stable home and Danny’s traumatic past. Alcoholism, again, serves as the hinge of self-actualization and self-destruction.

Fans of Kubrick’s The Shining will likely revel in allusions to the beloved classic. However, it seems more surprising that Doctor Sleep met the approval of Stephen King, who referred to Doctor Sleep as a “hell of a good movie” on social media. His approval may come down to Flanagan’s faithful following of a character arc, here Danny’s. Danny does change and achieve redemption, unlike Kubrick’s handling of Jack. But, Danny’s struggle with drink also allows him to identify more with his father, even to the point of literally following in his footsteps through the halls of the Overlook. Only his connection to Abra can save him in the end. And this conclusion, more in keeping with the spirit of King’s original idea, was a self-conscious decision for Flanagan, who hoped to heal the breach — the familial rift, even — between King and Kubrick fans once and for all.

As Flanagan explained in the Los Angeles Times, “I had the opportunity to reach past the Kubrick film all the way back to the ending of ‘The Shining’ the novel, the ending that King never got,” he said. “And I thought if I could take [Jack’s] ending and give it to Dan, there was a beautiful symmetry in that.” That positive energy is passed onto Abra in Doctor Sleep. “I really did look at this as a generational story,” said Flanagan. “I looked at Dan and Abra like Hallorann and Danny. That it was a cycle. I thought there was symmetry that kind of required [Dan’s sacrifice] to truly hand off this baton to Abra.” The father figure, in other words, is finally able to break the cycle of addiction that has plagued so many people in its wake.

Kubrick’s elevation of Danny as the true hero of the story also comes full circle. In Doctor Sleep, the story is King’s, but the images all belong to Kubrick, and as a throwback to The Shining, it is a cinematic gift — like falling back into a nightmare that you will never forget, and will always, strangely, love.


Vaneesa Cook is a historian and freelance writer. Her essays have appeared in Aeon, Dissent, Raritan, Sojourners, No Depression, and the Washington Post. Her first book, Spiritual Socialists: Religion and the American Left, was recently published from the University of Pennsylvania Press.

LARB Contributor

Vaneesa Cook is a historian and freelance writer. Her essays have appeared in Aeon, Dissent, Raritan, Sojourners, No Depression, and the Washington Post. Her first book, Spiritual Socialists: Religion and the American Left, was recently published from the University of Pennsylvania Press. She received her PhD in history from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and continues to lecture there.


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