Bringing Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep To The Big Screen

Directed and edited by Mike Flanagan from his own screenplay based upon the novel by Stephen King, Doctor Sleep continues the story of Danny Torrance, 40 years after his terrifying stay at the Overlook Hotel in The Shining.

“I always tell people the difference between Stanley Kubrick’s movie and my book is his movie ended in ice and my book ended in fire,” says Stephen King. “But, by taking Dan Torrance’s story as a grown-up and filtering it through his own, apparently large heart, Mike has been able to take the Kubrick movie a step further, so that it warms things up. Mike’s film does two things. It is a fine adaptation of Doctor Sleep, but it is also a terrific sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s movie ‘The Shining.’ Mike has worked in a universe where some of the things that happened in ‘The Shining’ movie didn’t happen in my book…and has somehow been able to make it work.”

Read Q & A with Mike Flanagan

Stephen King and Mike Flanagan

Still irrevocably scarred by the trauma he endured as a child at the Overlook, Dan Torrance has fought to find some semblance of peace. But that peace is shattered when he encounters Abra, a courageous teenager with her own powerful extrasensory gift, known as the “shine.” Instinctively recognizing that Dan shares her power, Abra has sought him out, desperate for his help against the merciless Rose the Hat and her followers, the True Knot, who feed off the shine of innocents in their quest for immortality.  Forming an unlikely alliance, Dan and Abra engage in a brutal life-or-death battle with Rose. Abra’s innocence and fearless embrace of her shine compel Dan to call upon his own powers as never before—daring to go back and face his fears, while reawakening the ghosts of the past.

Rarely has a tale of family dysfunction entered the modern consciousness as shockingly or as completely as that of the Torrances, the father, mother and son at the center of Stephen King’s third novel, The Shining.

Originally published in 1977, The Shining went on to sell more than a million copies. Inspired by the author’s personal struggles, along with a fateful night King spent in room 217 of the Stanley Hotel in Colorado, the story of Jack, Wendy and Danny Torrance is one of King’s most personal works—terrifying not because of the monsters that live alongside us, but for the real-life demons that dwell within all of us.

Stephen King

Thirty-six years later, King published his follow-up novel, Doctor Sleep, the continuation of the story of Dan Torrance. Although both are studies in horror and suspense, The Shining takes readers on a journey through the darkness of addiction, while Doctor Sleepbrings them back to the light through recovery, self-sacrifice and redemption.       

Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 cinematic adaptation of The Shining is widely regarded as one of the greatest horror films of all time. It is also one of the more infamous cases of the gulf between an author’s words and a filmmaker’s vision, with Kubrick’s film taking creative license with various elements of the story, including the fate of the Overlook Hotel, along with aspects of the character Jack Torrance. However, the reality is that both King’s and Kubrick’s versions of Jack’s ultimate loss of self and sanity to addiction have solidified both men’s places as creative geniuses.

Filmmaker Mike Flanagan has been a self-proclaimed fan(atic) of King’s work since fifth grade, when he picked up his first book by the author.

Flanagan says, “I was way too young, but boy did I start reading them. Those books frightened me like I’ve never been scared before and completely changed the way that I look at the world. That started this experience that I’ve had with so much of King’s writing: as a very scared kid, reading his work taught me how to be brave in short bursts. It became an exercise in character. I became a constant reader and struggled my way, somehow, into a career where people pay me to make movies, which is still crazy to me.”

The filmmaker also remembers, years later, being at the bookstore to get his copy of Doctor Sleep the first day that the novel was available: “To pick up the story specifically from King’s point-of-view and jettison what Kubrick had changed in the movie about the Torrance family history…it was a fascinating tug-of-war as a reader. What Kubrick did with the material has become so iconic—so burrowed into pop culture and my mind as a cinephile—and to read this story that actively ignored that and took you in a whole other direction was exciting.

Doctor Sleep brought back a lot of the themes from the novel of The Shining that didn’t make it into the film,” Flanagan continues, “specifically the focus on addiction to the degree that King took it, along with the notes of redemption. My initial impression was, ‘I love this story.’ I loved the three characters, Dan, Abra and Rose the Hat. I loved the contradictions between The Shining and Doctor Sleep: addiction and recovery; encroaching ice and fire. He took so many wonderful elements from the first book and let them grow into something entirely new.

“There’s a part of me that insists that King’s work be adapted in a faithful way,” Flanagan emphasizes, “and a part that idolizes the Kubrick film. Those two sides of me were at war when I began this project. But trying to satisfy both of them, I figured if I could do it for myself, then I could hopefully do it for audiences.”

Reconciling such disparate sources was about “learning how to walk the tightrope between Kubrick and King. To honor both, and create a stand-alone film, was the priority from the start,” he adds.

Flanagan knew that there was one vital step imperative to the livelihood of the project, the go-ahead that mattered most: Stephen King. The horror master was initially skeptical. But once the filmmaker was able to fully present his audacious take on the project, blending the published word with the cinematic legacy—in essence, giving King the resolution he felt was missing from Kubrick’s vision—the author enthusiastically signed on.

Assembling the Team

Producer Trevor Macy’s unique creative partnership with writer-director Mike Flanagan, through their Intrepid Pictures banner, has generated a string of increasingly high-profile critical and commercial successes over the past decade, including the series The Haunting of Hill House.

Macy admits he initially required a bit of convincing when it came to Doctor Sleep.

“My first instinct was, ‘Should we do a follow-up to “The Shining”?’ My second was immediately, ‘Well, Stephen King went there,’ so that meant there was a road map. But the trick in doing it was, there’s a literary universe in which The Shining ended in a certain way. Then, there’s a cinematic universe in which it ended in a different way. Mike has a deep reverence for both, and so do I. Our job was to marry the two in a way that is satisfying to lovers of King and lovers of Kubrick…and still, a lot of fun.”

Producer Jon Berg’s first meeting with Flanagan did not go as either expected.

Flanagan was called in for a possible collaboration on another property, when the discussion turned to King. “We started talking about our mutual admiration of Stephen King and it quickly turned to Doctor Sleep. I asked him what he thought about the book and how he would go about reconciling King’s book, Kubrick’s film and King’s sequel. Turns out, he had been giving it a huge amount of thought and had an incredible point-of-view. Mike is such a talented writer/director, an extraordinary filmmaker. He’s reverential of both King and Kubrick, and his take was a unique narrative that threaded the middle.”

It is the complexity of life that defies categorization that drew the young Mike Flanagan to the works of Stephen King. Flanagan affirms, “King has always been wonderful at telling stories about people who are different and people who feel alone because they’re different. Ultimately, they just want to be understood and seen. It’s that particular side of ourselves that is defining—whether we hide it or present it—and putting it out in the world is scary. That’s a horror we all learn very young, and King taps into that in a profound way.”

Stephen King elaborates, “If you like to draw, you don’t have to hide them, you can actually show those pictures. If you like to write, you can show your work to others. You can be brave about it. The worst that can happen is somebody says, ‘I don’t like it,’ and that is not exactly the worst thing in the world…it is not like a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.”

Mike Flanagan closes, “I hope that theme carries through in this film, because there is a key moment where Dan gives a piece of advice to Abra…similar advice that he got from Dick Hallorann. Dan says, ‘When I first met you, I told you, you should hide, keep your head down. Keep your shine out of sight. I was wrong about that.’ In essence, as scary as the world is, as unfair as it can be, as horrific as it can be, you need to shine on. Let it out, because there are others just like you, and that’s what we need to make the world less terrifying, to balance things. I think that encapsulates the entire purpose of King’s story. ‘Shine on.’”

The monumental nature of the sources—the “legendary” factor—of Flanagan’s “Doctor Sleep” was a large factor for the lead performers. The dual namedrops were a common motivation for each to overcome their initial reluctance to signing on to a horror/suspense film.

Ewan McGregor (Dan Torrance) relates, “‘The Shining’ was talked about as being the scariest film in the world. As a result, I didn’t watch it until I was in my late teens…and I only saw it once, because it scared the s**t out of me. I’m not really into scary films—I don’t like putting myself through that. But I liked the novel Doctor Sleep very much, which I read after the script. Then, I went back and read The Shining, which I enjoyed as well. Perhaps even more than the source material, it was Danny’s story that really interested me. It is just amazing for an actor have all of this backstory.” 

Rebecca Ferguson (Rose the Hat) remarks, “When I was offered this role…well, I have never really liked scary. I can’t tolerate things that scare me. I hate clowns. I hate evil children in scary movies. Those two little girls, just standing there, saying their little sentence in unison, in that horrific environment…it’s just eerie. I am also always interested in throwing myself into genres that I question. But really, it’s bloody Stephen King and this fantastic character, all in Mike’s hands. This film has been one of the most incredible productions I’ve been a part of. We fight through physical and non-physical worlds, and one of the most interesting aspects of ‘Doctor Sleep’ is when they merge. It was fantastic to be involved.” 

Newcomer Kyliegh Curran (Abra Stone), admits, “I knew of Stephen King; I mean, I’d heard of him. Before we started filming, I got a free pass to see a horror movie from my mother, so I watched ‘The Shining.’ It was scary and suspenseful. Having that reference was good for helping with my character and getting a grip on the trauma that Danny went made me really feel for him.”            

And that is exactly the way Stephen King wants it: “I am always glad when I get an emotional reaction. That is one of the things that I care about: I want you to care. I want to move you emotionally. Horror is only one string on the guitar, if you will. There are a lot of other things as well. I want readers to see people whom they can relate to as human beings. People who are friends, people who are caregivers, people who are protectors. And that is, to a large extent, what makes the scary parts scarier.”

The Characters

Without question, Danny Torrance is a character both moviegoers and readers have cared about. He is subjected to unspeakable trauma as a child, nearly all of it at the hands of his father, Jack. To shut down his pain, he follows in the same toxic and alcoholic tendencies as Jack Torrance, nearly destroying himself just to get the memories and his shine to stop. After hitting rock bottom with a resounding thud, he runs as far as he can with the money remaining in his pocket. Then, in Frazier, New Hampshire, his real journey begins.

Dan’s story is a resonant one for King. He admits, “When I wrote Doctor Sleep, I had been sober for a long time. I wanted to write Dan’s story from that perspective because…well, I won’t say that I was two different people, because that would be overstating the case. But I was considerably different and in a different place than the guy who wrote The Shining. That was one of the impelling forces behind writing the book—I felt like I had a more global view of this particular character. But the other thing I didn’t want to do was turn it into a tract, a moral statement about drinking or not drinking. My aim was to present this character and the reader, or the viewer, can make their own decisions based on what happened.”

For such a warm, albeit flawed, anchoring character as Dan Torrance, King countered him with, as Flanagan puts it, “one of the best Stephen King antagonists in many, many years, Rose the Hat. Unlike Dan, she’s very difficult to relate to practically. There’s nothing about her experience—having been alive for so long and doing the horrible things that she does—you can grab onto. She is larger-than-life in every way.”

Rose leads the quasi-immortal cult known as the True Knot, who have powered their elongated lives by victimizing children with the shine—“steam” as it emerges from their bodies—which is devoured by Rose and her followers. The former humans continue to move through existence, unnoticed, imitating humans, predators mimicking prey. However, the modern world—with its diversions, complications and shortcuts to adulthood—has dulled children’s shine, leaving the True Knot with fewer substantial sources of sustenance. For the first time in eons, they are hungry and their future is in question.

Children are the fulcrum on which the story of “Doctor Sleep” turns…children with gifts, children at risk, children trying to find their way. A young teenager named Abra could be described as fitting into all three categories at once. Flanagan asserts, “One of the coolest things about this, from a writer’s point-of-view, is that this isn’t one story; it’s three distinct stories that converge together into a fine point. Abra has no idea that there’s anything unusual about these magic powers, as she describes her shine. The two characters share one of the larger themes—that they feel a need to hide this huge part of themselves out of love for their families.”

For a child with shine—having no knowledge of what it is or how to best utilize it—a mentor is the only way for them to learn how to move in the tangible world while possessing powers that touch upon the next. In The Shining Danny had Dick Hallorann to help him understand his gift, and Abra is lucky to connect with Dan. One of King’s characters is not so lucky.

Flanagan relates, “There is another example of mentor and gifted child in King’s book, and that’s Andi, whom Rose comes across in a movie theater. Most children with shine become victims of the True Knot, but occasionally, their powers are strong enough or specific enough that they are inducted into the Knot. Andi has been damaged by a predator, so she herself has been taking revenge on predators. Rose says to her, ‘I see you, I understand you. I can teach you what you can do with this.’ That’s a powerful thing to say to someone who believes they are alone. Once Andi joins the ranks, it gives the audience a wonderful way to learn about our monsters first hand from a character that we empathize with.”