“Doctor Sleep” – from great book to good(ish) film

“…and THEY’RE STARVING.”

Story: Danny Torrence survived a hell of a lot when he was a kid. And yet here Dan is all grown up, falling into the same patterns his father did. But as he finally starts to pull himself together, a young girl named Abra asks for his help. Telepathically. Time to revisit old wounds.

Genre I’d put it in: Decent Sequels That Bite Off A Bit More Than They Can Chew

Remake, Sequel, Based-On, or Original: Based on the Stephen King novel of the same name, which is the follow-up to his The Shining. This film is a mash-up of the mythos of King’s Shining and Kubrick’s cinematic adaptation. Got that?

Gotta say: Let me get this out before I really start going; I don’t feel underwhelmed after watching this film simply because its story is a pale shadow to King’s novel. I feel underwhelmed because the film itself is just so disappointingly ordinary. King’s Sleep is a puzzle box filled with twists, turns and reveals; this Sleep is paint-by-numbers that will entertain, but withholds the gut-punches that are required to keep up with Kubrick’s classic.

Now, I couldn’t stand Kubrick’s film when I first saw it. To my tweenaged brain, it felt too separated from the novel I adored. Too many changes just to change things up. Yet over the years I’ve come to enjoy the film on its own merits, and will even (oftentimes begrudgingly) call it a cinematic masterpiece of horror. Maybe I’ll feel the same about Sleep in a few years? Nah, probably not.

I’ve tried to figure out why. Yes, I read the novel and absolutely loved it. And its plot is still fresh in the ol’ noggin. I’d put off reading it for years, figuring that it’d only crap all over the 1977 novel I adored. But it’s great, and worth a read – or audiobook listen – if you’ve got the time. (Make time.) That writer/director Mike Flanagan would take liberties, by switching things around in order to tighten up the plot for a film adaptation was to be expected. Heck, he did that for Gerald’s Game, and that movie is incredible.

Yet this Sleep left me wanting more. It’s not purified steam, if you will. While there’s plenty of chills, and a fascinating mythology, the way the story is shuffled and cherry-picked gives us a film that feels like so many other “we’ve gotta go back” stories that I’ve seen lately. Remarkable performances – including a brilliant turn by Ewan McGregor channeling his Trainspotting days as a down-on-his-luck Dan – are definitely here. Whipsmart editing that shifts perspectives gracefully helps keep the audience focused on who’s doing what and when, critical for a film that centers around psychic folks. And the way Sleep recreates shots from Kubrick’s film will make horrorhounds and cin-e-mah aficionados find their happy place. (And hey, keep your eyes peeled for a Frankenstein movie homage early on; it’s fantastic.)

But there’s the flip side. Flanagan tries to focus the story on Rose the Hat’s search for Abra, turning it into an overt Moby Dick analogy, but it’s way too heavy handed. I felt as bludgeoned as the whale by all the “LOOKY THIS” moments shoehorned into the narrative. That this film pares down the cast of characters to an anorexic degree also lessens the impact of The True Knot’s menace, as well as the believably potent way various good guys band together despite distrust and uncertainty. And yeah, as with Kubrick’s adaptation, Flanagan can’t resist offing a few characters that don’t get offed in the book, which feels like he’s trying to amp the tension cheaply, instead of the way King puts that toad in the pot and slooooooowly turns up the heat. Feels like a cop-out.

Don’t get me started on the re-creations of the characters in Kubrick’s film. I felt ripped out of the story every time I saw “Wendy”, “Young Danny” and “Jack Nicholson Jack”. You can’t match the original players y’all. Don’t try. All apologies to the lovely Carl Lumbly, who’s terrific here as Dick Hallorann…but there will never be another Scatman Crothers. Ever. *wipes tear*

Do I think folks who are looking forward to this film should go see it? Sure. Big-time fans of the film will find plenty to like, even though the blend of The Shining‘s book and film adaptations feels a bit too much like movie-lovers fan service. (No spoiler as the trailer show The Overlook, but in the novels that hotel burns down and stays burned down…yet the way Dan has to face his demons in that version is outstanding.)

Settle in and expect an average horror with the usual gaps in mythology, and you won’t be disappointed. Focus on the magnificent performances – Cliff Curtis’ low key turn as Dan’s BFF Billy, Rebecca Ferguson as the chilling Rose, and Kyleigh Curran as wise-beyond-her-years Abra.

If you’ve read the book though? Don’t sweat the small stuff like how you’d really would have liked to have seen [INSERT SPOILERS HERE]. Or maybe just hold off ’til Netflix and re-read the book while you wait.

Grade: B-

#Protip: Okay, one small spoiler – take a good look at Doctor Dalton’s medical office. Seem familiar? It’s decorated similarly to Stuart Ullman’s office in The Shining.

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