Monday, March 9, 2020

Doctor Sleep; or, Mike Flanagan, How Could You?

Includes spoilers for The Shining and Doctor Sleep (the novels and the movies)

I first saw Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining in the fall of 1994, my Freshman year of college. My knowledge of Kubrick would have been very limited at this point. I’d watched A Clockwork Orange in high school (in large part because I’d heard the angst-ridden trombone player I pined for mention it), but I probably could not have told you the director’s name. So I don’t know if I even thought of The Shining as “A Stanley Kubrick Film,” but I did know it was based on a Stephen King novel, and I was a little more familiar with him. I’d read a small selection of King’s work - mostly short stories off my sister’s bookshelf when I babysat for her. I remember reading “The Boogeyman” after putting my nephew to bed one night and being properly unsettled. And I’d read The Eyes of the Dragon, the fantasy novel King wrote for his daughter, Naomi, because she wasn’t into the horror stuff. Mostly, though, I’d watched miniseries adaptations of King’s work. There were so many of them in the late eighties and early nineties, and I feel like I saw them all. I tended to give actual cinematic adaptations of King a wider berth, though, as they were legitimate, grown up R-rated horror, and I never thought I could handle them. The two part made for TV version of IT was about as gnarly as I was willing to get, but I thought that was pretty rad. I would come into Economics class, raving in earnest about part five of The Stand  or whatever I’d seen the night before, and the dude who sat behind me would sort of roll his eyes and repeat for the hundredth time (but not unkindly) “You should just read his books. They’re so much better.”

The Shining was my first big girl King adaptation, and probably the first truly grown up horror film I watched from start to finish. It flipped my lid, to be sure. I loved it, but it did a number on me. Partly because I was a highly sensitive lass, prone to overblown reactions and outbursts of emotion, but also because the dorm I lived in that year was conjoined with a second building which was not in use at the time. There was no way to block off access, though, so you’d just walk down to the end of the hall, turn the corner, and find yourself in this completely vacant ghost-dorm space. At night the overhead lights shut off in both buildings, so the only illumination was the red glow from the exit signs. Also the attic was said to be haunted by Sally, the melancholy spirit of a student who died in a car crash in the seventies. So you tell me how I wasn’t supposed to anticipate those pale, pinafore-clad Grady girls waiting for me in all their leering, watery, Diane Arbus glory at the far end of every late night, crimson-hued corridor.

Kubrick’s movie scared me, but it didn’t traumatize me. I wasn’t fearful for my life so much as I was in awe of the film’s ability to burrow into my subconscious and create a forever home for itself. There are moments in The Shining, images and sounds and moods, that are deeply and indelibly branded onto my psyche, so much so that I still consider it one of the most genuinely frightening movies I’ve ever seen. But it’s also one of the movies that helped me to understand that I enjoyed being scared, that some part of me craved - needed - that sensation, and the release of pent up emotion and nervous energy that it afforded me.

As much as I adored Kubrick’s adaptation I had no desire, as I often do with movies I love, to familiarize myself with the source material. But in February of 2018, in the throes of a serious love affair with Stephen King’s writing, my husband gifted me a copy of The Shining for Valentine’s Day, and I tore through it at breakneck speed with the same rapt enthusiasm I had applied to a recent reading of IT. Though they share the same bones The Shining the novel and The Shining the film are different beasts for sure. The most obvious distinction, like everyone had told me before I read it, is in the characterizations. King’s Wendy is a bit more robust than in Kubrick’s version, and the Jack of the novel does a better job of hiding his darker impulses, and maybe fights back a little harder against the Overlook Hotel’s malevolent influence. For me, though, the biggest revelation when I read The Shining was the book’s version of Danny. Preternaturally intelligent, intuitive and empathetic, I found him to be so full of life he practically bounded off the page. And the first time I revisited Kubrick’s film after finishing the book I’ll admit I looked at the movie I’d always loved with a more critical eye. But I could not deny the film’s power, and its ability to rattle and enthrall me at some sort of cellular level that had nothing whatsoever to do with the characters’ depictions. Kubrick’s Shining is a sort of primal examination of the nature of fear, whereas King’s story is about one particular family’s descent into their own private hell. For me Kubrick’s take is universal, while King’s is specific and much more personal.

Reading The Shining didn’t scare me like watching the movie did, though I was constantly scared for the characters. Though it is a terrible story of addiction, insanity and abuse I do think there’s a hopefulness to King’s story that is much more difficult to discern in Kubrick’s version. There is warmth there, and humanity, and - a word I regularly associate with King’s protagonists - a core of decency in the midst of all that wrongness and rot and evil. I can honestly say I love both the novel and the film. While they approach the story from different places I think they both have something worthwhile to offer, so I don’t need them to be the same. In fact I am so glad they are not the same. They are both really special to me.

My affection for the novel Doctor Sleep is entirely wrapped up in my affection for the character Dan Torrance. The story itself is fine but not quite as captivating - or relentlessly harrowing - as the yarn King spins in The Shining. And before I read it I was not entirely convinced I needed another chapter in the Torrance family saga, but - at the same time - when presented with an invitation to join Danny Torrance on a new adventure there was no way I wasn’t gonna wanna tag along. For me Doctor Sleep works because King does right by this character that I love, a character who started off as a brave, bright, gifted little boy who loved his daddy, but couldn’t save him. A boy who endured unimaginable horrors and somehow survived but was still, as an adult, trying to hide from his haunted past. In Doctor Sleep King forces Dan to stop hiding, to confront those childhood demons and finally put them to rest so that he can go on - not only surviving, but thriving. I don’t need every story I read to have a happy ending - in fact most of my favorites end in tears - but I needed Dan Torrance to be alright. Because his story is about survival, about breaking free from the traumas, both present and past, that tether him, and moving forward and living in the light. I know that sounds maudlin but King, and Dan, earn that ending in Doctor Sleep. So much so that the idea that Dan would meet any other fate was impossible for me to fathom. Clearly, Mike Flanagan felt differently.

While I don’t think he’s a bad filmmaker at all, Mike Flanagan’s visual style leaves me cold. To me his movies look too flat, too smoothed out, as if they’ve been airbrushed. There’s an artificial, inaccessible quality that I find distracting in his work, but it’s not a dealbreaker because, unlike his aesthetics, Flanagan’s characters, and his empathy for them, always draw me into his stories. And since the characters were my favorite thing about the novel Doctor Sleep I initially thought this made Flanagan an ideal match for this adaptation. And for the first hour or so the movie sticks dutifully close to the spirit if its source material. Which is to say it’s a fairly engaging tale, with some very compelling players.

We catch up with an adult Dan Torrance, using all manner of drink and drugs to suppress his ability to shine and tamp down the memory of his troubled past. We see him hit rock bottom and finally begin to rebuild his life with the help of a new friend, Jimmy, and a new support system. The emotional beats in this first half of the story ring true, and these scenes are infused with warmth, and what feels like genuine concern and affection for Dan and the other characters. This early part of Doctor Sleep is such a compassionate movie, so it makes what happens at the end feel like an even bigger betrayal.

It’s not just that Mike Flanagan kills a character I love. What infuriates me about his ending for Doctor Sleep is that Dan’s death is completely unnecessary and makes no fucking sense. Maybe that’s because Flanagan didn’t create a new ending for his adaptation at all: He took the original ending of the novel The Shining and grafted it onto his version of its sequel. The result is not a seamless blend of Kubrick and King’s visions with a different, but equally satisfying, conclusion to The Shining saga. It’s a Frankenfilm clusterfuck. A cobbled together mess of images and ideas that were better implemented by their original creators. Worst of all it forces Dan Torrance into the role of martyr - dying for the sins of his father - when I thought the point of King’s novel was to show us that it absolutely did not have to be that way.

Why Flanagan thought this conclusion was appropriate is beyond me. If he’d changed the ending entirely, and brought something else altogether to the table - like he did so brilliantly with his spin on The Haunting of Hill House - this movie could have worked. But what he chose to do defies common sense and just looks lazy, confused, and uninspired. Such a disappointment.

Dan Torrance deserves better.