Mike Flanagan On Bridging The ‘Doctor Sleep’ Divide Between Stanley Kubrick And Stephen King

So, picture this: Here’s the good news, you’ve been tapped to direct Doctor Sleep, a sequel to one of the most beloved movies and books of all time. See, that’s great news and sounds pretty exciting. But, you see, there’s a catch: The author of The Shining, Stephen King, is famously not a fan of Stanley Kubrick’s cinematic adaptation of The Shining. But Kubrick’s film is, overwhelmingly, considered a classic. So, yes, this is the predicament Mike Flanagan found himself in: How does he thread that needle to make fans of Kubrick’s version happy and also make King happy, because if King isn’t happy, then this movie isn’t getting made. Ahead, Flanagan takes us through some of that negotiation.

In Doctor Sleep, Ewan McGregor plays Danny Torrance, who was a child during the events of The Shining, as he watched his father, Jack Torrance (played, iconically, by Jack Nicholson) slowly go mad at a Colorado mountain resort called the Overlook Hotel. Danny has his own demons now, as he struggles with addiction, and tries to reconcile the shared power he has with a young woman named Abra (Kyliegh Curran), whose shining powers put her life in danger.

Now, King’s original book was filled with ghosts and magical powers called shining. These elements are in Kubrick’s film, but downplayed, to the point that there’s debate if the hotel is haunted or if Jack is going crazy, or if it’s a combination of both. Kubrick’s interpretation of the book is far more vague, something King doesn’t like. So, now, in Doctor Sleep, Danny (and a few others) have their powers front and center, but at the same time we return to a recreation of the Overlook Hotel that we saw in the film, going as far to even recreate some scenes from Kubrick’s film. So, yes, Flanagan is walking a tightrope, but he seems pretty happy to be out there.

So, Stephen King famously doesn’t love the Kubrick version of The Shining, but it’s beloved by most human beings. But the guy in charge isn’t the biggest fan. How on Earth do you bridge that?

Well, it was one of the conversations that I was the most afraid to have in my life. As someone who’s loved the Kubrick film since I was a kid, and studied it, and been influenced by it, and defined by it in so many ways – and someone who’s also been a Stephen King fanatic also since I was a child, this guy’s my hero. I always had an ache in my heart when I would think about the gulf that existed between Kubrick’s adaptation and King’s book.

I think a lot of people feel that way, but the rest of us didn’t have to do what you did.

Well, I didn’t have to do it either, was the thing.

Okay, that’s fair.

I wanted to. Yeah, I had this weird thing when I read Doctor Sleep. I’m reading this perfectly quintessential Stephen King story, and I’m loving it as a King fan. But all of the images in my head, all of them were Kubrick’s. That’s the language that I know when I talk about the Overlook Hotel, or the Torrance family. That is the visual language that exists in my imagination. And so, I didn’t really see another way. I didn’t really have a choice as I saw it. My whole job is to try to take a movie out of my head and put it on a screen. And the movie in my head looked like Kubrick’s Shining. So, the pitch I had to make to King was: I’m not alone in this at all. And the visual language that people have in their imaginations? The Overlook Hotel has existed in the imagination of people all over the world for decades, and the Overlook that exists in their imagination is Kubrick’s.

At any point was King like, “That’s great, but maybe check out that Steven Weber version and see if that plays at all?”

No. That’s the thing. I’ve seen the Mick Garris miniseries many times. As a King fan, I grabbed onto that as a wonderfully faithful telling of The Shining. But it does not have the resonance and the ubiquitous impact that Kubrick’s film had. It just doesn’t. So, what I had said to him was, I really think this is the only way through. I think we have to embrace the cinematic legacy of Kubrick and celebrate it for the people to whom it means so much, including me. And the trade-off to that is, I said, “Well, this is how I want to do it, and I want to do it in a way that celebrates you both. I know you hate that he changed the ending to The Shining. I’m going to change the ending to Doctor Sleep if you let me. The thing that I’ll offer you is that I’ll change it in a way that actually reaches back past Doctor Sleep and past Kubrick’s film and all the way back into the novel, The Shining. And what if I could pull up some of those things that Kubrick jettisoned so that we can celebrate Kubrick, while also dipping into the ending, especially in Jack Torrance’s arc, that you never got from Kubrick? What if we could give it to Dan?”

And that intrigued him. And then I said, this isn’t a sequel to The Shining in that respect. It’s a descendant. It’s a child that has the DNA of both of its parents and those parents are Kubrick and King. And that is informed by them, but still has to learn how to find its own way. And that to me felt like the right way to go.

So how to be prepared for this movie? I know in a perfect world its read The Shining, watch Kubrick’s version, then read Doctor Sleep, but that’s not too realistic. I only mention this because the marketing plays off Kubrick’s film, but if that’s all you know, you might be surprised that these characters have very strong powers now.

And I tried to rationalize that, too. With that we only saw Danny in The Shining at an age where his powers were just starting to poke their head out. That there was a kind of natural growing up that The Shining would do as well. I think you’re right, the perfect version is people familiar with all three sources could really approach it that way, but I also needed the film to be accessible to people who had never seen any of them, or never read anything. And I knew one of the things I’d say was like, yes, I think we’re juggling this really difficult job between these three, but let’s also bear in mind there are people who are going to see this film and accuse us of ripping off Ready Player One, and that’s going to be the only basis of comparison that they have for this universe.

Wow, I mean, I guess you’re right. Someone might be like, “Hey I saw this in Ready Player One.” I didn’t even think about that being someone’s only other entryway.

Yeah, and if that’s the only time they ever saw that, you know? Those viewers exist, I know it. And so, it was important as well to remember that, more than anything, we’re telling a story that’s never been told by Kubrick or by King before. There’s no legacy to worry about with that. I thought, for me and for a lot of other viewers, if I could hold onto to Abra, I could really focus on her relationship with Dan. And when it came to Dan, I could focus on post-traumatic stress, on recovery, on sobriety, and on responsibility. If I could hold all that in the center of my vision for it, then yes, all of these other conversations about Kubrick and The Shining – of course, they’re critically important – but I could maybe sleep at night and breathe a little bit. If I could remember that more than anything we’re telling a story that Kubrick never tried to tell and that didn’t exist in King’s imagination back then. And that was really important to bear in mind I thought.

I assume a lot of the Ready Player One sets were digital? It’s the same studio so did you use anything from that? Like if they had built the bar, maybe that was just lying around?

No, I wanted to rebuild everything from scratch. I had thought that most of Ready Player One was digital, but I didn’t know, and I wasn’t involved, or didn’t know anyone even who was involved in the film. So, for me, I went to see it. I bought a ticket like everybody else, just curious to see what they did. And what I came away feeling was this: I smiled. My whole mood in the theater changed when I saw those faces on the big screen again. And so, for me, I said, look, however they did it, that’s really cool. But for us, I’m going to go back to Kubrick’s blueprints, which we had access to, and I’m going to just build everything. I’m going to build everything from the ground up. I don’t want to use someone else’s version of Kubrick’s version of The Shining. There was enough to juggle. I wanted to build it. I wanted to walk through it. I wanted to touch it. And that was the coolest, kind of, the reward for all the stress of this project. The reward was me and the cast and the crew at a certain point in the process got to walk into the Colorado Lounge, and we grinned like kids. Yeah.

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