Mike Flanagan’s ‘Doctor Sleep’ finds the right leading man for its emotionally charged story.
Ewan McGregor doesn’t normally do horror. Upon perusal of his filmography, he has made a grand total of one categorically scary movie, Nightwatch, plus an episode of Tales from the Crypt, both of which were released more than 20 years ago. In general, McGregor’s oeuvre lacks all-out scares, with his most chilling movies taking the form of crime or psychological thrillers. Nothing in his repertoire comes close to his new role in Mike Flanagan‘s adaptation of Stephen King‘s “Doctor Sleep.”
According to Variety, McGregor will be filling the iconic shoes of Danny Torrance in the sequel to King’s 1977 novel, “The Shining.” The character first appeared on screen, played by Danny Lloyd, in Stanley Kubrick’s classic 1980 horror adaptation of the same name. Later he was portrayed by Courtland Mead in a 1997 miniseries version that King himself oversaw.
For the uninitiated, “The Shining” depicts the Torrance family’s time at the ominous, isolated Overlook Hotel. Patriarch Jack Torrance is a recovering alcoholic and aspiring author who wants to reconnect with his wife Wendy and five-year-old son Danny, and finish a play. Hoping that seclusion will inspire him on both counts, Jack accepts the winter caretaker position at the Overlook and takes his family there. However, he is soon overwhelmed by the supernatural forces haunting the resort. These forces covet Danny, who is bestowed with precognitive powers and the ability to see spirits; to “shine.” In an effort to possess the boy, the malevolent spirits of the hotel tap into Jack’s weaknesses, resulting in dire consequences for the Torrances.
“Doctor Sleep” picks up years after the events of “The Shining.” As an adult, Danny is unfortunately uncannily like his father, with the same issues of anger and alcohol dependency. His addiction helps to suppress his cognitive powers, but they return after he decides to get sober. Danny then uses his abilities to help the dying in a hospice, earning the moniker “Doctor Sleep.” When he inadvertently forms a connection with a young girl named Abra who is just like him, he further unlocks the dark and complex mythology of his gift. A cult-like group with their own “shining” abilities is hunting Abra down for her powerful psychic essence, and Danny must save her.
According to King back in 2013, Danny has always been the one character in his entire bibliography who warranted a sequel. “Doctor Sleep” gives Danny “a chance to start over” and answers the question of his fate that many King fans have bombarded the author with for a long time. There is no doubt that the character deserves a chance at redemption, even when we take into account the stark character differences between Kubrick’s film and King’s original novel that influence their respective stories. Whether Jack is a tragic hero or a gravely unsympathetic villain, his identifiable traits of alcoholism and anger remain the same. Danny is caught up in the throes of his father’s violence in all versions. However, the younger Torrance’s choice to restrict his darker impulses marks his potential for absolution.
How the movie Doctor Sleep will go about delivering on Danny’s vindictive arc depends on whether these discrepancies between the novel and film will be resolved, or if this sequel will just exist in its own continuum. I’m of the opinion that it should, given that The Shining is such a salient part of film history. The film’s stylistic achievements should very well be lauded, but it is far too discordant with King’s own vision to suit a character who is clearly based on his novelistic counterpart. In the author’s note following “Doctor Sleep,” King wrote, “If you have seen the movie but not read the novel, you should note that Doctor Sleep follows the latter, which is, in my opinion, the True History of the Torrance Family.”
Of its many changes, Kubrick’s The Shining frustratingly removed Jack Torrance’s own redemption arc entirely, despite it being crucial to the plot’s commentary on choice and compulsion (and King’s own personal life as an alcoholic at the time of writing the book). Kubrick’s film isn’t about a family unit weathering the adversity of struggle and addiction; it focuses on one man’s unabashed descent into his own gory impulses. King’s “The Shining,” on the other hand, provides a sliver of hope for Danny’s future and healing by saving Jack’s soul at the end. This detail presents an important emotional hinge on which to anchor a sequel in the first place. Upholding those poignant elements should be paramount for Doctor Sleep to succeed.
As for McGregor, he’s a solid choice to play Danny. He is such a likeable actor, and has played heroic roles in his most memorable projects, from Big Fish to Moulin Rouge! to even Star Wars. Yet, we can’t forget the films that showcase McGregor’s ability to tug at heartstrings without the guise of complete amiability. Think both Trainspotting movies that expertly tinge McGregor’s charm with comparably darker themes of addiction and self-destruction. It would be fantastic to see him transpose those talents into such a quintessential character in horror.
Furthermore, Flanagan’s involvement in Doctor Sleep is also a big plus, because the director is consistently masterful at delivering quality scares. Despite the commonplace nature of supernatural themes in his movies, Flanagan is an expert at keeping his characters’ fears rooted in reality. He employs family ties and dynamics to supplement and intensify his horror films, and his protagonists work because we’re encouraged to care about them as people first.
Flanagan has a knack for drawing out memorable performances from all his lead actors, too. Karen Gillan, fresh off of Doctor Who and with no Guardians of the Galaxy credit at the time, soars with practically blind conviction as a young woman determined to reclaim her maligned brother’s narrative in Oculus. Lulu Wilson is extraordinarily creepy in Ouija: Origin of Evil, but also filled with a genuine innocence that makes her possession and transformation all the more frightening. Carla Gugino is painfully desperate but undeniably powerful as a one-woman show in Gerald’s Game. These actors have the talent on their own, but Flanagan extracts utter rawness in these performances that prove to be the highlights of their respective films.
We’ve got the makings of a winning team with Doctor Sleep so far. It doesn’t hurt that Flanagan has created both a highly-competent, emotionally-resonant prequel (Origin of Evil) and already tackled Stephen King (Gerald’s Game) in the last couple of years either. Tapping into his wealth of horror experience for Doctor Sleep would likely make for a remarkably moving film, and McGregor will clearly be in good hands for his first substantial horror outing since Nightwatch.