There’s a sequence in the spellbinding Doctor Sleep director’s cut that’s one of the best Stephen King moments the author never wrote. The Shining‘s Danny Torrance (Ewan McGregor) is a sober alcoholic facing his father’s ghost across the bar of the Overlook Hotel’s grand ballroom. The Jack-faced wraith who insists he’s Lloyd the bartender (Henry Thomas, leaning into the Nicholsonness with restraint and intent) seems mutedly hostile toward Dan’s insistence he was ever anyone else. Jack-Lloyd wants Doc to have a knock of Jack Daniel’s medicine; Dan needs his dad to hear why he’d never take it.
Writer/director/editor Mike Flanagan (The Haunting of Hill House, Oculus), who impressed King and audiences with his 2017 Netflix adaptation of Gerald’s Game, said this interaction he invented sold King on a big-screen Doctor Sleep. “That scene was what made him say, ‘Okay, go back to the Overlook.’ That was the scene,” he told director Mick Garris, who was present the last time SK OK’d a return to the hotel, their collaborative Shining miniseries.
Sleep‘s theatrical version’s four-minute tête-à-tête is its biggest surprise—Jack is back, in a building that was razed 45 years ago in King canon, on the other side of a bar that, like everything around them, is burned onto generations’ worth of minds. The original scene is a key stop on Dan’s tour of the Overlook, probably the biggest of the little boxes we get to slash checkmarks through—Room 217, hedge maze, Colorado Lounge, boiler room. Dan spills some of his grief and anger onto his dad, briefly stirs and stares down Jack’s bitter father side, refuses the drink.
The director’s cut stays with the Torrance men nearly twice as long, and the full stretch is the aforementioned King-iest thing that King never Kinged.
“Oh, Dad. This drink will cost an awful lot,” the boy who cried “redrum” says with a gut-wrenching heaviness. “It’ll cost more than money. It’ll cost me eight years, eight behind me and who knows how many in front of me.” (McGregor has been sober going on two decades.)
Dan has rarely spoken at length till now, and his extended recounting of post-Overlook, shine-riddled childhood trauma finally crystallizes how hard-won and essential his sobriety is. People need him, love him—hospice patients he soothes on the bridge to death, fellow AA members and friends, Abra Stone above all. Familiar alcoholic anger bubbles in his dad as he myopically bitches about children and wives who “eat yer days on earth.” Jack sounds like a moron. He wanted to write a precious play, and if his family was able to eat and have a roof over their heads, woohoo. Dan has healed himself one clean day at a time and kindled a life of community and purpose he’ll fight for. His bond with Abra and his care for her are clearer than in the original cut. The nobility and logic of his choices stand sturdier.
Here is Doctor Sleep‘s heart, the real, pumping type that makes a story live on with you. Within it, Flanagan’s warm, human drama—unfolding over three hours newly broken into chapters, rather than a Shining-comparable two-and-a-half—speaks comfortably to Kubrick’s colder masterpiece of terror. King’s novels, published 36 years apart, are conversing in a way they never could before. The Shining came out of a struggling user writing through addiction, Sleep a clean addict reflecting on sobriety. Dual authors, themes, and films are sitting across a bar in a hotel that burned down years ago in King’s canon.
Photo: Warner Bros
The Torrances adjourn to the snappy red restroom in the director’s cut, mirroring Kubrick’s blocking, costuming, and music. “It’s horrible what she’s done to you, pulled you into her mess,” Jack slimily tells Dan of Abra, standing where Grady once nudged him toward axe-murdering. “Why should you pay her tab, Doc? And for what? For this little girl, who started all this trouble?”
Even Jack-Lloyd calling Dan “son” can’t sway him. Of course for this little girl, who’s ending all this trouble by eradicating a heartless pack of Winnebago warriors who’ve inhaled gifted children’s souls for centuries. Fuck your hotel, dad.
Flanagan gave theaters a solid Shining successor and a vibrant adaptation of a special book about maintaining sobriety, the journey that saved and, against all odds, went on to define its author. But the filmmaker’s self-described “more literary” rendition—complete and uncut, in The Stand rerelease’s parlance—is his second near-perfect translation of a King reading experience.
When Uncle Stevie runs long, it’s to add dimension to the characters, meandering details, scenes that serve the storytelling but wouldn’t hurt the plot if they weren’t there. Flanagan does the same with his full cut, mostly extending conversations and adding in key lines that give the whole endeavor more artful shading. An emotional, scary, and satisfying theatrical cut becomes a deeply resonant, respectful, and novelesque director’s version. Three rich hours with an exceedingly real Dan, Abra, and True Knot is enough to return to Sleep‘s depths numerous times, finding new facets to adore possibly as long as we have with The Shawshank Redemption, Stand by Me, or even The Shining.
For years as he started out, Mike Flanagan, 42, kept a copy of 1993’s Gerald’s Game in his bag to cold-pitch producers. “If they knew the book, they would tell me it was unfilmable. If they didn’t know the book, I’d get three sentences in, and they’d say, ‘That’s never gonna happen,’” he once said of King’s story about a woman handcuffed alone to a bed. He realized it had been a dream for half his life by the time Netflix took a chance to turn Gerald’s Game into a movie in 2017. The Carla Gugino/Bruce Greenwood-led experiment stunned, creating one of the best-ever onscreen interpretations of a major King calling card, his reams of italicized internal monologues and psychic dialogues.
Photo: Everett Collection
Flanagan’s sense for keeping, nixing, and creating ingredients when adapting King is virtuosic. The author’s Doctor Sleep establishes infant Abra’s potent shine by having her freak out just before 9/11 happens. Flanagan steers clear, opting in his director’s cut for the scene where Rose is shown a news story about a micro-earthquake mysteriously confined to Abra’s street. The book revealed Jack Torrance fathered a secret child, making Abra Dan’s actual niece; Flanagan just makes her “Uncle Dan” nickname work without the Shining baggage.
“When you grow up reading King, you want to protect the experience you had with his work,” the director wrote in a 70th birthday tribute. “To fail the material is to dishonor that experience, and for a lot of us that isn’t an option.”
Being a Constant Reader’s like being in a long marriage where you know everything you love and hate about the other person. King’s material is threaded with digressive shagginess and imperfections, and Flanagan says filmmakers succeed “when the same people that complain about the idiosyncrasies of King complain about that with your film, and the same people that love the idiosyncrasies of King will love what is done with the movie.”
Years before Gerald’s Game came out, Flanagan said he sees every King movie on opening weekend, then finds himself shaking his fist. “The beauty of it is that the King fans really want to see his work brought to the screen in an effective way and I believe I know how to meet their expectations ’cause I’m one of them,” he offered in 2014. Later: “It’s his voice in your head, and he’s a distinct voice. If you try to force him, his structure, and his characters into a mold that they weren’t intended for, it’s not a good fit.”
Yet he’s been molding his own work into Kingly shapes for a decade. All the way back in 2012 he said that while writing his horror debut Absentia, “my Lovecraft influences (and Stephen King, as well) bubbled up in the first draft.” This month he called 2013’s Oculus a “legally dubious homage” to 1999’s “1408,” telling the nascent, excellent Kingcast, “This story seeded my entire career. And Oculus is actually a very thinly veiled adaptation of ‘1408.’ Like very thinly at times, if not, you know, questionable.” He’s also recalled approaching it as “a portable Overlook Hotel.”
Speaking to Mick Garris about a Jack/Danny moment in the prolific King-adapter’s ’97 Shining miniseries, Flanagan admitted, “I’ve been trying to honor that scene throughout my career. I did the same scene in Oculus.” (He paid homage again in Sleep with Dan and Abra.) His silence-heavy Oculus follow-up Hush drew inspiration from the Nightmares and Dreamscapes: From the Stories of Stephen King episode “Battleground.” He and co-writer/star Kate Siegel finished the script at Colorado’s Stanley Hotel, where The Shining came to King. They wrote in room 217.
Photo: Blumhouse Productions; Netflix
Not that he needed to say it, but Flanagan’s been up front: “I doubt there’s anyone else who has had as singular an influence on me as King. … Through his attention to character, his careful narrative structure, and his emotional authenticity, he shaped my entire understanding of storytelling. I can still see that influence in everything I do.”
He still seems surprised to have found himself in the last few years in a world where he spitballs and enjoys mutual admiration with King, a relationship conceived around Oculus:
King’s speed and consistency are legendary—over 50 novels and dozens of other books in 46 years—and he must recognize a kindred creative powerhouse in Flanagan. Hush, Before I Wake, and Ouija: Origin of Evil premiered in a six-month span in 2016—the longtime TV editor superhumanly directed, co-wrote, and edited them all. He was showrunner and creator for 2018’s The Haunting of Hill House on Netflix, helming every episode, writing half, and turning it into an anthology series with the forthcoming The Haunting of Bly Manor. (King, the highest-profile acolyte of Shirley Jackson’s Hill House, called the new one “close to a work of genius.”) Flanagan created and will direct all seven episodes of Midnight Mass for Netflix, based on his fictional novel shown in Gerald’s Game and Hush. Bolstered by a mainstay stable including cinematographer Michael Fimognari, composers the Newton Brothers, producing partner Trevor Macy, actors like Gugino, Greenwood, Henry Thomas, and his own brother James, plus postproduction workers, Flanagan’s making an unfathomable amount of horror for the streaming giant. Word recently hit that he’ll turn Christopher Pike’s The Midnight Club into a series there, too.
That’s just (some of) the non-King stuff. He’s tackling the man again now with Revival, a gut-punch that arrived a year after Doctor Sleep. His “bleak and mean” draft is SK-approved. “It’s a return to cosmic horror, which I think is so fun…the kind of Lovecraftian, otherworldly, alien horror that ‘1408′ does so well. Boy do they go there in Revival. It is relentlessly dark and cynical, and I’m enjoying the hell out of that,” he told the Kingcast, one of many generously, at times giddily long guest spots he’s made on SK-centric podcasts, including a Stand book club he’s co-hosting.
Their collaborations won’t end with Revival. “There are so many, and I’m not allowed to talk about them yet,” Flanagan said last fall. He “actually had quite a bit worked out” for a Dick Hallorann project intended as his next film until the prospect of a Shining-verse tanked with Sleep‘s $72 million worldwide box office. (It Chapter Two arrived just before and made $473M; its predecessor is the highest-grossing horror ever with over $700M.) Six months later, HBO Max green-lit Overlook from Bad Robot and the makers of Castle Rock, which could be a good for the Abra-focused Sleep sequel Flanagan would “absolutely” make. He specifically asked King, “‘Is there more? Do you have anything else for Abra Stone? Because my God, she’s so great.’ And he left it open. He said, you know, he hadn’t thought about it before, but it was people asking questions like that that made him write Doctor Sleep.”
Support from your idol while adapting their work can be tremendous fuel, as evidenced by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss’s wizardly piloting of Game of Thrones as it hit its stride in the middle years and author George R.R. Martin was at his most involved and vocal. Some of Flanagan’s most beloved SK works are, tantalizingly, more romantic and latter-day, novels of great personal significance for King, like 2006’s Lisey’s Story, 1999’s Hearts in Atlantis, 2012’s Dark Tower revisitation The Wind Through the Keyhole. He’s dreamt of adapting Lisey’s, The Stand, Pet Sematary (all three snapped up by others in the last couple years), and the heartbreaking The Dark Tower IV: Wizard and Glass. He did, after all, smuggle the Towerisms “all things serve the beam” into Gerald’s and “ka is a wheel” into Sleep. There’s gotta be a draft where he had Father Callahan riding that Tet Transportation bus.
Flanagan is tied with Rob Reiner for two superlative King movies and about to tie Frank Darabont’s hat trick (assuming that you like The Mist and that Revival succeeds). There are other enthusiastic, intuitive creators out there bringing similar respect and lifelong histories with Uncle Stevie who will take or already have taken multiple swings—Josh Boone, Andy Muschietti, Gary Dauberman, Castle Rock‘s Sam Shaw and Dustin Thomason, J.J. Abrams. (The full list of white men making adaptations is even longer, which is limiting and disappointing.) The Stephen King renaissance has been in full swing, the closest thing to a genuine SK Cinematic Universe is imminent, and Flanagan is poised to be its lynchpin. Asked about his protection of the contextless flash to the character of Dolores Claiborne mid-eclipse in Gerald’s Game, he demonstrated his understanding of the vastness at hand:
“As a Constant Reader, you get this moment of delight when you make a connection between one of the books and another, and it’s like you’re part of this secret, invisible web that connects all of this incredible universe together—something that maybe not everybody’s aware of. My sense with all of the books was like, ‘Yep, this is a little corner of that King universe and when it’s all taken together, in context, it enhances itself.’ With this, I wanted to take excellent care of my little corner of the King universe, and I really so desperately wanted to kind of fire off little flares into the other areas of that universe that are already connected to this story. There were a couple that I tried to squeeze in just as a geeky fan, but the Dolores one…when it came by in the book, it was like, ‘How do I not do that?’ I didn’t want to knock people who were unfamiliar with the connection completely out of the moment, which is another risk you always run, but those two stories to me are two sides of a coin. I couldn’t adequately tell that story without honoring that connection.”
The idea of the “Stephen King movie” had a concrete, terror-centric definition from the early ’80s to early ’90s (although Stand by Me did happen). Shawshank scrambled that in ’94, then Dolores Claiborne in ’95, The Green Mile in ’99, and the aughts’ smorgasbord of remakes, adaptations of stragglers, and a seventh Children of the Corn. The concept has been without concrete meaning for a long time, and if it’s to grow in a manner parallel to SK’s critical rapport as a writer, Flanagan should carry the banner. You can define the breathtaking width and talent of SK’s written oeuvre with It and The Stand; perhaps Gerald’s Game, Doctor Sleep, and Revival will be all we need to point to for the next decade or two when we talk about what Stephen King movies are and can be.
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