When Stephen King saw Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of his 1977 novel The Shining, he famously hated it. Calling the film "a big beautiful Cadillac with no engine inside it", he wasn't afraid to proffer his opinion of a work he felt drastically changed his lead characters, Jack and Wendy Torrance, the couple who head to the snowbound Overlook Hotel as its winter-season caretakers.
Dubbing Wendy (Shelley Duvall) "one of the most misogynistic characters ever put on film", who served only "to scream and be stupid", King was also irked by the way Kubrick changed the ending. In the book, the Overlook burns down, but in the film it remains standing as Jack Nicholson's Jack Torrance gradually loses his sanity and turns on Wendy and their young son, Danny.
So spare a thought for writer-director Mike Flanagan (Oculus), who set out to adapt King's belated sequel Doctor Sleep. Published in 2013, it reacquaints us with Dan Torrance, years after he was scarred by events at the Overlook as a child. "We had to have robust conversations throughout about what it meant to have to step into a universe that both King and Kubrick had created," Flanagan says. "Reconciling those two things is a scary proposition."
Indeed, however much a director might want King to be onside, the Kubrick film cannot be ignored, and wisely Flanagan embraced it. "We always approached it that this is an adaptation of the novel Doctor Sleep that takes place within the cinematic universe that Kubrick established," says Flanagan, who not only had to convince King to give him the rights but also met those who manage Kubrick's estate since his death in 1999. Satisfying both parties "seemed like an impossible needle to thread". In particular, Flanagan knew that pitching to King a movie where his sequel is melded into Kubrick's cinematic world was a task fraught with difficulty.
“We said, ‘We want to honour and acknowledge the Overlook – and specifically Kubrick’s – but here’s how and here’s why and here are a couple of surprises’. And when we finished explaining to him how we were going to approach it, to our great relief, he was very excited about it.”
Having previously directed the 2017 movie of King's novel Gerald's Game, Flanagan showed King his take on Doctor Sleep. "I still have ulcers from that," he grins. And the author has since come out publicly in support of the film. "Filtering it through his own large heart, Mike has been able to take the Kubrick movie a step further," King noted in a "behind the scenes" featurette video posted by Warner Bros in which he is wearing an "Overlook Hotel" T-shirt.
King has referred to The Shining as a novel about addiction and Doctor Sleep about recovery and Flanagan has stayed true to that. Played by Ewan McGregor, Torrance is a recovering alcoholic – an addiction that also afflicted his father. Working in a hospice as an orderly, it becomes clear that he has long since locked away his psychic abilities to "shine" – though others nickname him "Doctor Sleep" for comforting those hovering between life and death. Torrance soon intertwines with the fate of Abra Stone (newcomer Kyliegh Curran), a young girl who also has impressive psychic powers, and a nomadic group of quasi-immortals called The True Knot, led by the charismatic villainess Rose The Hat (Rebecca Ferguson). These characters feed on the psychic "steam" of these special youngsters. "It was never our intention to try to de-fang the story," says Flanagan, making no apologies for keeping the book's more disturbing elements.
In Flanagan's eyes, Doctor Sleep works as a stand-alone film. "It absolutely is its own self-contained story that can be enjoyed thoroughly without having seen The Shining or having read any of the source material that's out there," he says. "Much like Dan, it's an inevitable product of those things and the influence that they have on him as a character. It's very similar to the way those things influence our film."
The big reverse from King's Doctor Sleep novel – which of course exists in a world where the Overlook burnt down – is that Flanagan's film returns to the hotel. "I got to have this amazing film student moment where we got to go through the production design plans of the Overlook Hotel, as annotated by Stanley Kubrick. It's one of the most amazing moments of my career. It was always part of the DNA of what this movie would be."
Production designer Maher Ahmad's work is so remarkable it's hard not to feel a chill down your spine when the camera glides along the corridors that Danny trundled down on his tricycle and pulls up to the infamous Room 237. For amusement value, the production team even created an adult-sized "Big Wheel" – the brand of bike that Danny rides – for the cast and crew to ride "including Ewan and Rebecca, pedalling through the Overlook".
When he first toured the sets, Flanagan couldn't help but just giggle – a nervous reaction, perhaps, to being inside this hauntingly recognisable theme park. "I don't think I'll ever have that experience again. You feel so intrinsically familiar with everything that you're seeing. A lot of these images had been burnt into my mind when I was a kid, and to walk through them, it was like walking through your own dreams."
Without entering into spoiler territory, it's evident exactly why King has so fervently embraced Flanagan's film – as it somewhat rectifies elements of Kubrick's adaptation that he didn't like. What's more, Flanagan is a self-confessed "King fanatic", ever since he was a child, and promises oblique references to the writer's oeuvre scattered throughout the film, including a nod to The Dark Tower series that fans "are going to lose their minds over".
If viewers are going to do the same over Doctor Sleep remains to be seen, though there's no question that Flanagan's intentions were more than honourable. In other words, he's tried to appease both King and the Kubrick estate by building his own beautiful Cadillac – this time with an engine inside it. "We tried so hard to do it right," he says, "because, more than anything, we were fans."
Doctor Sleep is in UAE cinemas from Thursday, November 7