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Movie Review - Doctor Sleep (2019)

I am the author of three middle-grade children's books, and I blog on the side. My favorite topics are movies, writing, and pop culture.


Reading Doctor Sleep

A few years ago, I borrowed a copy of Doctor Sleep from my local library with the intention of finding out what happened to Stephen King’s young hero, Danny Torrance, from The Shining. I’m ashamed to say that I abandoned it about 50 pages in for no other reason than lack of interest. But when I saw the trailer for the movie adaptation of Doctor Sleep, my curiosity was suddenly reawakened, no pun intended.

Film has the advantage of cutting to the chase and cover a novel-sized story in just a few hours. But the danger there is the risk of cutting out some of the meatier themes, characterizations, and plot points that enrich the book. While I’m sure this film cut its share of details and added some of its own, Doctor Sleep hits all of the right beats as it services the stories that came before it while still making it its own distinct installment in the narrative surrounding the doomed Torrance family.

Doctor Sleep Book Cover

Doctor Sleep Plot Summary

A group of once human supernatural beings known as The True Knot hunt down children with special abilities and suck the “steam” from them in order to stay young and powerful. One of these children, a thirteen-year-old girl named Abra (Kyliegh Curran), possesses abilities stronger than any other child they have sensed before. When they catch her looking in on their murderous practices, she becomes the next victim on their list.

Meanwhile, Abra has been in psychic contact with another person who possesses her gifts, a middle-aged man named Dan Torrance (Ewan McGregor), who survived a paranormal attack at The Overlook Hotel in Colorado back in 1980. The evil energy of the hotel mixed with the sinister spirits who inhabit it possessed his father who nearly killed Dan and his mother when Dan was just five years old.

Using his gifts, which he and his psychic mentor, Dick Halloran, referred to as “shining,” Dan is able to lock away these spirits who tormented him as a child. However, the trauma of that experience leaves him broken, turning to drugs and alcohol to numb his memories and extraordinary abilities.

After he hits rock bottom, Dan decides to start fresh in Frazier, NH. There, he meets Billy Freeman (Cliff Curtis) who finds him a place to stay, employs him as a kiddie train operator, and inducts him as a fellow member of AA. Through these meetings, he finds additional work as a night orderly at a hospice facility. There, he uses his abilities to ferry the dying patients to the other side in a calm and peaceful transition that earns him the title, Doctor Sleep.

But his new start is uprooted when Abra psychically and then physically calls on Dan to help her take on The True Knot before she becomes their next victim. With Billy along for the ride, Danny must unearth his own past and use his powers and knowledge of the shining to defeat this weakening but desperate group before they can kill again.

The Stanley Hotel which inspired The Overlook in The Shining

Balancing Adaptations

The filmmakers of Doctor Sleep were forced to walk a fine line between adapting the sequel to Stephen King’s classic novel and satisfying fans of the 1980 Stanley Kubrick film. Somehow, they were able to pull it off, seamlessly merging the two very different stories based on a singular premise.

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So much of the success of this film rides on its plot choices, visuals, and tone. It always opts for the difficult choices and then sticks the landing 90 percent of the time. We get to see a detailed reenactment of Kubrick’s Overlook, down to the pattern on the carpeting and the wine-colored blood pouring from the elevator doors. Yet, it doesn’t make the mistake of relying too heavily on nostalgia to carry its own story. These iconic images are the backbone of Danny’s story but not that of the full story.

Modern movies tend to be off in their pacing as if worrying about losing the audience’s attention too quickly if they don’t run at breakneck speed. Taking a cue from the original film, this story takes its time to unravel in a linear fashion that provides a detailed catch up on Danny’s past from the immediate psychological aftermath of the Overlook attack to his struggle with addiction and the rope he is handed to pull himself out of it.

The film uses its two-and-a-half hour running time to its advantage to allow itself the time to explore the main themes of the story without boring the audience. Taking the time to learn the characters gives it depth and gives the actors a lot of rich material to play with.

Doctor Sleep Trailer (2019)

Acting Performances

Speaking of performances, every actor is perfectly cast for their roles and plays their parts naturally and emotionally. McGregor would not have registered as a logical choice to play Danny Torrance, but he has proven time and again that he is a chameleon of an actor who can inhabit characters who audiences have seen before in films and made it his own while still believing him to be the same character that we have seen before.

Playing the adult version of a quiet, disturbed child didn’t give him much to work with in terms of how to play him as an adult. Instead, his focus is on the impact that his relationship with his parents had on him. The struggle between being raised by a loving mother and a self-destructive father creates a tear in Danny in two sides that McGregor fully explores in his performance.

My lack of interest in villains is mainly what caused me to abandon the original source material. So, I was surprised by how engaging the film adaptations of these characters were, particularly Rose the Hat, played by Rebecca Ferguson.

They don’t come across as your typical, powerful villains. While they have no qualms about murdering innocent children to maintain their own youth and strength, they are also desperate and fearful beings, making them more three dimensional than your average evil antagonists.

Most impressive, though, was the children’s performances in the film. Curran as the older Abra holds her own against her adult co-stars and plays both strong and vulnerable so convincingly. She’s overwhelmingly positive and good-hearted but with a dash of maliciousness thrown in to intimidate her opponents, a potentially dangerous character trait that she maintains tight control of as easily as she does her powers. Also, her chemistry with McGregor makes them a team you can root for.

I also want to give a standing ovation to Jacob Tremblay as Bradley Trevor for portraying one of the most convincing child victims I’ve ever seen on film. His small but impactful part carries the most disturbing and jaw-dropping sequence in the film. Likewise, Cliff Curtis’ Billy makes for a skeptical but loyal companion for Danny to rely on when he has no one else to turn to for help.

Watch Mojo's video about the top 20 Doctor Sleep Easter eggs

My Review

Doctor Sleep is definitely a film worth seeing on the big screen. It doesn’t possess the keep you up at night disturbing horror of Kubrick’s The Shining, nor is it trying to. It also doesn’t cut corners in satisfying audience nostalgia while unfolding a new, personal and family-themed narrative that makes great use of its time, performances, and visuals.

My only complaint is that the last few minutes could have been a little more emotionally impactful, but ultimately, I give this film high marks across the board as a future installment of your Stephen King-inspired movie collection.

Buy a double pack of The Shining and Dr. Sleep here!


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