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Reconciling Stephen King and Stanley Kubrick: Doctor Sleep's Mike Flanagan On the Pressures of an Epic Horror Task

A visit to the Stanley Hotel that inspired The Shining reveals the complex legacy of two opposing visions, and the new director who wants to unite them at last.

by | November 4, 2019 | Comments

A lonely, winding track of asphalt up the dark side of a mountain. An overnight stay at the empty hotel on the summit. A writer, hot off the success of his first two best-selling books, wanders the hallways. He sees his two-year-old son being strangled by a fire suppression hose. The writer wakes up from this nightmare, screaming in a frenzied sweat. He’s still in the hotel.

Sound like a horror story you know? That’s because it is. Or, at least, the start of one.

The empty road and the emptier hotel, that’s all true. And it lays down the foundation to modern horror’s most beloved haunted house tale: The Shining, by Stephen King, which he was possessed to write after a single visit to the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado. The year was 1974. Late September, just as the Stanley was shutting down for the winter. King, his wife Tabitha, and their son Joseph had holed up in room 217 as the only guests in a 142-room manor.

A long night ensued.

The next morning, King had everything he needed to finish the book he was working on. Title: Darkshine.


A LEGACY OF MODERN HORROR

The Shining, 1980. (Photo by Warner Bros / courtesy Everett Collection)

The Stanley today is like it was in 1974 when King visited, and just like in 1909 when the hotel was built: Frigid, with hot water still getting lost on its way up to all the rooms. It’s the kind of creaky palace where when something goes wrong, you chalk it up as part of the experience. Like most places with a page on Atlas Obscura, it has strange energy. Maybe because everybody there’s putting out and getting sucked into the vibe, desiring to be part of a subconscious conduit for netherworld encounters. They’re certainly opening their wallets for it.

Since publication of The Shining novel in 1977, the Stanley Hotel has become an international destination. Or at least busy enough to stay open during winters. It attracts horror fans from all over the pop cultural strata. And that includes movie directors.

“I wrote Hush at the bar of the Stanley with my wife Kate,” Mike Flanagan, one such director, tells a private theater crowd in Estes Park in October, Hush being his 2016 home invasion slasher.

“We named the John Stanley character in the movie as homage.”

His wife is Kate Siegel, who starred in Hush, and appears in Flanagan’s other works he’s developed over a momentous decade. Big material like Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House, and Oculus, his breakthrough feature starring Karen Gillian. In 2013, Flanagan screened Oculus at the Reel Mountain Theater in Estes Park, mere steps away from the Stanley, where one of his horror idols once found wicked inspiration. After the Oculus screening, the couple stuck around for a week seeking the same. The screenplay for Hush developed in those seven days, a movie released the same year with two others he directed: Gerald’s Game and Ouija: Origin of Evil, establishing Flanagan as a low-key rising horror master.

And now he’s back in Estes Park screening his new movie, making abundantly clear he knows this is the biggest professional and personal risk yet: A sequel to The Shining.


INSIDE THE INSPIRATION

The Shining and Doctor Sleep author Stephen King. (Photo by Paramount/courtesy Everett Collection)

The historic Stanley ghost tour runs several times a day, though obviously the best time to go is at night. Darkness shrouding the estate, it becomes no challenge to channel what King saw that winter night in ’74. The dining hall, bustling by day, empties of life. Then appears Stephen King, and his wife Tabby. They’re being served dinner at one of the long tables. All the other chairs are up, and an eerie orchestra echoes over the PA.

At the bar alone, King is tended to by a bartender named Grady. The same namesake as the caretaker in The Shining who goes mad, kills his family. Grady feeds King the line his fans ought to know: That his money is no good here. A death knell for the alcoholic (which King was at the time), that no more liquid, burning as it soothes, would arrive to quench an all-consuming thirst. The horror!

The ghost tour guide pulls back the spell, claiming in truth it’s because the Stanley was closed, and dear Grady didn’t want to bother counting the cash towards their taxed earnings. Another tall tale to add to the mythology.

Then the approach to room 217, footsteps mute on carpet, where King stayed long ago. The guide points out the kid-chasing hose of nightmares across the hall. You don’t get to go through 217 unless you book it, a tough job because it’s by far the Stanley’s most requested room. Either pay up, or sneak in. Here’s what you’ll find unique inside the room: A shelf filled with the author’s books, a framed bedside picture, and the bathtub where King imagined the necrotic – though still rather fresh – corpse of an elderly woman floating. (There’s also a king-sized bed, though there’s no evidence he had anything to do with that.)

In 1977, three years after his Stanley stay, King released The Shining, sculpting everything that unsettled him into the Overlook Hotel. In 2013, he published its sequel novel, Doctor Sleep. In-between, Stanley Kubrick made a famous movie. Infamously, King hated it. And not just because room 217 got changed to room 237.


APPROVAL FROM THE KING

Mike Flanagan on Doctor Sleep set. (Photo by Warner Bros. /courtesy Everett Collection)

Flanagan, like most, watched The Shining before he read the book. He was in eighth grade. A sleepover, where all the kids saw it on VHS. The experience left him petrified. It also left him with instruction on how to build tension, atmosphere, and dread – without resorting to jump scares.

And now, as the new caretaker of the Overlook, he’s responsible with adapting Doctor Sleep for the masses. Flanagan takes on the monumental expedition of reconciling Kubrick’s mind-blowing dark vision with King’s emotional, personal redemption arc of the plagued Torrance family. That’s something its writer-creator has never felt ever made its way into theaters, resenting the Shining movie as it eclipsed the source book. So when did Doctor Sleep‘s director feel ready for this volatile project?

“I’ve never in this entire process felt prepared to do it,” Flanagan recognizes, speaking with us at his room in the Stanley Hotel. “It happened very fast. I had the opportunity to do it because of a meeting I had at Warners about doing a DC movie. They asked if I was familiar with Doctor Sleep and I said yes. Stephen King approved me for it because he was happy with Gerald’s Game. If he hadn’t given me his permission, I wouldn’t have made the film. And sending him the script, I was terrified because that was his chance to be like, ‘No, you can’t do this to my world.'”

Do what exactly to his world? Let’s just say for those going into Doctor Sleep having read the book first, expect significant departures. Only this time, they’re approved by the King.


SERVING TWO WORLDS

Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall in The Shining. (Photo by Warner Bros. / courtesy Everett Collection)

Both Shinings have the same set-up: Alcoholic writer Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson in the movie) takes a job as the Overlook winter caretaker, dragging along his wife Wendy, and son Danny, whose cursed gift of telepathy and clairvoyance awakens malevolent apparitions of the past. How book and movie reach their endings diverge wildly.

Same with Doctor Sleep. Establishing story on-page and on-screen are similar: Haunted adult Dan Torrance (Ewan McGregor in the movie) is using his ‘shine’ to guide the terminally ill into the afterlife, when he encounters a young girl named Abra (Kyliegh Curran). She’s got the same gift, only more powerful than anything’s Dan ever seen, attracting the likes of Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson), a semi-vampire who feeds off these abilities. Though book and movie unfold along different paths, Flanagan’s adaptation captures that redemptive, cautiously hopeful tone of King’s text.

“I read Doctor Sleep in 2013 as soon as it came out,” Flanagan explains. “The weird thing was that this story was so quintessentially Stephen King, and it so completely and loudly jettisoned all of the Kubrick from it. Yet all the images in my head were Kubrick images. Because that’s The Shining that I know, that’s the Overlook that I know. It’s one of the most influential movies in my life.”

We spoke of movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner, whose enduring relevance comes partly from their unsolvable central mysteries. Blade Runner 2049 recognized Ridley Scott’s puzzle (Is Deckard a replicant?), and knew what a losing proposition it’d be to answer it. So the Denis Villeneuve sequel didn’t.

Ewan McGregor in Doctor Sleep. (Photo by Warner Bros. / courtesy Everett Collection)

Then there’s 2010: The Year We Make Contact, released in 1984. This follow-up explains everything about A Space Odyssey, from why HAL malfunctioned to what ever happened to David Bowman. It’s a decent sci-fi movie and, in the shadow of 2001‘s majesty, completely inappropriate. As an obvious film nerd, Flanagan understands this fandom, this weight and expectation inherent to a Shining sequel, like running into a hedge maze with only a single chance out.

“I felt like the coolest way to do it would be to try at long last, at least attempt, reconciling the King road and the Kubrick road. Which would not be easy. It would be fraught with landmines,” Flanagan says. “But that’s the only really exciting way to do it. Because if you jettison the King and just do a sequel to Kubrick, then you’re into 2010 territory.”

He continues: “But if you jettison the Kubrick and just do this standalone thing that’s talking about Danny Torrance and the Overlook, then I feel like you’re flinching away from what the story really wants to be. You’re ignoring the most familiar cinematic language that an audience already has on one of the most ubiquitous pop culture phenomenons when it comes to horror. So it really felt like this was the only way to do it. As a fan, that’s what I want.”


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#1

Doctor Sleep (2019)
77%

#1
Adjusted Score: 90.756%
Critics Consensus: Doctor Sleep forsakes the elemental terror of its predecessor for a more contemplative sequel that balances poignant themes against spine-tingling chills.
Synopsis: "Doctor Sleep" is the continuation of Danny Torrance's story 40 years after the terrifying events of Stephen King's The Shining.... [More]
Directed By: Mike Flanagan

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