Movies

How the Doctor Sleep Movie Compares to the Novel by Stephen King

The cover of the book Doctor Sleep, and a still from its movie adaptation
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Warner Bros.

Doctor Sleep, the new Stephen King movie from writer and director Mike Flanagan, tries to reconcile three essentially incompatible texts: Stephen King’s 1977 novel The Shining, Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film The Shining, and King’s 2013 novel Doctor Sleep.

King famously hated Kubrick’s film, which was a lot more interested in ghosts than in alcoholism, so when he decided to write a sequel to The Shining, he naturally returned to his book’s original themes rather than heeding the movie it inspired. Now Flanagan has attempted to make a movie that serves as a sequel to both versions of The Shining, mashing up plot points and scenes from all of the film’s various, sometimes contradictory sources.

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If that makes Doctor Sleep feel more like a custody hearing than a movie, well, it’s a small price to pay for the opportunity to revisit the Overlook Hotel for the first time since Ready Player One. Below, we’ve rounded up the biggest differences between Doctor Sleep and the novels it’s based on.

The Overlook Hotel

This is the biggest change in the film adaptation of Doctor Sleep, and most of the changes ripple out from here. In both Stephen King’s and Stanley Kubrick’s versions of The Shining, disgraced alcoholic Jack Torrance takes a job as the Overlook Hotel’s winter caretaker, falls off the wagon, descends into madness, and attempts to murder his wife and son, urged along by the hotel’s hungry ghosts. In both versions, he fails—but not in the same way. In the novel, one of Jack Torrance’s duties is regularly releasing excess steam from the hotel’s ancient boiler, a task he neglects in order to make more time for drinking and murdering. At the end of the book, the boiler explodes, killing Jack and burning the hotel to the ground.

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In Kubrick’s film, Danny instead lures his father into the hotel’s hedge maze—a stand-in for the book’s topiary animals—where this happens:

Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance in The Shining, sitting in a hedge maze frozen to death, with snow and ice covering his face and clothes
Warner Bros.
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That’s bad news for Jack, great news for the Overlook Hotel, and weird news for Stephen King and Mike Flanagan, because it means their respective Doctors Sleep start with very different states of play. In both the novel and the film, Danny Torrance, now an adult, is haunted by memories of the hotel where his father died, and in both versions, fate inevitably sends Danny back to Colorado to face his childhood fears. But in the book, the land where the hotel once stood has become the Bluebell Campground, an RV-hookup-filled front operation owned by the True Knot, a wandering band of psychic vampires who are the novel’s primary villains. Although there are cameos from the hotel’s ghosts, the final confrontation takes place on a lookout platform above the campground. There’s simply no Overlook Hotel left for Danny to return to.

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In the movie, not only is there an Overlook Hotel, but meticulous recreations of the sets from Kubrick’s Shining—or best guesses at what they’d look like after 40 years of exposure to the elements—are a large part of the appeal, as the film’s trailer made clear. The explanation for the Overlook’s dilapidated state is glossed over: Ewan McGregor’s Dan Torrance has a line about the hotel being “condemned,” though it’s not clear why, unless his father’s death from exposure was a bigger scandal than Delbert Grady’s ax murders or there were some serious health code violations in the Gold Room. Whatever happened, Stanley Kubrick’s haunted-but-functional hotel has become extra-haunted in Mike Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep.

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Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep draws heavily on elements in the book version of The Shining that Kubrick didn’t use, restaging some unused scenes from the original novel with the characters from King’s Doctor Sleep. Flanagan has some fun with it too, hinting that he’s about to recreate one of the original novel’s most horrifying acts of violence, then skipping it. But most importantly, he at long last lets the boiler destroy the hotel as King intended.

Dan Torrance

If you’re making a movie where the Overlook Hotel’s boiler explodes the way it did in the novel The Shining, it stands to reason that one of your characters will end up in the Jack Torrance role, possessed by the hotel, shambling down to the basement in a doomed attempt to prevent the fire—and that’s exactly what happens to Dan. In the book version of Doctor Sleep, Dan gets a happier ending, surviving his trip to Colorado and returning to his work as a hospice nurse.

Abra and Her Family

Both the book and film versions of Doctor Sleep revolve around Abra Stone, a kid with even stronger psychic powers than young Danny Torrance, but in the novel, Abra’s family plays a much more significant role. Her great-grandmother, a Vassar-educated Italian poetess named Concetta Reynolds, is mentioned in passing in the film, whereas in the book she is a crucial part of Dan Torrance’s plan to defeat the True Knot. Flanagan has given Abra’s parents similarly diminished roles with diminished fates to match: Abra’s father, who survives the book just fine, is stabbed to death in the movie, while Abra’s mother has so little to do in the movie that being stabbed to death might be an improvement.

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There’s a big reveal in the novel where Dan figures out that Abra’s grandfather was his father, Jack, who slept with a grad student—Abra’s grandmother—in his younger and drunker days. That means Dan is Abra’s half-uncle, a relationship the movie doesn’t acknowledge at all.

Dan Torrance’s Friends

In book and movie alike, Dan Torrance hits rock bottom sometime in the 2000s in Frazier, New Hampshire, but in the film, his support network has been consolidated. Casey Kingsley, the man in the book who gives Dan his first job in town and eventually becomes his AA sponsor, doesn’t make the screen at all, and John Dalton, whose dual status as doctor and alcoholic bridges Dan and Abra’s worlds in the novel, has much less to do. Instead, Billy Freeman, already a major character in the book, assumes the structural roles of each character as a composite of all three.

Measles

When you’re setting up a showdown between two gifted-but-mortal humans and a pack of nearly immortal, incredibly wealthy psychic vampires, you’ve got to give the vampires a good reason to not simply ignore the humans and go on their merry way. In both versions of Doctor Sleep, the vampires are running out of food, but King gives them an extra motivation: measles. Although King doesn’t really explain how psychic energy works as a viral infection vector, in the book, the entire True Knot has contracted measles from a sick kid they ate, and they have a cockamamie idea that Abra’s psychic energy might cure them, making it all the more important that they catch and eat her. Flanagan jettisons this subplot entirely, which was probably wise.

Vampire Teeth

Here is a passage from Doctor Sleep, describing what happens to the appearance of the leader of the psychic vampires when she feeds:

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Her jaw unhinged all the way to her chest, and the bottom of her head had become a dark hole in which a single tooth jutted. Her eyes, ordinarily uptilted, bled downward and darkened. Her face became a doleful deathmask with the skull standing out clear beneath.

In the film version of Doctor Sleep, Rebecca Ferguson’s eyes glow when she feeds, but she doesn’t dislocate her own jaw in the process, nor do her upper teeth transform into a single monstrous tusk. It’s not really clear what evolutionary advantage King’s vampires get from their giant tooth—they still “eat” by breathing in “steam,” a gaseous form of psychic energy, and gases aren’t usually chewy—but whatever purpose the tooth serves, Flanagan’s vampires have somehow learned to get along without it. Blenders? Potato mashers? The movie doesn’t tell us.

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