When director Mike Flannagan set out to adapt Stephen King’s novel Doctor Sleep into a movie, he took on a nearly impossible task. Alongside the fact that the book wasn’t exactly King’s most beloved or necessary work, Flannagan was also attempting to rebuild a bridge between King’s original novel version of The Shining and Stanley Kubrick’s classic film version, which King has spent decades denouncing.
So Flannagan decided to rebuild the original movie by recasting every principal role, recreating Kubrick’s set for the eerie, haunted Overlook Hotel, and committing to a massive process of cinematic reenactment. And it worked. The theatrical cut of the film wasn’t much respected or well-reviewed, but it was an incredible display of storytelling ingenuity, an entertaining movie, and the only working connection between two horror classics.
But the time devoted to retelling and retooling bits of Kubrick’s original movie keeps Doctor Sleep from developing many themes or thoughts of its own. For the home video and streaming releases, though, Warner Bros. has also released the director’s cut of the film. And its additional 30 minutes of footage improves on Flannagan’s already-impressive work. The new cut provides a more empathetic theme for the entire Shining series, both the movies and the books.
[Ed. Note: this post contains spoilers for Doctor Sleep and The Shining.]
The relationship between protagonist Danny Torrance and his father Jack is a key element in every version of The Shining and Doctor Sleep. But in most versions, Jack is reduced to his ending, and the attempted murder of his family. Even the few moments where he struggles to fight the Overlook’s influence in the original book are presented with the inevitability of his failure hanging over his head. Flanagan’s director’s cut changes the story by finding room for empathy in Jack Torrance. Flanagan never paints Jack as a victim, at least not completely, but he reveals him as a whole person.
In the beginning of the Doctor Sleep film, Danny, now going by Dan, struggles with alcoholism, just like his father did. This connection between the two characters is literalized in the director’s cut, when a version of Dick Hallorann, the Overlook cook who taught young Danny about “the shining,” explains what happened to Jack. Dick says the version of him that tried to kill Danny in the hotel wasn’t all Jack. The Overlook fed the darkness in Jack, just like it fed on the light in Danny. “And your daddy had a little bit of that light too,” Dick says. “Just like you got some dark.”
It’s a small line, and in another movie, it might feel like a throwaway. But for this cut of Doctor Sleep, it acts like a thesis statement. It unites all the movie’s loosely connected parts into a brilliant, complicated whole. It’s not about Dan outrunning the ghost of his father and his demons, it’s a story about Dan being terrified that he’ll become his father.
In both versions of The Shining, the Overlook and its hypnotic power aren’t the beginning of Jack’s darkness. They’re just catalysts for the resentment and pain he already feels. The ultimate symbol of Jack’s violence and anger, particularly in King’s original novel, is his addiction and substance abuse — King largely wrote the novel as a response to his own struggles with alcoholism. It’s a deep-seated demon that Jack can’t overcome. In both the book and film versions of the story, Jack drinks to forget his failures and the fact that deep down, he blames them on his family. He wants to love them, and he does — except in his darkest moments.
Even Jack’s most violent impulses weren’t sheerly a product of the Overlook’s influence. He broke Danny’s arm in a fit of drunken rage just a few months before the family moved to Colorado for the caretaker job. In King’s novel, it’s a sign that Jack can be taken over by his addiction, and at his worst, it can consume him. Kubrick’s screenplay mentions the incident early on, as the first real sign of the violence waiting inside Jack. The Overlook doesn’t give Jack access to violence for the first time, it just lets him give in to the impulses he already has. The hotel acts as a sort of supernatural path to rock bottom.
But the Doctor Sleep film takes a different path. Dan Torrance — played by Ewan McGregor in one of his best-ever performances — gives us a different side of the story as he accepts his Alcoholics Anonymous token for eight years of sobriety. He starts by recontextualizing his addiction — it wasn’t born out of resentment like Jack’s, it was a way to feel close to Jack. Alcohol let Danny feel the anger Jack felt when he drank, and that Jack felt right before he died in the Overlook.
The story of Dan’s broken arm is where Flanagan finds the most room for empathy. In his original cut of Doctor Sleep, the story doesn’t come up at all, as if it’s a memory that’s still too hard for Dan to face. But in the director’s cut, Dan says he saw the change that moment brought in his father. He explains that Jack never touched a drink after that moment, until the Overlook of course. Instead, he used his shame and regret over the incident to fuel a better life for himself, at least for a while.
In King’s original novel and the theatrical cut of Doctor Sleep, this moment in Jack’s story is fleeting. The looming inevitability of murder lurks on the horizon of Jack’s attempted sobriety, as if he was always doomed to fail. But at the AA meeting in the director’s cut, Dan says he thinks he’s standing where Jack most wanted to be in the world. He ends his celebratory speech with, “This is for Jack Torrance.”
To make the connection between Jack and Dan even stronger, Flanagan inserts a brief shot of the Overlook’s Gold Room, where Jack finally gave in to the Overlook completely, over a glass of whiskey. In the new inset shot, a glass of whiskey sits on that bar, waiting. Then it faces, replaced by Dan’s eight-year coin.
Through Dan’s speech, and the even more direct connection of the two characters, Flanagan brings his father out of the shadows, and finally makes Jack more than the addiction that defined him for King, or the rage that drove the character for Kubrick. He struggled with his problems, but he desperately wanted to grow beyond the things that kept him from those he loved.
The culmination of this thematic line comes in the Overlook, when Dan stands face to face with Jack again — not the father he dedicated his own sobriety to, but the one that couldn’t escape the pull of the Overlook. In the Doctor Sleep director’s cut, he’s literally transformed into an Overlook fixture, Lloyd the Bartender. But Dan never mistakes him for anyone but Jack. This Overlook version of Jack offers Dan a drink, but Dan turns it down and confronts this version of his father, the one Dan connected to in his own darkest moments of drinking.
The theatrical cut ends the scene after their confrontation, but the director’s cut goes on. When Dan declines the drink, Jack spills it on Dan, then takes him to the Overlook bathroom to clean up, just as Delbert Grady did to Jack in the movie version of The Shining. Jack says Dan should just go home and let the Overlook have Abra, the young psychic Dan has been trying to protect from predators like whatever force is haunting the hotel. In what might be the movie’s darkest moment, Jack tells Dan, “The easiest thing in the world is to accept the things we cannot change.”
This inversion of the Alcoholics Anonymous serenity prayer suddenly makes the differences between the Jack of the Overlook and the Jack that Dan got to know through sobriety obvious for both the audiences and Dan, the dark and light that Hallorann told him about suddenly becoming clear. This version of Jack is a collection of his worst impulses and actions. What he says to Dan is a final admittance that he couldn’t change. But that isn’t all Jack was. There was another side of him, the side that fought for his family, the side Dan got to know only through his own path to sobriety. And in that side of his father, Dan finds the strength to leave and save Abra, whose fate he knows he can change.
This side theme, paralleling Dan and Jack, is an undercurrent of Flanagan’s theatrical movie. But in the director’s cut, he makes it literal, and bakes it into the movie’s thematic text. Rather than just connecting the Shining series on a narrative level, this thematic connection between the two characters turns the series into a story about the way people relate to the flaws in their parents, and see those flaws in themselves. Dan clearly sees the abusive, angry version of his father the same as he sees it in himself. But in the end — and only in the director’s cut — he also finds a brighter version. And through it, he embraces the light Hallorann tells him everyone has, even poor, doomed Jack Torrance.