This article contains MAJOR SPOILERS for Doctor Sleep. We recommend seeing the movie before continuing on. If you must, however, don’t say we didn’t warn you.
It was always going to be a bit of a tough sell. Making a sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s version of Stephen King’s The Shining seemed like blasphemy on many levels. But in 2013, King himself gave writer-director Mike Flanagan an in with his novel Doctor Sleep. Almost. The novel is a sequel to King’s 1977 book, and specifically not the Kubrick film, which King himself hates with a passion. But Flanagan knew that the only way audiences would buy anything to do with The Shining would be using the iconography of Kubrick. And that meant a few key things.
First, The Overlook Hotel would still exist; the hotel blew up in a spectacular blaze of steam pressure in the novel but remained in tact at the end of the film. Second, it would be Kubrick’s version of the Overlook, and his version of The Shining‘s characters. In addition to recasting chameleon-like actors to play Wendy Torrance, Dick Hallorann, and little Danny, Flanagan would also need to recast some of the earlier film’s most recognizable ghosts. And that’s where Doctor Sleep‘s most pivotal new scene comes in to play.
Last chance to remain spoiler-free.
In the movie, Dan (Ewan McGregor) brings Abra (Kyliegh Curran) to the Overlook Hotel to await the arrival of Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson). He walks around all the familiar lounges and hallways, “waking up” the place. He eventually comes upon the Gold Room, the massive ballroom space his father, Jack Torrance, visited a few times in The Shining. In his first visit, the on-the-wagon alcoholic Jack sits down at the empty bar only to see Lloyd (Joe Turkel), a ghostly representation of the Overlook’s growing hold over him.
In Doctor Sleep, Dan sits down at the bar in a direct recreation of that first scene. And just like in The Shining, a ghostly bartender stands opposite him, offering the also alcoholic Dan a taste of the spectral booze. Only when we finally see “Lloyd,” it’s the ghostly image of Jack Torrance himself, here played by Flanagan regular Henry Thomas doing a damn good Jack Nicholson. It’s the movie’s standout scene.
We sat down with Flanagan at the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado–the hotel that inspired King’s original novel–to discuss Doctor Sleep, and specifically his decision to bring back one of the most iconic characters in modern horror movies.
“I knew we would have to acknowledge Jack Torrance,” Flanagan began. “No way out of it. Stanley Kubrick kind of showed us the way, with Delbert Grady in the scene the bathroom [in The Shining]. And this idea that Delbert had been kind of digested by the hotel and turned into ‘the help,’ turned into a waiter and denied his identity. I thought that was so haunting, you know?”
In The Shining, Jack hears of Mr. Grady, the caretaker in 1970 who killed his twin daughters, his wife, and then himself. But when Jack meets him in ghost form, Grady is just a waiter, saying that Jack himself has always been the caretaker. And yet, in Doctor Sleep, Jack is now just a humble bartender, and it’s Dan who has apparently “always” been the caretaker.
“I felt like that was one of the only ways we could approach Jack,” Flanagan continued, “because otherwise we’d be forced into a place where Jack Torrance has to behave like Nicholson. But if he’s Lloyd, he’s just a bartender. That changes the needs of the performance and gets us away from the most dangerous place I thought we could be, which was a Nicholson impression.”
Indeed, in the film, Henry Thomas merely has the hairstyle and the cocked eyebrow of Nicholson, without the manic energy or s**t-eating grin. There’s a two second reconstruction of this Jack with the ax, and that’s it. “Henry, who I’ve worked with a bunch and adore, was one of the few people I thought would be up for this,” Flanagan continued, “because who wants to step into that shadow? And my argument to Henry when I called him was, ‘I’ve got two parts in the movie that I think you’d be great for. One is Billy; it’s a best friend part. You’ve played this part, done it before, you do with your eyes closed. You’ll be great. The other part? I just need you for one day, but holy shit will you be scrutinized for it’.”
Naturally, Thomas eventually agreed to take on the pivotal role of Jack/Lloyd. “He thought about it overnight and called me back. He said, ‘If we’re going to do this, you’re stepping into Kubrick’s shadow. You’re going to be in the cross-hairs. Let me go with you. I’ll step into Jack’s, and we’ll sink or swim together,'” Flanagan said, in awe of his frequent collaborator. “I love working with him. He threw himself into it. We made it very clear from the beginning. He wasn’t going to play Jack. It was all about playing Lloyd. For these two lines, I’m gonna let Jack out a little. And it was it was so awesome to watch him do it.”
That scene is a guaranteed audience-splitter, and Flanagan has mulled that over endlessly. It wasn’t just replicating, or not, Jack Nicholson–it was about completely changing Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep. “We needed that scene,” Flanagan told us, “because that was the scene that made Stephen King agree to let us go back to the Overlook. That was the pitch. I said, ‘I know you don’t want to do it, but just imagine Dan Torrance walking through the Overlook Hotel, alone. Waking it up, the lights coming on as he moves. And he comes into the Gold Room where there’s a drink waiting for him. The bartender is his father, and they talk’. That’s what made him say, ‘Okay, do it.'”
It truly is the heart of the movie; the “ghost” of Jack Torrance always hangs over Dan his whole life, both what happened at the Overlook and the alcoholism that plagues Dan. And seeing as the alcoholism’s omission from Kubrick’s movie is part of the reason King doesn’t like it, it just stands to bring the whole thing together.
“We went down every different road of how we could approach it,” Flanagan said. “And this was the direction I felt was the most respectful and the best for the story we were telling. How people will feel about it when it comes out, I don’t know. But I’m really proud of Henry. More than half the people that have seen [the movie] that I’ve talked to do not know it was Henry. And that makes me really happy.”
Doctor Sleep is in theaters now.
Featured Image: Warner Bros.