How Having Prior Stephen King Adaptation Experience Helped Doctor Sleep’s Director

Rose the Hat choking Abra in the hedgemaze in Doctor Sleep

In taking on the job of adapting Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep, writer/director Mike Flanagan committed to an impressively daunting task. After all, not only is the movie a sequel to what is widely regarded as one of the greatest horror films of all time, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, but the project came to him fully loaded with a crazy amount of baggage courtesy of King’s well-publicized hate of the beloved classic.

Because of this, you might wonder why any filmmaker would want to expose themselves to that kind of pressure – but Mike Flanagan had a particular advantage going into the production: he had taken on the challenge of adapting the work of Stephen King before. The writer/director had tremendous success making a movie version of the author’s 1992 novel Gerald’s Game back in 2007, and as I learned during a recent interview, that gave him an important confidence boost while tackling Doctor Sleep.

Last month I traveled to Estes Park, Colorado for a special press event at The Stanley – the hotel where Stephen King originally found inspiration to write The Shining – and during a one-on-one sit down with Mike Flanagan one topic we discussed was the influence of his experience making Gerald’s Game. He started by explaining that a significant part of the formula is that it created a kind of trust between the filmmaker and the author, which proved to be an important foundation in the pursuit of making Doctor Sleep:

It certainly, I think, gave Steve a reason to trust me a little bit, because this is a really sensitive project for him too. And if he hadn't given me his blessing to try to fold Doctor Sleep into that visual language of Kubrick, I wouldn't have done it. I wouldn't have done the film.

Continuing, he added that much like his sequel to The Shining, turning Gerald’s Game into a movie was not exactly an easy task. However, having had gone through the making of that film helped him deal with the natural anxiety that comes from being a Stephen King fan trying to translate his work into a different medium.

Gerald's Game was an incredibly daunting adaptation, and had a very high degree of difficulty, and I felt very much without a safety net on that movie. I felt the same way here even more so. So I think without that experience I wouldn't have been able to get through the days without just vomiting out of nervous energy on this one.

Not personally being a film director, I can’t say this with absolute authority, but I do get the general impression that time spent doing basically anything is made a lot more pleasurable and relaxed when anxiety-induced nausea isn’t part of the equation.

Knowing that he had the capacity to make a well-received Stephen King adaptation was a big back pocket experience for Mike Flanagan, but there was also the other side of the coin to acknowledge: that he was far from the only director to ever try and take on such a project. Including Doctor Sleep, there have now been 46 feature films based on King’s stories – not to mention 12 miniseries, seven television movies, and seven television shows.

Having seen all of those adaptations made, Stephen King has developed a “hands off” philosophy once a project really gets moving, but as Mike Flanagan explained, that wasn’t necessarily something that helped him from a psychological perspective:

He is very, very intentionally... he approves everything that you do. He's always there to kind of say yes or no to things, but once the train's left the station and you're making the movie, he stays away very intentionally. He wants it to be yours. Now, he won't, as happened to Stanley Kubrick, he won't be shy if he doesn't like what you do. And that's always been my biggest fear, is that if he kind of trusts me to play in his sandbox and I mess it up. Oh my God! How, as such a fan, how will I live with myself? So a lot of that pressure is self-imposed. He doesn't put it on you. It's just there; it's unspoken.

Understanding Stephen King’s approach, Mike Flanagan still felt the need to get approvals for the alterations he wanted to execute in the making of Doctor Sleep… but that’s where the aforementioned baggage was a considerable issue. According to Flanagan, King initially bridled at the idea of the adaptation featuring a direct link to Stanley Kubrick’s film – which sense when you consider that parts of the source material novel were written to further highlight the deviations between King’s The Shining and Kubrick’s.

That didn’t exactly create the most welcoming atmosphere when it came to proposing some of the significant changes that Flanagan wanted to make in his script. Said Flanagan,

The changes in this case were tricky because at first I had to go to him and say, 'I really think the visual language of this movie has to be Kubrick's language.' And he initially was resistant to that. He really has very strong feelings about that film because of the changes that were made. And I also said, 'I also plan on changing the ending.' But I think the type of changes, once I described them to him, they actually made him feel pretty excited.

To go into any further detail about that point would obviously involve serious spoilers, so you’ll just have to wait until Doctor Sleep is released later this week and we post my spoiler-filled conversation with Mike Flanagan about the film.

As heavy as the entire experience was, the writer/director was left comfortable knowing that the work he was doing would ultimately stand on its own in addition to being a part of a larger legacy. The side benefit is that it acts as a fascinating pop culture mediator in a Hollywood conflict that has been swirling for 39 years, but the book is always going to be the book, while the film is the film:

That's the exciting thing for me, is that at the end of the day, he's really clear about 'the book is one thing, the movie is its own thing.' They're two separate expressions of a story. And in the case of Doctor Sleep in particular, you've got The Shining novel, you've got the Kubrick film, you've got Doctor Sleep the novel, and Doctor Sleep the movie is its own thing, and it pulls from all of those. But it is very much trying to kind of pull them all together into one experience.

You can watch my interview with Mike Flanagan and our discussion of his experience adapting the works of Stephen King by clicking play on the video below:

Written, directed, and edited by Mike Flanagan, Doctor Sleep is a continuation of the story first begun by Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, and catches up with Dan Torrance (Ewan McGregor) as an adult. He has spent years trying to suppress both the memories of his horrific childhood and his special telepathic/psychic abilities – regularly turning to the bottle to do so – and it turns him into an alcoholic mess. When he finally begins getting his life together, he starts makes contact with another person who shines, a young girl named Abra (Kyliegh Curran), but simultaneously discovers that she is in danger because of a group of monsters that feed on their powers.

Also starring Rebecca Ferguson, Cliff Curtis, Bruce Greenwood, and Zahn McClarnon, Doctor Sleep arrives in theaters everywhere this Friday – and be sure to stay tuned here on CinemaBlend for a lot more coverage from my interviews with the director and cast!

Eric Eisenberg
Assistant Managing Editor

Eric Eisenberg is the Assistant Managing Editor at CinemaBlend. After graduating Boston University and earning a bachelor’s degree in journalism, he took a part-time job as a staff writer for CinemaBlend, and after six months was offered the opportunity to move to Los Angeles and take on a newly created West Coast Editor position. Over a decade later, he's continuing to advance his interests and expertise. In addition to conducting filmmaker interviews and contributing to the news and feature content of the site, Eric also oversees the Movie Reviews section, writes the the weekend box office report (published Sundays), and is the site's resident Stephen King expert. He has two King-related columns.