Part of the blame, in this case, is essentially serving two masters: the dense plot of King’s 2013 book, which follows the Dan Torrance character into adulthood; and the 1980 Stanley Kubrick film, which took considerable liberties with the source, leaving behind a memorable horror classic with some problematic aspects in terms of the story.
Writer-director Mike Flanagan (who previously adapted another King work with “Gerald’s Game”) seemingly tries to split the difference, setting up King’s three-pronged storyline, which becomes more tense and involving as those points intersect. The film then devolves, however, into a sort-of extended homage to Kubrick’s movie, striking in its familiar visual imagery, but in terms of the larger story, an overlong mess.
It’s a shame, because so many of the elements work initially, including Ewan McGregor as the grown-up Dan, Rebecca Ferguson as the wonderfully menacing villain Rose the Hat and Kyliegh Curran as Abra, the young girl whose mental abilities eclipse even Dan’s glow.
Beginning with Dan as a boy in a meticulously detailed sequence, the narrative quickly advances to Dan the man, where he has taken refuge from that terrifying childhood and sought to silence his ghosts with alcohol. Finally landing in a welcoming small town, he turns his life around, deals with his addiction, and takes a job as a hospice orderly whose gift for soothing dying residents earns him the nickname of the title.
His tranquility is shattered by Abra, who has sensed the True Knot, a cabal of psychic vampires, for lack of a better definition, who drain the life essences of children that shine. They are led by Rose, who is obsessed with finding the girl, and feasting upon her.
“The darkest things are the hungriest,” Dan’s one-time mentor, Dick Halloran (Carl Lumbly), tells him ominously.
To his credit, Flanagan (who also edited the film) has used a more traditional approach by simply recasting key roles, as opposed to the increasingly popular if vaguely creepy habit of de-aging or otherwise digitally replicating them.
King, notably, has never shied away from acknowledging his dissatisfaction with the original movie, which makes slapping his name in the title confusing. The DNA here comes from Kubrick, ultimately, more than him.
“Dare to go back,” the movie poster says, and “Doctor Sleep” does tap into a strong sense of nostalgia, while providing enough tension and thrills to make it worth seeing — certainly for King completists and aficionados — despite its shortcomings.
Still, when a film with so much going for it — from the first-rate cast to the meaty premise — basically unravels and loses steam, it’s a reminder that the challenge of wrestling one of King’s epic books into a genuinely satisfying movie can be, well, redrum.
“Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep” premieres Nov. 8 in the US. and is rated R. The movie is being released by Warner Bros., like CNN, a unit of WarnerMedia.