Doctor Sleep's Ending Explained: How Does It Follow The Shining?
Going back to The Overlook was never going to be simple.
Endings are never easy but for The Shining, they're a whole different level of complicated. Back in 1980 when Stanley Kubrick adapted the classic Stephen King novel, a rift infamously arose between the filmmaker and the writer. It came about for more than one reason, but one of the biggest and most obvious was the major changes Kubrick had made in the original story's finale. In Kubrick's world, the Torrance family (minus father Jack who had been driven insane) were able to escape The Overlook Hotel with the Hotel still standing, while in the book the hotel was leveled by a massive explosion.
The issue wasn't as simple or as literal as whether or not the hotel got demolished, but what King believed to be Kubrick's willful misinterpretation of the intent of the novel. In King's view, destroying the hotel was critical to really buttoning The Shining's thesis: The idea that the horror is, primarily, the responsibility and the result of choices made by the characters, rather than something that happens to them by forces outside of their control.
Unsurprisingly, creating a follow up to The Shining presents an interesting challenge with regard to the ending, but it's a challenge that Mike Flanagan was more than willing to take on when adapting King's follow up novel, Doctor Sleep, for the big screen. So how did he do it and what, exactly, happened in Doctor Sleep's final cinematic moments? Let's break it down.
Major Spoilers from both the movie and the novel versions of Doctor Sleep bellow! Proceed with caution!
The first thing you'll notice as a Shining fan going into the last act of Doctor Sleep in the theater is that The Overlook is decidedly still around. Sure, it's been boarded up and abandoned--left to rot, as Dan says--but it did not blow up or burn down. But for whatever King must feel about Kubrick's version of his novel, he was fully in support of Flanagan's Doctor Sleep adaptation "living within the canon" Kubrick set forth, according to Flanagan himself. But that didn't make the process of pitching a new ending any less daunting.
Selling a return to the Overlook Hotel wasn't the tricky thing--it was nailing down the final moments for Dan himself. In King's novel, Dan survives the final fight with the True Knot and is given an epilogue where he's celebrating 15 years of sobriety, a battle he's been fighting through most of his adult life. But in Flanagan's version, things don't go so smoothly.
For the movie, finishing Dan's story was all about finding a sense of balance between King and Kubric--and for that, Flanagan understood that Dan had to die. Or, specifically, Dan had to die in the way that King had originally written his father Jack to die: By setting off a massive explosion that destroys the Overlook from the boiler room. This comes after Dan and Abra team up to strategically destroy the True Knot until only Rose the Hat is left to chase them, when they decide to lead her to the Overlook for the final battle.
During their last fight, Dan is forced to "unlock" the ghosts of the Overlook which have followed him since childhood. With a trick he learned from his ghostly mentor, Dick Hallorann, he's been sealing them away in special mental boxes to keep himself sane--boxes that other psychics like Abra and Rose are able to sense and manipulate by looking into his mind. Rose's greed and obsession eventually the best of her and she mistakenly enters Dan's mind, rather than Abra's, where he's able to trap her and unleash the spirits--everyone from the "come play with us" twins to the horrifying woman from Room 237 to rip Rose apart.
But naturally, once those ghosts have been set free, they don't just go away. Even with Rose gone, Dan and Abra are forced to fight for their lives--or succumb to the insanity of the Overlook once and for all. Dan very nearly loses himself the same way Jack did--but, heroically (and tragically) comes to just enough to realize what he has to do to save Abra and end the Overlook's nightmare once and for all.
It was a daunting task, to say the least, Flanagan explained while speaking with GameSpot. "When I showed it to King, it was one of the things I was the most afraid of. Because we talked about the Overlook, we talked about all that. He blessed all that," Flanagan said. "We never talked about the ending. I think he kind of assumed it would be the same ending as the novel.
So when he read the draft he was like, 'That's Jack's ending.' And I was like, 'Yeah. Yeah, it is.' And he said, 'I love it.'"
For Flanagan, it was less about changing the ending to surprise viewers who might also be familiar with the source material and more about "reaching beyond" the ending of the story. "I knew we'd have to change it just because we're going back to the hotel. But what if I could reach past the Kubrick film and go all the way back to the ending from The Shining? And if I pulled Jack's ending, the ending that King never got, the one Kubrick never made. And I could take Jack's story from the end of The Shining and give it to Dan, that felt like there was a symmetry to that that I just loved," he explained. "It was like, 'Okay, well, if I'm going to change it, I'm going to give Dan the ending King always wanted for his dad.' For better or worse. I was very happy with it. It felt like the right way to say goodbye to him."
As for Abra, she's not completely left in the wind. She's able to return to her mother and, like Dan himself who grew up "mentored" by the ghost of Dick Hallorann, still see the ghost of Dan who appears to her to explain that death isn't the end after all. Sure, it may be considerably less celebratory than getting a 15-year chip at an AA meeting, but it's not exactly sad. "I'm kind of into [examinations of] grief," Flanagan laughed, by way of explanation. "It's kind of my thing."
Doctor Sleep is in theaters now.