In the Stephen King universe, nothing stays buried for long. The horrors of Room 217 follow little Danny Torrance beyond the Overlook Hotel in the novel Doctor Sleep, King’s 2013 sequel to The Shining, one of his most beloved books and perhaps the greatest haunted house movie of all time. Published 36 years after the first novel, Doctor Sleep is an unexpected return for Danny to say the least.
The sequel picks up not too long after the ghastly events at the Overlook, which is destroyed in King’s version of The Shining. Danny continues to be haunted by the ghosts of the hotel, including one particularly gruesome old woman waiting for him in his bathroom. Sound familiar? While young Danny is ultimately able to banish this poltergiest (and others) with his Shining, an adult Dan Torrance still struggles with his past and the trauma left in the wake of his father’s violent legacy.
This is the Dan we’ll meet in the upcoming adaptation from Warner Bros., a movie that not only ties into King’s novel but also Stanley Kubrick’s infamous film. Doctor Sleep follows story elements from both continuities. For example, the Overlook Hotel still stands in the second movie, having never burned down in the Kubrick film, despite King’s best efforts to wipe it from existence in the book. This approach is no small feat considering just how much King hated The Shining adaptation and ignored it in his sequel novel.
No matter which timeline Doctor Sleep follows, things aren’t going very well for Dan, played by Ewan McGregor, when we catch up with him in the movie. Dan is reintroduced in the book as a struggling alcoholic at the very lowest point of his addiction. This is one heartbreaking way Dan resembles his father in the sequel. But unlike Jack, Dan is able to overcome his addiction early on in the novel.
Doctor Sleep follows the character from alcoholism to a hospice where he comforts terminally ill patients with his powers (hence the nickname “Doctor Sleep”), which resurface after he gives up drinking. It’s through the Shining that he develops a connection to the movie’s other protagonist, Abra (Kyliegh Curran), a little girl with her own psychic abilities whom Dan has to protect from a cult of energy vampires known as the True Knot.
During a visit to the set of Doctor Sleep in Atlanta late last year, McGregor takes us through the mind of Dan Torrance. To begin with, the Scottish actor, who got the role after a 90-minute meeting with writer/director Mike Flanagan in the editing room for The Haunting of Hill House, reveals that he’s longtime fan of The Shining.
“I remember it just being talked about as being the best scariest film that there’s ever been. And so I didn’t watch it until … years and years after it was made. So, probably into my late teens, or maybe even when I went to drama school in my 20s or something,” McGregor says, lauding Kubrick’s movie for its score in the process: “If you took the music away, it wouldn’t be such a terrifying movie. It’s a very skilled piece of filmmaking, in that respect.”
To prepare to take on one of King’s most beloved protagonists, McGregor not only read the sequel novel but went back to the original movie. Surprisingly, it was Jack Nicholson’s Jack Torrance, and not little Danny, McGregor paid the most attention to.
“I’m watching Jack, really, ’cause he’s my dad. I’m trying to get a sense of my father so much in Doctor Sleep, and obviously about my character’s history with dad. And there’s not very much I can pick up from the kid in The Shining, because I don’t know how similar we are to our five-year-old selves when we’re adults. But we are similar to our fathers in many ways.”
That connection to his father, and Dan’s alcoholism, was a way into the character, according to McGregor, who jokingly confirms that he didn’t method act to prepare for the role: “I didn’t go and get drunk for three months, or anything like that.”
Instead, McGregor tried to tap into some key elements of the character.
“One is, he’s an alcoholic. When we find him at the beginning of the story [he’s] a drinking alcoholic. And then we see his rock bottom, we flash sometime forward, and he’s now a sober alcoholic. That’s running through everything, I think, for me.”
McGregor, who hasn’t had a drink in 17 years, describes a path of redemption and overcoming trauma for Dan in the novel that will hopefully also make it into the movie, especially after his dark moment with a woman named Deenie that we won’t spoil here.
It’s Dan’s “shame,” McGregor explains. “The thing he can’t approach. And towards the end of the novel, he’s able to own up to it in front of a bunch of alcoholics in an AA meeting. It’s a nice journey for a character. [King’s] arcs are quite fun. Quite interesting to play. I like it.”
Being a King character, Dan’s story comes back to his unusual psychic powers, of course. In the novel, Dick Hallorann, the Overlook Hotel’s chef with similar abilities (he died in the movie), teaches little Danny how to control his powers and banish the spirits his Shining attracts. When Dan meets little Abra, he suddenly finds himself in a similar mentor role.
“My advice to Abra is, ‘Don’t … Just ignore your shine. Don’t do it. Don’t go there,'” McGregor says. “And she brings him out of himself, and they go on this journey together.”
That journey will eventually lead Dan and Abra to a confrontation with Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson), a villain who feeds on the “steam” (psychic energy) of children strong in the Shining. Along with her band of followers, Rose plans to kidnap and torture Abra, turning her into an unlimited food source for the entire group. You might not be too surprised to hear that Dan, Abra, and Rose’s battle of the mind takes place at the site where the old Overlook Hotel once stood in the book. Since the Doctor Sleep movie is bringing the hotel back to life, that will present some new visual opportunities for the fight that we can’t wait to watch.
It’s impossible to ignore the way that Dan’s arc comes full circle in Doctor Sleep, from traumatized child to father figure, and within that story is the influence of his father, who so many years ago introduced the young boy to horrors unimaginable that would change his life forever. How much of Nicholson’s legendary performance comes through in McGregor’s turn as his son?
“I’m not doing an impression,” the actor says. “I’m trying to sound like his son. I think we do sound like our fathers, whether we like it or not.”
Doctor Sleep opens in theaters on Nov. 8.