ANALYSIS: Shifting Space in THE SHINING (1980) and DOCTOR SLEEP (2019)

Released almost 40 years apart, there nevertheless is a fascinating correlation in the use of space between the two cinematic visits to The Overlook Hotel. Dr Vincent M. Gaine books a stay…

With Doctor Sleep, Mike Flanagan faced an unenviable task: a sequel to The Shining – one of the most iconic and beloved horror properties of all time – would be a daunting prospect for anyone.

Although based on Stephen King’s sequel to his own novel, Flanagan had to adapt the book whilst also crafting a follow-up to Stanley Kubrick’s film, an adaptation that King himself – and King purists – famously do not like: try to replicate The Shining and that group would be annoyed, as indeed would the Kubrick fans because it would be at best a copy; ignore the previous adaptation and fans of that extremely popular film would be alienated. Therefore, the film of Doctor Sleep had to be different… but not too much. How could Flanagan possibly pull this off? 

The simple answer is that he made Doctor Sleep his own. The emotional aspect that is (arguably) lacking from Kubrick’s film is present in Flanagan’s, while many of the visuals pay homage to Kubrick without simply copying them.

Among the features that make up this balance between homage and innovation is the treatment of space. Analyses of The Shining, especially in the documentary Room 237, have highlighted that the layout of the Overlook Hotel makes no sense: walk from the lobby towards the kitchen and you find yourself in a different corridor; ride around the service corridor on your tricycle and you’re suddenly on a different floor. Much of this can be explained in terms of production issues, remembering that the interiors of the Overlook were built on soundstages rather than shot on location. However, for interpretative purposes this distortion of space perfectly suits the consistently strange and unsettling atmosphere that permeates the film.

On one level, The Shining is a film about a man going mad. However, it arguable depicts an entire environment that goes mad as well and the distorted space is key to this, as are the sudden appearances and disappearances of the various spectres. Danny’s (Danny Lloyd) visions demonstrate the cracking of reality, and when Wendy (Shelley Duvall) finally encounters the apparitions (what is it with the guy in the animal costume?!) this is the clearest demonstration that the separation of supernatural and natural has collapsed.

Central to what makes The Shining work is this lack of explanation and the steady heightening of tension as the Overlook inflicts its madness upon the viewer as well as the characters. We may sympathise with Wendy and Danny because of their dire situation, but we feel unsafe ourselves because nothing in these surroundings makes sense.

We find similarly untrustworthy space in Doctor Sleep. Throughout the film, physical and psychological spaces are invaded as Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson), Abra Stone (Kyliegh Curran) and Dan Torrance (Ewan McGregor) pursue and battle each other.

A key example of this comes when Abra reaches out to search for Rose and the True Knot following the murder of Bradley Trevor (Jacob Tremblay). Standing at her window, Abra pushes against the window frame and the camera rotates anti-clockwise. The two frames heighten the loss of equilibrium – push one and another shifts. The direction of the rotation is also significant, because rather than tilting away from Abra, which might cause her to fall (a rotation that happens later and causes Dan to slide downwards), this movement instead gives the sense of Abra pulling the world to her will. A subsequent shot of Abra perpendicular to the wall reinforces that space is unstable, before she flies/falls – seemingly through a form of astral projection – where she encounters Rose.

Abra begins her psychic journey standing at her window and physically never leaves that position, but Rose makes contact with her via the glass door of a supermarket refrigerator. A quick sequence of shot/reverse shows subjective views of both Rose and Abra, looking at each other’s reflections from different locations. This is particularly striking, as the transparency of glass makes it both a barrier and a means of access. Again, the space is unstable, as not only is Abra able to project into Rose’s environment but Rose can reach into – and indeed violate – Abra’s space in return.

Subsequent treatments of space also highlight perversity. When Dan and Billy (Cliff Curtis) find the corpse of Bradley, the framing situates the boy’s body within the earth in such a way as to highlight the deep and unsettling wrongness of his death. Later, the True Knot believe they have cornered Abra at a picnic spot in the woods, only to be caught in a Western-style shootout with Dan and Billy, and once Crow Daddy (Zahn McClarnon) has captured Abra the space of his car becomes a weapon. This is an interesting paradox, as on the one hand a car is an enclosed and theoretically secure space – as demonstrated when the Knot kidnap Bradley, as well as the road trip conversations between Dan, Billy and Abra. However, the film gives an almost cheeky reminder that it is also inherently dangerous to travel in a machine at high speed, as Crow Daddy’s failure to wear his seatbelt allows Dan, via Abra, to kill him by a violent expulsion from the contained space of the car.

Most surprisingly of all the space of the Overlook Hotel itself – formerly a site of menace and trauma – now becomes Dan and Abra’s bastion against Rose’s final attack. Making judicious use of wide aerial overhead – particularly as Dan and Abra approach Colorado – these shots echo the opening images of The Shining, as Jack’s tiny car crawls through the vast mountain landscape. But once the camera enters the hotel itself, Flanagan opts for a more enclosed and claustrophobic visual approach, eschewing the wide angles of Kubrick which were so key to the menace of his film.

Similarly the previously terrifying maze becomes less a place to get lost and rather the location of a showdown, where Dan keeps his deepest traumas. It’s striking to compare the appearance of the maze in The Shining and Doctor Sleep, since in the former it’s arguably where Jack becomes most bestial, whilst in the latter it becomes Dan’s sanctum. Flanagan’s visuals here largely echo Kubrick’s in terms of lighting and angles, while the sudden cuts between Dan’s quivering boxes and his fight with Rose recall the intercuts from the original to the blood pouring from the elevator and the dismembered bodies of the Grady girls. As such Flanagan repurposes images, demonstrating that the unreliability of space – much like the shining/steam itself – is a tool dependent on the user.

This malleability of space – both for the characters and for the filmmaker – parallels Doctor Sleep’s treatment of trauma. King and Flanagan acknowledge Dan’s trauma as a result of his earlier experiences, providing their protagonist with a clear arc, but real-life survivors can perhaps take solace in the presentation of Dan as someone who is ultimately defined by neither his trauma nor addiction, but rather his ability to turn his experiences round in a manner of his own choosing. Key to this mastering of trauma is the control of space that is unreliable in The Shining, but pliable in Doctor Sleep.

Dr Vincent M. Gaine

Looking for more King content? Check out our podcast mini-series on the film adaptations of Stephen King here, or more think pieces on the King-verse here.

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