Spoilers for Doctor Sleep follow below.
The marketing for Warner Bros.’ highly anticipated Stephen King adaptation Doctor Sleep has played up the fact that the film is a direct sequel to The Shining, leaving many to wonder how closely the movie would be tied to Stanley Kubrick’s iconic 1980 horror film. The answer is pretty darn close—to the point that Jack Torrance is a character in Doctor Sleep.
Jack was memorably played by Jack Nicholson in The Shining, and Doctor Sleep takes place decades later as it follows the life of young Danny Torrance, now all grown up and suffering from severe PTSD from that time his dad chased him around with an ax. Ewan McGregor plays Danny Torrance in Doctor Sleep, and the film’s ending finds Danny venturing back to where it all began: the Overlook Hotel. And once inside, he has a confrontation with his father.
You may be wondering, however, who plays Jack Torrance in Doctor Sleep? Well it’s not Jack Nicholson, but it is someone you may recognize: Henry Thomas. The actor best known for playing Elliott in E.T. the Extra Terrestrial fills the role of Jack Torrance in Doctor Sleep, who has a face-to-face confrontation with Danny in the Overlook. At first, Jack maintains he’s not Jack at all, but merely a bartender at the Overlook, as Jack’s death in The Shining made him a permanent part of the hotel’s colorful cadre of ghosts.
Wendy Torrance also has a brief role in the film, with actress Alex Essoe (Starry Eyes) filling the role that was previously played by Shelley Duvall in Kubrick’s movie. But the appearance of Jack Torrance was kept somewhat under wraps before the movie was released.
Henry Thomas has a relationship with Doctor Sleep writer/director Mike Flanagan having starred in Flanagan’s brilliant Netflix horror series The Haunting of Hill House, and he does a swell job of inhabiting the role of Jack Torrance here. It’s not a Jack Nicholson impersonation per se, but it does capture the essence of Jack’s madness from Kubrick’s film.
It’s also interesting that Flanagan decided to cast an actor to play Jack Torrance instead of digitally recreating Jack Nicholson’s version of the character, a practice that’s becoming all too common nowadays. In an interview with Collider, Flanagan explained why he absolutely didn’t want to go the digital route:
“I was not interested in doing a digital Jack because then we’ve got to do a digital rendering and that technology to me is not there, and it feels like a theft in a way. I was trying to go for reverence and homage, not theft. And I didn’t want to do a motion capture thing or a younger Jack; that technology rips me out. So the approach we take into everything else, and to the other legacy characters, was finding actors who looked a little like their counterparts in The Shining, who reminded us of those characters, but who weren’t doing impressions, and who weren’t doing parody, and who were doing their own thing with the part. Who were playing Wendy Torrance and not playing Shelley Duvall, but who reminded me [and] who tilted me toward that character. And so the decision was, we can’t have someone do a Jack Nicholson impression, it’s going to be awful, it’s going to be a farce and a caricature.”
Indeed, not only is there Robert Downey Jr. and Samuel L. Jackson being de-aged for the Marvel movies (although those performances had the actors’ express involvement), but deceased actor Peter Cushing was digitally resurrected for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, a film that also featured a completely digital version of Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia. Even James Dean is being digitally resurrected for a new role, as advances in technology are rubbing up against the morality of such a practice.
So, again, it’s nice to see Henry Thomas playing Jack Torrance here. It’s not too distracting that he’s not exactly Jack Nicholson, and to Flanagan’s point, it probably would’ve been more distracting had they digitally recreated Nicholson for the role.
For more on how Doctor Sleep connects to The Shining, check out our breakdown of the differences and similarities.