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Can The Dark Tower Franchise Be Saved?

After a very cold reception, can Stephen King’s The Dark Tower franchise be saved on the big screen or the small?


Feature


John Saavedra

Aug 10, 2017

This Dark Tower article contains spoilers.

You’ve probably heard by now that The Dark Tower, a movie based on Stephen King’s beloved fantasy-western-sci-fi-horror series, is the latest major blockbuster to receive a cold reception by fans and critics alike. Despite the fact that The Dark Tower opened at number one in the box office last weekend, making a little over $19 million in the U.S. (the irony of 19 million should not be lost on King fans), most view this adaptation as a failure. Certainly, the film’s 18% “Rotten” score on Rotten Tomatoes hasn’t done the film any favors.

While I thought the film was an earnest attempt at tackling King’s sprawling Dark Tower universe for a general audience, our very own Don Kaye tore the film to shreds in his review. And I agree with him on almost every single point. While I’m not going to break down every issue with the movie in this article (I think that’s probably beating a dead horse after the week this movie has had), I did write more about that here

Instead, I want to talk about how Roland’s journey to the Tower might be saved. At the moment, Sony and MRC are expecting the movie to earn around $55 million in the domestic box office, which means the studios will really have to put butts in chairs in the international market in order to turn a profit for this $60 million movie. As of this writing, the movie sits at a little over $33 million worldwide. 

There’s also the matter of the movies the adaptation was competing against. Kidnap, a thriller starring Halle Berry (X-Men), was the only other movie released on August 4 that made it into the top five at the box office, making a little over $10 million. The other three films were Dunkirk in 2nd, The Emoji Movie in 3rd, and Girls Trip in 4th. All three of these movies have spent at least one week in the top five at the box office and are winding down. Basically, The Dark Tower didn’t have to fight too hard to make it to number one in a very weak weekend for new releases. 

These are all things that the studios will be considering when going forward with a sequel — or perhaps a reboot. There’s also a TV series in the works. Despite the film’s critical thrashing (Variety called the movie a “glittering trash pile of deja vu action pulp”), Sony and MRC seem to be moving forward with the show, which would adapt the story of Roland Deschain’s younger years as told by his older self in Wizard & Glass, the fourth book in The Dark Tower series. Glen Mazzara, who, in my humble opinion, helmed the best season of The Walking Dead to date, has signed on to serve as showrunner. Even stars Idris Elba (Roland) and Tom Taylor (Jake) are set to appear in the series. 

In a way, the TV series would give Constant Readers exactly what they wanted in the first place. It doesn’t take a seasoned King fan to know that his eight-book series makes for a HUGE fictional universe with lots of characters, settings, and plotlines. It doesn’t help that The Dark Tower also involves time travel, tons of flashbacks, Lynchian moments of surrealist horror, a war between the forces of good and evil, alternate Earths, a meta-narrative involving King himself, and tons of connections and references to other books by the writer. It’s truly a miracle that the movie, which combines bits and pieces from all of the books for a remixed stew of people, places, and plot elements, is anywhere near coherent at all. 

It can’t be understated: director Nikolaj Arcel and screenwriters Akiva Goldsman, Anders Thomas Jensen, and Jeff Pinkner shot themselves in the foot with Roland’s Widowmakers when they decided to combine so many different things into one movie. There’s no easier way to anger hardcore fans than to deviate from the source material, especially when the end result of all the mixing and matching changes so much of the journey in the books. 

*Illustration by Michael Whelan.

It will always astound me that the filmmakers made adapting The Dark Tower so hard on themselves. If Sony and MRC wanted to make a summer blockbuster on the cheap, one that would hopefully spark a major franchise for the studios, why not just adapt the first book? The Gunslinger is basically a Western that takes place completely in Mid-World. There are only three main characters, just a handful of supporting characters, and a few monsters. Certainly the more minimalist approach of setting the movie in the Mohaine Desert, where Roland chases the Man in Black, would have really agreed with the budget. 

The filmmakers explained away the adaptation’s questionable choice of setting the movie in the middle of things (it covers most of the New York portion of The Waste Lands, the third book, and then kind of skips around from one book to the next) by making it a sequel to the book series, which ends right where the adventure started — with Roland giving chase to the Man in Black. The movie picks up at the beginning of one of these restarts. While this makes The Dark Tower a canonical continuation of the story, it’s no wonder it left so many fans dissatisfied, especially when so many familiar story elements felt completely out of place. (The Battle of Devar-Toi in the third act was the part that bothered me the most, tell the truth.)

When I spoke to King just a few days before the wide release of the movie, he said that the changes had been made with general audiences in mind.

“Some of those [narrative] decisions are related to telling a story that the general public will get,” said King. “Not just the hardcore Dark Tower fans, the guys who show up at the fantasy conventions with Roland tattoos or something like that. You have to keep in mind that of all the books that I’ve written, the fans of the Dark Tower books are the most zealous, the most fervent fans of all, but they make up a small subgroup of the people who read books like The Shining or Misery. You know, they’re an acquired taste. They’re fantasy.”

*Illustration by Jae Lee.

After only a week in theaters, it’s all but clear that this was an error in judgement on the studios and filmmakers’ parts. Despite the box office numbers, which aren’t great to begin with for a blockbuster, the reviews and fan reaction are indicative of a single, basic truth: the fans want an adaptation that takes its time with the storylines, fleshes out the characters, and is faithful to the source material. They don’t want a 90-minute “standalone introduction,” as Arcel put it to Indiewire, the plays like a greatest hits album. They want the epic saga they fell in love with. 

The way to save The Dark Tower franchise is to continue it solely as a TV series, where it can have the space it needs to really tell its story. The small screen is where the franchise belonged in the first place. Actually, the plan of splitting The Dark Tower into both a movie and a television series has been in place for years. Producer Ron Howard even tried to put The Dark Tower on HBO around the same time a little show called Game of Thrones was set to premiere on the network.

While HBO wasn’t yet so hot on fantasy in 2011, there’s no doubt that an HBO Dark Tower series would have been a match made in heaven. It still could be…except that the network has since created its own Western sci-fi juggernaut, Westworld. The Dark Tower, a rocky franchise at best, and Westworld, a proven success, would clash on HBO’s slate, although perhaps Sony and MRC could sell the series as a fuse of the best things in Game of Thrones and Westworld, which it ostensibly is, with a bit of horror for good measure. 

It’s clear that HBO is currently searching for the next Game of Thrones, which is the reason why the network is developing so many different spinoffs of the fantasy show at the moment, and The Dark Tower series could be that replacement. The studios are shooting for a 10-13 episode order for the series, which is the right fit for premium networks such as HBO or streaming services like Netflix and Hulu. Yet, it would be difficult to convince HBO or any other network or service that the franchise isn’t completely dead on arrival. 

Wherever The Dark Tower TV series lands, Sony and MRC will probably want to keep the budget tight, especially after the film’s performance. That’s why tackling Roland’s story chronologically makes so much sense. Most of Wizard and Glass, for example, plays out like a Western, with some crazy crystal ball magic and weird spatial abnormalities thrown in. You don’t need the Devar-Toi, Dutch Hill, or the Dixie Pig. You just need some gunslinging and a good ol’ Western backdrop. 

Arcel, who wrote the pilot with Jensen, has promised that the show will follow the books more closely than the movie did. 

“We’re going back in the past. It’s very, very closely adhering to the Wizard and Glass novel and parts of The Gunslinger novel,” Arcel told Indiewire. “That was exciting to be even more like, ‘Okay, now we’re going to be able to even lift lines directly, or like [write] characters exactly as they are.’ Which, as a fan, was exciting in a different way.”

Keeping things in the Western genre before crossing over to the series’ other genres in later seasons is the way to go. There’s plenty of material to explore in just Wizard and Glass and The Gunslinger. Plus, the show could also adapt things like “The Little Sisters of Eluria” short story and The Wind Through the Key, both of which take place around the same time in Roland’s life. The Marvel comics could also flesh out major events such as the fall of Gilead, Roland’s home, and the Battle of Jericho Hill, where all of the remaining gunslingers were wiped out except for Roland (a battle that the movie alluded to in the first act). And that’s not even counting any new material the writers could add in between the lines to flesh out supporting characters such as Cuthbert Allgood, Jamie De Curry, and Alain Johns.

All of that material could easily carry several seasons of the show, especially if it took its time with each storyline. Constant Readers know that there’s a lot of potential for big battles and at least one Red Wedding-esque event in the TV series. There’s no doubt King himself would be asked to write an episode or two for the show, which could even add a bit more horror to the affair. (I’d like to watch a twisted Rhea of the Coos origin story episode written by King, for example.)

You might be asking yourself at this point: if the show were to focus heavily on the Western genre, wouldn’t it be weird to then add in New York City, a crazed riddle-loving train, a flu-infested Topeka, and that meta-narrative to the show? Wouldn’t it be too crazy a shift? That was the issue Arcel apparently had with adapting The Gunslinger directly. He felt that making the first movie a Western and then making the next a fantasy movie about doors into other worlds was a bit too harsh of a change for a general audience. He preferred combining everything from the start. 

But that doesn’t really have to be the case with the TV show if it’s established from the very start that there’s a frame story and that the story of the younger Roland is being told by the older one to Jake. I suspect that Elba’s involvement in the show is indeed for this purpose and that a younger Roland will be cast to star. If you establish that the world has moved on since the days of Roland’s journey in Gilead and Mejis and that present day Roland is on a quest for the Tower — which is what the movie basically did — there shouldn’t be a problem when the series starts introducing the weirder stuff in later seasons. 

Ultimately, the big question will be whether Elba will stick around long enough to star in those later seasons as the adult Roland. He’s a movie star, one who has starred in some pretty big projects in the last few years. It’s hard to say if he’d be interested in sticking around for anything less than an HBO show once his contract is up. As a frame of reference, Elba still stars in the British series Luther, which will film its fifth series in 2018, but that show airs sporadically and with much fewer episodes than a TV show in the American market demands. I don’t think Elba’s schedule will allow for such a high episode count. Miniseries of three episodes a pop would probably be more manageable. But I’m getting ahead of myself. 

The point is that The Dark Tower always belonged on television and now that the show is indeed on the way — at least as of this writing, a week after the movie got clobbered from all sides — we might get the adaptation the books actually deserve. A thoughtful take on the novels that offers up something new to say about the source material without simply rearranging and nodding to the universe. And for those who argue that expansive, sprawling epics might confuse general audiences who haven’t read the books, point them in the direction of Game of Thrones, the most watched television show in the world. The Dark Tower movie was too busy dumbing itself down for every audience member to ever truly explore what makes the books so great. The series will hopefully to reconcile that by doing what Roland has had to do so many times: start from the beginning. 

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