The Dark Tower is more of a prologue than the first chapter in an epic saga. Here’s why that’s not such a terrible thing.
This Dark Tower articles contains spoilers.
Almost 40 years after the first Dark Tower story was published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Stephen King’s magnum opus has finally made it to the big screen. That in itself feels like a reason to celebrate. Like J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings before it, King’s fantasy/sci-fi/western/horror epic was once thought unfilmable by Hollywood. The books were considered too sprawling, perhaps a bit too complicated for the coveted PG rating, and definitely too expensive to shoot. With a ten-year development cycle almost as epic as the books themselves, from being optioned by J.J. Abrams to Ron Howard’s very long quest as first director and then producer to Sony finally signing off on this franchise starter, it’s a miracle to see Idris Elba (Roland) dressed as the gunslinger at all.
The result of all that work and waiting? An okay fantasy movie that many hardcore fans will find controversial and general audiences will probably enjoy. Critics certainly haven’t been kind to it, including our very own Don Kaye, but that’s almost to be expected when it comes to a movie that takes as many creative liberties with the source material, King’s coveted fictional universe, as The Dark Tower does.
You could sense trouble in the air for The Dark Tower as soon as the production started to tease some of its more questionable narrative choices. The Idris Elba casting silliness aside (Elba is excellent as Roland and one of the better parts of the movie), things like making the the movie a sequel to the novels and not a straight adaptation of the first book, The Gunslinger, soured the experience for Constant Readers before they even sat in a theater.
King explained in an interview with us that it was important to not just cater to the fans who’d read The Dark Tower series but also those who were more familiar with his other books. The writer suggested that Stephen King fans and Dark Tower fans aren’t necessarily in the same group.
“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.”
For many hardcore fans, there’s nothing more important than being faithful to the source material and The Dark Tower is decidedly not that kind of take. Instead, it remixes events from the book series into a 95-minute movie that speeds through events faster than one of Roland’s bullets. While it has elements from all the books, the movie mostly focuses in on plotlines from the first and third books. The Waste Lands gets the most play since the biggest chunk of the movie takes place in New York City and follows Jake Chambers’ (Tom Taylor, who is also great) journey to Mid-World.
If you’re a huge fan of the books, you can already sort of see where the problems with this adaptation lie and where the cuts happened. The Drawing of the Three, the second book, is almost completely ignored and the other members of Roland’s ka-tet are nowhere to be found. And the things that are taken directly from The Gunslinger and The Waste Lands sometimes feel like they’ve been run through Cliffs Notes first. There’s one shining example of this about midway through the movie when Jake visits the Dutch Hill Mansion on his way to Mid-World.
One of my biggest issues with the movie is the villain. Walter Padick, the Man in Black, is played by Matthew McConaughey, who does his best with a script that really overdoes it with the character. Way too much time is spent establishing Walter’s powers, which are cheapened by all the telekinesis and telepathy involved. There are a couple of scenes in the movie in which you might even confuse Walter for a dressed down Sith Lord. His climactic confrontation with Roland will definitely be the most reviled part of the movie (although Elba looks damn good in a gun fight).
Again, this much more digestible version of Walter better serves the general audience. He’s the evil wizard who uses dark magic to plunge the world into darkness — a villain we’ve seen plenty of times before. Certainly, King’s work is full of agents of chaos, and for good reason when you get down to deciphering how many of his books are tied together by The Dark Tower series. (I’m not going to do that here, but I wrote a beginner’s reading guide to King’s Dark Tower universe a while back if you’re interested.) But Walter (better known as Randall Flagg in King’s larger mythology) always stood apart from the other monsters for the simple reason that his abilities and goals were always a bit more difficult to comprehend. It also helped that King practiced restraint when writing him in the series, unlike the movie, which spends way too much in time in Walter’s shoes.
In the books, Walter’s an enigmatic man of many names and faces who walks from one disaster to the next, looking for ways to bring about and exploit the apocalypse. And for a long time, it was hard to pinpoint Walter’s origins as anything other than a supernatural force for evil. He doesn’t really use telekinetic powers or stop bullets with his bare hands. Instead, Walter stands out for the evil he is able to impress on others. His true gift is one born from charisma, his greatest power the ability “to appeal to the worst in all of us,” as King once said in an interview.
The Walter of the movie is able to get people to do things for him, but even that ability is dumbed down to sheer brutality. McConaughey’s Man in Black is more interested in disposing of witnesses and punishing his henchmen than being the evil that festers inside of every human being.
But despite the film’s many problems, there’s something really refreshing about The Dark Tower‘s earnest approach. At a time when Hollywood has become all about cinematic universes, The Dark Tower feels like more of a standalone film. It doesn’t try to build up more of the mythology than it can handle. There’s a Tower that protects the universe from the dark forces beyond its edges and Walter needs Jake’s “shine” (a retcon and questionable nod to The Shining, yes) to bring it down. When the Tower falls, Walter will be able to reign over the apocalyptic universe that’s left in its wake. Roland, the last of an order of gunslingers sworn to protect the mythical structure, is the only one who can stop Walter and save Jake. That’s the movie, with a couple of nods to other works by King and a mention of the Crimson King to boot. Most of the action takes place in New York City, with only one key bit taking place in Mid-World, which makes the adaptation a much easier pill to swallow for someone who hasn’t obsessed over the eight Dark Tower books for 40 years.
The Dark Tower has a definite beginning, middle, and end, which is something we don’t often get anymore from genre storytelling. Don’t get me wrong: there are suggestions throughout the film that there is much more to the story than what’s happening on screen (for example, Maerlyn’s Rainbow makes an appearance in the movie and so does the Horn of Eld), but these hints at a larger cinematic universe aren’t quite as gratuitous as, say, the infamous cave scene in Avengers: Age of Ultron, a movie that spends more time setting things up for future installments than telling itself.
In a way, The Dark Tower movie feels more like a prologue than the epic first chapter of a film series — 95 minutes of what happened before Roland set out on his journey to the Tower in earnest (much like in The Gunslinger) without delving too deeply into the mythos besides a couple of moments of exposition. It seems like a counterintuitive move for Sony, which probably invested in the project with every intention of turning this into a lucrative cinematic universe. Instead, The Dark Tower plays like a proof of concept, a slice of a larger story waiting to be told. That feels a lot like the narrative of The Gunslinger to me.
*Art by Michael Whelan.
Roland is very singularly focused throughout the first book of the saga. As the opening line states: “The man in black fled across the desert and the gunslinger followed.” Add some Slow Mutants, a way station, and an important death to the mix and that’s about all he wrote. Roland really is more interested in catching the man responsible for the fall of Gilead than saving the Tower. It’s not until the end of the novel that the hero really embarks on his journey to save reality itself. Roland’s arc in the movie plays out in much of the same fashion, just with a few deviations in between. It’s “one last time around” that doesn’t go quite the way you expected but doesn’t pretend that it’s earned a cinematic universe just for the simple fact that it exists.
If you look at The Dark Tower as The Gunslinger‘s narrative counterpart, the movie does a good job of establishing the major players, the important relationships, and the stakes, with the bonus of a proper ending — albeit an unnecessarily explosive one that nonchalantly nullifies a key moment from one of the later books. The movie doesn’t try to do more than it can handle, which will certainly piss off audience members who love Marvel-style storytelling (which is fun in its own right), but the result is a movie that never becomes distracted with things it doesn’t have the time to resolve. Instead, The Dark Tower is all about the chase. As King said on Twitter a few weeks ago, the movie is “all killer and no filler.”
It’s disappointing that the execution is ultimately muddled. A restricting budget, obvious reshoots, cheap effects, and some creative decisions that don’t quite gel together keep The Dark Tower from reaching its full potential. But its biggest risk of all should not be downplayed, because it’s something we rarely get these days: a small movie about a big universe. Hopefully, with a TV series and a potential sequel on the way, we’ll get to explore much more of it.
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