There are few authors working today who have been adapted across film and television as much as Stephen King. From Carrie, The Shawshank Redemption, Misery, The Mist, The Stand, It, Salem’s Lot, The Green Mile, Insomnia, through to The Shining; even though King famously hated what Kubrick did with his source material, despite the film becoming one of the most beloved horror movies of all time. In the case of these examples, they began with a great story at the heart of it, King’s books usually arrive pre-formed for adaptation, he’s an author who has been influenced by cinema as much as literature throughout his career. Reading one of King’s novels you can practically see them playing out on a screen of some description.
The process of adaptating Stephen King suddenly becomes a lot harder when you reach his Dark Tower series.
Encompassing 8 books, various comic books not to mention phasing in and out of King’s other works The Dark Tower is the author’s career spanning Lord of the Rings styled epic adventure that fuses western, science fiction, horror and fantasy genres together. First started in 1982 with The Gunslinger with the provocative line ‘the man in black fled across the desert and the gunslinger followed’. The Gunslinger was a tightly contained story written by King when he was young and hungry, heavily inspired by the Spaghetti Westerns of the 70s. Over the years, King would return to the world and it’s characters, each book slightly different to the other. It’s a long meandering journey whose meaning has changed along with King as an author and a person himself, the Dark Tower becoming a white whale styled metaphor for King’s, nay humanity’s, need and obsession for storytelling.
Adapting Stephen King’s magnum opus was never going to be easy. To say the series goes places would be an understatement, the material is dense, sometimes shocking and very meta which has attracted a cult fan base over the years. It is a fanbase that would probably prefer to see their beloved series adapted into a HBO styled TV show rather than the 95 minute PG-13 film we see today. Many have been involved with adapting, including JJ Abrams and Damon Lindelof at the height of their success with Lost which itself is peppered with references to the Dark Tower. Ron Howard followed, with a plan to make it into a film trilogy and two television shows. Actors such as Viggo Mortensen, Russell Crowe and Liam Neeson have all been in line to play the role of Roland the Gunslinger.
Which leads us to now. This version of the The Dark Tower is directed by Norwegian writer and film maker Nikolaj Arcel. Arcel is perhaps most famous for adapting Stieg Larsson’s Girl With The Dragon Tattoo into the Swedish TV movies starring Noomi Rapace. It is the director’s first foray into big studio Hollywood film making and though he perhaps couldn’t choose a harder adaptation, the most surprising version of The Dark Tower is how stand alone it all is.
The plot of The Dark Tower movie takes elements from the books and remixes them into it’s own thing. At the same time, due to the nature of the story, it could also be seen as a continuation that directly follows the conclusion of the books.
Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor) lives with his mother and her asshole boyfriend in New York City. At night, Jake has dreams about a Dark Tower standing in the clouds, a kind of inter dimensional nexus that connects all of time and space that defends all realities from the forces of darkness that exist outside of it’s influence. Jake begins to have nightmares about the Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey) who intends to destroy the tower by taking the power of psychic children he has kidnapped and concentrating their screams into beams of destructive light that are fired off at the tower. When the Man in Black comes looking for Jake, who has own phenomenal psychic power, or ‘shine’, Jake must find a way to cross dimensions and team up with Roland (Idris Elba) a solitary figure belonging to an order of gunslinging knights to stop the Man in Black’s evil plot to bring down the Dark Tower allowing darkness to break through and cover all realities.
Whilst I don’t believe The Dark Tower is a bad movie by itself. It is it’s rather casual relationship to it’s own source material, that will undoubtedly be a colossal disappointment for the fans of the book, who have taken that 8 book journey. Though the basic core concepts from the novels are there, the tower, the gunslinger, the man in black, portals between our world and mid-world a kind of apocalyptic version of our world set in the far flung future. It only remixes these elements into this blandly generic ‘stop the end of the world’ plot, which is as generic as big studio movies come these days. It’s like if they adapted Lord of the Rings, and started the movie at the base of Mount. Doom.
At the same time, for those who have no knowledge of the books, I’m not quite sure whether The Dark Tower really stands on it’s own as a particularly riveting watch. I don’t think it’ll start converting more people to pick up the books.
Which is a great shame, because I don’t think The Dark Tower is a completely bad movie, just a bland one. I think the science fiction fantasy visuals were quite strong, the dark tower looked ominous yet heavenly, the post-apocalyptic/Western look of mid-world is vaguely eye catching in places. A lot of the movie felt shot in actual real world locations yet felt very alien. I think it was well acted, there is a certain pleasure in seeing McConaughey ham it up with his Southern drawl and charm as the Man in Black. Even if he is playing a rather bland villain, though we understand his evil masterplan, we never know why he is so hell bent in letting darkness and death win.
Likewise, Idris Elba is well cast as Roland, both stoic and intense, I enjoyed his action scenes with his jedi-styled gunslinging abilities. In the books Roland can be cold and slightly detached, but Elba is more cuddlier as a gunslinger, though you don’t doubt his resolve. I think Tom Taylor as Jake is also really good in the role, as the audience’s connection to the world of the world of the story, which can always be difficult for a child actor to do. Whilst there is an element of darkness to The Dark Tower, there is also a lot of humour, as Jake passes into mid-world, and the gunslinger arrives fish out of water into our own world.
At the same time, I think this movie just misses the point of The Dark Tower. Clearly the studio involved have no real idea of why the books were so popular with people. At times the book feels like a rushed read through the cliff notes for an exam the next day. As soon as the movie begins your heart sinks a little when you see the giant Sony logo appear on the screen. This movie was originally slated for release in January of this year, which set alarm bells, since blockbusters in January are usually being released through the back door because the studio don’t really know how to sell it. And I think that’s it, there isn’t just enough commitment to the material to make this fantasy truly engaging, especially when it is wrapped into this fairly pedestrian plot.
What is even stranger, The Dark Tower is perhaps one of the big properties that actually does warrant it’s own vast ‘cinematic universe’ of interconnected movies and TV shows. The ailing studio has tried doing the big marvel franchise treatment so many times before, with the Amazing Spider man movies or last year’s Ghostbusters reboot, they had set up an entire studio to make more Ghostbuster movies. Which probably won’t happen now. Have they suddenly stopped chasing the cinematic universe film model? The Dark Tower is very stand alone and self contained. By the end, I felt dumb founded, because I couldn’t believe how neatly it all ended. Is that it? Your not even going to tease Eddie or Susannah? What’s actually in the tower itself? No riddles with a psycho-train!?
Science Fiction fantasy is having a little bit of a renaissance at the moment, with the big return of Star Wars and the success of Guardians of the Galaxy. Not everything is doing as well as those two properties, a couple of weeks ago I wrote about Valerian being ‘too much movie’ as a result of too much ambition. Luc Besson clearly had a lot of belief and passion in the source material and was prepared to dive right in and use as much of it as he could. Although Valerian was a bit messy, I could still appreciate the vision and the passion behind it.
The Dark Tower by contrast feels like the polar opposite, it’s too little movie. It only skims the surface of it’s sprawling source material. There is no real passion or belief in Stephen King’s magnum opus. It’s as if the studio read the synopsis, laughed and got out the red marker and crossed out most of it and then realised they still spin together one of those ‘save the world’ plotlines. The most damning criticism is that this version of The Dark Tower is that it has truly forgotten the face of its father.
Those who have been waiting for a true adaptation of Stephen King’s magnum opus may have to wait a bit longer. The Dark Tower is a light adaptation of the books that only remixes the core concepts and forms them into a fairly generic plot devoid of the mystery and darkness that made the novels so compelling. It’ll be a big disappointment for fans. For those with no knowledge of the books, there is an interesting science fiction fantasy world to get lost in for 90 minutes, with some good action and monsters, before the film moves to earth leading to a very standard ‘save the world’ conclusion.
Perhaps Sony should just stick to PlayStations.