If you’ve read Stephen King’s prolific Dark Tower saga you know it’s a weird, wonderful, flawed, brilliant, mess of an epic that touches so many genres it’s hard to classify it at all. It bounces from western to science fiction to fantasy to horror and so on at the author’s whim, and goes from weird (sentient monorails) to weirder (Stephen King himself showing up) as it goes along.
You also know that while on the surface it appears to be a simple quest story about Roland, an Arthurian cowboy, on a quest to find the Dark Tower it is just as much about Stephen King himself, the creative process, and the nature of storytelling itself. It was written over the course of 30 years with what was clearly no plan and no direction. It is a wonderful mess, and if you haven’t read it I highly encourage you to dive in.
That’s all to say that adapting the story to screen is far more complex than it may sound, and studios have been trying for the last 10 years since King finished the saga. Finally, someone has gotten it done. Their solution to tackling a big, messy, interesting, unique world? Condense it down to nothing.
The Dark Tower
Director: Nikolaj Arcel
Release Date: August 4, 2017
The Dark Tower is one of those movies that you’re going to get a lot more out of if you’ve read the books despite the fact that it is really only loosely based on them at all. There are hints and allusions to bigger things that readers will pick up on, but much of the massive quest that Roland (Idris Elba), Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor) and their ka-tet (those bound by fate) go on in the books as they confront the Man in Black/Walter (Matthew McConaughey) is missing. The film pieces together key parts here and there, dropping entire characters in what feels like an attempt to put much of the quest into a 90 minute running time.
In our world we find Jake having dreams of the Dark Tower and the Man in Black/Walter, a powerful wizard who can kill simply by telling people to stop breathing. He is nigh-invulnerable and more akin to a comic book super villain than the mysterious trickster of the books. Using the “shine” of children kidnapped from the many worlds that are all connected by the tower, Walter is attempting to destroy it in order to let the blackness in from the outside. Enter the gunslingers of Mid-World, of which Roland is the last one. His sole quest is to kill Walter in order to get revenge for the death of his father and the fall of his homeland Gilead. Eventually Jake, who is gifted with the most powerful amount of shine ever, finds his way into Mid-World and the two set off on a universe-hopping quest to stop Walter.
That, my friends, is the least complicated way of explaining the plot that the film has attempted to cram into a 90 minutes. There’s a lot of lore and other items that get shoved in here and there too, but instead of opening up the story all the different themes and myths make it more obtuse and unfocused. As a reader of the books I understood a lot of the background that was going on and where ideas came from, but coming from an outside perspective it must feel more like idea vomit — a bunch of tropes pushed onto the screen one after the other. It makes for a flat film that peaks the few times it focuses on its characters and not the world.
Those characters do work, but thanks to the limited running time we never really get to know them. Idris Elba’s gunslinger shows hints of the depth behind his fantastically stoic front, but he’s never able to turn it into anything thanks to the movie heavily focusing on the far less interesting Jake and overplaying Walter. McConaughty is fantastically slimy as the wizard/magician/evil-person, and a far better choice of casting than I thought he would be, but instead of an air of mystery about the character they turn him into a big bad that plays generic. Taylor meanwhile plays Jake well enough for a child actor, but as the linchpin for the film his character feels more like a McGuffin than an actual person.
This isn’t all to say that The Dark Tower is a bad movie, but instead of the tent pole of a large franchise it feels like a half-baked standalone. In that light it could be seen as a moderate success, delivering some interesting concepts here and there. Roland’s gun fighting shines every so often as interesting, and Walter’s ability to have people do anything he wants is played up for effect pretty well. The action itself is pretty interesting, but limited as well. Roland’s expertise with the six-shooters delivers some memorable moments, but Arcel can’t piece together a coherent enough action sequence to make anything truly stand out.
There’s things that work here, just not in a big picture way. They work in a single scene way. Walter’s nearly unlimited super powers are a great example of this. They seem immeasurable and unstoppable, which makes for some enjoyably evil scenes, but on the whole make more of a mess. They raise questions about why a man who can hurl massive chunks of buildings that could easily crush our hero doesn’t do just that the second he wants to. Roland is supposedly a bit immune to Walter’s magic, but he’s clearly not immune to being crushed, stabbed, or run over by large objects, which in turn are not immune to Walter’s ability to hurl them through the air at Roland.
This leads directly to the biggest issue the film may have. Since Walter is turned into a super villain instead of the enigmatic torturer of Roland he no longer acts as a convincing foil. The great metaphorical duel between the two characters is nothing more than a shootout since the film doesn’t spend any time developing the cat and mouse game it wants the two to be playing. There is no true tension there. Roland and Jake’s relationship is a bit better, with the replacement father/son story line giving charm to the two, but it again often feels forced thanks to the movie’s breakneck pace to get to its conclusion.
I do have to applaud the film for avoiding a direct adaptation. While King’s first book in the series could have maybe kind of been turned into a film it would have been a mess from there out. Instead The Dark Tower takes a cue from the books and presents the story as the last time around the wheel (another reference fans will love, but newcomers won’t understand). It’s a good move that means the film (and still in the works TV show) can forge their own path that isn’t bound by the idiosyncrasy of the books, and if the movie was anything other than dull it could have worked. I stress this because I’m not upset that the film isn’t like the books, but that it isn’t that good on its own. The Dark Tower series has some magic in its world that is engrossing, but this movie can’t find it. It’s not an issue with ignoring the source material, it’s an issue of making a good movie.