“Turn and face me”
It’s been twenty years since Wizard and Glass, the fourth published installment of Stephen King‘s The Dark Tower series—an epic fantasy backbone on which his entire bibliography rests. I finally made my way through it a couple years later, along with The Gunslinger, The Drawing of Three, and The Waste Lands until I found myself caught up and waiting for more. It took six years between books three and four, so another six wasn’t a surprising duration to wait for Wolves of Calla. But then Song of Susannah and The Dark Tower arrived together the following year, the task of staying current (more chapters have since been added) suddenly a daunting endeavor. I never did read those others and as time passed I forgot what I had.
All I remembered was their undeniable appeal in being so unlike anything “popular” King had written yet perfectly in tune. They became a benchmark for me despite the details fading away. What never did disappear, however, was the one truth at its center: “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” This was the good versus evil dynamic, the yin and the yang. Sure there were more heroes and foes to meet and defeat—The Crimson King lording over them in Mid-World like he would on Earth in Insomnia and Black House—but we cared most about Roland Deschain and Walter o’Dim (better known to some as Randall Flagg). The former was the titular Tower’s protector, the latter its hopeful destroyer. Faith opposite magic.
So when word of an adaptation arrived, I got excited like everyone. When it failed (J.J. Abrams‘ attempt at seven films and Ron Howard‘s quest for a multi-platform rollout spanning cinema and TV), I lost hope. This meant the 2015 announcement of things moving forward with concrete deals in place had to be taken with a grain of salt. The casting of Idris Elba as Roland and Matthew McConaughey as The Man in Black (Walter) still ran the risk of falling apart. Regular Howard collaborator Akiva Goldsman remained attached to write (for better or worse), but directing reins fell to Nikolaj Arcel—a promising choice after the Dane drew acclaim adapting The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and helming Oscar nominee A Royal Affair. It was really happening.
What no one could have prepared for was the realization that the film The Dark Tower would ostensibly prove to be wholly original, a sequel to the seventh book that took place on an Earth feeling the effects of a buckling Tower and a Mid-World with Walter’s minions focusing the “shine” (a term describing psychic ability that’s most closely associated with King’s The Shining) of children into the weapon causing the damage. It portrays a universe wherein Roland is the last of the gunslingers and perhaps not even that anymore thanks to a heart ravaged by sorrow, defeat, and vengeance. It’s only a matter of time before Walter succeeds in bringing the Tower down and with it our protection from dark forces looking to feast on easy, unsuspecting prey.
The one person who can stop him? An Earthling teen named Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor). And here’s where calling this film a sequel becomes problematic—at least to someone who’s only read the first four novels. Jake is a character in those books, so his meeting Roland for the first time during a chapter that chronologically follows instances of previous involvement makes little sense. The good thing, however, is that this fact won’t matter to audience members unversed in King lore. It may not matter to those who are either if things ended with memories and/or time having been altered. All we need to know about what came before this moment is that the war was lost, Roland was broken, and The Man in Black grows ever stronger.
From there we watch Jake discover the veracity of his nightmares peering into Roland’s past. We begin to understand the relationship between “Keystone” Earth and Mid-World as well as the characters inhabiting them. This film isn’t therefore an adaptation as much as an isolated introduction to a vast universe that could never be fully explained in ninety-five minutes. The filmmakers took a gamble, throwing us into an unwritten climactic battle in the hopes audiences would embrace the fantasy and characters enough to earn the necessary money to delve deeper. So we receive a hybrid of sorts, one with familiar beats to delight die-hards and rote Hollywood tropes to avoid alienating newcomers. The result is an appetizer leaving everyone hungry without the guarantee of a main course.
I can’t say it isn’t successful as a calling card, though. It’s reductive as far as streamlining an eternal war into one single quest for revenge, but it works when you know so much has already happened. You have to give Arcel credit as far as the tone too because it is dark in its actions despite being led by archetypes easily dismissed as two-dimensional. You can forgive the latter—McConaughey is as slimy as ever and Elba beaten down and conflicted as darkness takes hold via his isolation—since the former holds real stakes. People die, a lot of people. We’re talking allies with names and faces, not just an endless hoard of Taheen (Walter’s humanoid followers with animal heads hidden beneath the skin of humans).
If the filmmakers did anything right it was letting Jake exist as a three-dimensional character we can embrace and root for. We cheer on Roland and despise Walter, but we can’t truly know them with just what’s onscreen. They become periphery elements to Jake’s story—a trajectory that reveals the horrors of being an outcast mired by tragedy. I think Arcel and company could have done a better job integrating King’s other novels (Mid-World has a Pennywise theme park and Jake’s psychiatrist has a photo of the Overlook) as part of the boy’s imagination, because them being unimportant Easter eggs is distracting. They take us away from Jake’s quest towards legitimacy and confidence. If this is his story, don’t waste time on potential King geek-outs. Do that later.
Jake’s journey can’t sustain such overt distraction because it isn’t a joyride. It’s a matter of life and death as his untapped power can destroy as easily as bring salvation. The question becomes whether he can remind Roland of his duties as a gunslinger and rekindle a sense of hope that the battle isn’t yet complete. Yes it can be hokey—the gunslinger mantra is dated in a world ravaged by domestic terrorism steeped in demented, spiritual rhetoric—but fantasies often are. These heightened power dynamics are used to comment on the real world and ensure we know whom to trust. So even though this is the final chapter, our intrigue is piqued enough to desire a chance to return and witness how it all got so dire.
Will we ever get it? That answer lies in box office returns. I’ll say flat-out that The Dark Tower is not the film fans of King’s magnum opus deserve—it’s merely the one this Hollywood can supply in an age of bottom-line constraints and boardroom demands for mass appeal. It is dumbed-down and streamlined into a rudimentary Cliff’s Notes of story beats with tragedy, action, magic, and a bit of stranger-in-a-strange-land comedy. I don’t love the ending with its unmerited finality considering we’ve yet to witness the history necessary to appreciate its release, but perhaps that can be earned in time with clarity from what’s (hopefully) coming. If this film proves all we ever receive, it’s a disappointing failure. But if it’s just the beginning, optimism remains possible.
Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 95 minutes | Release Date: August 4th, 2017 (USA)
Studio: Columbia Pictures / Sony Pictures Releasing
Director(s): Nikolaj Arcel
Writer(s): Akiva Goldsman & Jeff Pinkner and Anders Thomas Jensen & Nikolaj Arcel /
Stephen King (novels)