'The Dark Tower' Is a Disaster for Stephen King Fans (But There's Hope in the Ending)
I'll admit it: the closing moments of Stephen King'sThe Dark Tower, the 845-page finale to the seven-book (or eight, for purists) fantasy series that began with 1982's The Gunslinger, made me cry. I won't spoil that monumental achievement, lest I forget the face of my father, but the ending of Roland Deschain's journey to the center of the universe was brutal, awe-inspiring, tragic, and in line with every imaginative tangent before it. Roland's ka-tet -- King's version of the "fellowship of the ring" -- were at peace, and the gunslinger, this world's version of a knight, finally "completed" his mission. I was deeply invested in these characters, and I knew as I started to well up (because, dammit, I had made it to the Dark Tower too!), that nothing would tarnish the pure moment King had crafted in the pages of his epic tale.
Not even a totally forgettable movie adaptation.
After years and years in development, with names like J.J. Abrams and now-Han-Solo-director Ron Howard involved with a plot to turn it into both a movie and television franchise, The Dark Tower arrives to theaters this month with the whimper of a billy-bumbler. Plagued by on-set horror stories, earning little to no favor from critics (as I'm writing this, the movie has a 16% Rotten Tomatoes score), and projected to earn a paltry $20 million (last year, Suicide Squad opened on the same weekend to the tune of $133.6 million), the adaptation of this beloved series, from writer Akiva Goldsman (Batman & Robin) and writer-director Nikolaj Arcel (A Royal Affair), appears to be a franchise nonstarter. For those who closed the cover on The Dark Tower through puffy eyes and pools of tears, knew the series had the potential to be the next Lord of the Rings, or hell, Game of Thrones, this feels like more than another August bomb from desperate Hollywood executives churning through any and all action-friendly IPs. No, this is a reason to lock oneself in a room and plow through all eight books again, just to make sure that what you love is still real. Not to be overdramatic.
As Roland says, it's important to shoot with the mind, not the heart. So allow me to do so: The Dark Tower is a disaster for fans on the outside, but something less insidious, a spectacle of miscalculation and mythology, for anyone who can put aside their deep-seated feelings for Stephen King's characters and world.
That's my cautious way of saying, yeah, the movie left me wanting a sequel.
There's so much wrong with The Dark Tower. The decision to forego a straight adaptation, Goldsman and Arcel taking advantage of a time-traveling loophole to write "sequel" that can play fast and loose with bits from every book, is a plan that serves no one. In The Dark Tower, Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor) is now the main character, a YA stock hero -- or slightly more damning, a "Mary Sue" fanboy who spends his days drawing pictures of Roland the Gunslinger -- experiences his own Last Action Hero, courtesy of portals from another pocket of spacetime. The movie keeps King's idea that there are, beyond our Earthly realm, other planes of existence. We glimpse Mid-World, a land with two moons, decrepit amusement park structures from a time long ago, high-tech weaponry manned by rat creatures, and where Roland the Gunslinger (Idris Elba) chases The Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey) out of revenge for the death of his father.
The movie isn't interested in spending time in this alternate reality -- the movie's only 90-minutes and most of the conflict happens in Jake's hometown of New York City -- but the splashes we see are faithful to King's vision. But circumstance whisks Jake to Mid-World, then he and Roland back to Earth, in a rapid series of events without any weight. Fans will pick up on loads of references and insinuations: we see the Crimson King's eye, Maerlyn's Rainbow (with The Man in Black wielding the Pink Bend), the "wolves" of Calla, the dogans, monsters from the Todash space, the can-toi, the Sombra Corporation, and even a subtle nod to Blaine the Mono. Non-fans may wonder why anything is happening for any reason at all (especially why McConaughey's MiB loves chicken so much). We've all seen enough movies to know why a kid with "the Shine" needs to go to the place and do the thing and why the hero needs to shoot his way through faceless goons to get the kid to the place to do the thing. That's enough for the movie, which treats the books like paperbacks to be flipped through and glanced at. The minute The Dark Tower starts, it wants to be over; It's embarrassed to be in front of us.
And yet, Arcel's choices are filled with promise. Elba is the perfect Roland, gruff, earnest, and a hell of a hero when he's "killing with his heart." McConaughey is a charismatic ham who you wish could sit opposite of Elba in a desert somewhere just speaking epic speak on the myth of The Dark Tower. Instead he chases Jake and repeatedly uses his signature move, a "stop breathing" magic trick that causes instant suffocation -- sure, fine. The Dark Tower is another entry into the muddy, dimly lit action canon (a genre forged by the Underworld series), but the occasional brush with Mid-World culture and landscape see someone behind the camera giving somewhat of a damn about the potential of this property. The parts are there. The execution is a total drag.
Even King devotees who picked up The Gunslinger in 1982, but ultimately gave up The Dark Tower over the years, acknowledge the book's opening line as iconic: "The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed." The Dark Tower movie can't bring that image to life. It can't bring any image to life. The joy of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings was tableau, not fan service, an eye for J.R.R. Tolkien's work where four hobbits hiding from a Nazgûl resonates as hard with the everyday moviegoer as a close-up of The One Ring or a sweeping shot at the Battle of Helm's Deep. A visionary could treat The Dark Tower with the same care. This time around? No. Eventually? It's hard to imagine King's series being the one property that doesn't earn a Hollywood reboot. It may not even need one.
In the lead up to release, news broke that former Walking Dead head writer Glen Mazzara will oversee the development of a Dark Tower TV series. Even years ago, when Ron Howard planned on directing the film version, the plan was always to take Roland to the small screen, adapting the fourth book, a prequel that charted the gunslinger's origin story called Wizard and Glass, as a serialized companion. Apparently this is still in motion -- and the easiest way to reclaim The Dark Tower as a worthy predecessor to Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones.
For those hoping to see the movie version of the Crimson King in some quickly after-credits scene "for the fans," I cry your pardon, but what the hell. C'mon. It's not there, and we're lucky it's not there. The Dark Tower ends quite definitively, thanks to what appears to be some last minute shooting (was it me or were the wigs a little… off). The Man in Black is dead, a perfect shot from Roland through his brain. Jake, without parents, decides to saddle up with the gunslinger and head to Mid-World for more adventures. In theory, they'll go face The Crimson King, maybe pick up Eddie and Susannah, maybe save/reactivate the Tower. Who knows. But the road ahead is wide-open. So is the road behind them.
The time-traveling logic that inspired, and essentially imploded, this Dark Tower adaptation is also the loophole that could save it. Wizard and Glass could take us back to the robust days of the gunslingers, pick up with Roland as a young boy who ventures off for his own Man with No Name trilogy, and grow up to be the Idris Elba version of the hero. New movies would build off the foundation of the TV series, where mythology can actually be fleshed out, investigated, and challenged. Elba and McConaughey could return as older, weathered versions of the characters -- even more appropriate to the books (and while we're dreaming, how about McConaughey appearing in The Stand movies?). What The Dark Tower got right can be salvaged. What it got wrong can be forgotten.
So, no, I'm not crying over The Dark Tower. This doesn't feel like the end. And in the meantime, I'll just read the damn book again, thankee-sai.