The Dark Tower - King's Corner Review
Welcome to King's Corner. A recurring series of reviews based on the Film and TV adaptations of Stephen King's novels, reviewed and released in order of the original source material publishing date.
"The Man in Black fled across the desert, and the Gunslinger followed." It was with this iconic sentence that a 21 year old Stephen King embarked on an epic series of eight novels that spanned from 1978 to 2012. Following the journey of Roland Deschain, a legendary gunslinger, the series charts his journey through the land of Mid-World in search of the mythic Dark Tower, a structure which is said to be the nexus of all universes. Like a Spaghetti Western by way of 'The Lord of the Rings' the series is King's magnum opus spanning every genre and seeping into some of his other works such as 'Desperation' and 'Hearts in Atlantis'.
Director: Nikolaj Arcel
Starring: Idris Elba, Matthew McConaughey, Tom Taylor, Denis Haysbert, Jackie Earle Hayley, Katheryn Winnick
Written by: Akiva Goldsman, Jeff Pinkner, Anders Thomas Jensen
Produced by: Akiva Goldsman, Ron Howard, Eric Huggins, Genevieve Hofmeyr
Cinematography by: Rasmus Videbæk
Original Score by: Tom Holkenborg
A boy haunted by visions of a dark tower from a parallel reality teams up with the tower's disillusioned guardian to stop an evil warlock known as the Man in Black who plans to use the boy to destroy the tower and open the gates of Hell.
In his essay, “On Being Nineteen (And a Few Other Things)" King talks about how the origins of the series stretched as far back to the first time he read the work of J.R.R Tolkien at the age of nineteen. It planted the idea in his head that he wanted to write about an epic quest but he was unsure about what form it would take. All of that changed in 1970 when he saw 'The Good, The Bad and The Ugly' at the cinema for the first time. Everything clicked into place. Of the epiphanic moment he wrote, "I realised that what I wanted to write was a novel that contained Tolkien's sense of quest and magic, but set against Leone's almost absurdly majestic Western backdrop." This idea fuelled his ambition as he also mentions how he wanted to "..write not just a long book, but the longest popular novel in history."
This novel began with 'The Gunslinger', a violent story inspired by Robert Browning's 'Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came'. Initially this novel comprised five short stories which were originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction before being joined together and released as a special edition book in 1982. Over the next decade King released a further three novels in the series before laying dormant. Whilst promoting his book 'From A Buick 8' a few years after his serious accident he had an interview with CNN. During it he spoke of how one fan professed to him that they were disappointed that King's accident nearly killed off the series. In 2001 King embarked on his own quest to finish the series by writing 3 novels consisting of a 2,500 page manuscript. In 2004 the conclusion novel in the series was released.
As far back as 2007 an adaptation of the series had been in the works. J.J. Abrams optioned the rights from King for a fee of $19. Alongside creative collaborators Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof he wanted to develop a movie as soon as their work on the TV show 'Lost' was done but their determination to be reverential to the material made the task extremely daunting. They eventually bowed out of the project and Universal Pictures picked it up. They wanted to produce a trilogy of films with two seasons of television being incorporated to bridge gaps in story and character.
The creative team behind this ambitious multimedia project consisted of Akiva Goldsman on writing duties and Ron Howard directing. By 2011 Universal passed on the project where it remained in limbo until Sony Pictures Entertainment picked it up. Eventually Howard left the project and he was replaced by Nikolaj Arcel. Things ramped up when Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey were cast in the film before shooting began in South Africa after nearly ten years in development.
In an interesting turn of events the film acts like a quasi sequel to the series which allows it to follow similar story beats as the books whilst branching out to be different. For fans of the novels who finished the series it makes sense but for the casual audience member coming to the series cold, it is probably a confusing experience. Rather than starting with the iconic opening line of the Gunslinger the film opens with a prologue where the mysterious Man in Black (played by Matthew McConaughey) is weaponising the mind power of the children of Mid-World to bring down the eponymous Dark Tower. If successful in his nefarious plan it would spell certain doom for all worlds.
This scene turns out to be one of many dreams young New Yorker Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor) has been experiencing. We then get an insight to his homelife with his mother Laurie (Katheryn Winnick) and step father Lon (Nicholas Pauling) who are at a loss over Jake's behaviour in and out of school which seems to stem from his father's death, explained in a short therapy session. Off hand this condensed piece of character building follows the basic formula of "the troubled child destined for bigger things" but from a wider perspective it exposes the adaptation's biggest problem in that it rushes through everything in the worst way possible. When you are dealing with an epic series of novels spanning 4,250 pages there is no way the entry point to such a rich and detailed universe can be condensed into 90 minutes.
Within this runtime they try to introduce too much too quickly to the point that even the biggest fan of the series would be confused about how they plaster the lore of the epic series over the framework of a cookie cutter blockbuster aimed at YA audiences. Cynically it takes the edge out of King's work by softening the violence and taming the language to serve the box office rather than the story. Whilst some might view telling the story from Jake's perspective to be heresy it makes sense for the approach Arcel is taking with the film by making Jake the gateway into the fantastical tale. They can be eased into it rather than being thrown into the middle of Roland's quest to reach the Tower before the Man in Black.
As the film progresses we discover that the power of Jake's mind is the key to the Tower's destruction which captures the attention of the Man in Black who goes by the name of Walter Padick. As the ruthless sorcerer McConaughey would seem like an ideal choice for the role given his villainous turn in 'Killer Joe' or even his turn as the disturbed anti-hero cop Rustin Cohle in 'True Detective'. These roles allowed him to explore the dark side of his natural charisma which you would think would translate to this material but sadly it does not. He dresses like the band member of an 80's alternative goth band who is locked in a state of arrested development sporting a spiked up jet black hairdo. As for his acting he sleepwalks through the film with a po-faced expression which tells me that he has no faith in the material. He even delivers some of his moustache twirling dialogue in a bland and uncaring manner.
Roland Deschain aka The Gunslinger (Idris Elba) is first introduced through one of Jake's dreams. He is sitting opposite his father Steven (Dennis Haysbert) in the wake of a battle they've lost. The Man in Black kills Steven in front of Roland, setting him on a simple path of revenge which is as deep as their rivalry goes. The casting of Elba in the role of the Gunslinger proved to be needlessly controversial. King has said that one of his biggest influences in writing the character was Clint Eastwood's Man with No Name from Sergio Leone's 'Dollars Trilogy' and in the novels, Michael Whelan's famous artwork depicts Roland as being the archetypal heroic white cowboy. Unfortunately instead of fans viewing it as an opportunity to explore the character from a different perspective many resorted to racist vitriol. They try to use the racial aspects of Roland's relationship with a black woman called Odetta Holmes to justify their point but she doesn't even feature in this film making it a non issue. Even if she were to appear in the sequels it offers an opportunity to try something different with the character whilst staying true to the core aspects of their relationship. The final nail in the controversy came from King himself in 2015 when he tweeted, "to me, the color of the gunslinger doesn't matter. What I care about is how fast he can draw... and that he takes care of the ka-tet”.
For all of this hullabaloo Elba turns out to be one of the film's few highlights. His physical presence and stoicism paint his interpretation of Roland as being a reluctant anti-hero and you feel the toll his journey has taken on him. Unfortunately he is working with some weak material in the script that never truly fleshes out the character. Instead it opts to put him in some fish out of water scenarios when he travels to New York for some laughs. As well as this the makers of the film seem to be more concerned with making the manner in which Roland handles his gun look like the coolest thing you've ever seen (which may garner praise from King) but it shows how they have no understanding whatsoever about what makes Roland such a compelling character.
Other characters throughout the film suffer a similar fate thanks to the overcooked script. Tom Taylor does a perfectly fine job as Jake but again like Elba and McConaughey he isn't given much material to work with. Any sort of characterisation that is given to him is so thinly spread that it barely registers any kind of emotional depth. Even the henchmen for the Man in Black including the likes of Jackie Earle Haley and Abbey Lee lack any defining characteristics or personality. It would be fair to say that they feel more like props than actual characters. The only purpose they seem to have is to be dispatched by Roland in a highly stylised shootout.
In the novels Roland's quest takes him on a journey through a series of highly imaginative and varied apocalyptic landscapes but the film's vision distils it down to a drab and uninspired desert which compounds the more tedious elements of the film. It is nothing more than a glossy version of an Italian rip off of 'Mad Max'. Tom Holkenborg tries to inject some life into the film but it seems to play it a bit too safe making it difficult to have any meaningful impact. It gives the impression that at every level the film was truncated by studio mandates.
When you look at the long list of Stephen King adaptations over the years, 'The Dark Tower' feels like the biggest missed opportunity. In trying to capitalise on the success of something like 'Game of Thrones' (which was at the height of its popularity when this came out) the makers opted to rush through it resulting in one of the most soulless blockbusters of the 2010's. A failed attempt at a cash grab, it is a film devoid of heart, humour, excitement or any sense of adventure when you line it up next to the source material. In trying to maximise its appeal to the biggest audience possible it cuts corners alienating those who hold the series nearest to their hearts. Hopefully we get an adaptation worthy of King's work in the future because those responsible for this movie have clearly forgotten the faces of their father.
- Joseph McElroy