Idris Elba in ‘The Dark Tower’ (left) Elijah Wood in ‘Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King’
The cards were always stacked against the Stephen King opus, but why didn’t the studio take a page out of the ‘Lord of the Rings’ or ‘Harry Potter’ playbook?
Considering how many times the work of Stephen King has been adapted for film and TV over the past 40 years, it may seem surprising that it’s taken this long for The Dark Tower to make the jump. As can happen with some titles, The Dark Tower has been through various filmmakers’ hands and studios in the last decade alone; in 2007, a film adaptation was going to be directed by J.J. Abrams and written by Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof of Lost, and a few years after, Ron Howard was going to take the helm. The actual feature film, directed by Nikolaj Arcel, suggests this much, unfortunately: The Dark Tower may not work as a movie.
It was always going to be a challenge to tackle the series of books that Stephen King wrote between 1982 and 2012. Eight novels being translated into films potentially could have been successful, if the franchise followed in the footsteps of massive hits like Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings, the latter of which serves as one of many cultural reference points within The Dark Tower. The core conflict of the story, the forces of good and evil fighting each other with the fate of humanity hanging in the balance, is plenty familiar to audiences worldwide. But King’s version of this battle doesn’t unfold without jumping back and forth in time, introducing characters before removing them unexpectedly, and so on; it zigs where other franchises zags, which is admirable to experience as a reader, but becomes an obstacle in the adaptation process.
There are four credited writers for the final film of The Dark Tower: Akiva Goldsman, Jeff Pinkner, Anders Thomas Jensen, and Arcel himself. Goldsman was involved in the project since Howard was first attached in 2010, with Pinkner helping him rework the script a few years later, before Jensen and Arcel joined. There is an unavoidable sense of too many cooks in the kitchen when considering the script for The Dark Tower, even though the film is only 95 minutes long. There’s nothing inherently wrong with short films; frankly, most summer movies have a habit of being 20 to 30 minutes too long, so 95 minutes feels like a breath of fresh air. But weirdly, the world of The Dark Tower being unveiled in film form in just an hour and half seems wrong; the movie feels like it should be 20 to 30 minutes longer.
However, the relative brevity of The Dark Tower masks the genuine problem at its core: this isn’t a straight-up adaptation of King’s first story, The Gunslinger. Instead, it’s a kind of sequel/reboot, focusing not on Idris Elba’s heroic character Roland Deschain, but squarely on the tortured boy Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor). In this version of the story, Jake is haunted by dreams of another dimension, known as Mid-World, and of Roland and his immortal foe, the Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey). Eventually, Jake finds his way into Mid-World at the center of the battle, in part because he’s gifted with psychic abilities known as “the shine” (one of a number of references in the film to other Stephen King works). Jake functions very clearly as an audience surrogate, encountering Roland and the Man in Black after a surprisingly long build-up. While it makes sense to ease unfamiliar audiences into the world of The Dark Tower, this choice also suggests a timidity on the writers’ part to dive straight into the weirdness of King’s stories.
What’s most baffling about the way that The Dark Tower unfolds on the big screen is that it’s clearly designed to be the first chapter in a longer filmed series. On Thursday, The Hollywood Reporter broke the news that the Dark Tower TV series now has a showrunner. The plan has always been for a show to follow the first movie (before once again shifting back to another film), but even if The Dark Tower always planned to shift from film to TV, it’s hard to grasp why the film isn’t just a direct adaptation of The Gunslinger, the opening salvo in the franchise, as opposed to something that sometimes calls to mind Last Action Hero, with a larger-than-life hero reacting as a fish-out-of-water to the way that the real world operates. The resulting film is strangely, painfully lifeless outside of the gruff and firm performance from Elba as Roland. It may seem impossible to imagine a film where Matthew McConaughey appears less seductively charismatic than flat-out bored, but even in a role of innate cruelty and villainy, that’s what you get from him, and from the film itself.
There are parts of The Dark Tower that work onscreen, such as a brief moment where we see Roland pause and carefully listen to the air around him before he aims to kill a bad guy who’s hundreds of feet away. Casting Elba was the shrewdest decision involved with making this film, as he makes far more out of his diminished role than the script does. But every other choice surrounding the film suggests that someone — the studio or the filmmakers or someone else — was just so intent on making a Dark Tower adaptation that they were less worried about handling the time-spanning source material correctly. There’s still a good story or two to tell in this universe, but this film sets things back.