At the time of this writing I am about 300 pages short of finishing Stephen King’s Dark Tower saga. I love it. It’s every bit as mind-explodingly awesome as they say. So naturally I was pretty amped for the film adaptation, despite the fact that the marketing has made it look abysmal. I anticipated a mediocre pastiche of elements from an unadaptable source material that coasts on the novelty of its own unlikely existence. I was mostly right.
And that’s the thing about being a Stephen King fan. We know that his brand is such that the parade of adaptations will never end, and due to the dense character/thematic work of his novels, their adaptability relies on the confluence of many factors. There is an implicit understanding amongst our ranks: keep your hopes in the middle.
Sometimes you get The Shining, The Mist, or The Shawshank Redemption.
Sometimes you get The Dark Tower.
I wish that The Dark Tower was the type of marvelously bad movie that goes big, fails big, and has the balls to just be weird. With source material as uniquely strange as King’s novels (they reach a point where King himself becomes a character in the novels and is writing the novels in the novels as the events of the novels happen), it’s important to remember that broad appeal is simply not an option. Unfortunately, the many people behind this adaptation thought otherwise, and in trying to create something both pleasing to fans and inviting to newbies, succeeded at doing neither. Most of what made the novels so flavorful is sucked from the proceedings resulting in a product that commits the biggest sin a film can commit: blandness.
While it would be impossible to capture the entirety of the Gunslinger’s tale within even a very long movie, this Goldman/Pinkner/Jensen/Arcel script makes an effort to bring us us the most basic elements: Jake Chambers has dreams about a place where The Man in Black has a laser gun that uses psychic energy to destroy a tower which holds together all of existence. By destroying the tower The Man in Black opens up our universe to an attack from otherworldly monsters over which he would presumably rule. Jake soon finds that these dreams are actually real, and that he has the power of the shining (yes, that) which would make him a prime piece of ammo for The Man in Black’s tower-destroying laser gun. Jake goes on the run and finds himself in tow with Roland Deschain, The Gunslinger, a man who has vowed to protect the titular tower and kill The Man in Black. This of course leads to a “big” showdown which I will talk about shortly.
Problem number one is the characters. With a movie so disinterested in anything but reaching the closing credits before too many questions are asked, there is no room for any of the players to make an impact. Roland, who doesn’t appear in any meaningful way until the movie is almost at its midpoint, never gets to exhibit any sort of defining traits. King’s Gunslinger is based in Old West iconography, but we get none of that here. It’s a waste of Idris Elba’s considerable talents to have him sidelined so thoroughly, especially when it’s clear how capably he could further said iconography. And he’s playing second fiddle to our hero, Jake (Tom Taylor), who is written and performed with all of the depth of a post-it note. I don’t want to harsh on a young actor who is clearly working to give a committed performance, but if you’re going to pin a whole movie on a child, you’d think maybe you’d find one with a bit more charisma to sandwich between Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey. I guess Stranger Things has the good ones all tied up. And don’t even get me started on McConaughey.
Or do. It’s why we’re here.
Casting M-Conz as The Man in Black is so damn inspired that it has corrupted my soul to see it crumble so hard in execution. For those not in the know, The Man in Black (aka Walter O’ Dim) is a powerful wizard capable of taking many different forms. He cannot be reasoned with or deconstructed because he simply loves being bad and has the power to do so with great success, but on screen he couldn’t be sleepier. Much like the rest of the characters the Man in Black is reduced from an entity to a function. Just get us to the closing credits so we can all go home, thank you. Most of Walter’s scenes take place in a poorly designed lair where he barks orders at subordinates while noting that his “magicks” are useless against the Gunslinger. It’s hard not to imagine he’s just a Criss Angel type who stumbled across actual magic.
Seriously, he yells about his “magicks” multiple times and it never doesn’t feel embarrassing.
[Side note: There is a one-sided war on Twitter in which Criss Angel constantly accuses David Copperfield of buying followers. It’s insane.]
The supporting cast is barely there, and have perhaps been done the greatest disservice by the film’s slapdash structure. Faces are introduced and eliminated with abandon. We never get names, motivations, or reasons to feel anything when they are put in danger. An act-two sequence which takes place in a desert village which is ultimately destroyed carries absolutely no weight and seems to only exist in service of a lukewarm action set piece with no stakes.
The visuals are just as bland as the characters, reminiscent of the kind you see in the pilot episode of a show that may or may not be picked up by a network. Rarely does an establishing shot serve to actually establish a location (the three ‘universes’ being traversed here are a cliff, a villain’s lair, and two or three blocks of New York City). Sometimes there’s a grimy coolness to the look, but almost immediately after that notion sets in it reverts right back to looking cheap and unfinished.
This visual muddiness becomes most apparent during the final battle, a hokey affair which you’ve already seen if you’ve seen the trailer. This showdown should be the centerpiece of the film (especially since the tower itself barely factors into things), because it is THE purest distillation of what drives almost all of King’s work while tapping into THE quintessential piece of Western iconography: Good vs Evil.
And it just doesn’t work.
Things are not all bad however. The fact that we even have a Dark Tower movie is certainly cause for celebration, and despite its ineptitude its a good sign that this project was even attempted. When the dust settles there is good reason to believe another attempt will be made. It is my personal hope that when someone takes another crack at the material it’ll be in the form of a TV show (and I’d love to see both Elba and McConaughey hold on to their roles). There’s just no way to reduce the source material to 95 minutes, and with so many avenues to explore both in plot and theme there’s more than enough wiggle room to tweak the story into something both true to the novels and fresh enough not to bore fans.
Another compliment I can offer is that, as much as I hated the rushed pace, I too was gunning for the end credits, and found myself interested enough in looking for Stephen King Easter eggs until they arrived.
Unfortunately for Nikolaj Arcel, much of the blame for this misfire will be unfairly placed on his shoulders, when it was really the enormity of the task mixed with the “movie by committee” production that did this one in. Arcel has managed to elevate a few moments of strong filmmaking from the muck. A great example is a scene where Walter passes by a young girl and her mother having a bubbly conversation on a park bench. With a wave of his hand he casts a spell on the girl.
“Hate,” he whispers, and at that moment the jovial youngster’s face grows cold and empty. It’s positively chilling, and it accomplishes the dual task of showing Walter’s intentions and abilities while cleverly commenting on the contagious nature of evil. It’s the one moment in The Dark Tower that is permitted to breathe, and it’s the best moment in the film by a country mile.
And it’s proof that a proper adaptation is not impossible.
It’s a shame that my metered expectations still led to disappointment, but so it goes. I hope that someone can find the value in this film that I did not, or at the very least be inspired to dive into the rich world of King’s page.
The Dark Tower opens in Philly theaters today.
Author: Dan Scully
Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.